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

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Lenin lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017

Introduction:
Marxism and the challenge of
counterfactual history
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Often Marxism is caricatured as a rigidly deterministic worldview, whose stress on the inevitability of social change allows no room for individual agency. Determinism needs to be carefully differentiated from fatalism, though, “which would leave us as passive spectators of phenomena in which no direct intervention is felt possible.” Voluntarism, or “the fond hope that one can speed up processes through the force of example and self-sacrifice,” lies across from it on the political spectrum. In fatalistic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of objective factors following with mechanical necessity, whereas in voluntaristic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of subjective factors brought about “by a gigantic effort of heroism and will.” Yet “Marxian determinism does not seek a compromise halfway in between,” the Italian communist Amadeo Bordiga maintained, “but dialectically and historically rises above them both.”1 His Hungarian colleague Georg Lukács put it succinctly: “Fatalism and voluntarism only appear contradictory to an undialectical and unhistorical mind.”2

Still, the charge of determinism — in the narrow sense, as a synonym for fatalism — has proven difficult to shake. Counterfactual narratives would thus seem a good test for Marxist theory, to see whether it grants that the past might have been otherwise: What if such and such had occurred, instead of this or that? Ex post facto reasoning of this sort does not carry much weight in historical research, to be sure. Necessity is a tricky enough concept even for philosophers, let alone historians, who are taught not to speculate if other possibilities were latent in a given set of facts. “One can always play a parlor game with the might-have-beens of history,” the British chronicler of the Bolshevik Revolution, Edmund Hallett Carr, opined, “but this has nothing to do with determinism, since the determinist will simply reply that the causes had to be different for things to have been different.”3 The source of Carr’s annoyance here was more specific, however, than any general objection to counterfactuals, and concerned the example often chosen as the basis for such conjectures: namely, what the world would be like if October 1917 never took place. As Carr saw it, the conservative motive behind this choice of topic was obvious, indicating a wish to reverse the results of the Russian Revolution.4

Lately, the Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek has also explored this theme of counterfactuality. Reviewing the essay collection What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians back in 2005, he underscored “the conservative sympathies of ‘what if?’ volumes.” Does this mean that, in order to avoid being labeled a conservative, one has to subscribe to a crudely deterministic vision of the past? In such a vision, whatever ends up happening is all that ever could have happened. Žižek rejects this premise emphatically, however, associating it with the vulgar Marxism of Georgii Plekhanov, Lenin’s onetime mentor. Plekhanov argued that there was a “deeper historical necessity” at work in the transition from Jacobin Republic to Napoleonic Empire in France, beyond the individual traits of Napoleon. Yet this raises the issue of whether something similar was going on in the shift from Bolshevism to Stalinism in post-1917 Russia:

For many, the rise of Stalinism was necessary… such that without Stalin, or in the case of his premature death, another leader would have played the role: maybe even Trotsky, his great rival. But for Trotskyists, as for others (e.g., Kotkin), the role of Stalin’s contingent person was crucial: no Stalinism without Stalin. Had he suddenly disappeared from the scene in the early 1920s, things like the forced collectivization of agriculture and “the construction of socialism in one country” would never have taken place. Was the rise of Stalinism simply an accident, then? In other words, the actualization of just one of the historical possibilities lying dormant after the Bolsheviks’ victory?5

One could extend this argument further, however, pointing out that a political phenomenon like Stalinism perhaps resulted from the fact that revolution failed to spread westward, which left Russia isolated and hence vulnerable to capitalist encirclement. Minor details might have been different if someone else succeeded Lenin, but the overall effect largely the same. This begs the question of whether the fate of the Russian Revolution ultimately depended on the success or failure of the German Revolution in 1919. Adorno later mused that “[h]ad things gone otherwise here in 1919, the potential existed to influence developments in Russia and with great probability prevent Stalinism.”6 Such hypotheticals may seem an idle exercise, or an attempt to save face after the fact, but with the centenary of October 1917 approaching it is opportune to reflect. Žižek, for his part, suggests that “a properly dialectical relationship between necessity and contingency… cannot change the past causally, retroactively undoing what happened at the level of facts, yet it can do so counterfactually, retrospectively altering what happened at the level of meaning.”7

Endnotes, a communist theoretical journal located in Britain and the United States, does not indulge such second-guessing when it comes to the history of failed revolutions. “When we address the question of these failures, we cannot resort to ‘what if’ counterfactuals,” the authors indicate in their inaugural issue, “blaming the defeat of revolutionary movements on everything (bad leaders, inadequate organization, wrong ideas, unripe conditions) other than the movements themselves in their determinate content.”8 But if their defeat was somehow preordained — written in the stars or the historic constellation of forces, as it were — then it is futile to do more than just report the facts. These movements failed because they were bound to fail. Nothing could have been different, so it is impossible to assign responsibility to anyone involved. Interpretations which see failure as the consequence of “betrayal,” “loss of nerve,” or even “miscalculation” are no doubt dissatisfying. Precisely because revolutionaries aspire to historical agency, however, seeking to make history rather than simply be made by history, they must be held accountable for their failings. For this very reason, moreover, one finds them preoccupied with the judgment of posterity, which leads to one of Žižek’s more ingenious reversals:

