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The theory of “reification”

A re­sponse to Georg Lukács

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Izrail’ Vain­shtein
Un­der the Ban­ner of
Marx­ism
10 (1924)
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The philo­soph­ic­al ex­plan­a­tions present among people claim­ing to be Marx­ists mani­fest a haphaz­ard­ness of spec­u­lat­ive philo­soph­iz­ing that must meet their nemes­is in the philo­sophy of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The his­tory of hu­man thought, from the dia­lect­ic­al stand­point, is least of all a ground for con­struct­ing hy­po­theses, con­coct­ing du­bi­ous con­cepts that bear on their face the im­print of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic­al striv­ings. True and deep thought, thought that opens a new epoch in his­tory, of­ten be­comes a pole of at­trac­tion for philo­soph­iz­ing per­sons whose con­cep­tu­al fancy seizes upon such thought only to cov­er it over with their own ques­tion­able designs. Such a ques­tion­able design is the the­ory of re­ific­a­tion of Georg Lukács.1

Marx, as is known, dis­closed the fet­ish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­ity. He showed that value is not a fet­ish in­vis­ibly resid­ing in the com­mod­ity, but a pro­duc­tion re­la­tion in a so­ci­ety based on in­di­vidu­al ex­change between com­mod­ity pro­du­cers. The struc­ture of com­mod­ity so­ci­ety in gen­er­al, and cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, is such that a thing be­comes a point of in­ter­sec­tion in a nex­us of in­ter­link­ing labors. The com­mod­ity es­tab­lishes links in such a so­ci­ety, where there is no planned reg­u­lat­ory con­trol over pro­duc­tion and where a thing, dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cer that made it, des­cends on to the mar­ket as a com­mod­ity unit, obed­i­ent to the spe­cif­ic laws of cir­cu­la­tion: “The labor of the private in­di­vidu­al mani­fests it­self as an ele­ment of the total labor of so­ci­ety only through the re­la­tions which the act of ex­change es­tab­lishes between the products, and, through their me­di­ation, between the pro­du­cers.”2 A thing is dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cers be­cause they them­selves are dis­con­nec­ted from each oth­er. The over­com­ing of this sep­ar­a­tion is car­ried out in com­mod­ity cir­cu­la­tion, through which things es­tab­lish so­cial ties. To un­der­stand the con­scious­ness of such a so­ci­ety and its con­stitutive classes (a means in the struggle) it is ne­ces­sary to go bey­ond the lim­its of thing­hood and to ad­dress the liv­ing con­crete act­ors in struggle. Things do not struggle amongst them­selves. If the so­cial con­scious­ness is a crit­ic­al factor in this mu­tu­al his­tor­ic­al rivalry, then, of course, it is ne­ces­sary to un­der­stand it in terms of so­cial class in­terest, which only finds ex­pres­sion in liv­ing agents of the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess. The geni­us of Marx’s dis­clos­ure con­sisted in re­veal­ing be­hind re­la­tions of things the re­la­tions of people and, con­versely, in es­tab­lish­ing the ne­ces­sity of the re­ific­a­tion of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in a com­mod­ity so­ci­ety. Lukács, pro­ceed­ing from the fact of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism — which Marx so bril­liantly dis­sec­ted hav­ing seen be­hind this oc­cult idol hu­man re­la­tions — at­tempts to con­struct an en­tire “mon­ist­ic” the­ory of re­ific­a­tion in whose im­age and like­ness all phe­nom­ena of this so­ci­ety are for­mu­lated, in­clud­ing con­scious­ness. However, Lukács’s con­struc­tion stands in sharp con­tra­dic­tion to the sense of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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First of all, when Marx speaks about cap­it­al “as auto­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion”3 in which all traces of its ori­gin dis­ap­pear, he in this case does not at all de­scribe, as Lukács thinks, “the in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness to­ward re­ific­a­tion.”4 Rather, Marx is speak­ing about the re­frac­tion of de­term­in­ate forms of so­cial re­la­tions, op­er­at­ing as re­la­tions of things in the con­scious­ness of bour­geois the­ory and rep­res­ent­a­tion. Polit­ic­al eco­nomy is the sci­ence of re­la­tions between people rep­res­en­ted as re­la­tions between things. The cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy is a com­mod­ity eco­nomy, the single cell of which — the private busi­ness en­ter­prise — is man­aged by form­ally in­de­pend­ent com­mod­ity pro­du­cers, between whom an in­dir­ect link is es­tab­lished in the pro­cess of ex­change. Speak­ing about com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism and all its modi­fic­a­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, Marx least of all psy­cho­lo­gizes. He is de­scrib­ing an in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness, but he spe­cifies it in re­la­tion to the pro­duct­ive re­la­tions of people char­ac­ter­ist­ic of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. Ru­bin is com­pletely right to say that the the­ory of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism could be bet­ter called “a gen­er­al the­ory of the pro­duc­tion re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”5 Continue reading

