Henri Lefebvre and Marxism: A view from the Frankfurt School

Le­fe­b­vre and con­tem­por­ary
in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx

Al­fred Schmidt
Frankfurt, 1968

In re­cent years the lit­er­at­ure that has ap­peared about, for, and against Marx and Marx­ism has in­creased to the point where it can hardly be sur­veyed. Yet it would be false to con­clude that the de­bate over mat­ters of con­tent has been ad­vanced. To the ex­tent that this lit­er­at­ure does not speak the lan­guage of the Cold War and at­tempt to es­tab­lish a du­bi­ous “counter-ideo­logy,” it pro­duces (as polit­ic­al sci­ence or Krem­lino­logy) works full of in­form­a­tion con­cern­ing the state of So­viet Marx­ist doc­trines in terms of their de­pend­ence on cur­rent polit­ic­al trends. To the ex­tent that Marxi­an the­ory it­self still enters its field of vis­ion, it is dulled by the fact that people (gen­er­ally fol­low­ing Karl Löwith) clas­si­fy it in the his­tor­ic­al tra­di­tion of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, or else re­duce it to an ahis­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of the prob­lem­at­ic of ali­en­a­tion in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts.

On the oth­er hand, the group of au­thors hon­estly in­ter­ested in the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of Marxi­an the­ory is ex­cep­tion­ally small. They are able to ab­stract from what still fre­quently passes for Marx­ism in the East­ern half of the world without deny­ing the ob­ject­ive sig­ni­fic­ance of the East-West con­flict for their thought. They have in­volved them­selves in­tens­ively with texts of Hegel and Marx, which by no means have fi­nally been dis­posed of, without fall­ing in­to the hair-split­ting on­to­logy — with its con­sec­rated body of quo­ta­tions — that is typ­ic­al for the post-Sta­lin­ist peri­od in So­viet philo­sophy. To this group be­longs Henri Le­fe­b­vre (who has re­cently be­come known in Ger­many through his acute ana­lys­is of Sta­lin­ism).1 His writ­ings are in­dis­pens­able to those who aim at an ad­equate (and there­fore crit­ic­al) un­der­stand­ing of Marx with­in the lim­its of the al­tern­at­ives that have been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the polit­ic­al arena: either call­ing dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism a “wa­ter­tight world­view” (Robert Mu­sil) or dis­miss­ing it out of hand as a product of the dis­cred­ited nine­teenth cen­tury.

If a pub­lish­er has de­cided to bring out an edi­tion of Le ma­té­ria­lisme dia­lec­tique,2 a work that ap­peared over three dec­ades ago, it is be­cause it has scarcely lost its ac­tu­al­ity — aside from a few points that needed cor­rec­tion. The philo­soph­ic­al dis­cus­sion of Marx­ism that began dir­ectly after the First World War with Ernst Bloch’s Spir­it of Uto­pia and Georg Lukács’ His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, and was es­pe­cially furthered by Karl Korsch, Her­bert Mar­cuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Ad­orno, broke off with Hitler’s seizure of power. There­fore, works on Marx from that peri­od, as well as those writ­ten in west­ern Europe in the late thirties, are still of great im­port­ance to us: not least be­cause those works ap­proached prob­lems in a way far more polit­ic­al and closer to real­ity than was pos­sible for the new West Ger­man at­tempts at an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx after 1945, which re­mained more or less aca­dem­ic. These were all es­sen­tially centered on the “young Marx” in whom the au­thors (Thi­er, Po­pitz, Fromm) wanted to see an “ex­ist­en­tial thinker.”

Since Le­fe­b­vre’s book also seems at first glance to be­long to the ex­ist­ence-philo­soph­ic­al, mor­al­iz­ing, and ab­stract an­thro­po­lo­gic­al school of in­ter­pret­a­tion, it seems ne­ces­sary to make the read­er some­what more con­vers­ant with Le­fe­b­vre’s in­tel­lec­tu­al de­vel­op­ment.3 Only on that basis can the cent­ral concept of “ali­en­a­tion” in his Dia­lect­ic­al Ma­ter­i­al­ism be un­der­stood and dif­fer­en­ti­ated from in­ter­pret­a­tions us­ing this concept in a sense al­most ex­actly op­posed to the Marxi­an one.

First, some dates in pre-World War II French philo­sophy. About the year 1930, the philo­soph­ic­al as­pect of Marx­ism began to arouse in­terest in France. At the same time, a broad gen­er­al re­ceptiv­ity to­ward Hegel, in­ter­woven with at­ti­tudes to­ward Kierkegaard, was an­nounced by Jean Wahl’s book, Le mal­heur de la con­science dans la phi­lo­soph­ie de He­gel. Wahl is in­clined to re­duce the rich­ness of Hegel’s work to the stage of the “un­happy con­scious­ness.” With this em­phas­is on the ro­mantic mo­ment in Hegel, it be­comes al­most im­possible to sep­ar­ate Hegel and Kierkegaard. Sub­sequently, the ap­pro­pri­ation of the ideal­ist dia­lectic is par­alleled by an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx’s early writ­ings in the light of Heide­g­ger’s Be­ing and Time. This pro­cess led to the birth of the French vari­ety of ex­ist­en­tial on­to­logy: to ex­ist­en­tial­ism. It was com­pleted between 1933 and 1938, years in which Al­ex­an­dre Kojève gave his now fam­ous lec­tures on the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Spir­it4 at the Ecole des Hautes Et­udes be­fore stu­dents such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Mer­leau-Ponty, Ray­mond Aron, and R. P. Fes­sard. These lec­tures fol­low the same ques­tion­able lines as Wahl and see ac­cess to Hegel’s en­tire oeuvre in a single level of con­scious­ness. With Kojève, it is the much-com­men­ted-on chapter “De­pend­ence and In­de­pend­ence of Self-Con­scious­ness: Lord­ship and Bond­age.” Al­though he wants his in­ter­pret­a­tion of Hegel to be con­sidered “Marx­ist,” he does not fo­cus on Marx’s ma­ter­i­al­ist “in­ver­sion” of the dia­lectic. Rather, as Fetscher em­phas­izes, Kojève already sees in the phe­nomen­o­lo­gic­al dia­lectic it­self “all the ul­ti­mate con­sequences of the Marx­ist philo­sophy of his­tory.”5 Thus “mo­tifs of thought” that first arose from Marx’s cri­tique of Hegel are ascribed to Hegel. But even Marx’s po­s­i­tion is not done justice, since Kojève lags be­hind his claim that one should el­ev­ate one­self to real his­tory, that is, to the con­crete forms of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, which are de­term­ined dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent mo­ments in time. In­stead, he is sat­is­fied with the sterile defin­i­tion of a Heide­g­geri­an “his­tor­icity of ex­ist­ence” that is sup­posedly present in the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Mind as an “ex­ist­en­tial”6 and rad­ic­ally “fi­nite”7 an­thro­po­logy. Ac­cord­ing to Kojève, the an­thro­po­lo­gic­al char­ac­ter of Hegel­i­an thought be­comes un­der­stand­able only on the basis of Heide­g­ger’s em­phas­is on “on­to­lo­gic­al fi­nitude,” al­though the an­thro­po­logy of Be­ing and Time (which Kojève as­serts in op­pos­i­tion to Heide­g­ger’s in­ten­tion) adds noth­ing new to that de­veloped by Hegel.