Seeing as the non-occurrence of the Bolshevik Revolution is a favorite topic for all the “what if?” historians, it is worth looking at how Lenin himself related to counterfactuality. He was as far as could be from any reliance on “historical necessity.” Quite the contrary, his Menshevik opponents were the ones who emphasized the impossibility of omitting one of the “stages” prescribed by historical determinism: first bourgeois-democratic, then proletarian revolution. And so when Lenin claimed this was the Augenblick in his “April Theses” of 1917 — i.e., the unique opportunity to start a revolution — his proposal was at first met with contempt and stupefaction from a large majority of his colleagues. Yet he understood that this chance had been made possible by a variety of circumstances, and that the propitious moment might be forfeited if it was not seized, perhaps for decades. Lenin entertained the alternative scenario: What if we do not act now? It was his acute awareness of the catastrophic consequences of not acting which impelled him to act.9

Žižek forgets, though, that the negative impulsion to act in this example is just another form of historical necessity, what Marx referred to as “absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of theoretical necessity.”10 This counterfactual injunction is likely what Lukács had in mind when he claimed in 1919: “Lenin and Trotsky, as truly orthodox, dialectical Marxists, paid little attention to so-called ‘facts,’ blind to the ‘fact’ the Germans had won, and secured for themselves the military means to march into Petrograd at any time, occupy Ukraine, and so on. Because they grasped the necessary materialization of world revolution, they adjusted their actions to this reality, not the ‘facts’.”11 Marxists regard freedom as insight [Einsicht] into necessity, following Hegel and Spinoza, an accurate appraisal of what must be done in order to liberate mankind.

Gregor Baszak’s short review of the 2017 alternative history Lenin Lives!, by Philip Cuncliffe, follows the notes to this introduction. I am told that Cuncliffe thanks me in the acknowledgments, which is rather unexpected and frankly humbling. Either way, I hope to pick up a copy soon.

Introductory notes


1 Amadeo Bordiga. “The Lyons Theses: Draft Theses for the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Italy.” L’Unità. (January 1926). Translator not listed.
2 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (second version). Translated by Rodney Livingstone. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1973). Pg. 4.
3 E.H. Carr. What is History? (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 97.
4 “Last term here in Cambridge I saw a talk advertised under the title ‘Was the Russian Revolution Inevitable?’ If I had seen a talk advertised on ‘Were the Wars of the Roses Inevitable?’, though, I’d at once have suspected some joke. Historians write of the Norman Conquest or American War of Independence as if what happened was in fact bound to happen. Nobody accuses them of being determinists or of failing to discuss the possibility that William the Conqueror or the American patriots might have been defeated. Whenever I write about the Russian Revolution of 1917 in precisely this way, however — the only proper way, for the historian — I come under attack for depicting what happened as something bound to happen, and for failing to examine the other things which might have happened. Suppose Stolypin had time to finish his agrarian reforms, it is said, or Russia had not gone to war. Perhaps the revolution would not have occurred. Or suppose the Kerensky government had made good, and leadership of the revolution assumed by the Mensheviks or Social Revolutionaries instead of the Bolsheviks… The point here is that today no one seriously wishes to reverse the results of the Norman Conquest or American Independence, so nobody objects whenever historians treat them as a closed chapter. But plenty of people who have suffered, directly or vicariously, from the results of the Bolshevik victory, or still fear its remoter consequences, desire to register their protest against it.” Ibid., pgs. 96-97.
5 See the section “Counterfactuals,” in Slavoj Žižek. Disparities. (Bloomsbury Academic Publishers. New York, NY: 2016). Pgs. 277-281.
6 Theodor W. Adorno. “Those Twenties.” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchphrases. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1998). Pg. 43.
7 Žižek, Disparities. Pg. 278. This is a better formulation than appears elsewhere in the book, where he tries to describe this relationship as “a contingent choice which retroactively becomes necessary,” coming dangerously close Lenin’s warning against dialectical “zigzags” or retroactive justifications.
8 Endnotes. “Bring Out Your Dead.” Volume 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century. (London, England: 2008). Pg. 4.
9 Slavoj Žižek. “Lenin Shot at Finland Station! Review of What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians.” London Review of Books. (Volume 27, № 16: August 2005). Pg. 23.
10 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer. Translated by Clemens Dutt and Richard Dixon. Collected Works, Volume 4: August 1844-late Autumn 1845. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 37.
11 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (first version). Translated by Michael McColgan, in Tactics and Ethics: The Question of Parliamentarism and Other Essays. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2014). Pg. 26.

