Сталин и Гитлер: возможно ли сравнение?

Столкновение
ревизионистов
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Much to my surprise, Sergey Adaschik has translated an essay I wrote about a month ago: “Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes.” He contacted me a few days ago to let me know it had been posted and to make sure it was okay, which of course it is, though I might quibble somewhat with the title.  Stalin and Hitler can of course be compared. But under no circumstance should they be equated. Nor is it all that useful to lump them together under the heading of “totalitarianism,” which obscures more than clarifies the issue. What I aimed to do, rather, was to look for points of contact between various “revisionisms,” for or against. In any case, it’s very flattering that someone went to the trouble of translating it. Thanks, Sergey!
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«Ревизионизм» — термин сравнительно недавно появившийся. Этимологически привязывается к 1903, когда приключился ревизионистский спор в рядах Немецкой социал-демократии. Смысл понятия с тех пор остаётся более-менее устойчивым: он указывает на стремление пересмотреть или представить заново некую важную доктрину или сложившийся консенсус. Однако, за свой недолгий срок ревизионизм сумел приобрести множество исторических референций. С учетом его сложившейся полисемичности следовало бы упорядочить различные концепты, которые он обозначает.

Недавний уход Эрнста Нольте в возрасте 93 лет (18 августа 2016) предоставляет уникальную возможность для такой рефлексии. Неоднозначно воспринимаемый историк стал всемирно известным, как минимум в определенных кругах, в середине 1980х когда происходил «спор историков» [Historikerstreit]. Начиная с выступления в Мюнхене в июне 1980, озаглавленного «Между Исторической легендой и Ревизионизмом?», Нольте стремился поместить нацистский геноцид в контекст мировой гражданской войны [Weltbürgerkrieg], длившейся с Октябрьской революции в 1917 до падения Берлина в мае 1945. Он видел в этом неудачную (но понятную) реакцию на ужасное насилие, запущенное большевиками в России:

Освенцим явился не столько результатом традиционного антисемитизма, и даже не еще одним прецедентом «геноцида». Он был реакцией страха уничтожения, возникшего в ходе Русской Революции. Хотя по факту он оказался более иррациональным, ужасным и отталкивающим, чем те основания к сингулярному действию, которые давал его предшественник, это не меняет того, что так называемое уничтожение евреев Третьим рейхом было реакцией или извращенной копией, а не первичным или самобытным актом.

Шестью годами позже в передовице, вызвавшей дискуссию, Нольте вновь ставит вопрос: «Не потому ли национал-социалисты или Гитлер совершили «азиатское» деяние, что они просто полагали себя потенциальными жертвами «азиатского» акта? Не предшествовал ли Архипелаг ГУЛАГ Освенциму?» Для Нольте «большевистское убийство целого класса было логически и фактически первым [prius] ‹расовым убийством› национал-социализма…». Однако, невзирая на эти предположительно смягчающие обстоятельства, Германия в одиночестве оказалась захвачена «прошлым, которое не проходит». Проворачивая лезвие, он добавляет: «разговор о виновности немцев легкомысленно упускает сходство с речами о ‹виновности евреев›, которые были главным доводом национал-социалистов». Вполне ожидаемо провокативные слова Нольте произвели шум, когда Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung засыпали гневными письмами.

Юрген Хабермас был среди тех, кто дал свой ответ летом 1986го. Это тут же придало вес дебатам. В то время Хабермас находился на пике своей силы, выступая как самый известный в стране интеллектуал. Как неоспоримый наследник Теодора Адорно, он представлял «второе поколение» критической теории Франкфуртской школы. Нольте был последователем Мартина Хайдеггера, «известного» философа наци, против которого неутомимо выступал Адорно, и призрак «научного куратора» маячил на заднем плане. Как угадывалось с самого начала, Хабермас обрушился против апологетического характера работы, «в которой Нольте, студент Хайдеггера, оглашает свою ‹философскую трактовку истории›». Даже заявления, умаляющие значимость предшественников, по умолчанию поддерживали их репутацию, как, например, когда Хабермас заявил, что «дело не в полемике Поппера против Адорно, не в академическом расхождении мнений, и не вопросах свободы от оценочных суждений [Wertfreiheit]. Дело скорее в публичном применении истории». Следуя этой логике, он через несколько страниц повторяет: «После 1945 … мы читаем Хайдеггера, Карла Шмитта и Ханса Фрайера, даже Эрнста Юнгера, совершенно иначе, чем до 1933го».

Вчитываясь в эти дебаты 30 лет спустя ощущаешь сомнение — в этом ли состоит основная проблема? Может ли событие стать частью истории без утраты своей сингулярности? Не «приземляет» ли его сам акт контекстуализации? Возможно ли одновременно «понимать и осуждать», как это выразил участник полемики  Христиан Мейер? Сравнивать два отдельных объекта значит соотносить их, если не подвергать релятивизации. Ханс Моммзен возразил аргументам Нольте и его сторонника Йоахима Феста, обосновывая тем, что они исподтишка стремятся «релятивизировать» нацизм через его сопоставление с большевизмом. С настоянием на сравнимости или «допустимости определенных сравнений» (по выражению Нольте) весь разговор о сингулярности стремительно рассеивается. Франсуа Фюре, историк-ревизионист Французской революции и неизменный поклонник своего немецкого коллеги, говорил, что одним из величайших достоинств Нольте был «решительный уход от запрета на помещение большевизма и нацизма в один мешок». Поль Рикёр заметил в работе Память, История, Забвение за год до своей смерти, что «массовое применение сравнений улаживает судьбу сингулярности или уникальности, поскольку только это позволяет опознать различия… Только с расширением критической полемики в этом направлении Нольте ожидает возможности для этого прошлого «пройти», как и всякому прочему и быть усвоенным». Continue reading

Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes

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“Revisionism” — Revisionismus, révisionnisme, ревизионизм — is a word of relatively recent vintage. Most etymologies date its origin to around 1903, when the revisionist dispute befell German Social Democracy. Its meaning has remained more or less constant since then: the term denotes an effort to revise or otherwise reenvision some prior doctrine or established consensus. Already in its short career, however, revisionism has managed to amass a range of historical referents. Given this polysemic quality, a bit of disentanglement seems in order to sort out the different phenomena it signifies.

Ernst Nolte’s death late last week, at the age of 93, offers a unique opportunity for such reflection. The controversial historian rose to international prominence, or at least achieved a certain notoriety, during the mid-1980s as part of the “historians’ quarrel” [Historikerstreit]. Beginning with an address he delivered in Munich in June 1980, entitled “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism?”, Nolte sought to place the Nazi genocide within the context of a global civil war [Weltbürgerkrieg] that lasted from the October Revolution in 1917 to the fall of Berlin in May 1945. He framed it as an unfortunate (but understandable) response to the horrific violence unleashed by the Bolsheviks in Russia:

Auschwitz was not primarily a result of traditional antisemitism, and not just one more case of “genocide.” It was a fear-borne reaction to acts of annihilation that took place during the Russian Revolution. While the fact that it was more irrational, terrible, and repulsive than its precursor provides a foundation for the notion of singularity, none of this alters that the so-called [!!!] annihilation of the Jews by the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.

