A hundred years since the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht

On this day exactly a century ago Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered in cold blood by Freikorps troops under the command of the Social Democratic Party. It decapitated the leadership of the young German Communist Party which then oscillated between putschism and opportunism for the rest of its existence. The consequences were that the world revolution, which the revolutionaries in Russia had counted on, did not take place. This led the Russian Communists down the road, not to international socialism, but to the construction of a new form of capitalism which, however, was falsely baptized as “socialism.” Under Stalin this became one of the most horrific anti-working class regimes of the twentieth century. Today the criminals of Social Democrats who murdered Luxemburg and Liebknecht hypocritically pretend they had nothing to do with it whilst Stalinists and Trotskyists who defend the former USSR as somehow communist all reveal their anti-working class credentials. After almost a hundred years of counter-revolution a capitalist system, whose crisis increases every day, offers us nothing but more misery, war, and environmental degradation but a new generation is arising which is taking up the last challenge to the ruling class thrown down by Rosa Luxemburg a few days before her death:

Your “order” is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will “rise up again, clashing its weapons,” and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!

The “Spartacus” revolt

In early January 1919, just days after the formation of the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (the Communist Party of Germany, KPD), the new, supposedly socialist German government sacked the head of the Berlin Police, Eichhorn, who was popular among the genuine socialists. The KPD joined in the calls for a demonstration against this act, which was just the latest in a series of provocations against the workers of Berlin. This demonstration succeeded in preventing Eichhorn’s successor from taking office. Against the votes of the KPD, who correctly believed a revolutionary uprising was premature, the “revolutionary shop stewards” and left wing of the centrist Independent Social Democratic Party now formed a revolutionary committee to overthrow the government.

A general strike was declared and ten days of street fighting ensued. In the course of the fight part of the revolutionary committee split to enter negotiations with the government, thus paving the way for its eventual victory. The day after the fighting was over, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, leaders of the KPD, were murdered by government troops along with the hundreds of workers who had already been cut down.

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Five hundred glass negatives by Lucia Moholy

Mary Jo Bang
Paris Review
09.17.2017

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In 1915, twenty-one-year-old Lucia Schulz wrote in her journal that she could imagine herself using photography as “a passive artist,” recording everything from the best perspective, putting the film through the chemical processes she’d learned, and adding to the image her sense of “how the objects act on me.”

On her twenty-seventh birthday, at the Registry Office in Charlottenburg, a borough of Berlin, she married the Hungarian Constructivist painter Lászlo Moholy-Nagy and became, in the blink of a bureaucratic instant, Lucia Moholy. A few years later, when Moholy-Nagy was recruited to teach as a master at the Bauhaus school, Lucia went with him — she, her camera, her technical skills, and her knowledge of the darkroom.

The Bauhaus, a school established in 1919 by the architect Walter Gropius, would eventually become an influential international design movement. The clean sculptural lines of its buildings, the bent steel and leather Bauer chairs, Marianne Brandt’s elegant globe-and-square tea sets would come to represent a break with the preindustrial past. The look itself would become a signifier of urban modernity and of modern life. When Lucia arrived at the Bauhaus, she became, at Gropius’ invitation, the de facto Bauhaus photographer, albeit unpaid. The glass negatives would remain hers, however, presumably to do with as she wished. Continue reading

Air Maoism

Goldner on Elbaum

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Commune
has a new review out of the 2018 reissue of Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air, which recounts the trials and travails of the New Communist Movement in the US. Written by Colleen Lye, “Maoism in the Air” is very sympathetic to the book’s central thesis: namely, that three distinct strands of American Maoism (Cultural Revolutionary, Third World nationalism, and orthodox Marxism-Leninism) shaped the politics of the post-’68 generation in a novel and generally beneficial way. Lye even goes a step further than Elbaum, remarking on the NCM’s institutional legacy that “today’s academic field of critical ethnic studies might well be described as a space where anti-racism and anti-imperialism continue, in a different key and perhaps even unknowingly, the Marxist-Leninism of the ’68 generation.”