Gregor Baszak
Platypus Review
November 2017
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Book Review:
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Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining
the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017.
Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2017.

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When President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord on June 1, 2017, for many liberals it meant that doom was upon us, that the earth was surely soon to be uninhabitable. Yet, if the Paris Accord was the best shot that our civilization had at survival, we were perhaps doomed from the start. NASA scientist James Hansen, at least, one of the earliest voices to raise the alarms about the effects of climate change, had deemed the Accord to be thoroughly inadequate to begin with.1

Here’s an alternative way in which the year 2017 might have unfolded:

It is an unseasonably warm November 2017 in Leningrad, although within planned temperature ranges. There is discussion among atmospheric engineers and climate planners whether to make minor adjustments to the cloud systems they are responsible for in order to reflect more sunlight away from the northern hemisphere, or whether to accelerate the construction of orbiting Lagrange space mirrors intended for longer term climate control.2

In this scenario, climate change is understood to be an administrative problem, albeit one that is administered by “climate planners” who consciously choose to set earth’s thermometer at a specific temperature range.

In the real world of today, Leningrad is St. Petersburg, Russia is governed by a neoliberal autocrat, and earth’s climate is out of control. The counterfactual history envisioned above was penned by Philip Cunliffe, author of the new book Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017, published by Zero Books. As the title suggests, the book imagines an alternative history of the twentieth century, one in which the October Revolution was soon followed by successful revolutions in the capitalist centers of the West, in England, France, Germany, and — the big prize — the United States.

Writing counterfactual history, Cunliffe notes, has so far been the domain of conservative revisionists. In one such infamous counterfactual, for example, Winston Churchill envisioned his dream scenario — the glorious ascendancy of a racialized Anglo-Saxon global empire, had Robert E. Lee only won the battle of Gettysburg (85). Yet, as Cunliffe usefully points out, the notion of “what if” appears to have been inscribed into the very project of Bolshevism itself, a project “self-consciously predicated on counterfactuals” (20; italics in the original). What, in other words, if Lenin’s plan that a revolution in Russia would provide the spark that would light the flames of revolution in Germany and elsewhere had actually succeeded? Lenin didn’t know quite what would happen in the wake of the October Revolution, but it was a gamble worth making. Human freedom required it.

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Georg Lukács, philosopher of Bolshevism

I’ve posted about Georg Lukács in the past: here, here, and here. Lukács’ excellent polemic against Kautsky, from 1924, was also featured. Though he was denounced in 1924 by the vulgarian Zinoviev, and later forced to recant, the arguments he laid out in History and Class Consciousness, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought, and his unpublished rebuttal Tailism and the Dialectic represent a high point in the history of revolutionary thought.

Victor Serge later recalled:

I held Georg Lukács in greatest esteem; indeed, I owe him a great deal. A former university teacher in Budapest, and then commissar to a Red division in the front line, Lukács was a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, and possessing a free-ranging and rigorous mind. He was engaged in writing a number of outstanding books that were never to see the light of day. In him I saw a first-class brain that could have endowed Communism with a true intellectual greatness if it had developed as a social movement instead of degenerating into a movement in solidarity with an authoritarian power. Lukács’ thinking led him to a totalitarian vision of Marxism within which he united all aspects of human life; his theory of the Party could be taken as either superb or disastrous, depending on the circumstances. For example, he considered that since history could not be divorced from politics, it should be written by historians in the service of the Central Committee.

One day we were discussing the problem of whether or not revolutionaries who had been condemned to death should commit suicide; this arose from the execution in 1919 at Budapest of Otto Korvin, who had been in charge of the Hungarian Cheka, and whose hanging afforded a choice spectacle for “society” folk. “I thought of suicide,” said Lukács, “ in the hours when I was expecting to be arrested and hanged with him. I came to the conclusion that I had no right to it: a member o f the Central Committee must set the example.” (I was to meet Georg Lukács and his wife later, in 1928 or 1929, in a Moscow street. He was then working at the Marx-Engels Institute; his books were being suppressed, and he lived bravely in the general fear. Although he was fairly well-disposed towards me, he did not care to shake my hand in a public place, since I was expelled and a known [Left] Oppositionist. He enjoyed a physical survival, and wrote short, spiritless articles in Comintern journals.)

Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Henri Lefebvre, and Guy Debord would not have been possible without the groundbreaking work of Lukács. You can download full-text PDFs of his assorted writings below. And then, below that, you can read a brief reflection by Lukács’ fellow Marxist and countryman G.M. Tamás, occasioned by the removal of a statue in Budapest earlier this year.

