Introduction to Ivan Segré

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My introduction to Ivan Segré’s polemical review of Whites, Jews, and Us (2016), by Houria Bouteldja, follows below. The full review, translated by Ann Manov, can be read over at the LA Review of Books. Be sure to check it out; it’s long but excellent.

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Houria Bouteldja is a controversial figure in France. She is the spokeswoman of the Parti des indigènes de la République (PIR), a group (and now political party) founded in the wake of the 2005 Paris riots to promote decolonial politics, a “third way” beyond divisions of left and right. Decolonial theory originated as a discursive framework among Latin American academics during the early 2000s, but soon spread to other parts of the world. Unlike postcolonial theory, with which it is often confused, the premise here is that one cannot speak of life today as “after” colonialism. For the PIR, despite the collapse of Europe’s overseas colonies, “decolonization has yet to be finished” (as Bouteldja told Saïd Mekki in a 2009 interview). In 2012, Bouteldja described their outlook to a Madrid audience as more of a mentalité: “Being decolonial is above all an emancipated state of mind.” The PIR’s position on this count clearly echoes the work of Frantz Fanon (among others), whose writings are frequently referenced in Bouteldja’s own.

Long before the release of Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous in 2016, Bouteldja was already known to the French public for her incendiary statements. Her book-length debut — a poetic, almost literary text, more manifesto than treatise — continues in this vein. Bouteldja opens with a chapter entitled “Shoot Sartre!”, a common refrain heard from pro-colonial French nationalists during the war in Algeria. She provocatively appropriates the refrain, not because she agrees Sartre should have been shot for supporting Algerian independence, of course, but to criticize his continued support of Israeli independence after 1967. Instead, she claims as a “hero” of decolonial politics former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Bouteldja praises, with some reluctance, for declaring “there are no homosexuals in Iran” at Columbia University in 2007 — in other words: “at the heart of empire.” She takes the risk of admiring the statement’s provocation, even if she also explicitly recognizes that Ahmadinejad was lying. But in him, she sees “an arrogant indigenous man” speaking up to the West, something Sartre was ultimately — when it came to the issue of Zionism — unable to do. For very different reasons having to do with history and the discourses of sexuality in the West and the Middle East, Joseph Massad, a professor at Columbia, reached a conclusion similar to Ahmadinejad’s a year before in Desiring Arabs, a work Bouteldja cited in her 2013 critique of “gay universalism.” Evidently, avoiding the charge of homophobia is not a priority for Bouteldja. The more important, more fundamental issue (“the only real question,” as she puts it) is the oppressed status of the indigenous. In a chapter titled “We, Indigenous Women,” Bouteldja considers the risk of indigenous masculinity imitating white male masculinity, and asks instead “which part, in the testosterone-laden virility of the indigenous male, resists white domination.” That part can be used, she suggests, “toward a project of common liberation.” Continue reading

Kandinsky

Art as rhetoric

Boris Groys
Particular Cases
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In light of recent discussions about art as knowledge production and the ways art should or could be taught, it seems fitting to look back at the early days of modernism. Avant-garde art was not yet taken for granted then, having instead to be legitimized, interpreted, and taught. One influential example of such a strategy of legitimization is Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). The book posits an equivalence between art production, art theory, and art teaching, in order to render art rational and scientific, with the aim of establishing it as an academic discipline. Over the course of his artistic career, Kandinsky made various attempts to give an institutional form to his ideas. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) both the group and the almanac of the same name — can be seen as the first such attempt. Following his return to Russia from Munich at the outbreak of World War I, and especially throughout the postrevolution years, Kandinsky engaged in extensive institutional activity, teaching as a professor at Vkhutemas (Higher Art and Technical Studios, from 1918), as well as founding and directing the Moscow Institute of Artistic Culture (InKhuK, 1920-1921) and GAKhN (State Academy for the Scientific Study of Art, 1921). During his time at the Bauhaus, from his appointment in 1922 until its closure in 1933, he pursued his analysis of art as a science and academic discipline, as reflected in Point and Line to Plane, a theoretical treatise published by the Bauhaus in 1926.