She may well be right about this, but I hardly think this is a legacy to be proud of. Usually the so-called “long march through the institutions” is seen as a political defeat held up as an intellectual victory. Marxism’s relegation to the academy is a sign of its neutralization, in other words. I can only speak to the field of Jewish Studies, which is what I’m most familiar with, but for the most part I find it a useless discipline — despite my persistent interest in the history of Jews. Regardless, I was somewhat surprised to see such a positive review of Elbaum’s book in the pages of Commune, a magazine that I am very excited about. (For any readers who haven’t already, I encourage you to check out Jay Firestone’s ethnographic survey of alt-Right NYC and Paul Mattick’s outstanding piece on the centenary of the German Revolution.)

Admittedly, I’ve never understood the appeal of Maoism for American communists, either in the seventies or today. Perhaps it possessed some exotic aura back then, or was maybe just a dope aesthetic. Either way, the theory and practice of the Chinese brand of Stalinism ought to have been long discredited by now. Virtually all of the national liberation movements that were supposed to destabilize global capitalism and pave the way for international socialist revolution have been seamlessly reintegrated into the world of commodities. Nowadays, of course, there is the added association of Maoist ideas with the Black Panther Party, which is still celebrated as a high point in the history of revolutionary politics in the US. How much of this is simply mythologization after the fact is difficult to say, but it was certainly influential.

But even in light of this association, the attraction of Maoism is difficult to grasp. It was recently revealed, in fact, that the person who introduced the Black Panthers to the writings of Mao was an FBI snitch. Richard Aoki, the Berkeley radical and leader of the ethnic studies strike, informed his Bureau contact: “The Maoist twist, I kind of threw that one in. I said so far the most advanced Marxists I have run across are the Maoists in China.” Despite this ideological straightjacket, BPP spokesmen like Fred Hampton were able to say fairly interesting things (all this before he was gunned down in Chicago at the age of 21). While it gave Hampton the perspective he needed to denounce the empty culturalism of Stokely Carmichael, whom he referred to as a “mini-fascist,” it otherwise limited the Panthers’ scope of inquiry into capitalist society.

Loren Goldner’s review, lightly edited and reproduced below, provides a much-needed corrective to the laudatory reception Revolution in the Air has met with so far. Goldner grounds his critique of Elbaum in the left communist and heterodox Trotskyist tradition he belonged to at the time, even though he likewise went to Berkeley and knew many of the same characters. Other Maoists, such as Paul Saba, have gently criticized Elbaum’s book over the last few months. Saba contends that the main fault of the NCM — of which he was also a veteran — was its theoretical poverty, and that it might have benefited from a more sophisticated Althusserian-Bettelheimian viewpoint. Quite the opposite holds for Goldner: the New Communist Movement was wrongheaded from the start.

You can read a 2010 interview with Elbaum by clicking on the link, but otherwise enjoy Goldner’s blistering review. Maoism may still be “in the air,” as Lye contends, if the various Red Guard formations are any indication. According to Goldner, however, it might be in the air the same way smog and other pathogens are.

Didn’t see the same movie

Loren Goldner
August 2003

Review of Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London/New York, Verso, 2002.

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The sleep of dialectical reason will engender monsters.

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Without exactly setting out to do so, Max Elbaum in his book Revolution In The Air, has managed to demonstrate the existence of progress in human history, namely in the decline and disappearance of the grotesque Stalinist/Maoist/“Third World Marxist” and Marxist-Leninist groups and ideologies he presents, under the rubric New Communist Movement, as the creations of pretty much the “best and the brightest” coming out of the American 1960s.

Who controls the past, Orwell said, controls the future. Read at a certain level, Elbaum’s book (describing a mental universe that in many respects out-Orwells Orwell), aims, through extended self-criticism, to jettison 99% of what “Third World Marxism” stood for in its 1970s heyday, in order to salvage the 1% of further muddled “progressive politics” for the future, particularly where the Democratic Party and the unions are concerned, preparing “progressive” forces to paint a new face on the capitalist system after the neoliberal phase has shot its bolt. Continue reading

Marx still haunts capitalism two hundred years on

“The bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day.”
— Marx to Engels, 1867

Indeed, it would seem they haven’t forgotten him. Over the last few weeks, major bourgeois news outlets have congratulated Marx for “being right” about capitalism: New York TimesGuardian, Financial Times, Independent, and even Vice. Little consolation, all this posthumous praise, for while capitalism remains unstable as ever, the prospect of proletarian revolution feels far away. Perhaps it is less embarrassing than Jonathan Spargo, Marx’s first American biographer, taking to the pages of the New York Times a hundred years ago to enlist Marx to the side of the Entente: “Today Is the 100th anniversary of Marx’s birth: Bitterly opposed to Prussia and an ardent admirer of America, his record shows where he would have stood in the present war.”