Six years later, in the editorial that sparked the controversy, Nolte again posed the question: “Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they considered themselves potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed? Wasn’t the Gulag Archipelago primary to Auschwitz?” For Nolte, “the Bolsheviks’ murder of an entire class was the logical and factual prius of the ‘racial murder’ of National Socialism…” Yet, despite these supposed mitigating circumstances, Germany alone was trapped in “a past that will not pass.” Twisting the knife, he added, “talk about ‘the guilt of the Germans’ blithely overlooks the similarity to the talk about ‘the guilt of the Jews,’ which was a main argument of the National Socialists.” Predictably, Nolte’s provocations led to an uproar, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was flooded with angry letters.

Stalin, Hitler, similar salutes copy 2 U_39_299435507822_paris37.a

Jürgen Habermas was among those who sent a reply the summer of 1986. Immediately, this added a great deal of weight to the debate. At the time, Habermas was at the height of his powers, by far the country’s best-known intellectual. Heir apparent to Theodor Adorno, he represented the “second generation” of Frankfurt School critical theory. Nolte had been a follower of Martin Heidegger, the (in)famous Nazi philosopher against whom Adorno had tirelessly polemicized, so the ghosts of the Doktorväter were close at hand. This was evident from the outset, as Habermas inveighed against the apologetic tendencies at work “in what Nolte, the student of Heidegger, calls his ‘philosophical writing of history’.” Even statements downplaying the relevance of these forebears tacitly invoked their authority, as for example when Habermas declared that “it is not a matter of Popper versus Adorno, nor of scholarly differences of opinion, nor about questions of freedom from value judgments [Wertfreiheit]. Rather, it is about the public use of history.” Driving this point home, a few pages down, he reiterated: “After 1945… we read [Martin] Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Hans Freyer, even Ernst Jünger, differently than before 1933.”

Looking back at this exchange now thirty years on, one wonders whether this is not the crux of the matter. Can an event be historicized without diminishing its singularity? Or does the very act of contextualization thereby render it mundane? Is it possible to simultaneously “comprehend and condemn,” as Christian Meier suggested in the title of his contribution to the debate? To compare two distinct objects is to relate them, if not relativize them as such. Hans Mommsen objected to claims made by Nolte and his attack dog, Joachim Fest, on the grounds that they surreptitiously aimed at “relativizing” Nazism through its comparison with Bolshevism. By insisting on their comparability, or “the permissibility of certain comparisons” (as Nolte put it), all talk of singularity swiftly goes out the window. François Furet, revisionist historian of the French Revolution and unabashed admirer of his German counterpart, one of Nolte’s greatest merits was to have “quickly gone beyond the prohibition against putting Bolshevism and Nazism in the same bag.” Paul Ricoeur noted in Memory, History, Forgetting, just a year before his death, “this massive use of comparison settles the fate of singularity or uniqueness, since this alone permits the identification of differences… As soon as the critical debate has been widened in this way, Nolte expects it will allow this past ‘to pass’ like any other and be appropriated.” Continue reading

Decolonial communization?

Race, religion, and class:
Problems and pitfalls of
a theoretical synthesis
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Overview of the problem

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For whatever reason, at least from the outside, there seems some sort of slow convergence unfolding between communization theory and decolonial critique. Whether this attests to any inner necessity in the logic of either field, or from accidental affinities common to enthusiasts of both, is difficult to tell. My bet is that it’s the latter. Geographical proximity often compresses unlike milieux, with only vaguely related groups suddenly shoved into a single space, made to live side by side. People are able to pass through any number of circles, carrying with them a cumulus of curiosities and concerns. Sometimes this leads to interesting intellectual cross-pollination or collaboration. Berlin in the decades following Hegel’s death. Vienna around the fin de siècle. Oakland has given us Endnotes, which by itself is enough to forgive it many minor sins. Usually these scenes just result in ill-conceived eclecticism, though, fruitless exchanges and shambling conceptual absurdities. Academic conferences offer a suitably fetid ecosystem in which such bogstandard theories can thrive. Russell Jacoby observed this phenomenon some forty years ago in Dialectic of Defeat:

Literature about Marxism threatens to drown both the theory and its students. To the cynical it confirms the obsolescence of Marxism: It has fled the streets and factories for the halls and offices of the university. The struggle to publish replaces the class struggle. Academics jet to conferences to hawk competing brands of Marxism; a consumer’s guide is practically required to stay abreast of all the offerings and recalls: structural Marxism, semiotic Marxism, feminist Marxism, hermeneutic Marxism, phenomenological Marxism, critical Marxism, and so on.

Not a lot has been done as yet to bring these two discourses into conversation in the Anglophone world. George Ciccariello-Maher is, in all probability, the person who would be best situated to broker a meeting. He’s already intervened in a roundtable on “Dual Power and the Dialectic of Communization,” as well as presented a paper on “Communization, Venezuela Style,” though it’s not clear he has all that much in common with the communisateurs beyond shared verbiage and a few mutual friends on Facebook. Ciccariello-Maher broadly understands his own critical outlook as “decolonial.” LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism dabbles in communization, and it has mentioned “contemporary decolonial subjecthood” in the past. But there’s been no sustained effort to synthesize communization theories and decolonial critiques, which might ultimately be for the best. Of the two, I find communization to be a far more promising theoretical field. Even if I disagree with its prognostications about the sun having set on programmatism, it poses serious questions to the present and seeks to take stock of emerging struggles and shifting realities. Decolonial criticism is, by contrast, in my opinion a complete waste of time. Reading Ramón Grosfoguel has actually made me dumber. (I know that’s hard to believe). Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, etc. don’t say anything all that earth-shattering or insightful. Achille Mbembe is occasionally great, but I do not think he is even remotely similar to the other figures just named.

Since there haven’t really been any works in English to combine or negotiate these perspectives, this post deals with a French author who has devoted quite a bit of time to precisely this: Patlotch. My reading comprehension of French isn’t great, but he is a lively and entertaining writer with extensive knowledge of communization as well as decoloniality. Also, he has the virtue of having “conducted his philosophical education in public,” as Hegel wrote of Schelling, so we can actually see his thought process as he tries to work out some of these issues. His comments about Jews are pretty fucked up, to say nothing of his race-baiting of Yves Coleman. To be sure, other syntheses of communization theory with decolonial critique may be possible — his work doesn’t exhaust all possibility — but this at provides a place to start.

Introducing Patlotch

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Patlotch
is an enigmatic character. Claude Guillon explains that his handle is an (unimpressive) anagram derived from the Situationist journal Potlatch, with just two letters switched. An erstwhile fellow traveler [compagnon de route], from roughly 2005 to 2010, of the communization current in France, Patlotch had initially approached Guillon after reading a short piece from in 2013 critiquing Léon de Mattis and the international communist review Sic. Communization was an “unthinkable project” [l’impensable projet], as Guillon put it at the time, an appraisal that resonated with the young Patlotch. Eventually, the impetuous lad turned on kindly old Guillon, cursing him as a “cadaver” with a wink at André Breton before slinging his body into a ditch alongside Yves Coleman and his ilk. The offense? Well, to have written “And ‘God’ Created Islamophobia,” of course. Frankly, I don’t hold this apprehension against him, when it comes to this term’s possible censorious use. Guillon knows what it’s like to be censored firsthand. Suicide: A How-to Guide [Suicide, mode d’emploi], a survey of the various methods and techniques people have used to kill themselves, was written with Yves le Bonniec in 1982 and released that same year. Just five years later, however, it was banned by the French government and promptly withdrawn from circulation. But Patlotch, enfant terrible of the online ultraleft circuit, grants no such leniency to poor Guillon.