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The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014
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Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha
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We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)
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The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)
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The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

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Preliminary remarks

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Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

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Lukács’ abyss

Jeremy Cohan
Platypus Review 38
August 1, 2011

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At the Marxist Literary Group’s Institute on Culture and Society 2011, held on June 20–24, 2011 at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago, Platypus members Spencer Leonard, Pamela Nogales, and Jeremy Cohan organized a panel on “Marxism and the Bourgeois Revolution.” The original description of the event reads: “The ‘bourgeois revolutions’ from the 16th through the 19th centuries — extending into the 20th — conformed humanity to modern city life, ending traditional, pastoral, religious custom in favor of social relations of the exchange of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in contradistinction to the clerical First Estate who ‘prayed’ and the aristocratic Second Estate who ‘fought,’ the commoner Third Estate ‘worked:’ ‘What has the Third Estate been? Nothing.’ ‘What is it? Everything.’ Kant warned that universal bourgeois society would be the mere midpoint in humanity’s achievement of freedom. After the last bourgeois revolutions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the ‘constitution of capital,’ the ambivalent, indeed self-contradictory character of ‘free wage labor.’ In the late 20th century, the majority of humanity abandoned agriculture in favor of urban life — however in ‘slum cities.’ How does the bourgeois revolution appear from a Marxian point of view? How did what Marx called the ‘proletarianization’ of society circa 1848 signal not only the crisis and supersession, but the need to fulfill and ‘complete’ the bourgeois revolution, whose task now fell to the politics of ‘proletarian’ socialism, expressed by the workers’ call for ‘social democracy?’ How did this express the attempt, as Lenin put it, to overcome bourgeois society ‘on the basis of capitalism’ itself? How did subsequent Marxism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s perspective on the crisis of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century still resonate today?” An audio recording of the event is available at the above link. What follows is an edited version of Jeremy’s Cohan’s opening remarks.

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Introduction

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In his “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” Immanuel Kant sets forth to tell the story of humanity as if it were one of progress. This is not easy, says Kant,

Since men in their endeavors behave, on the whole, not just instinctively, like the brutes, nor yet like rational citizens of the world according to some agreed-on plan, no history of man conceived according to a plan seems to be possible…One cannot suppress a certain indignation when one sees men’s actions on the great world-stage and finds, beside the wisdom that appears here and there among individuals, everything in the large woven together from folly, childish vanity, even from childish malice and destructiveness.[1]

For Kant, rationality in human history depends on the future. By completing the seeds of freedom and development implicit in the present, we might illuminate and make meaningful the sound, fury, and idiocy thus far characteristic of world-history. The stakes are high:

Until this last step…is taken, which is the halfway mark in the development of mankind, human nature must suffer the cruelest hardships under the guise of external well-being; and Rousseau was not far wrong in preferring the state of savages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the human race must climb is not attained.[2]

Georg Lukács sought to revive a Marx that, like Kant, strove to bring the crisis-character of the present to self-consciousness, but under changed conditions. This Marx understood the problem of his — and our — epoch as the unfinished bourgeois revolution, whose gains would be meaningful only from the standpoint of redemption — what Lukács called the standpoint of the proletariat. The “orthodox” Marx Lukács found in the politics of the radicals of the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin, stood at the edge of an historical abyss.

As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra puts it: “Man is a rope tied between beast and overman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.”[3] On the other side of the rope, the completion of the human freedom whose possibility the “bourgeois epoch” had begun. Beneath, the whoring subservience of bourgeois thought and socialism both, to a status quo with ever dwindling possibilities for human freedom.