You can download some relevant biographies and introductions to Marx’s work below:

  1. Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life (1918)
  2. Max Beer, The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx (1920)
  3. Otto Rühle, Karl Marx: His Life and Work (1929)
  4. Boris Nikolaevsky & Otto Mänchen-Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter (1932)
  5. Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (1939)
  6. Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx (1948)
  7. Werner Blumenberg, Potrait of Marx (1962)
  8. Maximilien Rubel, Marx: Life and Works (1965)
  9. Ernst Bloch, On Karl Marx (1968)
  10. David McClellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (1973)
  11. Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx (1993)
  12. Rolf Hosfeld, Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography (2009)
  13. Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion (2016)
  14. Marcello Musto, Another Marx: Early Manuscripts to the International (2018)

Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag Karl Marx, Enkel von Meier Halevi Marx und Chaje Eva Marx. Halte durch, du alter fetter Sack!

200 years on, Marx still haunts capitalism

Aurora 43
5.5.2018

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Karl Marx — political philosopher, historical materialist, economic analyst of capitalism and its class society; above all, revolutionary fighter — was born in Trier, Germany on 5 May 1818. For anyone today fighting for an end to capitalism his life is cause for celebration. Marx’s work enabled us to understand the basic dynamic of capitalism, its place in the history of civilizations, and learn from the historical ebb and flow of the class struggle. As Engels said at the graveside of his friend,

Before all else, Marx was a revolutionary. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat, to make it conscious of its situation and its needs, and conscious of the conditions for its own emancipation — that was his real life work.

Marx was not the first person to recognize the struggle between classes or to hold out the prospect of communism springing from the revolt of the oppressed against the powerful and wealthy who robbed them of the product of their toil. But when the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 it was also revolutionary in a deeper sense. It took the age-old struggle for a classless society out of the realm of utopian dreams and millenarian uprisings and put it firmly onto historical, materialist ground.

It is fashionable to regard the Manifesto as a brilliant piece of prose by a young Marx before he became an intolerant dogmatist in later years. There is no denying the inspirational style of the document which Marx reshaped out of Engels’ drafts. From its famous opening to its defiant conclusion, the Manifesto was a rallying call to the working class: “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism… Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”  This was a time when revolution was threatening the old feudal regimes throughout much of Europe, a time when the working class was already organizing on its own account but not yet in a position to overthrow the rule of capital. But the Manifesto should not be dismissed as a romantic flight of fancy by an over-exuberant young Marx. Continue reading

Seventy-five years since the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

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Yesterday marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Below you can download a number of histories and firsthand accounts of the revolt, and below that read an article Marcus Barnett wrote on the subject last year for Jacobin. Roughly 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were killed by gas or bullet over a six-week span in 1943, after 92,000 or so perished from starvation or disease the three years before.

About the authors below: Edelman and Goldstein were Bundists, while Rotem and Zuckerman were left-wing Zionists. Gutman was later an inmate of Auschwitz, where he narrowly survived. Berg was only a child when she lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, and refused to share further details of her experience or speak out after a translation of her diary (by Henri Lefebvre co-author and Frankfurt School fellow traveler Norbert Guterman) was serialized in American newspapers in 1944.

Daily life in the ghetto

Scenes from the uprising

Remembering the Warsaw ghetto uprising

Marcus Bennett
Jacobin Magazine
April 19th, 2017

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On the eve of Passover 1943 — the nineteenth of April — a group of several hundred poorly armed young Jews began the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, one of the first insurrections against Nazism.

For a small group of fighters, realizing — in the lyrical words of one militant — that “dying with arms is more beautiful than without,” an isolated group of Jewish militants resisted for twenty-nine days against a much larger foe, motivated by a desire to kill as many fascists as they could before they themselves were killed. The uprising, etched into the collective memory of postwar Jewry, remains emotive and emboldening.

That their heroism was a crucial part of the war is disputed by nobody today. But less known is the extent to which the uprising, far from being a spontaneous one of the masses, was the product of planning and preparation from a relatively small — incredibly young — group of Jewish radicals. Continue reading

Jewdas and Yiddish anarchism

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They raised a beetroot in the air and shouted “F*** capitalism!”