Writings by Lukács

In English
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  1. Selected Correspondence: Dialogues with Weber, Simmel, Buber, Mannheim, and others (1902-1920)
  2. “The Sociology of Modern Drama” (1909)
  3. Soul and Form (1910)
  4. Theory of the Novel (1914-1915)
  5. “The Old Culture and the New” (1920)
  6. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1920-1923)
  7. Reviews and Articles for Die Rote Fahne (1922)
  8. Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1924)
  9. Tailism and the Dialectic (1925-1926)
  10. “Art for Art’s Sake and Proletarian Writing” (1926)
  11. Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays (1919-1929)
  12. The Historical Novel (1937)
  13. Writer and Critic, and Other Essays (1930s-1940s)
  14. Goethe and His Age (1934-1940)
  15. The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics (1938/1948)
  16. Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Others (1940-1947)
  17. The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition (1945-1948)
  18. “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1948)
  19. German Realists in the Nineteenth Century (1951)
  20. The Destruction of Reason (1952)
  21. “Max Weber and German Sociology” (1955)
  22. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1957)
  23. “Reflections on the Cult of Stalin” (1962)
  24. “On Bertolt Brecht” (1963)
  25. “On Walter Benjamin” (1963)
  26. Essays on Thomas Mann (1963) [1909, 1936, 1948, 1955]
  27. “An Entire Epoch of Inhumanity” (1964)
  28. Solzhenitsyn (1964, 1969)
  29. The Process of Democratization (1968)
  30. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 1: Hegel’s False and His Genuine Ontology (1971, published posthumously)
  31. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 2: Marx’s Basic Ontological Principles (1971, published posthumously)
  32. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 3: Labor (1971, published posthumously)
  33. Record of a Life: An Autobiographical Sketch (1971, published posthumously)
  34. Selected Writings

In other languages
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  1. L’anima e le forme
  2. Die Theorie des Romans: Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die großen Formen der Epik
  3. Storia e coscienza di classe
  4. La letteratura sovietica
  5. Écrits de Moscou
  6. „Zur philosophischen Entwicklung des jungen Marx (1840-1844)”
  7. Thomas Mann e la tragedia dell’arte moderna
  8. Socialismo e democratização: escritos políticos, 1956-1971
  9. Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins. Die ontologischen Grundprinzipien von Marx

Writings about Lukács

In English
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  1. Victor Zitta, Georg Lukács’ Marxism: Alienation, Dialectics, Revolution — A Study in Utopia and Ideology (1964)
  2. Lucien Goldmann, Lukács and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy (1970)
  3. George Lichtheim, Georg Lukács (1970)
  4. István Mészáros, Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic (1972)
  5. Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (1976)
  6. Ágnes Heller, “Lukács and The Holy Family (1984)
  7. Constanzo Preve, “Viewing Lukács from the 1980s” (1987)
  8. Tom Rockmore (ed.), Lukács Today: Essays in Marxist Philosophy (1988)
  9. Moishe Postone, “Lukács and the Dialectical Critique of Capitalism” (2003)
  10. Michael J. Thompson (ed.), Lukács Reconsidered (2011)

The neverending Lukács debate

Gáspár Miklós Tamás
LA Review of Books
March 6, 2017
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Before 1914, Lukács’ early works were received with great antipathy by the literary establishment in Hungary; they were found to be too “German” — that is to say, too philosophical, not impressionistic and positivist enough. That was only the beginning, of course; from then on, Lukács would be attacked from the right incessantly, all his life. Lukács didn’t fare much better in leftist circles, either. When his most important book, History and Class Consciousness (1923), came out, it was savaged by both the Second and the Third International. It wasn’t to be republished until the 1960s. Lukács was given an ultimatum: if he wanted to stay in the Party, he had to repudiate the book and subject himself to self-criticism, which is what he eventually did.

He was harshly criticized in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Soon after he relocated from Vienna to Moscow, Lukács was exiled to Tashkent, and silenced. But in 1945, the Party needed him — or rather, his fame — in Hungary. He agreed to return there rather reluctantly; East Germany was also an option. After the dictatorship was established and consolidated in Hungary in 1947–1948, the “Lukács Debate” was launched in earnest: he was attacked as a “deviationist,” a “bourgeois,” as a man who did not esteem Soviet “socialist realism.” (Truth be told, he was indeed all these things.) He was again silenced, forbidden to teach or publish in Hungarian, but some of his work was smuggled out and printed in West Germany.

In 1956, Lukács was a member of the revolutionary Nagy government. That’s why he was arrested by the Soviet soldiers and temporarily deported to Romania. When he was brought back, he was expelled from the Party, blacklisted, and pensioned off. Once again, he had to smuggle his texts abroad, this time to West Germany, where Luchterhand Verlag began to publish his complete works (a project taken over by Aisthesis Verlag in 2009). A slander campaign was launched against him both in Hungary and in the DDR; he was now condemned as a “revisionist” and, possibly, “counter-revolutionary.” Entire volumes were dedicated to making this case; they were even translated into quite a few languages.