The sup­posedly broad­er “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al-on­to­lo­gic­al basis”8 with which Kojève wants to dote dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism is more li­able to re­duce it to a doc­trine of in­vari­able struc­tures. Not the least of the ways that this would de­vel­op is in strictly polit­ic­al terms. In­so­far as Kojève breaks the struc­tur­al ele­ments of the Mas­ter-Slave dia­lectic away from its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al back­ground (which must al­ways be thought of with it), he in­flates labor and the struggle for life and death in­to etern­al factors, à la so­cial Dar­win­ism. Stripped of every con­crete de­term­in­a­tion, man ap­pears as an es­sence “which is al­ways con­scious of his death, of­ten freely as­sumes it and some­times know­ingly and freely chooses it”; Hegel’s “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al philo­sophy” is viewed as “ul­ti­mately one… of death.”9 Ana­chron­ist­ic­ally, and thus in a way that fals­i­fies Hegel, Kojève equates the struggle for “re­cog­ni­tion” with a “fight for pure prestige.”10 Hu­man es­sence and know­ledge con­sti­tutes it­self with a de­cided “risk” of life. It is as if “self-con­scious ex­ist­ence is pos­sible only where there are or — at least — where there have been bloody fights, wars for prestige.”11 On the oth­er hand, it mat­ters little that he ab­stractly holds firm to the idea of the “realm of free­dom” that Hegel an­ti­cip­ated and that has to be real­ized by Marx­ism.12 It is a re­con­ciled con­di­tion that does not oc­cupy a situ­ation, in which neg­at­iv­ity (time and ac­tion in their present mean­ings) ceases, as do philo­sophy, re­volu­tions and wars as well: his “polit­ic­al-ex­ist­en­tial” an­thro­po­logy sharpened by “de­cision­ism” bears fas­cist­oid traces.13 If one starts from the premise that the Hegel and Marx ex­eges­is out­lined here was dom­in­ant in the France of the thirties, it be­comes clear that Le­fe­b­vre, even with all the un­avoid­able con­ces­sions to the spir­it of the times, took a path all his own. Op­posed to every on­to­logy, to the late-bour­geois as well as to the Sta­lin­ist ones, he de­veloped him­self in­to a crit­ic­al Marx­ist whose stand­ards grew out of a ma­ter­i­al­ist ana­lys­is of the course of his­tory. His aca­dem­ic teach­ers were hardly ap­pro­pri­ate to lead his thought in this dir­ec­tion. In Aix-en-Provence he stud­ied Au­gustine and Pas­cal14 with the lib­er­al Cath­ol­ic Maurice Blondel, and at the Sor­bonne he worked with Léon Brun­schvig, the “in­tel­lec­tu­al­iste” philo­soph­er of judg­ment who was an en­emy of every dia­lectic. What made Le­fe­b­vre (by no means without con­flict) turn to Marx­ism had little to do with uni­versity philo­sophy. It was the polit­ic­al and so­cial up­heavals of the post­war peri­od, and more par­tic­u­larly per­son­al prob­lems, psy­cho­ana­lys­is, and as­so­ci­ation with the lit­er­ary and artist­ic av­ant-garde, the sur­real­ist move­ment.15 Lastly, it was the sus­pi­cion, which turned in­to a firm con­vic­tion, that philo­sophy as it had been handed down to us had demon­strated that it in­creas­ingly was less able to come to grips with, not to men­tion mas­ter, the prob­lems posed by the his­tor­ic­al situ­ation of be­ing and con­scious­ness in so­ci­ety. At this point, the call of Marx and En­gels, in their early writ­ings, for the “neg­a­tion” of philo­sophy and the turn to­ward a prax­is “which would real­ize philo­soph­ic­al in­sight,” seemed to of­fer it­self to him. A pos­sib­il­ity seemed to open up, not only of more or less ar­tic­u­lately mir­ror­ing the frag­ment­a­tion de­vel­op­ing in mod­ern ex­ist­ence — the way it happened in ir­ra­tion­alist ideo­lo­gies — but of grasp­ing it con­cretely, that is, as something which could be tran­scen­ded.

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An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death".  An undated archive photograph shows Auschwitz II-Birkenau's main guard house which prisoners called "the gate of death" and the railway with the remains of abandoned crockery. The railway, which was built in 1944, was the last stop for the trains bringing Jews to the death camp. REUTERS/HO-AUSCHWITZ MUSEUM

“Everyone’s a victim”: Relativizing Auschwitz with Adorno

Aus­chwitz was lib­er­ated 72 years ago today. In hon­or of In­ter­na­tion­al Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day, I am re­post­ing a re­cent art­icle by Ingo Elbe on a new book by Marc Nich­olas Som­mer. Elbe is au­thor of the ex­traordin­ar­ily thor­ough over­view Marx im West­en: Die neue Marx-Lek­tü­re in der Bun­des­rep­ub­lik seit 1965. The first chapter of this book has been trans­lated and pub­lished over at View­point, which every­one ought to read. He con­tac­ted me about this short re­view, and en­cour­aged me to re­pub­lish it.

Some brief com­ments of my own, be­fore pro­ceed­ing to Elbe’s art­icle. First of all re­gard­ing the act­ors. Read­ers of this blog will doubt­less be fa­mil­i­ar with Theodor Wiesen­grund Ad­orno, a mu­si­co­lo­gist and lead­ing crit­ic­al the­or­ist of the In­sti­tut für So­zi­al­for­schung. Günther An­ders, ali­as Stern, like­wise con­trib­uted to the In­sti­tut’s journ­al from time to time, though he was nev­er a mem­ber. An­ders was also the first hus­band of the fam­ous Ger­man-Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al philo­soph­er Han­nah Aren­dt. Like her (as well as Her­bert Mar­cuse, an­oth­er mem­ber of the Frank­furt School), he was a one­time stu­dent of the in­flu­en­tial Nazi pro­fess­or Mar­tin Heide­g­ger. In 1948, An­ders up­braided his former mas­ter in a scath­ing po­lem­ic “On the Pseudo-Con­crete­ness of Heide­g­ger’s Philo­sophy.”