The rigor and determination with which Kandinsky pursued the academicization of art has often been overlooked due to misunderstandings caused by his choice of words. His use of “the spiritual” is a prominent example, since it implies certain religious themes and attitudes that he did not necessarily share. Rather than “the spiritual,” it would be better to speak here of “the affective.” Kandinsky’s book begins with a distinction between art as the representation of eternal reality and art as a means of conveying emotions and moods. Right at the beginning of the book, Kandinsky claims that the representation of external reality leaves us cold as viewers. He describes a typical exhibition of the time:

Animals in sunlight or shadow, drinking, standing in water, lying on the grass; near to, a Crucifixion by a painter who does not believe in Christ; flowers; human figures sitting, standing, walking; often they are naked; many naked women, seen foreshortened from behind; apples and silver dishes. […] The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures “nice” or “splendid.” Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called “art for art’s sake.”1

This description clearly shows that what Kandinsky found irritating about naturalist painting was its formalism. When the motif is dictated from outside, all that matters is how it is executed — the formal skill of the artist. Kandinsky opposes this formalist vision of art: only when one has defined what art is can one inquire into the how. 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

Hillel Ticktin’s contributions to Marxist theory

South African Trotskyist Hillel Ticktin first made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, with a groundbreaking reexamination of the political economy of the USSR. Much of his work has been fragmentary, taking the form of short articles or occasional essays, quite often in polemical exchange with authority figures such as Ernest Mandel and Charles Bettelheim. Only two books have so far resulted from these efforts, published in close proximity to one another, both offering late reflections on systems about to collapse: The Politics of Race: Discrimination In South Africa (1991, on the old apartheid regime) and Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays on the Political Economy of Disintegrating System (1992, on the Soviet Union).

You can download these, along with numerous pieces from his journal Critique and the CPGB’s Weekly Worker by clicking on the links below:

  1. “Towards a Political Economy of the USSR” (1974)
  2. “Political Economy of the Soviet Intellectual” (1974)
  3. “The Capitalist Crisis and Current Trends in the USSR” (1975)
  4. “The Current Crisis and the Decline of a Superpower”(1976)
  5. “The Contradictions of Soviet Society and Professor Bettelheim” (1976)
  6. “The USSR: Beginning of the End?” (1977)
  7. “The Class Structure of the USSR and the Elite” (1978)
  8. “Rudolf Bahro: A Socialist Without a Working Class” (1979)
  9. “Socialism, the Market, and the State: Another View: Socialism vs. Proudhonism” (1979)
  10. “The Ambiguities of Ernest Mandel” (1980)
  11. “The Afghan War: The Crisis in the USSR” (1980)
  12. “The Victory and Tragedy of the Polish Working‐Class: Notes and Commentary on the Polish Events “ (1982)
  13. “Is Market Socialism Possible or Necessary?” (1984)
  14. “Andropov and His Inheritance: The Disintegration of the USSR under the Banner of Discipline” (1988)
  15. “The Contradictions of Gorbachev” (1988)
  16. “The Transitional Epoch, Finance Capital, and Britain: Part 1, The Political Economy of Declining Capitalism” (1988)
  17. “The Transitional Epoch, Finance Capital, and Britain: Part 2, The Origins and Nature of Finance Capital” (1989)
  18. “The Year After the Three General Secretaries: Change without Change” (1989)
  19. The Politics of Race: Discrimination in South Africa (1991)
  20. Origins of the Crisis in the USSR: Essays on the Political Economy of a Disintegrating System (1992)
  21. “The USSR after Chernobyl” (1993)
  22. “The Political Economy of Class in the Transitional Epoch” (1993)
  23. “Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher: Allies in Crisis” (1994)
  24. “The Decline of Capitalism” (1995)
  25. “The International Road to Chaos” (1995) (1995)
  26. “The Growth of an Impossible Capitalism” (1997)
  27. “What Will a Socialist Society be Like?” (1997)
  28. “The Nature of an Epoch of Declining Capitalism” (1998)
  29. “The Political‐Economic Nature of the Purges” (1999)
  30. “Lessons of the Russian Revolution” (2001)
  31. “Where are We Going Today? The Nature of Contemporary Crisis” (2001)
  32. “Theses on the Present Crisis” (2002)
  33. “Why the Transition Failed: Towards a Political Economy of the Post‐Soviet Period in Russia” (2002)
  34. “The Third Great Depression” (2003)
  35. “Towards a Political Economy of War in Capitalism, with Reference to the First World War” (2004)
  36. “Paul Sweezy — Marxist Political Economist, 1910-2004” (2004)
  37. “Marxism, Nationalism, and the National Question after Stalinism” (2005)
  38. “Political Consciousness and its Conditions at the Present Time” (2006)
  39. “Decline as a Concept, and Its Consequences” (2006)
  40. “A Critical Assessment of the Major Marxist Theories of the Political Economy of Modern Capitalism” (2006)
  41. “Political Economy and the End of Capitalism” (2007)
  42. “Don’t Revive Absurd Slogans” (2007)
  43. “1956 as the Year of Stalinist Upheaval and the Iconic Transfer of Imperialist Power to the USA” (2007)
  44. “Notes on Zionism and Other Matters” (2007)
  45. “Results and Prospects: Introduction to Critique’s Issue on 1968″ (2008)
  46. “A Marxist Theory of Freedom of Expression” (2009)
  47. “A Marxist Political Economy of Capitalist Instability and the Current Crisis” (2009)
  48. In Defense of Leon Trotsky” (2010)
  49. “The Crisis and the Capitalist System Today” (2010)
  50. “The Myths of Crisis: A New Turning Point in History?” (2011)
  51. “The Theory of Capitalist Disintegration” (2011)
  52. “Stalinism, Its Nature and Role” (2011)
  53. “Marx’s Specter Haunts the Wealthy and Powerful” (2011)
  54. “The Decline of Money” (2012)
  55. “Rosa Luxemburg’s Concept of Crisis in a Contemporary Theoretical Context” (2012)
  56. “From Finance Capital to Austerity Muddle” (2013)
  57. “Mandela: He was a Bourgeois Hero” (2013)
  58. “The Permanent Instability of Capitalism” (2014)
  59. “What is the Capitalist Strategy?” (2014)
  60. “The Period of Transition” (2016)
  61. “The Permanent Crisis: Decline, and Transition of Capitalism” (2017)
  62. “A Marxist Philosopher: István Mészáros, December 19, 1930-October 1, 2017” (2017)