This is a very different Lukács than the one who has gained some academic respectability of late. A sector of the academic left thinks we ought to take up many of the analytical tools Lukács has given us to become more “reflexive” critics of capitalism, paying attention to our “standpoint” of critique to get past objective and subjective dichotomies that plague debate in the social sciences, and to talk about ideology as “socially necessary illusion” rather than mere will o’ the wisp. Sure, we have to ditch the politics — the crypto-messianic or proto-Stalinist (whichever you prefer) “proletariat as the identical subject-object of history.” But Lukács can help us become keener, more critical academics.

I want to resist this assimilation of Lukács into the barbarism of academic reason.

As Lukács put it in his “What is Orthodox Marxism?”: “Materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic.”[4] Lukács is not the mere “analyst” of reification, on the model of his cultural studies epigones. He sought to demonstrate that Marxism was, from beginning to end, only possible as a practical self-clarification of the ongoing crisis of society triggered by the unfinished bourgeois revolution. Recent attempts to rescue the “academic” Lukács are an exercise in contradiction. It is precisely when he stoppedbeing an academic that he could move forward with his philosophical problems, because they were being addressed politically by the revolutionary Marxism of his day.

But the attempt to recover the political Lukács may be just as futile. For Lukács’s moment is not ours; the crisis and possibility of the early 20th century is far from what we face. So any “recovery” of Lukács must operate on two levels: one, by asking seriously whether we have overcome the crisis that Lukács attempted to formulate theoretically, and two, by recognizing that, if we have not, we cannot simply take up where he left off.

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The problem of epistemology, morals, aesthetics in the “Reification” essay is reason at odds with itself; reason that ends in mythology, suffering, and unfreedom.

We return to Kant, this time offering the battle cry of the Enlightenment: “Ours is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit.”[5] Not just ideas, but social institutions and forms of life too, must justify themselves by appealing to reason, rather than through claims of tradition or dogma. The philosophical Enlightenment and the political revolutions that fought under its banner — the American, the French, the Haitian, and those of 1848 — looked forward to the realization of reason, freedom, and human self-development in the world, in our social institutions and in ourselves. This would be emancipation — humanity’s “maturity” as Kant puts it.

But bourgeois society has been unable to fulfill its promise. We all-too reasonable moderns seem consigned to contemplate a ready-made world. Lukács shows this reason — a more powerful and mythical dominating force than nature ever was — at odds with itself, and in play in all forms in society: from the factory machine to the bureaucratic state, from jurisprudence to journalism. He peoples his essay with characters from the great social scientists of his day, Max Weber and Georg Simmel — the bureaucrats, the abstract calculative individuals — to describe a society whose “reason” is a soulless restrictive rationalization shaping humanity in its narrow image. He might, like Weber, have also turned to Nietzsche’s “last man” — the shrunken, all-too reasonable, modern toady. Happy; unable to give birth to a star.

Nor does academia help us out of this crisis of modern reason. Disciplinary fragmentation is the rule, wherein the more we seem to know, the more reasonable each science becomes, the less it has to say about the nature of our society as a whole. Weber puts it like so in his “Science as a Vocation,” “Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we wish to do to master life technically. It leaves quite aside…whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.”[6] We once thought we could go to reason with our deep questions; we now know better, says Weber. Continue reading

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Democracy and the Left

Alan AkrivosDick Howard 
Alan MilchmanJoseph Schwartz

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On February 5, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation titled ‘Democracy and the Left’ at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The participants were Alan Akrivos (Socialist Alternative), Dick Howard (Stony Brook University), Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective), and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America). The description of the event reads as follows:

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again. The elections in the U.S. and Germany seem, by comparison, to be non-events, despite having potentially far-reaching consequences. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections but was instead split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary. Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both emancipatory social demands as well as their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte.” What history informs demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution as understood by the Left?

What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full recording can be found online. Once again, I’m not in Platypus. Indeed, I’m apparently not even welcome at their events, despite it having been over a year since I quit. Still, I think this is a worthwhile exchange and am reposting it here in the hope that someone might actually read it.
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Opening remarks

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Dick Howard:
 There is a fundamental difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, which leads to a vision of democracy that is radically different in the two contexts.