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Sorry, but I find this shit hilarious. Jewdas are a bunch of Yiddish anarcho pranksters, but they are far better than most when it comes to diagnosing and opposing antisemitism on the Left. They do lots of Palestine solidarity stuff, but they’ve always been careful to emphasize the dangers of antisemitic forms of anti-Zionism. Plus, they had no problem kicking that dumbass Ken Livingstone in the teeth.

Corbyn played this all rather well, I must say, and doesn’t come off as disingenuous in the least. Really, after flipping out on him for attending Seder, how is the public supposed to take these same people attacking him as an antisemite seriously? Instead, shifting the narrative, the media has attempted to portray Jewdas as a bunch of dangerous extremists — i.e., “a hate-filled group that mocks Judaism.”

Oz Katerji, the New Statesman journo who covered this story, stressed that members of Jewdas weren’t all “extremists.” Nevertheless, he questioned the wisdom of Corbyn in attending the event:

I am sure the Jewdas Seder was a blast, I’m sure the vast majority of those in attendance are good people. But the leader of the opposition should know better than to associate with a group that take pride saying  “Burn down parliament.”

Like, come on. That’s awesome. If anything, it should have been Jewdas that was reluctant to meet with the leader of any parliamentary party. Either way, Jez said he “learned a lot” from the evening’s festivities. Wish they’d schooled Corbyn about some other matters, however, maybe taught him to hum the bars of “Daloy politsey!” (a Yiddish anarchist song, “Down with the Police!”).

What follows is a nice testimony by Rob Abrams originally posted on the Open Democracy website.

When I found antisemitism on the Left, Jewdas were there for me

Robert Abrams
Open Democracy
April 2nd, 2018

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By now, it is very possible you have heard of Jewdas. In the last 48 hours, this community of mostly left-wing, non- and anti-Zionist Jews based in the UK has gone from being a medium-sized network of friends to the talk of the hour. Previously celebrated for its use of humour and playful feather-ruffling by some while being dismissed as a minor inconvenience at best by others, everything changed when Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn joined the group for a Passover Seder on Monday evening.

Against the backdrop of a vicious debate about antisemitism in the Labour party, news publications including the BBC, Sky News, the Daily Mail, the New York Times, and the Israeli Haaretz have all clamored to define Jewdas. It’s hard to express in words just how surreal it was to write this sentence. Continue reading

VKhUTEMAS: The “Soviet Bauhaus”

Architectural Review

Agata Pyzik
May 8, 2015

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VKhUTEMAS was an art and technical school set up in 1920 in Moscow that saw itself as a realization of the new revolutionary government’s approach to art, and which was to become a vital part of building a new society. Often this ‘building’ was in the most literal sense: one of the chief skills taught there was architecture, next to industrial and technical design, textiles, painting and sculpture. This exhibition in Martin-Gropius-Bau focuses on the school’s architecture teaching, and on the highly interdisciplinary, experimental methods developed there by some of the greatest Russian architects of the 20th century, such as Nikolai Ladovsky, Moisei Ginsburg, and Konstantin Melnikov. They were able to produce such pioneering results by treating artistic education as part of a whole. Many of these architects were also fascinating painters. At the same time, few of VKhUTEMAS students’ boldest designs were built, and the school faced a political backlash as early as 1929.

This “Soviet Bauhaus” (as the exhibition’s subtitle has it) raises interest today not only because Constructivist luminaries such as Rodchenko, Klutsis, and Popova taught there, but also because of an emerging interest in the less explored aspects of the art of the revolutionary period. The Berlin show concentrates on the pedagogic work of teachers and usually unknown students at VKhUTEMAS, whose rarely seen work hangs next to the better-known abstract compositions of Stepanova or Rodchenko’s spatial constructions.

Given the traditionalist legacy of tsarism, these artists had first to break with the 19th century. This is visible in the early 1920s work of Nikolai Kolli, later the job architect on Corbusier’s only completed Soviet building, Tsentrosoyuz. His drawings of foliage compositions on Neoclassical architecture show how attaining Constructivist form meant learning from the past as well as its rejection. The school’s architecture faculty initially combined three threads: Neoclassicist, taught by Ivan Zholtovsky; the experimental Rationalist school, headed by Ladovsky; and a non-conformist pedagogical program led by Melnikov and Ilya Golosov, the “New Academy.” The link between classicism and Modernism is here less sharp than it’s often portrayed — there are many student drawings, which, in order to reach for new spatial forms, reach first to French visionary architects, such as Boullée and Ledoux, and develop these in an ever more stern, reduced way.