Ticktin’s writings on the socioeconomic character of the Soviet Union have been immensely influential, inspiring groups like Aufheben as well as individuals like Neil C. Fernandez (whose dissertation he advised) and Christopher Arthur. He raises issues that every Marxian Sovietologist must work through, even if one disagrees with his conclusions. Below I will disaggregate his ideas in three parts, beginning with his politics vis-à-vis the CPGB (PCC), moving through his historic claims about the USSR vis-à-vis Fernandez and Paresh Chattopadhyay, and then finishing with some methodological and thematic notes again vis-à-vis Chattopadhyay. 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

Red seder

In Berlin 5777, a new communist Haggadah for a Red Passover Seder was brought forth into the world. It replaces the communist Haggadah of  Brooklyn, 5771. This new one is the first Red Haggadah since the Jewish Bolsheviks used them in the 1920s. I now offer it here for use (the Hebrew text came out backwards, unfortunately). The historical background text is below, but to do an actual seder, one must download the Haggadah and follow the steps. Love live October 5778!

Download the Haggadah for a RED SEDER: to readto print

The celebration of Passover is traditionally associated with the spirit of freedom and independence. The seder ceremony features a special menu, the reading of the Haggadah (the retelling of the story of Exodus), songs, and even games. Passover is also the only Jewish celebration whose ritual requires dialogue between children and parents. All this creates an ideal basis for the introduction of new concepts in a popular, well-known format. By the end of the nineteenth century Jewish radicals in Poland, the United States, and Canada were employing the Passover seder for the promotion of political views as well as a way to criticize their opponents. Various political movements organized political seders in interwar Poland.