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Fredric Jameson after the postmodern

Jameson’s style invites derision. Russell Jacoby once described his manner of writing as “a peculiar American baroque” — i.e., “a gray mash of half-written sentences punctuated by tooting horns and waving pennants,” “confounding rigor mortis with rigor.” Essays by Jameson are frequently ponderous, convoluted, and opaque. No other writer is so emblematic of contemporary Marxism’s professorial bent. Densely allusive, with many meandering asides, what Jonathan Arac called “the deliberate scandal of Jameson’s method” consists in its casual comparisons of a whole range of thinkers from across the European philosophical tradition.

Alberto Toscano might be seen as the legitimate successor to this method, along with Benjamin Noys and the late Mark Fisher (though these latter two are much more fluid writers). The theoreticism of their texts often leads readers far afield of the topic at hand, but by and large returns from these divagations enriched by the journey. One of the most brutal send-ups of Jameson’s work came from Robert Hullot-Kentor, whose approach to translation was praised at the outset of Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990). In a polemical review of this same book, “Suggested Reading: Jameson on Adorno,” Hullot-Kentor painted a very unflattering portrait of its author:

Fredric Jameson is one of the great tattooed men of our times. Every inch of flesh is covered: that web of cat’s cradles coiling up the right calf are Greimas and Levi-Strauss; dripping over the right shoulder, under the sign of the Cimabue Christ — the inverted crucifixion — hangs Derrida. And hardly recognizable in those many other overlapping splotches of color is just about everybody else: Lyotard, Sartre, Habermas, et al. “All One, All Different” scrolls across the panoramic chest. In Late Marxism Jameson scouts carefully before setting portentious digit on a densely engraved quadrate of his left hip, Adorno! and falls into a roll: “Adorno you will notice is like Althusser, only more like Sartre, except the idea of totality, in my opinion, as I’ll say again later, differs from Rorty, coming back to Luhmann, like Marxism, late, very late, minus Hegel’s concept of time. Perhaps, maybe, almost… Take another look, another look, just not too close, please, ladies and gentleman, give the man room to breathe!”

Still, if one can get past all the offhand references Jameson makes, the experience can be quite rewarding. Late Marxism was perhaps an unfortunate target for such ire, however — yes, “perhaps.” Hullot-Kentor’s caustic criticism of this work, though doubtless deserved, could have just as easily applied to Postmodernism or The Political Unconscious, released a few years before. And while it is understandable that Hullot-Kentor, the celebrated translator and interpreter of Adorno, would take Jameson to task on this subject, it was nevertheless bold for anyone to publish a defense of Adorno’s Marxist credentials in 1990. Whatever its other shortcomings may be, and they are many, Late Marxism is noteworthy at least in this respect. Especially given the Anglophone reception of Adorno up to that point, which apart from Susan Buck-Morss and Gillian Rose either ignored his Marxism or exaggerated its heterodoxy.

Regarding the rest of Jameson’s vast corpus, the stuff on periodization is probably what interests me the most. Modernity, postmodernity, and everything that comes in between. Aijaz Ahmad was right, of course, to scold Jameson for his overreach when it came to Third World literature, and Adorno was right to be skeptical of so-called “revolutions” taking place in the Third World. The sheer scope of his theoretical reading — not to mention his focus on film, literature, and architecture — is astounding. You can download a number of his works by clicking on the links below. Full-text PDFs only, since I don’t like E-books (for whatever reason):

  1. Fredric Jameson, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961)
  2. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971)
  3. Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972)
  4. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981)
  5. Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory (1988, 2008)
  6. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990)
  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
  8. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (1992)
  9. Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (1994)
  10. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (1998)
  11. Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (1998)
  12. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002)
  13. Fredric Jameson, “Dialectics of Disaster” (2002)
  14. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005)
  15. Fredric Jameson, Conversations on Cultural Marxism (2007)
  16. Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (2007)
  17. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (2009)
  18. Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations: On the Phenomenology of the Spirit (2010)
  19. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (2011)
  20. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (2015)
  21. Fredric Jameson, The Ancients and the Postmoderns (2015)
  22. Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity” (2016)
  23. Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016)
  24. Fredric Jameson, “Badiou and the French Tradition” (2016)
  25. Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016)

Below you can read an excellent review of Valences of the Dialectic by Benjamin Kunkel, originally published by the London Review of Books (and subsequently included in the Jacobin collection Utopia or Bust). Kunkel’s reviews of individual books tend to be skillful, if sweeping, overviews of a thinker’s entire oeuvre, and this one delivers well as far as that goes. He’s correct, in any case, that Jameson is more of an essayist than anything else. Enjoy!