Jean Améry, pseud­onym of Hanns Chaim May­er, was an Aus­tri­an es­say­ist based in Brus­sels, Bel­gi­um. Un­like either An­ders or Ad­orno, he sur­vived the Aus­chwitz death camp. Between 1962 and 1966, he wrote a series of re­flec­tions on his ex­per­i­ences there, com­piled un­der the title At the Mind’s Lim­its. It is a haunt­ing, angry col­lec­tion, not­able for its ab­so­lute un­will­ing­ness to for­give any­one com­pli­cit in per­pet­rat­ing the Judeo­cide. Philo­soph­ic­ally Améry in­clined to­ward Sartrean ex­ist­en­tial­ism rather than crit­ic­al the­ory. He was gen­er­ally un­im­pressed by Ad­orno, whose 1964 study of The Jar­gon of Au­then­ti­city he lam­pooned in his own 1967 tract, Jar­gon der Dia­lek­tik. Con­tem­por­ary the­or­ists who draw in­spir­a­tion from both Améry and Ad­orno — such as Gerhard Scheit, of the hard anti-Ger­man ISF and sans phrase — have at­temp­ted to re­con­cile the rift in rather tor­tur­ous fash­ion, seek­ing to es­tab­lish com­mon ground.

Elbe sides, some­what sur­pris­ingly, with Améry in this par­tic­u­lar dis­pute. That is to say, he be­lieves Améry is bet­ter able to grasp the spe­cificity of Aus­chwitz. Ad­orno is con­victed by Elbe of the very “iden­tity-think­ing” [Iden­ti­täts­den­ken] de­cried at length in Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics, set­ting up a false equi­val­ence between the de­lib­er­ate murder of European Je­w­ry by the Nazis at Aus­chwitz and the in­dis­crim­in­ate mas­sacre of Ja­pan­ese ci­vil­ians by the Amer­ic­ans at Hiroshi­ma. One aimed at an­ni­hil­a­tion, the oth­er at ca­pit­u­la­tion. Here I cer­tainly ac­know­ledge the valid­ity of the dis­tinc­tion Elbe is try­ing to make, but am less bothered by Ad­orno’s in­clu­sion of Hiroshi­ma along­side Aus­chwitz (one could men­tion any num­ber of oth­er at­ro­cit­ies) as an ex­ample of the un­par­alleled bar­bar­ism of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, fol­low­ing the fail­ure to tran­scend cap­it­al in its open­ing dec­ades. Stal­in’s GU­Lag ar­chipelago dis­turbs me just as much, if not more, des­pite the fact they were nev­er meant to ex­term­in­ate the in­mates. For they rep­res­en­ted the be­tray­al of com­mun­ism, which was at least sup­posed to prom­ise a bet­ter world, as Primo Levi poin­ted out, where­as with fas­cism the con­cen­tra­tion camps fol­lowed from first prin­ciples.

Per­haps this is in­dic­at­ive of a broad­er dis­agree­ment between Elbe and my­self, and by ex­ten­sion Améry. While I am awake to the dangers of left an­ti­semit­ism, I do not be­lieve that any and all op­pos­i­tion to Is­rael is an­ti­semit­ic. Améry’s charge that anti-Zion­ism had be­come “the re­spect­able an­ti­semit­ism” by the 1970s may ring true in some in­stances, and he provides sev­er­al com­pel­ling ex­amples where this is the case. (Just a couple weeks ago, a Ger­man court ruled that torch­ing a syn­agogue near Düsseldorf is a le­git­im­ate form of anti-Zion­ist protest). Yet I be­lieve that it is pos­sible to op­pose the Zion­ism with­in an anti-na­tion­al­ist frame­work which does not view it as ex­cep­tion­al, the his­tor­ic­al pe­cu­li­ar­it­ies not­with­stand­ing. However, I do share Elbe’s dis­may at the cheer­lead­ing that fre­quently goes on among West­ern left­ists for Is­lam­ist groups that spout some brand of anti-im­per­i­al­ist rhet­or­ic. So there is prob­ably a great deal we’d agree on. En­joy his art­icle.

adorno-sitting-copy jean-amery-foto

“The world as a concentration camp”

Ingo Elbe

…re­du­cing tor­ment­or and tor­men­ted to the com­mon de­nom­in­at­or “vic­tims,” by means of a dia­lect­ic­al pi­rou­ette.

— Jean Améry1

In his book The Concept of Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics,2 Marc Nich­olas Som­mer claims to re­con­struct Theodor Ad­orno’s neg­at­ive philo­sophy of his­tory as a “philo­sophy of his­tory from the view­point of the vic­tims” (294). Som­mer sug­gests, fol­low­ing Ad­orno,3 that “since World War II every sub­ject” has be­come “a po­ten­tial vic­tim of his­tory” (295). “Every single one” could now “po­ten­tially” ex­per­i­ence him­self as a vic­tim of “the ut­most ex­treme” [„des Äu­ßers­ten“] (295). Con­cur­ring with Ad­orno, Som­mer defines “the ut­most ex­treme” as “‘de­lu­sion­al pre­ju­dice, op­pres­sion, gen­o­cide, and tor­ture.””4 Also in ac­cord­ance with Ad­orno, Som­mer some­times uses the phras­ing the “ever-present cata­strophe”5 (325) in­stead of the ut­most ex­treme. In­deed, Som­mer read­ily con­cedes “that not every single one ac­tu­ally ex­per­i­ences him­self as a po­ten­tial vic­tim” (325) and in­so­far per­haps people liv­ing in more or less func­tion­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al states have bet­ter pro­tec­tion against “the ut­most ex­treme” than those liv­ing in au­thor­it­ari­an states and un­der dic­tat­or­ships, but — and this is his main ar­gu­ment — “with the nuc­le­ar bomb a new power has ap­peared,” mak­ing the “ut­most ex­treme” pos­sible for every per­son. In agree­ment with Günther An­ders he refers to his dia­gnos­is that “‘the threat of nuc­le­ar war […] trans­forms the world in­to a hope­less con­cen­tra­tion camp‘“6(325). Som­mer uses the term “con­cen­tra­tion camps” for be­ing at the mercy of the “ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards,” for the ir­rel­ev­ance of one’s own be­ha­vi­or re­gard­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er one be­comes a vic­tim or not, and for a not fur­ther spe­cified ex­term­in­a­tion. Fur­ther de­tails are not giv­en. Else­where, he uses the term “Aus­chwitz” in­stead of “con­cen­tra­tion camp” (or simply “camp”). Som­mer defines the term Aus­chwitz — once again in ref­er­ence to Ad­orno — as “‘ad­min­is­trat­ive murder of mil­lions.””7 With the nuc­le­ar bomb the “ex­per­i­ence of camp in­mates” has been gen­er­al­ized, “that the dis­aster of the ar­bit­rar­i­ness of the guards can be­fall them at any giv­en time, re­gard­less of their be­ha­vi­or.” The nuc­le­ar bomb trans­forms the world in­to a con­cen­tra­tion camp be­cause it con­stantly threatens us with the pos­sib­il­ity of total ex­term­in­a­tion — re­gard­less of how we be­have.” (295f.)