This relationship between the French Revolution and classicism is echoed in the creation of a new, atheistic, rational Soviet state and society, cherishing internationalism and heroes of modernity, in such projects as the Cathedral of International Understanding by the Rationalist and VKhUTEMAS teacher Vladimir Krinsky, or Ladovsky’s Monument to Columbus in Santo Domingo. Successive rooms show how students’ responses to extremely matter-of-fact tasks, such as “production exercise to determine and represent a form,” produced extremely varied results, bulky edifices or thin, fragile towers, coming in bright, contrasting colors, and using collage and photomontage, to establish new forms of space. Students had a lot of freedom, leading to extraordinary diploma projects such as Nikolai Sokolov’s Constructivist spa, which was envisaged to be partly under a mountain, a reminder that one of objectives of early Communism was comfort and luxury. Another final-year project is Georgi Krutikov’s Flying City, accompanied by a Surrealist photomontage predicting the space program and proving that traffic will soon become too congested and dangerous — as early as 1928!

In the end, VKhUTEMAS’ undoing was part of increasingly pragmatic late 1920s politics, which demanded its greater involvement in national industry. Although students like Ivan Leonidov attempted more utopian approaches to planning than the likes of the showcase steeltown Magnitogorsk, they were rejected. Finally, the school’s dissolution was an inevitability tied not just to the Stalinization of Soviet Russia, but to the tendency by 1930s modern architects everywhere to abandon experimentation in favor of a more bland International Style.

Student projects

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Complex frontal composition based on nuance and contrast combination of plastic and shade, using elements of rhythm

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Student exercises for the color course

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CLR James, critical theory, and the dialectic

The writings of the Trinidadian Marxist and revolutionary Cyril Lionel Robert James contain some of the noblest reflections on human freedom ever put to page. Obviously the present author does not agree with all of James’ arguments, especially those concerning national self-determination as a step toward global emancipation. Eventually this mistaken belief led him to extend his “critical support” to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Mao Tse-Tung’s China, as Matthew Quest has amply shown for Insurgent Notes. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from reading the works of James.

Postcolonial theorists in particular would do well to learn from his appreciation of the universal achievements of capitalist modernity. “I denounce European colonialism,” he wrote in 1980. “But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization.” Similarly, James always insisted that “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics.” He stressed in his landmark study of The Black Jacobins that “to think of imperialism in terms of race would be disastrous.” Whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who blogs under the handle Of C.L.R. James, ought to take note.

James might well be denounced as a “class reductionist” these days for his 1960 speech before an audience in Trinidad. “The great problem of the United States,” he declared, “with all due respect to the color of the majority of my audience, is not the ‘negro question’… If the question of workers’ independent political organization were solved, the ‘negro question’ would be solved. As long as this is not solved the ‘negro question’ will never be solved.” From first to last, James remained a Marxist in his strict emphasis on the primacy of working-class autonomy.

Even as the yoke of colonial oppression was finally being lifted, in 1958, he maintained: “We are breaking the old connections, and have to establish new ones… Let us not repel [onlookers] by showing them that we are governed by the same narrow nationalist and particularist conceptions which have caused so much mischief in Europe and elsewhere… Help [from the rest of the world] is precious and, far from being a purely economic question, is a social and political necessity. Industrial expansion is not merely a question of material forces but of human relations.”

Zimbabwe is only the latest example of a failed postcolonial state. Apart from a few stray tankies like Caleb Maupin — who somehow still contends that Mugabe was not a dictator, despite having ruled the country for 37 years straight — not too many tears have been shed on account of the African leader’s sudden downfall. No one, except for brazen racists and white nationalists, longs for a return to colonial times or the restoration of Rhodesia. Yet Zimbabwe is proof that underdevelopment was not solely due to colonialism. The once-rich nation has plummeted into poverty over the past couple decades.