Into the big tent

Benjamin Kunkel
London Review
April 22, 2010
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Fredric Jameson’s preeminence, over the last generation, among critics writing in English would be hard to dispute. Part of the tribute has been exacted by his majestic style, one distinctive feature of which is the way that the convoy of long sentences freighted and balanced with subordinate clauses will dock here and there to unload a pithy slogan. “Always historicize!is one of these, and Jameson has also insisted, under the banner of “One cannot not periodize,” on the related necessity (as well as the semi-arbitrariness) of dividing history into periods. With that in mind, it’s tempting to propose a period, coincident with Jameson’s career as the main theorist of postmodernism, stretching from about 1983 (when Thatcher, having won a war, and Reagan, having survived a recession, consolidated their popularity) to 2008 (when the neoliberal program launched by Reagan and Thatcher was set back by the worst economic crisis since the Depression). During this period of neoliberal ascendancy — an era of deregulation, financialization, industrial decline, demoralization of the working class, the collapse of Communism and so on — it often seemed easier to spot the contradictions of Marxism than the more famous contradictions of capitalism, and no figure seemed to embody more than Fredric Jameson the peculiar condition of an economic theory that had turned out to flourish above all as a mode of cultural analysis, a mass movement that had become the province of an academic “elite,” and an intellectual tradition that had arrived at some sort of culmination right at the point of apparent extinction.

Over the last quarter-century, Jameson has been at once the timeliest and most untimely of American critics and writers. Not only did he develop interests in film, science fiction, or the work of Walter Benjamin, say, earlier than most of his colleagues in the humanities, he was also a pioneer of that enlargement of literary criticism (Jameson received a PhD in French literature from Yale in 1959) into all-purpose theory which made the discussion of all these things in the same breath established academic practice. More than this, he succeeded better than anyone else at defining the term, “postmodernism,” that sought to catch the historical specificity of the present age.

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Antifascism: Pros and cons

Saturday’s lopsided standoff between fascist and antifascist demonstrators in Boston, in which the latter outnumbered the former roughly a hundredfold, has been occasion for some relief among liberals scandalized by images of Charlottesville. I would caution against any overhasty optimism, however: Claudio Segrè, biographer of Mussolini’s heir apparent Italo Balbo, reminds us that the first Italian fascists were initially viewed as clowns in November and December 1920, fringe elements that could hardly be taken seriously. “They suffered from unsavory backgrounds and reputations,” writes Segrè, “not the stuff out of which to create a mass movement.” Just two years later they were in power.

Quartz reports that linguistic analysis of billions of Reddit comments has shown a marked increase in the use of alt-Right rhetoric and conspiratorial dog whistles (about “globalists,” “Soros,” “cultural Marxism,” and “Zionazis”). A suspect sample set, one might counter, but the numbers are suggestive either way. With Trump’s presidency spiraling out of control, losing far Right credibility with the bombing of Syrian airbases and the firing of Steve Bannon, its former supporters might look for new outlets to express their political discontents. Outlets other than the carnival sideshow of the 2016 Donald Trump campaign. But are more feelgood mass rallies like Boston really the answer to right-wing radicalization?

Fifteen years ago, massive antiwar marches took place in major cities across the US and around the globe. Impotently, they proclaimed “not in our name.” The invasion of Iraq happened anyway; the demonstrations did nothing to stop it. Participants in these marches could comfort themselves with the thought that their voices had been heard, but they weren’t really interested in stopping imperialism. Evidence of this can be seen in the near total collapse of the antiwar movement in 2008, as the various “soft fronts” of the ISO and FRSO — e.g. the ANSWER Coalition, whose members marched arm-in-arm with Howard Dean supporters and other Democratic Party pacifists — were liquidated into vegan bake-sales for the election of Barack Obama.

I’d similarly contend that most of the people who showed up in Boston on Saturday are not all that serious about stopping fascism. Most of them were liberals eager to reassure themselves that “we’re better than that,” with a meatspace analog to the #ThisIsNotUs hashtag that briefly circulated on social media. Gus Breslauer points out in a note for the Guy Debord Club of Houston that “communists are the only ones who can make fascism impossible.” Antifascism on its own is not up to the task, as we indicated in the previous post: Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. “Communists are the ones best equipped to effectively fight it if it continues to grow,” Beslauer continues, “since they are the only ones who can confidently say they not only want to destroy fascism, but all of what makes fascism possible.”

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Solidarity after Charlottesville

Like everyone else watching the Charlottesville protests, I was appalled by the violence and hateful rhetoric displayed by white nationalists over the weekend. I cannot, however, say I was surprised. Chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” as a group of fascists surrounded to defend a Confederate monument wielding Tikki torches (okay, I laughed a little at that) put the lie to the quaint notion that antisemitism is dead and gone in this country. Just like in the past, it seems to reemerge whenever there are economic anxieties and racial unrest, linked closely with anti-black racism as well as anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim xenophobia.