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Once again on the term “identitarian”

An­gela Mitro­poulos, an Aus­trali­an aca­dem­ic and au­thor of Con­tract and Con­ta­gion: From Bi­opol­it­ics to Oiko­nomia, re­cently pos­ted a note on her blog about the ori­gins of the term “iden­tit­ari­an­ism.” This is something that’s come up at dif­fer­ent points in de­bates over the past few years, in­clud­ing the con­tro­versy sparked by the late Mark Fish­er’s art­icle “Ex­it­ing the Vam­pire Castle,” so I thought it might be ger­mane to treat the is­sue at great­er length. Mitro­poulos dir­ectly in­ter­vened in that de­bate against Fish­er, moreover, so it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to en­gage with her at that level as well.

“Iden­tit­ari­an­ism” is an un­for­tu­nate word, for sev­er­al reas­ons. First of all, it’s an awk­ward and off-put­ting con­struc­tion. Ugly neo­lo­gisms — phrases like “pluriver­sal trans­mod­ern­ity,” “phal­lo­go­centric on­to­theo­logy,” “de­co­lo­ni­al epi­stem­o­logy,” etc. — are these days sadly all too com­mon. Second, it’s a poly­semous ex­pres­sion, sig­ni­fy­ing more than one thing. Of­ten it refers to things which are not just dis­tinct from one an­oth­er but even op­pos­ite in mean­ing, a prob­lem I’ve writ­ten about be­fore. Lastly, it has both pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive con­nota­tions de­pend­ing on what’s meant and who’s us­ing it.

Hope­fully, this will be­come clear in what fol­lows. Re­turn­ing to Mitro­poulos’ entry, men­tioned at the out­set, we find:

Ad­orno coined the term “iden­tit­ari­an­ism” in Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics (1966), promp­ted by cri­tique of Kan­tian and Hegel­i­an philo­sophies.

The ar­gu­ment, very briefly, goes something like this: Like Hegel, Ad­orno re­jec­ted the man­ner of Kant’s dis­tinc­tion between nou­men­al and phe­nom­en­al forms. Put simply, Ad­orno gran­ted Hegel’s claim con­cern­ing the his­tor­ic­ally- and con­cep­tu­ally-gen­er­at­ive qual­it­ies of non-cor­res­pond­ence, but wanted to press Marx’s cri­tique of philo­soph­ic­al ideal­ism fur­ther against Hegel­i­an Marx­ism. Ad­orno re­mains a dia­lec­tician. But, un­like Hegel and more like Marx, he es­chewed the af­firm­at­ive, syn­thet­ic moves of con­scious­ness (i.e., philo­soph­ic­al ideal­ism) and ac­cor­ded epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al-his­tor­ic­al pri­or­ity to the ob­ject (mat­ter, ma­ter­i­al­ism) rather than the sub­ject (ideal­ism) in ex­plain­ing the course of this gen­er­at­ive, non-cor­res­pond­ence (or non-iden­tity). Iden­tit­ari­an­ism and the ideal­ist philo­sophies of Kant and Hegel are thereby con­tras­ted to a ma­ter­i­al­ist philo­sophy of non-cor­res­pond­ence, or what Ad­orno calls “neg­at­ive dia­lectics.”

How it happened that “iden­tit­ari­an­ism” came to be plaus­ibly used as a syn­onym for “iden­tity polit­ics” — or, more ac­cur­ately, co-op­ted by arch-iden­tit­ari­an Hegel­i­an Marx­ists against any em­phas­is on race, gender and/or sexu­al­ity, and in their de­fense of more or less ex­pli­cit ar­gu­ments that class is the a pri­ori or primary cat­egor­ic­al di­vi­sion of sub­stance — is a mys­tery to me.

Mitro­poulos dis­tin­guishes, in oth­er words, between the ho­mo­gen­eity as­ser­ted by lo­gic­al op­er­a­tions of equi­val­ence or iden­tity, which de­clare un­like things (A & B) to be alike (A = B), and the het­ero­gen­eity as­ser­ted by vari­ous iden­tity groups with com­pet­ing sec­tion­al in­terests, which de­clare them­selves dif­fer­ent from everything else. She in­dic­ates, quite cor­rectly, that the former was cri­ti­cized by Ad­orno in the six­ties, where­as the lat­ter has been cri­ti­cized by fig­ures like Ad­olph Reed, Wal­ter Benn Mi­chaels, Nancy Fraser, and Mark Fish­er over the last fif­teen or so years. Continue reading


Protest politics in the age of Trump

So who else is mad as hell about the sym­bol­ic trans­fer of power between rival fac­tions of the bour­geois­ie? Remem­ber all the demon­stra­tions that spon­tan­eously broke out eight years ago, when Barack Obama was first in­aug­ur­ated? And then the acute sense of out­rage we sus­tained throughout his two terms in of­fice, hold­ing reg­u­lar protests as the gov­ern­ment he over­saw de­por­ted a re­cord num­ber of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants?

Oh wait…

None of that ever happened. In fact, the first is­sue of In­ter­na­tion­al So­cial­ist Re­view re­leased dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency fea­tured one of his 2008 cam­paign slo­gans: “Yes we can!” Des­pite the fact his for­eign policy plat­form was vir­tu­ally identic­al to that of his pre­de­cessor (save some stuff about shift­ing fo­cus away from the Middle East, to­ward East Asia), and al­though do­mest­ic­ally he merely fol­lowed through on Bush’s bail­out of the banks, most self-de­scribed Marx­ists sat back and cheered to them­selves as Obama was sworn in. The lead ed­it­or­i­al an­nounced that

the elec­tion of Barack Hus­sein Obama as forty-fourth pres­id­ent of the United States is a wa­ter­shed event. In a coun­try where Afric­ans were brought in chains, were slaves un­til 1865, where leg­al (or de facto) se­greg­a­tion was the rule, and where the ma­jor­ity of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans were not giv­en the right to vote un­til 1965, Obama’s elec­tion is his­tor­ic… En­gage­ment is the or­der of the day.

By con­trast, this same pub­lic­a­tion frowns upon any sort of en­gage­ment with the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Res­ist­ance” is the or­der of the day: “Let the res­ist­ance be­gin. The churn­ing fear and re­vul­sion swirl­ing in­side us as we watch Don­ald J. Trump take the oath to be­come the 45th pres­id­ent of the United States will be at least some­what bal­anced by the sat­is­fac­tion of watch­ing in­spir­ing and un­pre­ced­en­ted levels of protest rising up to greet an in­com­ing pres­id­ent…” Con­jur­ing up the ghost of fas­cism, any­one who en­ter­tains the idea of en­ga­ging with the new pres­id­ent is branded a col­lab­or­at­or.