The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution against the state that wanted to get the British off of the backs of Americans and leave society to go on in its own way. There’s an anti-statist tradition in the United States. The American Revolution went through three distinct phases: declaring independence, winning the war, and then the problem that Ukrainians are going have to face, namely, how do you give society a political framework such that it can hold together? That’s the period of the failure of that kind of direct democracy found in the Articles of Confederation. Finally, a nation-state was created.

America became a nation-state and a democratic state insofar as you had the “Revolution of 1803.” That was not only when the Jeffersonians (the opposition) won the presidency, but also when the decision in Marbury v. Madison recognized that the society was one, held together by its constitution despite the diversity of the society that was framed by the constitution. That gave America a republican democracy: the constitution which frames the republic holds priority and gives the unity within which a diversity can flourish.

During the French Revolution, insofar as the society was based on status rather than equality of opportunity, the power of the state was used in order to transform society. That process of using the state power to transform society went through phases, and you can list the canonical dates: the high point of the Jacobin period in 1793, the reaction against it, the empire, the return of the monarchy, then 1830, 1848, 1870, and finally — even Platypus puts it into its name — 1917, which, apparently, is the realization of that dream that begins with the French Revolution. That dream is that the gap between society and the state be overcome, but it is overcome by the action of the state. Instead of a republican democracy in the American sense, you had a democratic republic — the idea is that democracy and the state come together, and this is the elimination of the state.

I came to realize the importance of this distinction in 1990 or 1991 when I was giving a lecture in Greifswald, in the former German Democratic Republic, about the American Revolution and how the Americans created a “democratic republic.” The audience was not particularly happy because they had just gotten out of a democratic republic! What is that democratic republic? What is that republican democracy? There was awareness of this distinction well before a left-wing critique of totalitarianism developed.

Continue reading

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Et tu, Slavoj? Must Žižek really be “destroyed”?

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Continuing its proud tradition of accepting literally every panel proposal submitted to it, no matter how poorly written or conceived, this year’s Left Forum at Pace University brings you “Žižek delenda est” [Latin for “Žižek must be destroyed”]. I’m not kidding. Here’s the panel description, with solecisms left in for dramatic effect:

Abstract:
Is Slavoj Zizek a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have come to the conclusion that Zizek is a charlatan posing as a “Stalinist” to both discredit communists by performing a caricature Bolshevik and simultaneously, to smuggle fascist ideas including old fashioned Aryan supremacism and 19th century race theory, back into public discourse disguised as radical left critique of liberalism. I will focus on how he exploits his radical left image to spread imperialist propaganda and disinformation. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Industry to his first anointing by the New Left Review, then edited by Quentin Hoare and Branka Magas, Croatian Nationalists and Tudjman supporters and founders of the Bosnian Institute, as the Balkan Leftist who would initiate, in 1990, the dominant strain of imperialist propaganda about Yugoslavia, and yet further back to his career as an antiMarxist, antiCommunist “dissident” and Slovene ethnic nationalist. I will discuss the way he has influenced a generation to the point where now right wing and reactionary ideas as well as pure white house disinformation and propaganda are routinely packaged as hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.

My god, pure idiocy.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if this lunacy tarnishes the Left Forum’s good name, if only for the fact that there’s no good name to tarnish. The annual gathering already has the character of a circus — a “Renaissance fair of the Left,” as a comrade once put it — so this is really just one more scene in its extended slapstick routine. All the old corpses come out for this fin de semana de los muertos: aging hippies, dinosaur sects barely clinging to life, the Friends of the People of the Soviet Union. So in a way, panels like “Žižek delenda est” are strangely refreshing. It’s a fresh flavor of paranoid fantasy, our generation’s version of the show trials. Finally, a new term of reproach to replace those great epithets of old. Used to be “Trotskyist wreckers” or “British imperialist agents,” then later COINTELPRO. Now it’s Slavoj Žižek, deep cover CIA operative. Continue reading

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Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism

Christoph LichtenbergEva Curry
Alex KhasnabishChris Parsons


This spring, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a series panels on “Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism” in New York, Frankfurt, Halifax, Thessaloniki, and Chicago. The panel description reads: “It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Marxism and anarchism. They emerged out of the same crucible — the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.