Young Patlotch has many scores to settle and axes to grind, as will be shown in the course of this post. Anselm Jappe, Clément Homs, Bernard Lyon, and Jacques Wajnsztejn are all summoned to stand trial next to Coleman and Guillon, charged as crypto-Zionists, race traitors, and Eurocentric chauvinists… or worse. Continue reading

Capitalism and gay identity


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John D’Emilio’s classic essay, with a brief
contextual introduction by Rosemary Hennessy.
Reblogged from Communists in Situ.
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The birth and short-lived life of gay Marxism:
“Capitalism and gay identity” in context

Rosemary Hennessy
Profit and Pleasure
(July 26, 2000)
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The Stonewall uprising in New York City in June 1969 was the most immediate catalyst for the formation of the gay liberation movement. Before the end of the summer of 1969, the Gay Liberation Front had formed in the United States, and within the following year gay liberation groups sprang into existence across the country (D’Emilio 1983, 232-233). Gay liberation was itself an outcome of the adjustments of late capitalism that spawned the general international insurgency circa 1968. Most immediately, it was inspired by the black power movement and the rise of feminism — both of which included fractions that aimed to articulate the historical relationship between culture and class, local and global forces. As in much of the New Left, there was general agreement within gay liberation thinking that capitalism was oppressive. Many gay liberation manifestos at least rhetorically drew connections between capitalism and repressive sexuality, racism and imperialism. But the gay liberation movement was by no means thoroughly influenced by Marxism or a united socialist front, and its internal debates sorted out in what seem in hindsight to be predictable ways. There were those who, despite references to capitalism, basically focused on and advocated for cultural change, and there were those more avowedly Marxist groups that stressed that political and cultural concerns needed to be linked to more global economic structures in some way.1

One set of texts that succinctly demonstrates these different leanings is Carl Whitman’s “Gay Manifesto” and the reply to it written by the gay socialist group Red Butterfly (Blasius and Phelan 380-390). Although Red Butterfly supports Whitman for generally linking the individual effects of gay oppression to “the social and economic facts which are at once the cause and effects of this situation,” they note the tension in his manifesto between personal freedom and the need for collective action, and they critique Whitman’s promotion of “coming out” as an inadequate strategy for social change in itself because it can so easily separate personal liberation from changing the social conditions that foster gay oppression. Comprised of a loose network of collectives, journals, newsletters, study groups, conferences, and actions whose most intensive activity lasted only until the mid-seventies, the Gay Left represented a short-lived but vital willingness to make use of Marxism as a critical framework to link sexual oppression to global capitalism. In fact, however, there were more gestures in this direction than there were developed theoretical explanations from which to forge a fundamentally anticapitalist activist politics. Nonetheless, the fact that a broad sector of the discourse of gay liberation was at least in spirit directed toward connecting sexual oppression to the history of capitalism made this one of the most exciting flash points in the historical development of a critical and materialist understanding of sexuality. Continue reading

Non-identity and negation

“Identitarianism” and the
affirmation of difference

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we are generation identity, blood and soil

Renovators and renegades

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In a classic 1952 essay on “The Historical Invariance of Marxism,” Amadeo Bordiga identified three contemporary forms of opposition to Marxist theory. First of all there were the bourgeois apologists, who denied the validity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Next there were the Stalinists, who verified Marx’s insights in word but falsified them in deed. Last but not least came the renovators, who tried to modernize Marx’s concepts — i.e., the “self-declared advocates of revolutionary doctrine and method who nonetheless attribute its current abandonment by most of the working class to defects and initial gaps in the theory which must be rectified and brought up to date. Deniers — falsifiers — modernizers. We fight against all three, but we consider the third group [of adversaries] to be the worst of the lot.”

Bordiga’s hardheaded “invariance” was of course largely strategic, meant to sustain a set of principles against unwarranted revisions, additions, subtractions, etc. Marxism addresses itself primarily to history, to changing conditions which must be dealt with on their own terms. Principles, while not totally sacrosanct, should not be compromised at a whim, in order to accommodate regression or to rationalize defeat (Stalin’s motto of “socialism in one country,” for example, was only adopted after it became clear that proletarian revolution had failed in the West). Recently, however, it has again been suggested that Marxism must be supplemented, augmented, or otherwise updated so as to be more inclusive or appeal more to a broader range of people. LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism at least poses this as an open-ended question: “How do we assess the many different theories that attempt to describe the structure of race, gender, and class?” Questions like this seem to suppose definite answers, though, which invariably prove weaker than the original line of inquiry.

Yesterday, in a discussion about how to conceptualize race under capitalism, one ostensible left communist remarked that “there are any number of left communists who are ready to explain to you where ‘intersectionalism’ fails, but how many of them can account for why it exists?” Another discussant then asserted that “a left communist fusion with identitarian points of view is necessary. We need to do more than dismiss a whole perspective just because of differences in language and analysis.” Terms such as “identitarian” and “identitarianism” are of fairly recent vintage, stemming from several sources, hence polysemic. Black socialist critics like Adolph Reed use these terms to denote “essentialized ascriptive identities, commonly referred to as identity politics.” Here the identities in question are multiple, referring to discrete groups whose distinct characteristics, fluid social relations, are fast-frozen and held aloft as if solids. Or else they are snatched from the air, from the misty realm of ideology — as the reified distillate of cultural stereotypes. For the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno, “identitarian” signified just the opposite, the idea of a harmonious social totality in which every antagonism had been surreptitiously removed.

Anyway, I objected that a fairly widespread identitarian movement already exists across Europe and the United States. It is one with which socialists must not fuse, however, under any circumstances. Since 2002, the extreme right-wing nationalist Bloc Identitaire has been active in France. Now it has managed to set up a branch in England and establish a foothold in America. Generation Identity, as it calls itself, is the logical culmination of the “identity politics” foolishly embraced by many parts of the Left these last few years. “Our only inheritance is our blood, soil, and heritage,” reads their headline, with clearly fascist overtones. “We are heirs of our destiny.” Just a couple months ago, the National Policy Institute (NPI) held an entire conference devoted to identity politics in Washington, DC. Claus Brinker, who covered the event for the website Counter-Currents, reported that it aimed to ascertain “the future of white racial identity politics.” In the comments thread of a post several years ago by Red Maistre, “On Identitarianism: In Defense of a Strawman,” Maoist veteran Carl Davidson argued that the real enemy was tacit “white male identity politics.”

Tacit or not, it is clear that formations like Generation Identity and Bloc Identitaire represent something new. When I brought them up, the aforementioned discussant did not seem to appreciate it. “You must have been confused by my terminology,” was the reply. “I did not mean that particular brand…” My response was to ask what the approved brands of identitarianism might be, expressing my concern that drawing distinctions of this sort is reminiscent of the attempt to distinguish “good” from “bad” nationalism. Special pleading routinely accompanies support for the “nationalism of the oppressed,” and relies on a similar logic. One wonders if a similar rationale might not be used to justify cheering on various national liberation projects, like every other Maoist and Trotskyist sect. Even anarchists can get in on some of this action now, with the PKK’s Bookchinite municipalism. Why not just ditch the whole left communist schtick if what you really want is to wave a Palestinian, Kurdish, or Naxalite flag? Continue reading

“Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity

Those who op­pose Marx­ism, En­light­en­ment, or even lib­er­al ideo­lo­gies on the ground that they are Euro­centric or co­lo­ni­al im­pos­i­tions, and pro­pose as an al­tern­at­ive sup­posedly more or­gan­ic, au­then­tic­ally in­di­gen­ous life­ways and autoch­thon­ous, com­munit­ari­an wis­dom, are them­selves simply vic­tim to an­oth­er European ideo­logy: Ro­man­ti­cism. I hope it is clear in the fol­low­ing that I do not share the views of Mas­sad or Bouteldja.
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Homon­ation­al­ism and “pink­wash­ing”