What’s so dif­fer­ent, though? You’d think that a Marxoid sect that traces its lin­eage to Len­in would re­mem­ber his fam­ous para­phrase of The Civil War in France (1871) in State and Re­volu­tion (1917): “Marx grasped this es­sence of cap­it­al­ist demo­cracy splen­didly when, in ana­lyz­ing the ex­per­i­ence of the [Par­is] Com­mune, he said that the op­pressed are al­lowed once every few years to de­cide which par­tic­u­lar rep­res­ent­at­ives of the op­press­ing class shall rep­res­ent and repress them in par­lia­ment!” Ob­vi­ously it would be folly to ar­gue that both ma­jor Amer­ic­an parties are identic­al. Yet neither rep­res­ents the in­terests of the work­ing class, so why en­gage with either? Continue reading


Journey back into the vampires’ castle: Mark Fisher remembered, 1968-2017

I nev­er met Mark Fish­er, but we cor­res­pon­ded of­ten via e-mail. And he was al­ways very en­cour­aging. Right after I wrote a scath­ing re­view of “con­fer­ence com­mun­ism” in early 2014, “The Ghost of Com­mun­ism Past,” Mark sent me the fol­low­ing: “Your piece on con­fer­ence com­mun­ism, sent to me by a fel­low ed­it­or, fairly well nails down what we hope Zer0 isn’t. We en­joyed it, happy new year.” Fish­er would of course de­part from Zer0, along with many of his peers, to found Re­peat­er Books later that same year. Nev­er­the­less, his com­mit­ment to an ac­cess­ible, non-aca­dem­ic but soph­ist­ic­ated Marx­ism was un­flag­ging.

Cap­it­al­ist Real­ism was his prin­cip­al achieve­ment in the realm of the­ory, the fruit of a long series of re­flec­tions and in­tro­spec­tion con­duc­ted largely on­line. In it he railed against “the slow can­cel­la­tion of the fu­ture” en­acted by post-com­mun­ist cap­it­al­ism. Tak­ing its cue from Jameson’s in­sight — no less true for hav­ing been quoted ad nauseam — that “it is easi­er to ima­gine the end of the world than it is to ima­gine the end of cap­it­al­ism,” Mark asked if there was “really no al­tern­at­ive” to the neo­lib­er­al re­gime of Re­agan and Thatch­er. Some of his mus­ings about men­tal health, which reg­u­larly fea­tured on his K-Punk blog, also ap­peared with cas­u­al bril­liance in this text:

The cur­rent rul­ing on­to­logy denies any pos­sib­il­ity of a so­cial caus­a­tion of men­tal ill­ness. The chemico-bio­lo­giz­a­tion of men­tal ill­ness is of course strictly com­men­sur­ate with its de­pol­it­i­ciz­a­tion. Con­sid­er­ing men­tal ill­ness an in­di­vidu­al chemico-bio­lo­gic­al prob­lem has enorm­ous be­ne­fits for cap­it­al­ism. First, it re­in­forces cap­it­al’s drive to­wards atom­ist­ic in­di­vidu­al­iz­a­tion (you are sick be­cause of your brain chem­istry). Second, it provides an enorm­ously luc­rat­ive mar­ket in which mul­tina­tion­al phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies can peddle their phar­ma­ceut­ic­als (we can cure you with our SS­RIs). It goes without say­ing that all men­tal ill­nesses are neur­o­lo­gic­ally in­stan­ti­ated, but this says noth­ing about their caus­a­tion. If it is true, for in­stance, that de­pres­sion is con­sti­tuted by low sero­ton­in levels, what still needs to be ex­plained is why par­tic­u­lar in­di­vidu­als have low levels of sero­ton­in. This re­quires a so­cial and polit­ic­al ex­plan­a­tion; and the task of re­pol­it­i­ciz­ing men­tal ill­ness is an ur­gent one if the left wants to chal­lenge cap­it­al­ist real­ism.

How much sad­der it all seems, read­ing these words now, in light of his sui­cide. Mark con­fessed in an art­icle for The Oc­cu­pied Times that he “suffered from de­pres­sion in­ter­mit­tently since [he] was a teen­ager.” Ob­vi­ously it would be pre­sump­tu­ous to con­clude that the miser­able state of left­ist dis­course had any­thing to do with his de­cision to end his life; too many oth­er factors might have been more im­me­di­ate or prox­im­ate. But it would be just as mis­guided to main­tain that this had noth­ing to do with Mark’s over­whelm­ing sense of des­pair in re­cent years, es­pe­cially since he so fre­quently lamen­ted the sorry place at which we’ve all ar­rived.

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Paul Mattick, revolutionary Marxist (1904-1981)

I’m not a coun­cil­ist. Of the two ma­jor streams of left-wing com­mun­ism with­in the Third In­ter­na­tion­al, the Ger­man-Dutch cur­rent formed around spon­tan­eous work­ers’ coun­cils and the Itali­an cur­rent formed around or­gan­ic party cent­ral­ism, my pref­er­ence is def­in­itely for the lat­ter. Though most mod­ern left com­mun­ist groups syn­thes­ize ele­ments from each, I con­sider Bor­di­gism far more com­pat­ible with or­tho­dox Trot­sky­ism than coun­cil­ism after 1930. Even more so than Bor­di­gism and Trot­sky­ism, I find Bor­diga and Trot­sky to be closer to one an­oth­er than to any of the ma­jor rep­res­ent­at­ives of coun­cil com­mun­ism.

Nev­er­the­less, I di­gress: By the end of the 1920s, the coun­cil com­mun­ist move­ment led by Ant­on Pan­nekoek, Her­man Gort­er, and Otto Rühle had taken its cri­tique of Bolshev­ism so far that it re­jec­ted the party-form of or­gan­iz­a­tion. Paul Mat­tick only emerged as a prom­in­ent fig­ure with­in this move­ment after this point, dur­ing his ca­reer in the United States. Al­though I do not find his polit­ic­al po­s­i­tions all that com­pel­ling, par­tic­u­larly his anti-Len­in­ism, I find his the­or­et­ic­al work to be of ex­cep­tion­al qual­ity. His short 1959 art­icle on “Na­tion­al­ism and So­cial­ism” de­serves spe­cial men­tion for in­sights like the fol­low­ing:

The second World War and its af­ter­math brought in­de­pend­ence to In­dia and Pakistan, the Chinese Re­volu­tion, the lib­er­a­tion of South­east Asia, and self-de­term­in­a­tion for some na­tions in Africa and the Middle East. Prima facie, this “renais­sance” of na­tion­al­ism con­tra­dicts both Rosa Lux­em­burg’s and Len­in’s po­s­i­tions on the “na­tion­al ques­tion.” Ap­par­ently, the time for na­tion­al eman­cip­a­tion has not come to an end, and ob­vi­ously, the rising tide of anti-im­per­i­al­ism does not serve world-re­volu­tion­ary so­cial­ist ends.