Emma Green made this point three days ago in an article which ran in The Atlantic: “Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiment have long been intertwined in America. When the Jewish factory worker Leo Frank was wrongfully convicted of murder and lynched in 1915, two new groups simultaneously emerged: the Anti-Defamation League, which fights against bigotry and anti-Semitism, and the second Ku Klux Klan, which began by celebrating Frank’s death.” Similarly, Eric Ward’s Political Research essay “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” forcefully argues that “antisemitism is not a sideshow to racism within white nationalist thought.” (It’s worth reading also for its insights into the early LA punk scene).

Regarding various “antis” like anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, readers of this blog will know I am influenced by the Bordigist critique of anti-fascism and the councilist critique of anti-imperialism. Nevertheless, this does not mean that fascism and imperialism are not to be opposed. If these political orientations are to be salvageable for Marxists at all, it is important to acknowledge most forms of actually-existing anti-fascism and anti-imperialism are awful. The best anti-fascists and anti-imperialists out there already admit this, of course, and know that in doing so they are not denigrating the lives that have been lost or the sacrifices that have been made.

Marx understood this well enough himself, writing in 1850: “Our task is that of ruthless criticism, much more against ostensible friends than against open enemies. And in maintaining this as our position, we gladly forego cheap democratic popularity.” Internationalist Perspective put out a good response a little while ago entitled “Antifa? No Thanks,” in which they claimed: “By framing the conflict as one between fascism and democracy, the partisans of antifa are making the first choice seem logical and necessary, and are thereby, despite their combativeness, acting as water carriers for capitalism.”

Horkheimer’s old adage from 1939 still rings true: “Whoever is not willing to speak of capitalism should keep quiet about fascism as well.” Gilles Dauvé’s debate with the British group Aufheben is worth revisiting in this context, in order:

  1. Jean Barrot [Gilles Dauvé], Fascism/Antifascism (1982)
  2. Aufheben, “Review of Barrot’s Fascism/Antifascism (1992)
  3. Gilles Dauvé, “Reply to Aufheben” (1998)

Opposition to fascism does not a communist make. The chorus of tweets from Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Nancy Pelosi, and other reactionaries condemning the white nationalists lend credence to Bordiga’s infamous quip that “the worst product of fascism is anti-fascism.” Politically, perhaps, it can be. Although I’d say that the human toll, the dead and brutalized bodies scarred by fascist goons, is fascism’s worst product in absolute terms. Going to the rally at Union Square on Sunday, there were a fair number of signs from the woke Democratic Party “resistance,” showing that class collaborationism indeed remains a real danger.

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On the Venezuelan crisis

With the global fall in oil prices, Venezuela’s fifteen-year experiment in “petrol populism” seems to be winding to a close. Either the regime will collapse in short order, or it will maintain itself through increasingly bloody and repressive measures, as Maduro’s claim to represent the interests of the people grows even more tenuous. George Ciccariello-Maher, a seasoned apologist of Chavismo in the United States, writes in an article for Jacobin that the “enemies” are the ones who are out there “in the streets, burning and looting.” Socialists, he contends, should be supporting the recent state crackdown on the protestors, which has already left 130 or so dead.

Pavel Minorski, a Croatian left communist and trustworthy comrade, comments that “[Ciccariello-Maher’s latest piece] is basic leftism. There is good capitalism and bad capitalism. Good capitalism is run by The People, bad capitalism by (((the elite))). Eventually, of course, people will revolt against good capitalism. But don’t worry, those aren’t The People. They’re malicious, deluded, or both. Here’s how national developmentalism can still win!” For anyone interested, “Dialectics and Difference: Against the ‘Decolonial Turn’,” my polemic against Decolonizing Dialectics by Ciccariello-Maher just came out, and can be read over at the Insurgent Notes website.

Michael Roberts’ analysis of “The Venezuelan Tragedy” paints a much bleaker picture. The numbers are just brutal. “Income poverty,” observes Roberts, “increased from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Venezuela’s three most prestigious universities.” Chávez, like every other leader who came before him, was content to rake in profits when times were good, i.e. when the price of oil was high, funding ambitious social programs with the profits as part of his wedge electoral strategy. He didn’t bother trying to diversify the country’s production, so when its sole export monocommodity plummeted in value, the whole country went tits up.