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Since her re­fus­al to ac­cept the Ber­lin Pride Civil Cour­age Award, Ju­dith But­ler has been a lead­ing crit­ic of “homon­ation­al­ism” and the closely re­lated phe­nomen­on of so-called “pink­wash­ing.” Homon­ation­al­ism is un­der­stood here as an ideo­logy which uses a na­tion’s lib­er­al at­ti­tudes to­ward ho­mo­sexu­al­ity as a means of en­cour­aging ra­cist at­ti­tudes to­ward oth­er na­tions, on the grounds that they are sup­posedly less en­lightened. But­ler stated in a May 2010 ad­dress on “Queer Al­li­ance and An­ti­war Polit­ics” in Ank­ara, Tur­key that “in some parts of Europe and surely in Is­rael as well, the rights of ho­mo­sexu­als are de­fen­ded in the name of na­tion­al­ism.” Or as she put it in Ber­lin, what was sup­posed to be her ac­cept­ance speech: “Les­bi­an, gay, trans, and queer people can be used [by] war­mon­gers in­volved in cul­tur­al wars against im­mig­rants through Is­lamo­pho­bia and mil­it­ary wars against Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. In this time, through these in­stru­ments, we be­come re­cruited for na­tion­al­ism and mil­it­ar­ism.”

Ref­er­ence is only made in But­ler’s lat­ter state­ment to NATO and the US — which partly ra­tion­al­ized their in­va­sions of Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq, or at least made them more pal­at­able to left-lib­er­als, by present­ing them as an op­por­tun­ity to lib­er­ate wo­men — but Is­rael is clearly also im­plied. Tel Aviv’s vi­brant LGBT scene has been de­servedly praised for its open­ness and ac­cept­ance of dif­fer­ent sexu­al ori­ent­a­tions and gender iden­tit­ies, but this repu­ta­tion sim­ul­tan­eously serves pro­pa­gand­ist­ic ends. Jux­ta­posed against daily life in the Ga­za strip, where Hamas is in power and things are dif­fi­cult due to crip­pling eco­nom­ic block­ades, Tel Aviv is made out to be a gay oas­is sur­roun­ded by a desert of Is­lam­ist ho­mo­pho­bia. Is­rael uses this con­trast to present a tol­er­ant im­age of it­self, and to di­vert at­ten­tion away from the bit­ter real­it­ies of oc­cu­pa­tion. For­get for a mo­ment the string of stabbings last sum­mer at the Jer­u­s­alem Pride fest­iv­al by Yishai Sch­lis­sel, an ul­tra-or­tho­dox Jew.

In Novem­ber 2011, New York Times ran a brief op-ed by Sarah Schul­man on the “pink­wash­ing” prac­tice of mod­ern Is­rael. Ac­cord­ing to Schul­man, the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment as well as un­of­fi­cial travel agen­cies in­stru­ment­al­ize the coun­try’s strong re­cord on gay rights (com­pared to the rest of the re­gion, any­way) as a “mes­saging tool” to coun­ter­bal­ance some of the bad press it’s re­ceived from on­go­ing hu­man rights ab­uses. Schul­man’s ori­gin­al art­icle was de­cent, but much of the sub­sequent de­bate dis­mal. Dis­cus­sions of Is­raeli pub­lic re­la­tions, com­monly eu­phem­ized as “ex­plan­a­tion” [has­bara], tend to de­volve rather quickly. They either veer in­to con­spir­acy the­ory, re­peat­ing the old charge that Jews (er, Zion­ists) con­trol the me­dia, or end up deny­ing such a policy even ex­ists, when fel­low­ships are reg­u­larly awar­ded to ad­voc­ates on Is­rael’s be­half. For­ward, the bi­lin­gual Yid­dish daily foun­ded in 1897 by fol­low­ers of Daniel De Le­on, had a sens­ible take: “Not all Is­raeli gay mes­saging is pink­wash­ing. Most of it is just ad­space meant to at­tract gay tour­ists to Tel Aviv. Which it does.” Jay Mi­chael­son, the au­thor of the piece, nev­er­the­less took is­sue with a highly ma­nip­u­lat­ive full-page ad placed by Rabbi Schmu­ley in Decem­ber 2014.

But­ler and Schul­man are of course right to point out that Is­rael’s pro­gress­ive views on gay rights do not ex­cuse its na­tion­al op­pres­sion of Palestini­ans or eth­nic chau­vin­ism to­ward Ar­abs, but the in­verse should also hold true: Hamas’ so-called “res­ist­ance” to Is­raeli mil­it­ar­ism does not ex­cuse its or­gan­iz­a­tion­al an­ti­semit­ism or il­liber­al stance on rights for wo­men and gays.

Se­lect­ive “shib­boleths”

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Many left­ists stop short of this ba­sic equi­poise, however. For ex­ample, But­ler her­self is ready to ex­cuse or­gan­iz­a­tions guilty of or com­pli­cit with oth­er forms of op­pres­sion. At a 2006 an­ti­war teach-in, watch­able be­low, she af­firmed the “pro­gress­ive” cre­den­tials of brazenly an­ti­semit­ic and ho­mo­phobic groups like Hezbol­lah and Hamas:

Yes, un­der­stand­ing Hamas and Hezbol­lah as so­cial move­ments that are pro­gress­ive, on the Left, part of a glob­al Left, is ex­tremely im­port­ant. That does not stop us from be­ing crit­ic­al of cer­tain di­men­sions of both move­ments. It doesn’t stop those of us who are in­ter­ested in non-vi­ol­ent polit­ics from rais­ing the ques­tion of wheth­er there are oth­er op­tions be­sides vi­ol­ence. So again, a crit­ic­al, im­port­ant en­gage­ment. I mean, I cer­tainly think it should be entered in­to the con­ver­sa­tion on the Left. I sim­il­arly think boy­cotts and di­vest­ment pro­ced­ures are, again, an es­sen­tial com­pon­ent of any res­ist­ance move­ment.

When these re­marks were brought up again in 2012, But­ler re­vised her claims some­what: “These polit­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tions define them­selves as anti-im­per­i­al­ist. Anti-im­per­i­al­ism is one char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the glob­al left. On that basis one could de­scribe them as part of the glob­al Left.” Even with this qual­i­fic­a­tion, de­scrib­ing Hezbol­lah and Hamas as pro­gress­ive or left­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions based solely on their res­ist­ance to Is­raeli mil­it­ar­ism is laugh­able. Still, like the Marx­ist aca­dem­ic Susan Buck-Morss, But­ler main­tains that some Is­lam­ist groups may be in­cluded un­der the broad um­brella of a “glob­al left.” Buck-Morss wrote in “Can there be a Glob­al Left?”, the fi­nal chapter of her 2003 book Think­ing Past Ter­ror: Is­lam­ism and Crit­ic­al The­ory on the Left: “Is­lam­ist polit­ics has been mul­tiple and con­ten­tious, span­ning a wide vari­ety of polit­ic­al po­s­i­tions, in­clud­ing a crit­ic­al Left… ‘Left’ here would mean rad­ic­al in the crit­ic­al sense [and] also mean cos­mo­pol­it­an: it would define so­cial justice in a way that ex­cludes no group of hu­man­ity from the be­ne­fits of, and mor­al ac­count­ab­il­ity with­in, the glob­al pub­lic sphere.” For a scath­ing re­view of this work, see Arya Za­hedi’s 2009 piece for In­sur­gent Notes.