However, what this new na­tion­al­ism ac­tu­ally in­dic­ates are struc­tur­al changes in the cap­it­al­ist world eco­nomy and the end of nine­teenth-cen­tury co­lo­ni­al­ism. The “white man’s bur­den” has be­come an ac­tu­al bur­den in­stead of a bless­ing. The re­turns from co­lo­ni­al rule are dwind­ling while the costs of em­pire are rising. In­di­vidu­als, cor­por­a­tions, and even gov­ern­ments still cer­tainly en­rich them­selves by co­lo­ni­al ex­ploit­a­tion. But this is now primar­ily due to spe­cial con­di­tions — con­cen­trated con­trol of oil-re­sources, the dis­cov­ery of large urani­um de­pos­its, etc. — rather than the gen­er­al abil­ity to op­er­ate prof­it­ably in colon­ies and oth­er de­pend­ent coun­tries. What were once ex­cep­tion­al profit-rates now drop back to the “nor­mal” rate, and where they re­main ex­cep­tion­al, it is in most cases due to a hid­den form of gov­ern­ment sub­sidy. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, co­lo­ni­al­ism no longer pays, so that it is in part the prin­ciple of prof­it­ab­il­ity it­self which calls forth a new ap­proach to im­per­i­al­ist rule.

Mat­tick’s book-length es­say on Marx and Keynes: Lim­its of the Mixed Eco­nomy is also a clas­sic. Whatever their tend­ency, Marx­ists stand to learn a great deal from Mat­tick’s ideas and work. You can down­load some of his books, art­icles, and re­views be­low. Fe­lix Baum’s re­view of Gary Roth’s Marx­ism in a Lost Cen­tury ap­pears un­der­neath. Roth’s bio­graphy of Mat­tick can be down­loaded via Lib­Com.

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L’affaire Ciccariello-Maher: “White genocide” and beyond

George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s “off-col­or” joke about gen­o­cide over the hol­i­days has eli­cited a range of re­ac­tions on so­cial me­dia. In the week or so that’s elapsed since he sent out those con­tro­ver­sial tweets, sev­er­al cycles of pub­lic opin­ion have already run their course. Fol­low­ing the ini­tial op­pro­bri­um, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er was even re­buked by his em­ploy­ers at Drexel Uni­versity. This in turn led his sup­port­ers to gath­er sig­na­tures, ur­ging the ad­min­is­tra­tion not to rep­rim­and him fur­ther. Some be­grudgingly offered their solid­ar­ity, more as a mat­ter of prin­ciple than out of ap­prov­al for what he said. While they did not en­dorse his mes­sage, they be­lieved that ex­tra­mur­al polit­ic­al speech should be pro­tec­ted. Oth­ers en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally leapt to de­fend the ori­gin­al “white gen­o­cide” re­mark, al­though Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er in­sists he it made in jest, “not only on grounds of aca­dem­ic free­dom and free speech, but even more strongly on the basis of its polit­ic­al con­tent.” A few re­fused to provide him with any back­ing what­so­ever, cit­ing his fail­ure to do like­wise after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Par­is two years earli­er. Luck­ily, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er later re­vealed that he’d re­cently re­ceived ten­ure, so the whole af­fair proved rather a tem­pest in a tea­cup. His job was nev­er in ser­i­ous danger to be­gin with.

Nev­er­the­less, now that it’s over, it might be worth tak­ing a look at the vari­ous re­sponses to this im­broglio. Be­fore sur­vey­ing all these, however, I might as well lay my cards out on the ta­ble: I’m not a “free speech ab­so­lut­ist.” Un­der ex­traordin­ary con­di­tions — say, of re­volu­tion­ary civil war — some demo­crat­ic rights will likely have to be sus­pen­ded. Even un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, there are lim­its re­lated to li­bel, slander, and in­cit­ing a pan­ic. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, though, people should be able to say or write whatever the fuck they want. Trot­sky had it more or less right in his tract on “Free­dom of Press and the Work­ing Class” (1938). “Once at the helm [of the state],” wrote Dav­idovich, “the pro­let­ari­at may find it­self forced, for a cer­tain time, to take spe­cial meas­ures against the bour­geois­ie, if the bour­geois­ie as­sumes an at­ti­tude of open re­bel­lion against the work­ers’ state. In that case, re­strict­ing free­dom of the press goes hand in hand with all the oth­er meas­ures em­ployed in wa­ging a civil war: if you are forced to use ar­til­lery and planes against the en­emy, you can­not per­mit this same en­emy to main­tain his own cen­ters of news and pro­pa­ganda with­in the armed camp of the pro­let­ari­at… Yet in this in­stance, too, if the spe­cial meas­ures are ex­ten­ded un­til they be­come an en­dur­ing pat­tern, they in them­selves carry the danger of get­ting out of hand and of the work­ers’ bur­eau­cracy gain­ing a polit­ic­al mono­poly that would be one of the sources of its de­gen­er­a­tion.”

Colin Beckett, Corey Robin, and Richard Seymour

Verso Books published a con­cise sum­mary of the or­deal by Colin Beck­ett, which went over the timeline of events. Beck­ett con­cluded that “Drexel’s ini­tial re­sponse to com­plaints about Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er il­lus­trates that un­prin­cipled, PR-con­scious ad­min­is­trat­ors are eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by the slight­est hint of con­tro­versy,” and im­plored his read­ers to “re­main vi­gil­ant and make it more dif­fi­cult for uni­versit­ies… to cater to right-wing out­rage, real or fake, than po­lice the speech of its em­ploy­ees.” Jac­obin re­pos­ted Corey Robin’s call to “De­fend George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er” from his per­son­al blog, a reas­on­able enough piece, des­pite its praise for the as­so­ciate pro­fess­or’s “ex­cel­lent work on Venezuela and polit­ic­al the­ory.” With all due re­spect to Robin, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s stuff on Venezuela is lazy tripe. It amounts to little more than re­hash­ing the crudest talk­ing points pre­pared by the Bolivari­an re­gime. He once gran­ted an in­ter­view to Amy Good­man of Demo­cracy Now! in which jus­ti­fy Ma­duro’s jail­ing of Leo­poldo López, the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion lead­er, back in 2015. López was sen­tenced to four­teen years for fo­ment­ing un­rest and al­legedly plot­ting to over­throw the gov­ern­ment. Guess what evid­ence was presen­ted as proof of his crime? Yup, that’s right: prob­lem­at­ic tweets.