Sergio López of Kosmoprolet saw this coming as early as 2009. “21st-century socialism? Charitable kleptocracy! A kleptocracy, indeed, which is steering the country to its next economic and social crisis.” López noted then, at the pinnacle of Chavismo, the popularity of slogans such as “Chávez is the People!” and “President Chávez is a tool of God!” “Postmodern Bonapartism,” as Marco Torres dubbed Bolivarianism in a 2010 piece, is “a bricolage of thirties vintage pop-frontism together with nineties antiglobalization, molded upon sixties developmentalist Third Worldism.” Continue reading

The works of Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essay dedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”

Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (1976, 1980).

Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.” Continue reading

Red dwarf

My friend has started a weblog under the title Cold and Dark Stars. He actually treats it more like a blog than I do with The Charnel-House, which often just features reposted articles or else functions as an all-purpose image and long-form essay dump. The entries on Cold and Dark Stars are, by contrast, relatively short and easily digestible reflections on topics like love, science, and the indifference of global economy to local ventures like chicken farms and other small-scale projects.

In terms of the blog’s style, what I appreciate the most about it is its directness and lack of any pretense. Politically, I find its commitment to internationalism admirable. You can check out a few representative posts linked below, along with some choice quotes:

  1. Global economy doesn’t care about your local chicken farm: “If capitalists have global political projects, such as the ones dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, why can’t leftists have their own global political programs? Why is it so hard to imagine a global movement, for example, that lays the foundations for a world, socialist republic?”
  2. White supremacy can only be fought through internationalism: “Today, a shock in the housing market of the United States is felt in the value of tortillas in Mexico. The development of new technology to extract oil from shale trickles down to the price of a tractor bought by a farmer in Zimbabwe. Yet the Left does not have a vision of emancipation through a global, political structure that can mold the course of the global economy. For a long time, activists, militants and theorists thought that the first step for the liberation of people of color was through the increase of legal sovereignty within a specific geographic zone — from the autonomy in first nation reserves in Canada, to the sovereignty of the former colonies in Africa.”
  3. The productive human cannot love: “Interpersonal relations are eroded by the imperatives of optimization; there is nothing more infernal than the dating market of thirty-something professionals. Future partners are judged for their potential as mortgage companions, where the tension between how interesting their personality is versus the respectability of their career plays out. Everyone wants to date the good-looking engineer who’s also a musician. Yet optimized society selects some traits against the others — a person that spent all their bandwidth grinding through the math homework, job searching, and acquiring the right work experience for a fruitful career, will have no energy left to cultivate a deep taste in music, art, or literature.”

Enjoy.

Civilisation: Evolution of a word and a group of ideas

Lucien Febvre
May 25, 1929
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It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied are always instructive. But in every major language there are a dozen or so terms, never more, often less, whose past is no food for the scholar. But it is for the historian if we give the word historian all its due force.

Such terms, whose meaning is more or less crudely defined in dictionaries, never cease to evolve under the influence of human experience and they reach us pregnant, one might say, with all the history through which they have passed. They alone can enable us to follow and measure, perhaps rather slowly but very precisely (language is not a very rapid recording instrument), the transformations which took place in a group of those governing ideas which man is pleased to think of as being immobile because their immobility seems to be a guarantee of his security.1 Constructing the history of the French word civilisation would in fact mean reconstituting the stages in the most profound of all the revolutions which the French spirit has achieved and undergone in the period starting with the second half of the eighteenth century and taking us up to the present day. And so it will mean embracing in its totality, but from one particular point of view, a history whose origins and influence have not been confined within the frontiers of a single state. The simple sketch which follows may make it possible to date the periods in the revolution to which we refer with more rigor than previously. And it will at least show once more that the rhythm of the waves which break upon our societies are, in the last instance, governed and determined by the progress not of a particular science and of thought that revolves within one and the same circle, but by progress in all the disciplines together and in all the branches of learning working in conjunction.

Let us clearly mark out the limits of the problem. Some months ago a thesis was defended in the Sorbonne dealing with the civilization of the Tupi-Guarani. The Tupi-Guarani are small tribes living in South America which in every respect fit the term “savage” as used by our ancestors. But for a long time now the concept of a civilization of non-civilized people has been current. If archaeology were able to supply the means, we should see an archaeologist coolly dealing with the civilization of the Huns; who we were once told were “the flail of civilization.”

But our newspapers and journals, and we ourselves, talk continually about the progress, conquests and benefits of civilization. Sometimes with conviction, sometimes with irony and sometimes even with bitterness. But what counts is that we talk about it. And what this implies is surely that one and the same word is used to designate two different concepts.

In the first case civilization simply refers to all the features that can be observed in the collective life of one human group, embracing their material, intellectual, moral and political life and, there is unfortunately no other word for it, their social life. It has been suggested that this should be called the “ethnographical” conception of civilization.2 It does not imply any value judgment on the detail or the overall pattern of the facts examined. Neither does it have any bearing on the individual in the group taken separately, or on their personal reactions or individual behavior. It is above all a conception which refers to a group. Continue reading