Frantz Fan­on was far too com­mit­ted an athe­ist to en­ter­tain the pos­sib­il­ity that re­li­gious re­viv­al might play a pro­gress­ive polit­ic­al role in the struggle against im­per­i­al­ism. Though by then he had aban­doned the cos­mo­pol­it­an hu­man­ism of Black Skin, White Masks in fa­vor of all-out war with co­lo­ni­al­ism and the West, Fan­on con­veyed his skep­ti­cism to his ad­mirer Ali Shari­ati. He wrote in a let­ter to Shari­ati:

Even if I do not share your views with re­spect to Is­lam, I re­spect your view that in the Third World (and if you don’t mind, I would prefer to say in the Near and Middle East), Is­lam, more than any oth­er so­cial and ideo­lo­gic­al force, has had an anti-co­lo­ni­al­ist ca­pa­city and an anti-West­ern nature. I hope that your in­tel­lec­tu­als will be able to in­still life in the in­ert and drugged body of the Muslim East so as to raise the con­scious­ness of the people… in or­der to found a dif­fer­ent kind of man and a dif­fer­ent kind of civil­iz­a­tion. I, for one, fear that the fact of re­vital­iz­ing the spir­it of sec­tari­an­ism and re­li­gion may res­ult in a set­back for a na­tion that is en­gaged in the pro­cess of be­com­ing, of dis­tan­cing it­self from its fu­ture and im­mob­il­iz­ing it in its past.

Later, after he sup­por­ted the na­tion­al­ist up­ris­ing in Al­ger­ia, Fan­on ex­pressed his deep mis­giv­ings. “My left­ist lean­ings drove me to­ward the same goal as Muslim na­tion­al­ists. Yet I was too con­scious of the dif­fer­ent roads by which we reached the same as­pir­a­tion. In­de­pend­ence, yes, I agreed. But what in­de­pend­ence? Were we go­ing to fight to build a feud­al, theo­crat­ic Muslim state in Al­ger­ia frowned on by for­eign­ers?” At least in this re­gard, des­pite his ca­pit­u­la­tion to na­tion­al­ism, Fan­on re­mains su­per­i­or to the “de­co­lo­ni­al” dum­basses who id­ol­ize him.

Sadly, this habit of ig­nor­ing ir­re­con­cil­able points of dis­agree­ment in the name of an anti-im­per­i­al­ist co­ali­tion or pop­u­lar front is not lim­ited to aca­dem­ics. Nu­mer­ous act­iv­ists and even some left-wing pop­u­list (“grass­roots”) politi­cians have suc­cumbed to it as well.

Lind­sey Ger­man, to take one act­iv­ist, no­tori­ously an­nounced in 2004 that she was will­ing to com­prom­ise on cer­tain is­sues but not on oth­ers. At the time, Ger­man was a mem­ber of the Brit­ish SWP and Stop the War co­ali­tion. Wo­men’s rights and gay rights were for her ne­go­ti­able, while anti-Zion­ism was not: “Stu­art King says some Muslims are anti-gay, and this is per­fectly true. But it is not a ques­tion we pose to Chris­ti­ans who join the So­cial­ist Al­li­ance, is it? Now I’m per­son­ally in fa­vor of de­fend­ing gay rights, but I am not pre­pared to have it as a shib­boleth, cre­ated by people who won’t de­fend George Gal­lo­way, and who re­gard the state of Is­rael as some­how a vi­able pres­ence, jus­ti­fied in oc­cupy­ing Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies.” Gal­lo­way him­self is un­will­ing to de­fend wo­men’s re­pro­duct­ive rights in par­lia­ment, de­cry­ing abor­tion as in­fant­i­cide and spout­ing oth­er sex­ist tripe. Of course, none of this mat­ters. His anti-Zion­ism al­lows left­ists to over­look a pleth­ora of re­ac­tion­ary po­s­i­tions, a se­lect­ive blind­ness he is happy to ex­tend to fel­low anti-Zion­ists. Yusuf al-Qaradawi — an Egyp­tian tel­ev­an­gel­ist cler­ic who de­fends wife-beat­ing and fe­male gen­it­al mu­til­a­tion, as well as cor­por­al pun­ish­ment (either by lash­ing or ston­ing) for those guilty of ho­mo­sexu­al acts — was in­vited to Lon­don by Gal­lo­way in 2005. Ken Liv­ing­stone, the former may­or of Lon­don, lauded al-Qaradawi as “a lead­ing pro­gress­ive voice in the Muslim world.”

Auf­heben, an in­de­pend­ent Marxi­an the­or­et­ic­al journ­al in Bri­tain in­spired by Itali­an auto­nom­ism and Dutch-Ger­man coun­cil­ism, chron­icled the far­cic­al ef­fort of the an­ti­war Re­spect Party to win over the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity.” In its 2009 art­icle “Crois­sants and Roses: New La­bour, Com­mun­al­ism, and the Rise of Muslim Bri­tain,” Auf­heben re­con­struc­ted the tail­ist lo­gic of Re­spect’s SWP lead­er­ship as it des­per­ately sought to house this new mi­lieu with­in its ideo­lo­gic­al head­space. Some of the old Swap­per stances on wo­men’s and gay rights had to be jet­tisoned to make room for this new crowd, it was be­lieved (though Clif­fite Trot­sky­ism al­ways has plenty of room at its dis­pos­al, so vacu­ous is its ideo­logy). Hap­pily, this pan­der­ing was met mostly with in­dif­fer­ence on the part of Brit­ish Muslims:

Vi­tal to the suc­cess of this project, par­tic­u­larly as the anti-war move­ment began to sub­side, was the need to bring the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity” on board. So as not to put Muslims off, the SWP in­sisted that Re­spect es­chew left-wing “shib­boleths” such as wo­men’s and gay rights. They went to the mosques and echoed the ar­gu­ments of the more rad­ic­al polit­ic­al Is­lam­ists by claim­ing that Bush’s “Glob­al War on Ter­ror” was in fact a war on Muslims — both abroad, with the at­tack on Muslims in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, but also at home with the suc­ces­sion of anti-ter­ror­ist le­gis­la­tion — that should be op­posed by all Muslims as “Muslims.” And like the more rad­ic­al polit­ic­al Is­lam­ists they de­nounced New La­bour as Is­lamo­phobic and ra­cist. Yet for all their ef­forts to pander to muslim sens­it­iv­it­ies, Re­spect failed to win over the “Brit­ish Muslim com­munity,” which re­mained wed­ded to New La­bour.

Is there a reas­on left­ists are so ready to con­demn queer and fem­in­ist or­gan­iz­a­tions that sanc­tion or lend ideo­lo­gic­al sup­port to im­per­i­al­ism, yet hes­it­ate to con­demn anti-im­per­i­al­ist groups which es­pouse hatred and vi­ol­ence to­ward wo­men and gays? To be ab­so­lutely clear, both ought to be con­demned. But left­ists of­ten equi­voc­ate be­fore con­demning the lat­ter. Why are they so re­luct­ant to cri­ti­cize re­ac­tion­ary forms of anti-im­per­i­al­ism, es­pe­cially out­side the West?