Moreover, I feel vindicated by James’ skepticism toward cultural studies programs. Jewish studies, to speak only of the discipline that’s grown up around my culture of origin, have always seemed to me a colossal waste of time. “I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such,” James told students in 1968, “but simply the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain social and political setting [capitalism]. During the last two hundred years, in particular, it’s impossible to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”

Regardless, enough from me already. You can download the following works by James by clicking on the links below:

  1. At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings, 1931-1981
  2. The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932)
  3. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts (1934-1936)
  4. World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937)
  5. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938)
  6. On the “Negro Question” (1939-1950)
  7. “Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution?” (1946)
  8. with Raya Dunayevskaya, A New Notion: The Invading Socialist Society and Every Cook Can Govern (1947, 1956)
  9. Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (1948)
  10. with Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya, State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950)
  11. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1952)
  12. The Nobbie Stories for Children and Adults (1953-1956)
  13. Modern Politics (1960)
  14. Beyond a Boundary (1963)
  15. Marxism for Our Times: On Revolutionary Organization (1963-1981)
  16. “Wilson Harris andthe Existentialist Doctrine” (1965)
  17. Lectures on The Black Jacobins (1970)
  18. with Grace Lee and Cornelius Castoriadis, Facing Reality (1974)

And you can download the following pieces of secondary literature:

  1. Louise Cripps, C.L.R. James: Memories and Commentaries (1997)
  2. Aldon Lynn Nielsen, C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction (1997)
  3. Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (2008)
  4. Ornette D. Clennon, The Polemics of C.L.R. James and Contemporary Black Activism (2017)
  5. Beyond Boundaries: C.L.R. James and Postnational Studies (2006)
  6. C.L.R. James’ Caribbean (1992)
  7. The Black Jacobins Reader (2017)
  8. Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014)

What follows is an exploration of the affinities between James and the Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno, written by the Italian Marxist Enzo Traverso as part of his new book Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2016). Continue reading

El Lissitzky exhibition in Moscow, November 2017-February 2018

El Lissitzky, renaissance man of the Soviet avant-garde, is the subject of a major career survey in Russia that opened last week. It is the first such show in the country for thirty years.

Ambitiously organized across two venues, the State Tretyakov Museum and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the shows are being treated as a single exhibition. They draw on an archive of the artist’s work preserved against all odds by Sophie Küppers, his German wife, an art historian and collector. Roughly 400 works are on display.

Lissitzky spent a significant portion of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany, promoting revolutionary art. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1925, he left dozens of his paintings, photographs, architectural and graphic designs behind.

Lissitzky married Küppers in 1927 — for which she later paid a chilling price. Three years after her husband’s death in 1941, she was exiled to Siberia as an enemy alien, and works in her collection were seized by Soviet authorities. In July 2017, her heirs won a major battle in a German court over a work she had owned by Paul Klee, which was seized by the Nazis in 1937 and sold off as “degenerate” art.

Tatyana Goryacheva, the Tretyakov’s curator, says Küppers sold “part of her archive and nearly 300 graphic works” to the museum in 1959. “The collection includes drawings and sketches of Prouns” as well as “lithographs, sketches of architectural and exhibition projects, posters and book designs,” she says.

Goryacheva says that while the exhibition underscores Lissitzky’s talent, it also illuminates “the interrelations between the artist and the authorities, avant-garde art, and totalitarian ideology — an issue that inevitably arises in connection with art of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde.”

  • El Lissitzky, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, until 4 February 2018
  • El Lissitzky, Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Moscow, until 18 February 2018

Continue reading

Victor Serge, chronicler of revolution

A week ago, the centenary of the October Revolution came and went. For this week’s post, I thought I’d share the works of one of its most important witnesses and participants. Victor Serge was a Belgian-Russian anarchist who repatriated to Russia shortly after the Bolshevik seizure of power, joining Lenin and Trotsky in their historic effort to overthrow capitalism. You can download PDFs of Serge’s major works by clicking on the following links:

  1. Anarchists Never Surrender: Essays, Polemics, and Correspondence on Anarchism, 1908-1938
  2. Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921
  3. Witness to the German Revolution: Writings from Germany, 1923
  4. “Is a Proletarian Literature Possible?” (1925)
  5. Men in Prison (1929)
  6. Year One of the Russian Revolution (1930)
  7. Conquered City (1930-1931)
  8. Birth of Our Power (1931)
  9. Midnight in the Century (1936-1938)
  10. From Lenin to Stalin (1937)
  11. Russia Twenty Years After and Thirty Years After the Russian Revolution (1937, 1947)
  12. The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1940-1942)
  13. Mexican Notebooks, 1940-1947
  14. Unforgiving Years (1946)
  15. Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (with Natalia Sedova, 1946)
  16. Memoirs of a Revolutionary (1947)
  17. A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems