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circa 1960:  German born American architect Mies Van Der Rohe (1886 - 1969) on the rooftop of a skyscraper in Chicago.  (Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images)

Mies van der Rohe

Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe hardly needs any in­tro­duc­tion to read­ers of this blog, or in­deed to any­one more than cas­u­ally fa­mil­i­ar with the his­tory of twen­ti­eth cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture. Still, a few words might be in­cluded here for those who haven’t yet had the pleas­ure. He was the third dir­ect­or of the le­gendary Bauhaus art school, after the pi­on­eer­ing mod­ern­ist Wal­ter Gropi­us and the con­tro­ver­sial Marx­ist Hannes Mey­er. Des­cen­ded from stone­ma­sons, Mies entered the build­ing trade at a young age. Pri­or to his ten­ure at the Bauhaus, he was an ap­pren­tice along with Gropi­us in the stu­dio of Peter Behrens, who also later su­per­vised a Swiss prodigy by the name of Charles-Édouard Jean­ner­et (ali­as Le Cor­busier). Un­der the Ger­man mas­ter’s tu­tel­age, Mies gained an en­dur­ing ap­pre­ci­ation for the Prus­si­an clas­si­cist Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Be­sides Behrens, the oth­er mod­ern in­flu­ence on Mies dur­ing this early phase of his ca­reer was the Dutch­man Hendrik Pet­rus Ber­lage, through whom Europe learned of the ground­break­ing designs of Frank Lloyd Wright in Amer­ica.

Mies’ turn to full-fledged mod­ern­ism came in the 1920s, after he came in­to con­tact with Kurt Schwit­ters and oth­er mem­bers of the in­ter­na­tion­al av­ant-garde. Al­though his com­mis­sions earli­er in the dec­ade still came from cli­ents whose taste was rather more tra­di­tion­al, Mies nev­er­the­less began writ­ing bold art­icles and mani­fes­tos for the con­struct­iv­ist journ­al G. Oth­er con­trib­ut­ors to this peri­od­ic­al were artists and crit­ics such as El Lis­sitzky, Wern­er Gräff, and Wal­ter Ben­jamin. Jean-Louis Co­hen, au­thor of The Fu­ture of Ar­chi­tec­ture (2012), de­tails the vari­ous ex­per­i­ments Mies con­duc­ted around this time. In 1926, he was se­lec­ted to design the monu­ment to Rosa Lux­em­burg and Karl Lieb­knecht in Ber­lin. Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of the 1927 Wießenhof ex­hib­i­tion, spear­headed by Mies, a num­ber of more dar­ing projects now opened them­selves up to him. Villa Tu­gend­hat in Brno, Czechoslov­akia and the Wolf House in Gu­bin, Po­land were only the most fam­ous of these projects. In 1929, Mies was chosen to design the Ger­man pa­vil­ion for the world’s fair in Bar­celona, which re­ceived wide­spread ac­claim. You can read more about these works in an ex­cerpt taken from Alan Colquhoun’s his­tor­ic­al sur­vey Mod­ern Ar­chi­tec­ture (2002).

portriat-of-german-born-american-architect-ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe-1886-1969-as-he-sits-in-a-chair-in-his-home-chicago-illinois-1956 mies-van-der-rohe_casa-de-campo-de-ladrillo-1924-mies-van-der-rohe portriat-of-german-born-american-architect-ludwig-mies-van-der-rohe-1886-1969-as-he-peers-from-between-a-model-of-his-26-story-twin-apartment-buildings-located-at-860-on-the-right-and-880-lake

In any case, just as Mies was be­gin­ning to make a name for him­self, Gropi­us asked Mies to step in and re­place Mey­er over at the Bauhaus in Des­sau. At the time, Mey­er was em­broiled in a scan­dal con­cern­ing his com­mun­ist sym­path­ies. He ex­ited, along with many of his left-wing stu­dents, to plan new cit­ies in the USSR. (Eva For­gacs has writ­ten ex­cel­lently about the polit­ics that sur­roun­ded this de­cision). With the rise of Hitler in 1933, Gropi­us’ icon­ic Des­sau build­ing was com­mand­eered by the Nazis and the school moved to Ber­lin. Mies’ choice to stay in Ger­many, and in­deed col­lab­or­ate with the fas­cist au­thor­it­ies, has been chron­icled at length by Elaine Hoch­man in her 1989 study Ar­chi­tects of For­tune. Co­hen dis­misses this book as a bit of journ­al­ist­ic sen­sa­tion­al­ism, but its charges are worth tak­ing ser­i­ously. Sibyl Mo­holy-Nagy, for her part, nev­er for­gave him for this. “When [Mies] ac­cep­ted the com­mis­sion for the Reichs­bank in Ju­ly 1933, after the com­ing to power of Hitler, he was a trait­or to all of us and to everything we had fought for,” she wrote. In a 1965 let­ter, she fur­ther re­but­ted the his­tor­i­an Henry-Rus­sell Hitch­cock:

Mies van der Rohe seemed to be wholly a part of that slow death when he fi­nally ar­rived in this coun­try in 1937. His first scheme for the cam­pus of the Illinois In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy is pain­fully re­min­is­cent of his deadly fas­cist designs for the Ger­man Reichs­bank, and the Krefeld Fact­ory of 1937 proved the old Ger­man pro­verb that he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas. Yet he was the only one of the di­a­spora ar­chi­tects cap­able of start­ing a new life as a cre­at­ive de­sign­er fol­low­ing World War II, be­cause to him tech­no­logy was not a ro­mantic catch­word, as it had been for the Bauhaus pro­gram, but a work­able tool and an in­es­cap­able truth.

Per­son­ally, I am in­clined to agree with the judg­ment of Man­fredo Tafuri and his co-au­thor Francesco Dal Co. Mies was for the most part apolit­ic­al; i.e., “not con­nec­ted with any polit­ic­al ideo­logy.” Either way, as Mo­holy-Nagy her­self noted, he en­joyed great fame and prestige throughout the post­war peri­od, in which he con­sol­id­ated the form­al prin­ciples of the in­ter­na­tion­al style of the twen­ties and thirties, des­pite his op­pos­i­tion dur­ing those dec­ades to form­al­ism or “prob­lems of form.” However, Tafuri was right to deny this ap­par­ent vari­ance: “There is noth­ing more er­ro­neous than the in­ter­pret­a­tion of Mies van der Rohe in his late works as con­tra­dict­ing the Mies of the 1920s, or the read­ing of his late designs as re­nun­ci­at­ory in­cur­sions in­to the un­ruffled realm of the neoaca­dem­ic.” In many ways, it was only dur­ing this later phase of his ca­reer that Mies was able to real­ize the pro­gram­mat­ic vis­ion he laid out between 1921 and 1923. One need only take a look at the apart­ments he de­signed in Chica­go or Lake Point Tower, posthum­ously real­ized by his pu­pils John Hein­rich and George Schip­por­eit, to see the em­bod­i­ment of the spec­u­lat­ive of­fice build­ing and the sky­scraper he en­vi­sioned back in the 1920s. Really, it is a shame that Mies’ sig­na­ture style has lent it­self so eas­ily to im­it­a­tion, be­cause the fea­tures which seem rep­lic­able con­ceal the subtler secret of their pro­por­tions.