Soviet Jewish activists, too, did not miss the opportunity to use Passover as a propaganda tool. In 1921 the Central Bureau of the Bolshevik Party’s Evsektsii sent instructions to all local branches to organize “Red Passovers.” Popular brochures that came to be known as “Red Haggadahs” were published, specifying how to conduct the alternative celebrations. Many were written by local activists following a series of centrally directed patterns. One of these was the Komsomolishe Haggadah (Komsomol Haggadah), published in Moscow in 1923 by Moyshe Altshuler. Traditionally the start of Passover (an eight-day holiday during which the consumption of bread or leavened products and yeast is forbidden) is marked with the Bdikas khometz — a search for all remaining traces of leavened food, followed by its burning. In Altshuler’s Komsomolishe Haggadah, this ceremony was transformed as follows:

Ten years ago [in 1917] the working class of Russia with the help of peasants searched for khometz (leaven) in our land. They cleaned away all the traces of landowners and bourgeois bosses in the country and took power in their own hands. They took the land from the landowners, plants and factories from the capitalists; they fought the enemies of the workers on all fronts. In the fire of the great socialist revolution, the workers and peasants burned Kochak, Yudenich, Vrangel, Denikin, Pilsudskii, Petlyura, Chernov, Khots, Dan, Martov, and Abramovich. They recited the blessing: “All landowners, bourgeois and their helpers — Mensheviks, Esers, Kadets, Bundists, Zionists, Esesovtses, Eesovtses, Poaley Zionists, Tsaarey-tsienikes, and all other counterrevolutionaries should be burned in the flame of revolution. Those who are burned should not ever survive, and the rest should be given to us and we shall transfer them to the hands of the GPU.

The Komsomol Haggadah combines all enemies of the Soviet regime as khometz, and recommends burning them. Equating antagonists who were notoriously anti-Jewish, such as the commander of the White Army Aleksei Denikin, to Jewish Soviet opponents, such as Bundists or Zionists, was a popular method of Soviet propaganda. It was not important why or how but simply that they were portrayed as being equally obnoxious.

Haggadah shel pesakh (Story of Passover), cover from the second edition. Drawing by Alexander Tyshler. Moscow, 1927

Every seder ritual was transformed in the Soviet Haggadah. The traditional handwashing and blessing before the meal became a political statement:

Wash off all the bourgeois mud, wash off the mold of generations, and do not say a blessing, say a curse. Devastation must come upon all the old rabbinical laws and customs, yeshivas and khaydorim, that becloud and enslave the people.

Soviet ideologists saw a clear need to create viable alternatives to established rituals and holidays for Jews. They considered that, during the transition period, these rituals had to be based on Jewish traditions and then gradually lead to the establishment of completely new Soviet holidays. In the 1920s these holidays were used both as propaganda against the old religion and promotion of the new political system and ideology. The most notable attempt was the organization of alternative Passover and Yom Kippur celebrations. Continue reading

Moishe Postone, 1942-2018

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(Caricature depicting Postone on the left,
next to Karl Marx and Karl Liebknecht)

Yesterday morning I saw it announced across social media and on several sites, namely by Zer0 Books and Shades Magazine, that my former teacher Moishe Postone has died. I had known from friends close to his family that he was very ill, and heard they were taking him off life support this last weekend. So when news circulated that he had left us, I assumed it was fact and wrote the short tribute published here. Later, a fellow student of Moishe, Istvan Adorjan, contacted me to say the reports were false, and that he was still clinging to life (though probably not for much longer). Obviously, I did not intend to mislead anyone by passing along this information, since I believed it to be true, much less disrespect him or his loved ones.

As soon as I learned of the mistake, I tried to publicize as far as possible that Moishe was still alive. Many others had by then written premature obituaries, including Peter Frase of Jacobin, though he likewise went on to correct it. For some reason, Sebastian Budgen of Verso and Historical Materialism began alleging that that I’d invented the malicious rumor Moishe was dead, despite the fact Budgen had widely shared the false reports of his passing across multiple platforms hours before I even saw anything about it. Ironically, Budgen only learned Moishe was still alive at that point thanks to Brendan McGeever’s crosspost of my note. Nevertheless, he fulminated that I ought to be boycotted like “apartheid South Africa or Zionist Israel” (I can only imagine what Moishe would have said about that).