There are a few different ways these ideologies have been taken up. Recent worldwide square occupations reflect one pattern: a version of Marxist theory — understood as a political-economic critique of capitalism — is used to comprehend the world, while anarchist practice — understood as an anti-hierarchical principle that insists revolution must begin now — is used to organize, in order to change it. Some resist this combination, claiming that Marxism rejects anti-statist adventurism, and call for a strategic reorganization of the working class to resist austerity, and perhaps push forward a “New New Deal”. This view remains wedded to a supposedly practical welfarist social democracy, which strengthens the state and manages capital. There is a good deal of hand waving in both these orientations with regard to politics, tactics, and the end goal. Finally, there have been attempts to leave the grounds of these theories entirely — but these often seem either to land right back in one of the camps or to remain marginal.

To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these ideas must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. In what ways does the return of these ideologies represent an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost? Where have the battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?”

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-Halifax hosted on February 1, 2014, at University of King’s College. The speakers participating in Halifax included Christoph Lichtenberg, Alex Khasnabish, Chris Parsons, and Eva Curry. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found online.

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Christoph Lichtenberg: When I think of Marxism and anarchism, I think of two tendencies within the workers’ movement, both of which see themselves as revolutionary, as opposed to the tendency that is known as Social Democracy, which would work through reforms. I think of Marxism as interchangeable with Leninism or Trotsykism. I do not associate it with Maoism or Stalinism. I think of anarchism in its best representation as exemplified by people like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or anacho-syndicalism. There are some commonalities between the two tendencies. I just want to highlight three of them: I think Marxism and anarchism agree on the need for the liberation of humanity through the destruction of capitalism. I also think that we agree on the fact that there is a class struggle going on between the exploiters and the exploited. And finally, I think we agree on the need to destroy the existing, oppressive, capitalist state structure. What happens after that is where we diverge.

The conflict really began with the creation of the alliance with Social Democracy by Bakunin and his followers, and what it meant is that they maintained a somewhat secret organization within the First International and started to publish articles that were critical of Marx. There was a lot of going back and forth over organizational matters, but, as with every organizational dispute, at the heart of it is really politics. The difference in politics between Marxists and anarchists really came to the fore at the 1872 Congress of the First International in The Hague, when there was a big debate between the Bakunin faction and the Marx followers about the role of the state in the transformation towards socialism. The Marxists argued that there was a role of the state in the transformation towards of socialism while followers of Bakunin insisted that the state should immediately be replaced by self-governing workplaces and communes. The Bakunin faction lost that debate and were expelled from the First International for maintaining their secret organization.

Bakunin

Around 1880, Kropotkin and other Russian revolutionaries announced the need for a permanent revolt through word, gun, and dynamite. This set the anarchists, particularly in Russia, on the course of anarchist terrorism, which removed them from the masses and isolated them.

The October Revolution in 1917 is the key event to understanding revolution. The Second International collapsed in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War because the different sections of the International ended up supporting their own governments’ war efforts. So rather than being internationalists, they sided with their own national governments, which Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who led the Bolsheviks, identified as a complete betrayal of the spirit of socialism. The main thing he learned from the collapse of the Second International was the need for revolutionaries to set up a separate organization from the reformists — the need for a vanguard party.

Continue reading

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Anti-fascism: Its problematic history and meaning

       Manuel Kellner | Henning Mächerle
Wolf Wetzel | Jan Gerber
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Platypus Review 63
February 1, 2014
Image: Antifascist
conference (1922)
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Since the Nazi seizure of power eighty years ago anti-fascism has been integral to left-wing politics. The struggle against fascists and Nazis is morally self-evident, so that political anti-fascism seems to be similarly self-evident. Yet in past periods of history, the politics of anti-fascism was completely different, as was the understanding of what it contributed to leftist politics more generally. Still certain continuity can be discerned in anti-fascism’s retention of anti-capitalist claims. Where does this come from? What was anti-fascism and how has it changed? How do the category and concept of anti-fascism help us to understand both historical and contemporary political realities? What does anti-fascism mean today in the absence of fascism as a mass movement?