Post­co­lo­ni­al par­tic­u­lar­ity

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Usu­ally at this point some sort of “ir­re­du­cible par­tic­u­lar­ity” is in­voked, which is sup­posed to pre­vent a uni­ver­sal judg­ment from be­ing formed. Rad­ic­al oth­er­ness [l’altérité rad­icale] de­mands that the ob­ject of cri­tique be treated on its own terms, rather than sub­sumed un­der fa­mil­i­ar cat­egor­ies. (Nine times out of ten, the par­tic­u­lar­ity in ques­tion is cul­tur­al. See, in this con­nec­tion, But­ler’s 1997 art­icle “Merely Cul­tur­al,” de­fend­ing par­tic­u­lar­ism against its uni­ver­sal­ist de­tract­ors). Claims to uni­ver­sal­ity, it is ob­jec­ted, in real­ity fact re­flect the ex­per­i­ence of a very par­tic­u­lar cul­ture — namely that of Europe, or “the West” — which has been sur­repti­tiously el­ev­ated to the status of a norm­at­ive ideal. Ex­pect­ing every­one to con­form to Euro­centric norms of gay rights or gender equal­ity places an un­fair bur­den on non-West­ern cul­tures, to which these con­cepts do not ap­ply. Joseph Mas­sad’s post­co­lo­ni­al read­ing of what he calls “the Gay In­ter­na­tion­al” is at times al­most akin to Mah­moud Ah­mad­ine­jad’s flip reply to stu­dents at Columbia Uni­versity, where he was vis­it­ing in 2007 (and where Mas­sad con­tin­ues to teach). Asked wheth­er ho­mo­sexu­als in his coun­try have rights, the Ir­a­ni­an pres­id­ent answered: “We don’t have ho­mo­sexu­als in Ir­an.” Mas­sad, not to be con­fused with the Is­raeli secret ser­vice Mossad, writes in De­sir­ing Ar­abs:

The ad­vent of co­lo­ni­al­ism and West­ern cap­it­al to the Ar­ab world has trans­formed most as­pects of daily liv­ing; however, it has failed to im­pose a European het­ero­sexu­al re­gime on all Ar­ab men, al­though its ef­forts were suc­cess­ful in the up­per classes and among the in­creas­ingly West­ern­ized middle classes. It is among mem­bers of these rich­er seg­ments of so­ci­ety that the Gay In­ter­na­tion­al found nat­ive in­form­ants. Al­though mem­bers of these classes who en­gage in same-sex re­la­tions have more re­cently ad­op­ted a West­ern iden­tity (as part of the pack­age of the ad­op­tion of everything West­ern by the classes to which they be­long), they re­main a minus­cule minor­ity among those men who en­gage in same-sex re­la­tions and who do not identi­fy as “gay” nor ex­press a need for gay polit­ics.

Here one is re­minded of Bouteldja’s de­nun­ci­ation of “gay im­per­i­al­ism” [im­pé­ria­lisme gay]. Ac­cord­ing to her, there are no homos in the ban­lieue: “The ho­mo­sexu­al life­style does not ex­ist in the pop­u­lar quar­ters [Le mode de vie ho­mo­sexuel n’existe pas dans les quar­tiers po­pu­laires],” Bouteldja baldly as­serts. For her co-thinkers Félix Bog­gio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem, gay iden­tity is already a form of co­lo­ni­al im­pos­i­tion: “Ho­mo­sexu­al­ity is a West­ern in­ven­tion forced upon Africa and Mah­greb via an ‘im­per­i­al­ism of life­styles’ [L’ho­mo­sexua­li­té, in­ven­tion oc­ci­den­tale im­po­sée à l’Afrique et au Magh­reb, via un «im­pé­ria­lisme des modes de vie»].” Something sim­il­ar was claimed by Azed­ine Berkane in 2002, after he was ar­res­ted for stabbing Ber­trand Delanoë, the first openly gay may­or of Par­is. Berkane, a known ho­mo­phobe, ex­plained to re­port­ers his be­lief that “Muslim fags don’t ex­ist [Mu­sul­mans pé­dés, ça n’existe pas].” Per­haps Bouteldja & co. would agree with him? Des­pite dif­fer­ences of con­fes­sion, might they not also agree with Pope Fran­cis’ re­cent re­ac­tion­ary hog­wash about the “ideo­lo­gic­al col­on­iz­a­tion” of less de­veloped na­tions by mar­riage equal­ity and “gender the­ory”? Or Bish­op Vic­tor Mes­salles of Santo Domin­go, who re­cently de­cried “gay im­per­i­al­ism”?

Mas­sad told Bog­gio Éwanjé-Épée and Magliani-Belkacem in a 2013 in­ter­view, tellingly titled “Em­pire of Sexu­al­ity,” that sexu­al­ity as such ori­gin­ated in the West. It was sub­sequently ex­por­ted through im­per­i­al con­quest, along with a set of ri­gid bin­ar­ies like homo/hetero, etc. (Claims that bin­ary think­ing is pe­cu­li­ar to West­ern Europe, and was only brought to the rest of the world on galle­ons and steam­ships, are nev­er elab­or­ated or sub­stan­ti­ated. The as­sump­tion that pre­co­lo­ni­al cul­tures were some sort of gender­queer para­dise seems naïve). At any rate, the no­tion that gay iden­tity is a re­l­at­ively re­cent de­vel­op­ment is plaus­ible. Draw­ing on the in­sights of John D’Emilio, who barely war­rants a men­tion in De­sir­ing Ar­abs, Mas­sad stated:

“Sexu­al­ity” it­self, as an epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al and on­to­lo­gic­al cat­egory, is a product of spe­cif­ic Euro-Amer­ic­an his­tor­ies and so­cial form­a­tions: i.e., a Euro-Amer­ic­an “cul­tur­al” cat­egory that is not uni­ver­sal or ne­ces­sar­ily uni­ver­sal­iz­able. In­deed, even when the cat­egory “sexu­al­ity” has traveled with European co­lo­ni­al­ism to non-European loc­ales, its ad­op­tion in those con­texts where it oc­curred was neither identic­al nor even ne­ces­sar­ily sym­met­ric­al with its de­ploy­ment in Europe and Euro-Amer­ica. John D’Emilio ar­gued many years ago that “gay men and les­bi­ans have not al­ways ex­is­ted. In­stead, they are a product of his­tory, and have come in­to ex­ist­ence in a spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al era… as­so­ci­ated with the re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ism.” We must add… that their his­tor­ic­al emer­gence and pro­duc­tion was also spe­cif­ic to those geo­graph­ic re­gions of the world and those classes with­in them where a spe­cif­ic type of cap­it­al ac­cu­mu­la­tion had oc­curred and where cer­tain types of cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions of pro­duc­tion pre­vailed. As cap­it­al­ism is the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing means of pro­duc­tion and it has pro­duced its own in­tim­ate forms and modes of fram­ing cap­it­al­ist re­la­tions, these forms and modes have not been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized across na­tion­al laws and eco­nom­ies, and in the quo­tidi­an and in­tim­ate prac­tices of vari­ous peoples, in the same way.