That the sad occasion of Moishe’s passing would be used by Budgen to perpetuate his silly beef with me is of course petty beyond belief, but it is not surprising, just as little as it should surprise anyone that sycophants hoping to get published by him would kiss his ass all over that status update. Regardless, I intend to dedicate the remainder of this post to the memory of Postone, without worrying about what these idiots might say. Jennifer Moran, a family friend, contacted me a couple hours ago to tell me she had just received a pastoral notice from the synagogue that the funeral will be held at Rodfei Zadek tomorrow. Goodbye, Moishe. You will be missed immensely.

When I attended his lectures on Capital almost ten years ago he was undergoing treatment for cancer, which was subsequently in remission. Apparently it came back. Still, if you haven’t read his groundbreaking contributions to the reinterpretation of Marx’s mature critique, you should do so without delay. His works in English and German can be downloaded below.

An interview with Postone, published almost exactly ten years ago, can be read following a photograph showing him visiting the grave of the Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse. For worthwhile critical engagements with Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination, see Loren Goldner’s appreciative “Critique of Pure Theory: Moishe Postone’s Dialectic of the Abstract and Abstract” (2003), Michael Heinrich’s somewhat captious “Too Much Production: Postone’s New Interpretation of Marx’s Theory Provides a Categorical Critique with Deficits” (2004), Chris Arthur’s “Subject and Counter-Subject” (2004), Slavoj Žižek’s sustained reading of it in Living in the End Times (2009), and Chris Cutrone’s “When was the Crisis of Capitalism? Moishe Postone and the Legacy of the 1960s New Left” (2014).

Marx after Marxism:
An interview with Moishe Postone

Benjamin Blumberg & Pam Nogales
Platypus Review 3 | March 1, 2008

 

BB: We would like to begin by asking some questions about your early engagement with Marxism and the impetus for your contribution to it. Very basically, how did you come upon Marx?

MP: I went through various stages. My first encounter was, as is the case with many people, the Communist Manifesto, which I thought was… rousing, and not really relevant. For me, in the 1960s, I thought it was a kind of a feel-good manifesto, not that it had been that in its own time, but that it no longer was really very relevant. Also, hearing the remnants of the old Left that were still around campus — Trotskyists and Stalinists arguing with one another — I thought that most of it was pretty removed from people’s concerns. It had a museum quality to it. So, I considered myself, in some vague sense, critical, or Left, or then the word was “radical,” but not particularly Marxist. I was very interested in issues of socialism, but that isn’t necessarily the same as Marxism.

Then I discovered, as did many in my generation, the 1844 Manuscripts. I thought they were fantastic… At that point, however, I still bought into the notion, very widespread then, that the young Marx really had something to say and that then, alas, he became a Victorian and that his thought became petrified. A turning point for me was an article, “The Unknown Marx,” written by Martin Nicolaus while translating the Grundrisse in 1967. Its hints at the richness of the Grundrisse blew me away.

Another turning point in this direction was a sit-in in the University of Chicago in 1969. Within the sit-in there were intense political arguments, different factions were forming. Progressive Labor (PL) was one. It called itself a Maoist organization, but it was Maoist only in the sense that Mao disagreed with Kruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin, so it was really an unreconstructed Stalinist organization. The other was a group called Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which tried to take cognizance of the major historical shifts of the late 1960s, and did so by focusing on youth and on race. It eventually split; one wing became the Weathermen. At first friends of mine and myself kind of allied with RYM, against PL — but that’s because PL was just very vulgar and essentially outside of historical time. But the differences I and some friends had on RYM were expressed tellingly after the sit-in. Two study groups emerged out of the sit-in, one was the RYM study group, called “Youth as a Class,” and the other I ran with a friend, called “Hegel and Marx.” We felt that social theory was essential to understanding the historical moment, and that RYM’s emphasis on surface immediacy was disastrous. We read [Georg] Lukács, who also was an eye-opener — the extent to which he took many of the themes of some conservative critics of capitalism — the critique of bureaucratization, of formalism, of the dominant model of science — and embedded them within Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. In a sense this made those conservative critics look a lot more superficial than they had looked beforehand, and deepened and broadened the notion of a Marxian critique. I found it really to be an impressive tour de force. In the meantime I was very unhappy with certain directions that the Left had taken.