What follows is an edited transcript of an event organized by The Platypus Affiliated Society in Frankfurt on April 30, 2013. The discussion addressed the different historical and political implications of anti-fascist politics in order to throw into relief the underlying questions and problems of left-wing politics in the present.
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Opening remarks

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Wolf Wetzel:
This discussion is itself an historical event. The Left is at present so fractured, that it is impossible, even forbidden, to have discussions with each other.  We would normally never see a group like this on a platform together. Yet the problem of the Left is also one of anti-fascism.  Many people from the “Antifa” [anti-fascist movement] here in Frankfurt have refused to attend this discussion, since on the evening before an anti-Nazi march, they can only meet to discuss plans of action. They cannot allow themselves to discuss anti-fascism itself because for them to do so on the day before an action would be demobilizing.  This is remarkable given that formerly such discussions of political substance were commonplace.

The other issue is the intense mutual criticism of the different positions represented on this platform. Who can speak with whom? When is it a betrayal? When is it bourgeois, even counterrevolutionary? The assemblage here — representing anti-German, Trotskyist, German Communist Party (DKP), and Autonomist positions — could meet nowhere else in the Federal Republic. Even though I oppose many of the views represented here, these meetings are valuable because they show where these political differences come from and what lessons can be drawn from them.

I want to raise the question of the role Nazism plays today and how to understand the Nazis. This is a big question, one that is too often avoided by anti-fascists themselves. But one must ask: How threatening are they? Are they dangerous materially, politically, or ideologically? Also the historical question must be raised: Who in the ruling apparatus and state institutions of the 1930s when the Nazi Party was on the rise had an interest in their program? If the system itself is in crisis and the political elite hit rock bottom, what prevents the Left from coming to power (something much more likely in the 1930s than it is today)? At that time, it was an existential crisis for the political and business class: Would the conflict arising in the capitalist crisis be answered in a rightwing, fascistic way, or in a socialist way? Might not the crisis conclude with the bursting apart and transcendence of the capitalist system itself?

When we demonstrate against the Nazis we should ask what significance they have, not how many of them there are — 200 or 500. Such figures anyway sometimes get exaggerated in order to inflate the sense of the threat the Nazis pose.

We must discuss what role neo-fascist organizations, their parties, and their armed groups play. My view is that conditions today are massively different from the 1930s. The fascist movement then and today cannot be equated. The political class and the political system have become something quite different. It is absolutely necessary to ask where the true menace lies. I do not believe that the neo-Nazis are the driving protagonists of German racism and nationalism. Racism and nationalism are mainstream and have the support of the majority.  These arrived a long time ago at the center of society. They are represented by political power. The National Democratic Party (NPD) and the other, less organized neo-Nazi groups only express consistently what is already established as mainstream.

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Swastika mass ornament, Nuremberg 1933

Henning Mächerle: What we are discussing here today depends on the fact that the German workers’ movement of the 1920s and 1930s failed. The Communist Party of Germany was defeated. At the time, it was the biggest Communist Party outside the Soviet Union and it failed without organizing any significant armed resistance or, indeed, interfering with the functioning of the Nazi Party on a large scale. The dilemma of the German Left is that we drag this historical burden along with us. That we are mortgaged to history in this way is the occasion for this debate on anti-fascism. To advance our discussion first we need to understand fascism. That is only possible when we describe society as a class society and understand that it is one in which the owners of the means of production — the ruling class — have a compelling interest in the maximization of profit for which a large number of people must sell their labor power. Because of this, the workers’ movement formed and, through its decisive battle with the capitalist class, shaped the last 150 years. For Eric Hobsbawm, the October Revolution was the decisive point of the “short 20th century” that first showed the possibility of establishing a non-capitalist, perhaps socialist society of free and equal people.  The Left was then — unlike today — a truly serious social movement. It was comprised of people who were not primarily ensconced in universities, but had normal wage work and social interests. The big problem of the Communist Party was it only represented a specific milieu within the workers’ movement. Continue reading

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The politics of work

Platypus Review
December 2013
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Robert Pollin, Stanley Aronowitz, Jason Wright

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On September 20 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion entitled The Politics of Work for the Rethinking Marxism conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The discussion was moderated by Reid Kotlas of Platypus. The panelists were asked to respond to a prompt of ten questions that included provocative quotations by Joan Robinson, Fredric Jameson, and André Gorz. This prompt asked each panelist to consider the adequacy of the Left’s historic and ongoing attempts to understand and transform social relations of work and unemployment.