At any rate, you can down­load a num­ber of texts which deal with the work of Mies van der Rohe be­low. Fol­low­ing these there are a num­ber of im­ages, sketches and de­lin­eations of vari­ous proven­ance (most come from MoMA’s col­lec­tion), as well as pho­to­graphs of both Mies and build­ings which were real­ized. Texts on Mies writ­ten by Co­hen, Colquhoun, and Tafuri/Dal Co fin­ish these off.

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Taking “leave” of their senses

What does the Brexit vote mean?

Mouvement Communiste
Kolektivně proti kapitálu
October/November 2016

The idea of hold­ing a ref­er­en­dum on Bri­tain’s mem­ber­ship of the EU began as a prom­ise by then Prime Min­is­ter Camer­on to the “Euro­skep­tic” right wing of the Tory Party in Janu­ary 2013.1 The Tor­ies won the gen­er­al elec­tion in May 2015 with an over­all par­lia­ment­ary ma­jor­ity so they had to go through with it. On 23 June 2016, a ma­jor­ity of UK cit­izens who turned out to vote (cer­tainly not a ma­jor­ity of re­gistered voters, much less a ma­jor­ity of the adult pop­u­la­tion), 52%, voted in fa­vor of leav­ing the European Uni­on.

The most im­port­ant thing to un­der­stand is that nobody ex­pec­ted the Leave vote to win, least of all the “Brex­it­eers” them­selves! Bri­tain’s ma­jor polit­ic­al parties were not pre­pared for it, and neither were most big com­pan­ies (des­pite the mod­ern fo­cus on “busi­ness con­tinu­ity” and “dis­aster re­cov­ery”). The con­sequences of this are that the Tory Party, the La­bour Party and even UKIP (the party whose whole rais­on d’être was Brexit) were thrown in­to crisis and the eco­nomy is sink­ing as un­cer­tainty delays in­vest­ment and com­plic­ates terms of trade.

The Leave vote can cer­tainly be seen as a kind of “protest vote” — this was clearly demon­strated by the fact that the “Leav­ers” didn’t ex­pect to win and had no idea what to do when they did! It can be seen as part of the rise of “right-wing ni­hil­ism.” In the 1970s it was punks, hip­pies, and an­arch­ists who said “fuck the sys­tem” without caring too much about what to re­place it with — now it’s dis­af­fected na­tion­al­ists and so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. An­ti­g­lob­al­iz­a­tion is the mod­ern “so­cial­ism of fools” (as lead­ing Ger­man So­cial Demo­crat, Au­gust Bebel said of an­ti­semit­ism).2 It’s an ideo­logy which really grew to prom­in­ence among the lib­er­al left in the 1990s, but now it’s in­creas­ingly the right — Trump, Putin, UKIP, Front Na­tionale, etc. — who are its stand­ard-bear­ers.

On a glob­al level, vic­tory for the Leave cam­paign is part of a wider tend­ency to­wards eco­nom­ic pro­tec­tion­ism and isol­a­tion­ism (ac­com­pan­ied by big­ger or smal­ler doses of ra­cism and xeno­pho­bia) fa­cil­it­ated by a rise of polit­ic­al “pop­u­lists”3 — “pop­u­list” in the sense of just spout­ing a col­lec­tion of crowd-pleas­ing slo­gans with no con­crete pro­gram ad­dress­ing either the ma­ter­i­al con­cerns of their fol­low­ers or the prob­lems faced by cap­it­al ac­cu­mu­la­tion.

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Bookchin and Marx

“The fu­ture in­stead of the past”?

Reid Kane Kotlas
Platypus Review 90
October 22, 2016


Originally presen­ted as a talk at the 2016 An­nu­al Gath­er­ing of the In­sti­tute for So­cial Eco­logy, held at the ISE com­pound in Marsh­field, VT between Au­gust 19-21.

Platy­pus as a project seeks to re­late to the con­tem­por­ary left by fo­cus­ing on the Left in his­tory. We do this be­cause we think one’s un­der­stand­ing of his­tory is in fact one’s the­ory of the present, of how the present came to be and what might be­come of it.1 We try to un­der­stand the left polit­ics of the present in light of what the Left has been, so as to pro­voke crit­ic­al re­flec­tion. Is the Left today liv­ing up to the leg­acy it in­her­its? Are we fall­ing short of the as­pir­a­tions of the past? Must we?

Mur­ray Bookchin of­fers a com­pel­ling case of the dif­fi­culty of reck­on­ing with his­tory. Bookchin’s polit­ic­al ca­reer was fun­da­ment­ally shaped by his edu­ca­tion in and ul­ti­mate dis­en­chant­ment with Marx­ism. He joined the “of­fi­cial” Com­mun­ist move­ment in 1930 at the age of nine. By the end of the thirties, dis­con­cer­ted by Sta­lin­ist lead­er­ship, he found refuge in the Trot­sky­ist move­ment. As the Second World War began, there was an ex­pect­a­tion that it would set the stage for a new wave of world re­volu­tion, re­quir­ing well-pre­pared re­volu­tion­ary lead­er­ship just as the Bolshev­iks had provided at the end of the First World War.

Yet Trot­sky’s judg­ment was not above re­proach among his sym­path­izers and sup­port­ers. Ques­tions lingered about his role in the de­gen­er­a­tion of the Bolshev­ik lead­er­ship that had cul­min­ated in Sta­lin­ism. These con­cerns were only com­poun­ded by his in­sist­ence that his fol­low­ers de­fend the So­viet Uni­on.

Bookchin was frus­trated in his ef­forts to win work­ers over to the cause of the Fourth In­ter­na­tion­al, find­ing them con­cerned only with their wages and work­ing con­di­tions. Trot­sky­ist op­pos­i­tion to the war proved a fur­ther obstacle due to pop­u­lar sup­port for the Al­lied cause. His frus­tra­tion with Trot­sky­ism as a prac­tic­al polit­ics would cul­min­ate in skep­ti­cism of the os­tens­ibly Marx­ist con­cep­tion of the work­ing class as es­sen­tially re­volu­tion­ary. His waver­ing was only en­cour­aged by the per­ceived dog­mat­ism of Trot­sky­ist lead­er­ship after Trot­sky’s as­sas­sin­a­tion.

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