BB: To begin with a basic but fundamental question, one that is very important for your work, why is the commodity form the necessary category of departure for Marx in Capital? In other words, why would a category that would appear to be, in certain guises, an economic category be the point of departure for a critique of social modernity capable of grasping social phenomena at an essential level?

MP: I think what Marx is trying to do is delineate a form of social relations that is fundamentally different from that in pre-capitalist societies. He maintains that the social relations that characterize capitalism, that drive capitalism, are historically unique, but don’t appear to be social. So that, for example, although the amazing intrinsic dynamic of capitalist society is historically specific, it is seen as merely a feature of human interaction with nature. I think one of the things that Marx is trying to argue is that what drives the dynamic of capitalist society are these peculiar social forms that become reified.

Continue reading

Yiddishland and beyond: Jews, nationalism, and internationalism

Jews have long been associated with socialist politics, either maliciously or adventitiously. Obviously I have no interest in lending weight to this association, as it’s more a matter of historical accident than any cultural or biological predisposition. Because I like to use this blog as a resource for readers, however, providing materials that are otherwise hard to find, I thought I’d post some documents pertaining to the issue. Without further ado, then:

Some of these are primary source memoirs. For example, those of the Bundist leader Vladimir Medem, the Bundist agitator Bernard Goldstein, and the Bundist-turned-Bolshevik-turned-Left Oppositionist-turned-Zionist Hersh Mendel. Others are essay collections, whether compiling the shorter works of a single figure like the “Marxist Zionist” Ber Borochev, founder of Poale Zion, or individual contributions by a number of authors (as in Jews and Leftist Politics). Other texts are more thematic studies. Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klineberg’s Revolutionary Yiddishland and Michael Löwy’s outstanding Redemption and Utopia are good examples of this. Historical overviews are also included, like Yoav Peled’s Class and Ethnicity in the Pale and Arno J. Mayer’s Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?

Needless to say, I don’t necessarily endorse the views espoused in the texts shared above. Indeed, many of them are at odds with each other. Zionism and Bundism are equally antithetical to me, insofar as I consider myself an internationalist opposed to nationalism in all of its forms. The politics of Medem and Borochov thus do not appeal to me, as interesting they may be as historical figures. Likewise, Traverso’s End of Jewish Modernity was deeply disappointing to me, as was Butler’s Parting Ways (and I entered that one with much lower expectations). Jews are not any more broad-minded or inherently universalist than any other group of people, and there is no “true diasporic essence” that can be somehow recaptured. For if the last seventy years have shown anything, it’s that Jews can be just as narrow and chauvinistic as any other nation.

Because the topic repeatedly comes up, I thought I might briefly address the relation of Jewish politics (to the extent one can speak of a single body of Jewish political thought) to the two rival orientations of the modern age: nationalism and internationalism. Jewish nationalisms flourished throughout Europe around the fin-de-siècle. Two main types may be distinguished: Bundism and Zionism. Whereas the former sought to establish a Jewish homeland wherever a sufficient concentration of Jews already lived, the latter proposed relocation to Palestine (or sometimes to Uganda). Each type was ideologically inflected by mainstream European socialism, though they deviated from its internationalist scope and outlook.

For whatever reason, Borochov’s Labor Zionism proved more cosmopolitan than Medem’s Bundism when it came to propagating international communism. Although he died in 1917, before the October Revolution, the followers of Borochov fought with the Red Army in much higher numbers than their Bundist counterparts. The image above, by the Polish constructivist Henryk Berlewi, features Yiddish text which reads “Workers of all lands, unite!” Quite clearly, the unnamed figure shown in between the floating suprematist shapes is Borochov (compare with the photo portrait before it). Likewise, the Hebrew of the next, above and below the stock Comintern image of the worker smashing the chains of the world, reads:

With the workers of Zion, to the struggle!
For a Histadrut that will fight!
For the sake of Socialism!
Left Workers of Zion,
The Borochovian opposition,
And “Non-Partisans”

Medem, in contrast with Borochov, was far more sympathetic to the Mensheviks than to the Bolsheviks. He reviled Lenin and Trotsky, suggesting the former suffered from megalomania.

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