Most of the secondary literature on Serge is comprised of rather short essays, articles, and reviews. The only book-length studies in English are Suzi Weissman’s Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope (2001) and Paul Gordon’s Vagabond Witness: Victor Serge and the Politics of Hope (2013). Hopefully a more Bolshevik book on Serge will appear at some point. Back in 1994, the Trotskyist scholarly journal Revolutionary History dedicated an issue to Serge under the title Century of the Unexpected, which is probably worth checking out.

One of Susan Sontag’s last works, “Unextinguished: The Case for Victor Serge,” is roughly thirty pages long and appears as the foreword to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, above. Andras Gyorgy’s “But Who, After All, was Victor Serge?” (2008) offers a nice corrective to the aforementioned writings of Sontag and Weissman, both of whom are far more liberal in their politics than Serge ever was. Something similar could be said of Richard Greeman, to be honest, though his translations of Serge redeem him somewhat.

Doug Enaa Greene, an incel Trot historian who hates my guts for some reason, wrote a piece for Red Wedge “Victor Serge: On the Borders of Victory and Defeat” in 2015. Rather pedestrian, on the whole, but nevertheless a serviceable introduction to Serge’s work. Finally, my former teacher Sheila Fitzpatrick wrote a nice review of Serge’s memoirs for The Guardian a few years back. Weissman and others exchanged some critical remarks on Serge in the US socialist magazine Against the Current, which were subsequently compiled and published over at Links.

Philippe Bourrinet’s 2002 essay on Serge, which traces the evolution of his thought vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and relates it concurrent left communist views, is reproduced below. A couple words on this piece: Bourrinet seems to be unfamiliar with Evgenii Preobrazhensky’s concept of “socialist primitive accumulation,” doubtless the source of Serge’s own conception. Obviously, criticisms can and should be made of this notion, but it is not as if it was an original coinage by Serge or an insight into the bloodiness of forced collectivization.

I’ve recently been reading Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book on The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (1991), which compellingly argues that only the juridical existence of capital was suspended in the USSR while its economic existence remained intact. Serge recognized this fact, Bourrinet alleges, in writing that “where there are wage workers, there is capital.” While I plan to reread the works of Hillel Ticktin to finally determine where I come down on the whole “state capitalism” debate, I must confess I’m more open to this category than previously.

Victor Serge:
Totalitarianism and state capitalism

Philippe Bourrinet
Collective Action
January 1, 2002
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Night heralds the advent of a morning so radiant and so full of promise we cannot even conceive of it.

Let us not be discouraged.

— Victor Serge

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Russia’s transition towards a relative democratization, based on a private capitalist sector, poses three questions: how did so-called “Soviet totalitarianism” take power and endure for such a long time, only to finally collapse; how was it that the transition from state capitalism, which some have called “collectivist planned economy,” to a private capitalist sector was so easily accomplished; and also how can a socialist alternative for the twenty-first century1 be realized that responds to the needs of a new autonomous social movement whose goal is to free man from his economic and political chains.

Victor Serge’s testimony is of unique value for the new social movement for the purpose of addressing these crucial questions in the wake of the disappearance of Stalinism. Victor Serge has bequeathed a valuable legacy to succeeding generations. His works, both political and literary, and his talents, constitute a rich mine for understanding the origin of totalitarianism in Russia as well as how its economic infrastructure functioned for almost seventy years.

Defining totalitarianism and state capitalism

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Beginning in the 1930s, Serge would make frequent use of the term “totalitarian” in his writings.

The term originated among the Italian antifascists, although the fascists also used it. In 1925 Mussolini proclaimed the “fierce totalitarian will” of his regime. Totalitarianism was above all the total absorption of civil society by the state, which, of course, the fascists defined as no longer capitalist. According to Mussolini himself, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”2 Hitler’s accession to power, which installed a racist totalitarianism where the state was the embodiment of the will of the Leader (Führer) lastingly impressed the notion of totalitarianism on antifascist literature. Continue reading