D’Emilio sought to demon­strate that the ef­fect of cap­it­al­ism on the emer­gence of gay and les­bi­an iden­tit­ies in the West was both an out­come of labor re­la­tions that re­quired new res­id­en­tial and mi­grat­ory activ­it­ies, the dis­sol­u­tion or weak­en­ing of kin­ship and fam­ily ties, and the de­vel­op­ment of a con­sumer so­ci­ety and the emer­gence of so­cial net­works that pro­duce, shape, and ar­tic­u­late sexu­al de­sires that are com­men­sur­ate with these changes, which led to the de­vel­op­ment of sexu­al iden­tit­ies… That Gay In­ter­na­tion­al­ists seek to as­sim­il­ate these iden­tit­ies by for­cing them in­to the frame of the homo-hetero bin­ary is it­self a cul­tur­ally im­per­i­al­ist symp­tom of im­per­i­al cap­it­al’s pen­et­ra­tion of peri­pher­al coun­tries, and not the out­come or ef­fect of such pen­et­ra­tion, since in most cases it was un­able to re­pro­duce or im­pose norm­at­ive European sexu­al iden­tit­ies on the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. Here, we must bear in mind that, as Ed­ward Said re­minds us, “im­per­i­al­ism is the ex­port of iden­tity.” It op­er­ates in the re­gister of pro­du­cing non-Europe as oth­er, and some­times as al­most the same as (or po­ten­tially the same as) Europe.

Non­ethe­less, though he sets out from sol­id found­a­tions (D’Emilio’s), Mas­sad soon finds him­self on un­sure foot­ing. He spe­cifies cap­it­al­ism as “the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing means [he prob­ably means ‘mode’] of pro­duc­tion,” but al­ludes to its his­tor­ic spread across dif­fer­ent geo­graph­ic re­gions to even­tu­ally wrap the whole globe. This sup­posedly ac­counts for the “his­tor­ic­al dif­fer­ence” the­or­ized by post­co­lo­ni­al writers like Dipesh Chakra­barty, the un­sub­lated re­mainder left over by pre­his­tor­ic al­tern­at­ives to prim­it­ive ac­cu­mu­la­tion — a re­mainder which can nev­er be fully in­teg­rated in­to the re­gime of ab­stract labor. Chakra­barty des­ig­nates this the second of “two his­tor­ies of cap­it­al.” Where­as His­tory 1 is “the uni­ver­sal and ne­ces­sary his­tory we as­so­ciate with cap­it­al,” His­tory 2 en­com­passes the par­tic­u­lar and con­tin­gent form­a­tions “en­countered as ante­cedents” by His­tory 1. Marx was too stub­bornly Hegel­i­an for Chakra­barty’s taste, or rather in­suf­fi­ciently Heide­g­geri­an: “In a prop­erly Heide­g­geri­an frame­work… both the present-at-hand and the ready-to-hand re­tain their im­port­ance without gain­ing epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al primacy over the oth­er; His­tory 2 can­not sub­late it­self in­to His­tory 1.”

Gayatri Spivak and Ed­ward Said are more rel­ev­ant ref­er­ences for Mas­sad, but the schem­at­ic dis­tinc­tion between His­tory 1 and His­tory 2 from Pro­vin­cial­iz­ing Europe is in­struct­ive here. Mas­sad’s ar­gu­ment pro­ceeds along es­sen­tially these same lines. “The cat­egor­ies gay and les­bi­an are not uni­ver­sal at all and can only be uni­ver­sal­ized by the epi­stem­ic, eth­ic­al, and polit­ic­al vi­ol­ence un­leashed on the rest of the world by in­ter­na­tion­al hu­man rights ad­voc­ates whose aim is to de­fend the very people their in­ter­ven­tion is cre­at­ing,” he con­ten­ded in De­sir­ing Ar­abs, an­ti­cip­at­ing But­ler’s speech in Ber­lin a couple years later. Against this par­tic­u­lar­ist on­slaught, what hope re­mains for Marx­ist uni­ver­sal­ism?

To an­swer this, the con­nec­tion between cap­it­al­ism and civil­iz­a­tion must be cla­ri­fied.

Structural antisemitism

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From “Reflections on Left antisemitism”

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

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Whether or not the aforementioned remarks were unintentional is of no consequence here. I have no interest in singling out individuals as virulent antisemites, even if a strong case could be made in certain instances. Here larger forces are at work, which operate according to a dynamic the Marxian theorist Moishe Postone has called “structural antisemitism.” Postone provided a fairly succinct definition in an interview with Martin Thomas for the German publication Krisis, distinguishing it from other forms of racism:

It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.

He goes on to explain that “[antisemitism] represents a fetishized form of anticapitalism. That is, the mysterious power of capital — which is intangible, global, and which churns up nations and areas and people’s lives — is attributed to the Jews. The abstract domination of capitalism is personified as the Jews. Antisemitism is thus a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews.” Marx of course was careful, for all his fulminations against the bourgeoisie, to assign precedence to the impersonal logic of capital over and above its personification in individual capitalists. Capitalists are merely the “character masks” of capital, and are as much subject to its control as the workers they employ (despite enjoying a greater share of the wealth generated by it).

Building on Postone’s argument, as well as the arguments of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Werner Bonefeld writes: “Modern antisemitism is ‘the rumor about the Jews’ as the incarnation of hated forms of capitalism, which implies that antisemitism expresses resistance to capitalism.” This thesis is not without its problems, of course. For all its faults, however, especially in turning an historical accident of capitalism’s development into a logical necessity, the structural antisemitism argument is generally sound. Just as I would say there structural anti-black racism exists because of the role played by transatlantic slave trade in the colonization of the New World, not to mention its lingering legacy in postbellum labor relations. In other words, there is a logical role each can conveniently play (for historic reasons) in the systemic structure of capitalism.

Leftists often have this delusion where they think anyone who doesn’t simply parrot cable news anchors or political pundits is just an inch away from a comprehensive Systemkritik. Seeing the Illuminati behind everything is supposedly the first step on some inevitable road to a critique of the capitalist totality. Hence the isomorphy between the average “critical” narrative (including most leftist ones) and the antisemitic narrative. Both boil down to a critique of who makes up the management of a social structure — or at best, a critique of the mode of management — rather than a critique of the fundamental social relations themselves. It’s easier to stick with the idea that you just have to weed out “a few bad apples” than it is to tear apart the ideological fabric of everything that surrounds you. Continue reading

Reflections on Left antisemitism

Now also split into four parts, for readability:

  1. Opportunistic accusations
  2. Structural antisemitism
  3. Exculpatory anti-Zionism
  4. Zionism, nationalism, and socialism

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The furore currently unfolding in Britain over allegations of left antisemitism cannot pass without some comment on my part. Not because I’m Jewish, though I am. And not because I’m an astute observer of British politics, which I’m not. Rather, it’s because the issue arises with such frequency and remains so contentious within the Anglo-American Left, as well as its continental European counterpart. Here I would like to examine the phenomenon more broadly.