What follows is the edited version of the ensuing conversation. A full recording of the event is available online.
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Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment.

— Fredric Jameson, Representing
Capital: A Reading of Volume One

The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.

— Joan Robinson

The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It’s just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner.…Today “communism” is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy.

— André Gorz

Opening remarks

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Robert Pollin:
 Since we are a Marxist conference I’m going to start with Karl Marx. I love the quote from Jameson, which I had never seen before: “Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labor: it is a book about unemployment.” I think there is a profound truth to that. Not only is chapter 25 of volume 1 about the reserve army of labor and, as far as I know, the first serious analysis of unemployment as a phenomenon, of the necessity for massive unemployment to exist in order for capitalism to function; but also, the arguments Marx makes in chapter 25 are not the only place in which he is talking about unemployment, which is why I love the Jameson quote. That chapter links up with the entire theory of the labor theory of value and extraction of surplus from labor because, in a full employment economy (in the absence of mass unemployment) the working class has more political power, which of course is what Marx explains. When the working class has more political power and has the capacity to bargain up their wages, that means their rate of surplus value declines. You could think of that as offering a fundamental challenge to the prerogatives of capital and its ability to extract surplus from workers. So Marx was the first great theorist of unemployment. Whether the whole book is about unemployment, as Jameson says, is a debate, but Jameson is certainly making a deep point, maybe the deepest insight in the whole of Capital.

If we take the great theorists of unemployment, we go from Marx, certainly, to Keynes. Keynes’ view on unemployment was, very briefly, that this is a solvable problem within capitalism and we need to understand the technical means to control aggregate demand and instability in the investment process due to the power of Wall Street and speculation. Once we can control those, we can tame worst excesses of capital, we can increase public investment and as such, we can organize capitalism around the idea of full employment. So that is obviously a direct challenge to Marx’s notion that unemployment is fundamental to the operations of capitalism. Continue reading

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NYC events this weekend: “Global secularisms” and “Isyan and the Turkish Left”

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There are two events coming up this weekend in New York that readers of this blog might be interested in attending. Or at least that I’d want to attend. First, there’s the “Global Secularisms” conference at NYU, organized by Michael Rectenwald. Michael is a professor there in the Global Liberal Studies program, and an occasional contributor to Loren Goldner’s journal Insurgent Notes. A few days ago I republished his article “A Singular Deception.” It’s a two day conference with a long list of participants, which you can check out below.

Besides that, there’s also an event on “Isyan and the Turkish Left” at SVA in Manhattan hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization of which I formerly a member. Though I resigned several months ago now, this still looks like it’ll be an interesting talk. Ivo Furman, a native of Istanbul currently living in London, will lead the discussion. You can read his article “Isyan: The participation of the radical left in the Gezi Park protests,” online. The event description is included below. Continue reading

Self-Portrait - Man with Pipe by Gustave Courbet, 1848-1849a

The antinomy of art and politics

A critique of art as cultural resistance

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Image: Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait:
Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1848-1849)

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Introduction

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This article first appeared in September 2011, the same month that Occupy Wall Street officially began its reclamation of public space. It was written by Chris Mansour, a good friend and member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization to which I formerly belonged. My reasons for republishing it here are several: the two-year anniversary of the movement recently came and went to little fanfare, my ongoing interrogation of the relationship between architecture and politics, and my reposting yesterday of an article by the German-French Marxist and architecture critic Claude Schnaidt on “Architecture and Political Commitment.” In that reposting, I recommended Adorno’s essay on “Commitment” as supplementary reading. Chris draws upon this article in the course of his own exposition. A good piece that is worthy of reflection.

Platypus Review № 39, editorial introduction: At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of “aesthetics in protests.” Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found online. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.

The antinomy of art and politics

by Chris Mansour

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The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.

— George Orwell

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There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,

In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.[1]

Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernity, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was later a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, counterintuitive though it is, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[they contain] no political content.”[2] The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes — which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune — are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be.[3] Writing these statements in 1972 — four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968 — it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" × 28 1/4" (59 × 72 cm)

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit (c. 1871). Oil on canvas, 59 × 72 cm.

The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot — and should not — act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims. [4]  Continue reading