Some helpful literature, too, for anyone interested:

  1. Ber Borochev, Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation (1908)
  2. Nobert Elias, “On the Sociology of German Anti-Semitism” (1929)
  3. Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe” (1939)
  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (1946)
  5. Ernst Simmel, ed., Antisemitism: A Social Disease (1948)
  6. Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (1981)
  7. Moishe Postone, “Notes on the German Reaction to the Holocaust” (1983)
  8. Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide: Marxism after Auschwitz (1998)
  9. Mario Kessler, On Anti-Semitism and Socialism: Selected Essays (2005)
  10. Marcel Stoetzler, ed., Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology (2014)

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Opportunistic accusations

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First, a few words about the situation in the UK. Over the past couple weeks, a number of prominent Labour Party officials and student activist leaders have come under scrutiny for making antisemitic remarks. Three main figures have been at the center of the controversy so far:

  1. Malia Bouattia
    1. Bouattia, who was recently voted president of the National Union of Students (NUS), took aim at the “Zionist-led media” in 2014 for its sympathetic coverage of Israel during the bombardment and invasion of Gaza earlier that year. Unfortunately, this occurred at an event organized by the Tricontinental Anti-Imperialist Platform to celebrate the Palestinian resistance. A promotional banner with the figure of Hassan Nasrallah emblazoned across it could be seen in the background as she addressed the audience. Nasrallah, general secretary of the Shi’ite paramilitary group Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a notorious antisemite.
    2. Perhaps even more outrageously, Bouattia was almost solely responsible for blocking an NUS motion to condemn ISIS a few weeks later. Such a measure, she contended, was potentially “Islamophobic.” Though an amended version of the motion was eventually passed, this was only after news outlets had got a hold of the story and mocked her mealymouthed prevarications to a fare-thee-well. Roza Salih, the coordinating officer who initiated the proposal, was baffled by Bouattia’s objections. In an interview with Workers Liberty, she voiced her consternation: “I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated…What was Islamophobic about it? I myself come from a Muslim family, and would never propose a motion that was Islamophobic. Either way, it is not Islamophobic to condemn ISIS and its backers!”
    3. Confronted on these issues, Bouattia has proved for the most part evasive. At any rate, she has done little to assuage concerns. “Zio-media” is an epithet that shows up in texts by David Duke and his ilk, and comes much too close to age-old refrains about the Judenpresse for comfort.
  2. Naz Shah
    1. Shah, who unseated the far more objectionable fuckwit George Galloway in the district of Bradford West not twelve months ago, was then discovered to have approvingly shared an offensive image on social media a few months prior to her run for office. Beneath a map of Israel juxtaposed onto a map of the United States, a series of bullet points suggesting that conflict in the Middle East might be resolved by deporting Israeli Jews to the US en masse. (Galloway’s claim that “the Zionist movement from Tel Aviv to New York” would rejoice at her election appears all the more absurd in retrospect).
    2. Around the same time, Shah also urged her friends to get out to the polls since “the Jews are rallying.” Many have noted how similar this statement is to Netanyahu’s bit about how “the Arabs are voting in droves,” spurring Jewish voters to turn out.
    3. To her credit, Shah has apologized unreservedly for her 2014 posts. I’m not too big on the whole culture of heartfelt apologies followed by public self-criticism, but she’s at least remained tactful and reserved throughout the media shitstorm of the past couple weeks. Which is more than can be said for some who have come to her defense. Enter now the former mayor of London.
  3. Ken Livingstone
    1. Livingstone is low-hanging fruit by anyone’s estimation. Back in 2005 he compared Oliver Finegold, a journalist for the Evening Sun, to a Nazi concentration camp guard after learning he was Jewish. “You are just like a concentration camp guard,” declared Livingstone. “Only doing it because you’re paid to, right?” The Evening Sun may be a right-wing rag, but that’s really not the point. Directing such a remark at a Jewish news reporter is insensitive no matter who that person works for.
    2. Fast-forward to 2016: Livingstone takes it upon himself to come to Shah’s rescue, despite the fact she was handling the matter quite well on her own. Almost immediately he makes everything worse: “When Hitler won the election in 1932, his policy was that Jews should be moved to Israel. Hitler supported Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Never mind the fact that in 1932, Israel did not yet exist. Palestine didn’t even exist, in the sense of a free and autonomous state. There was only the Palestinian mandate, which was under British rule at the time. Generally speaking, as Sam Kriss has pointed out, something like Godwin’s Law should apply in contemporary discussions about Israel. Yes, the temptation the establish a “cruel historical irony” in terms of Zionism’s relationship to Nazism may seem irresistible at times, rhetorically speaking, but it’s still fucking stupid.
    3. In the days that have passed since committing this gaffe, Livingstone has somehow managed to dig himself deeper. Corbyn wisely decided to suspend Livingstone, as that kind of liability was the last thing he or Labour needed right now. Questioned about his suspension, Livingstone likened accusations of antisemitism made against him to false accusations of rape. He then went on to grant a radio interview where he apologized for his poor timing, and the disruption it caused. But he would not apologize for what he actually said, since it was supposedly a statement of fact. Livingstone even appealed to the authority of the American Trotskyist Lenni Brenner, discussed later, to bolster his claims. (Incidentally, as Bob from Brockley points out, Livingstone takes liberties with Brenner’s arguments).

Obviously it is no coincidence that these charges are being leveled at the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party with local elections on May 5 around the corner. Especially in the case of Naz Shah, whose term in office has been fairly uneventful up to now. Last year Shah even came out in support of Yvette Cooper, a staunchly pro-Israel candidate, something which at least ought to complicate the picture of her currently being drawn. Right-wing opportunism is nothing new, however, both on the part of the Tories and butthurt Blairites within the Labour Party, whose neoliberal legacy seems threatened by the sudden rise of Corbyn. A great deal of the outrage expressed so far has been cynical, all the more so when one recalls the antisemitic imagery The Sun deployed last year against Ed Miliband’s doomed campaign.

It is therefore important to recognize the politically-motivated character of these attacks, and stand with Bouattia and Shah against slurs, lies, and innuendo from the Right, even as we continue to criticize them from the Left. Bouattia in particular ought not be made immune to criticism, as the residual Stalinism of her positions has already been noted by Daniel Cooper. Shah cannot really be considered a leftist at all, more a liberal than anything else. Livingstone is someone I could more or less do without. He is an embarrassment. The one and only good thing that could come of this debacle, as Alan Johnson writes in Ha’aretz, is the prospect of his replacement by Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race. (Hat-tip goes out to Michael Gaul and Elena Louisa Lange for sharing this article). Continue reading

Letter on anti-Zionism

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While I ponder whether or not to jot down some stray thoughts regarding “left antisemitism,” a contentious and theoretically overwrought subject, I figured I’d finally get around to publishing a revised translation of a text posted by the Italian editorial collective Il Lato Cattivo back in July 2014. At the time, the Israeli military was conducting airstrikes on Gaza, on which it would eventually launch a ground invasion. Several months later, the excellent journal Endnotes featured an article by the group on “the Kurdish question” rendered into English by fellow travelers. “Il lato cattivo” is of course taken from Karl Marx’s famous polemic against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he maintains that “history advances by the bad side [of the dialectic].”

Generally, I feel this text raises legitimate points against the facile Manichaean narrative on the left which holds Zionism to be the latest embodiment of pure Evil in the world, while all who oppose it valiantly serve the cause of the Good. Moreover, though I am rigorously pessimistic when it comes to the possibility of revolutionary politics in the present, I do not share Il Lato Cattivo’s conviction that programmatic proletarian approach is historically obsolete moving forward, thanks to the post-1968 restructuration of capital. This thesis, which is chiefly inspired by the analysis of Théorie Communiste, seems to me to proceed from a false premise. Here is not the place to hash this out further. Suffice it to say, for now, that on the subject of anti-Zionism, Il Lato Cattivo more or less agrees with authors in the left communist tradition who do still uphold the proletariat as the identical subject-object of revolution. Consider how nicely it squares with some occasional ponderings by the Duponts, chief representatives of nihilistic communism (nihilcomm) in our time. For example, take their quaintly-titled “Knockabout begun in earnest atop Leigh Tor (site reference SX77SW 2; 2.2km NNE of Holne) some time towards the later afternoon on August 6th 2014, and before evening’s rain had closed in,” which appears on their Insipidities blog:

Why is it, of all the states in the world, that the actions of Israel have such exceptional power to enrage distant populations? Nobody, outside of Ukraine and Russia, is particularly concerned about Russian expansionism, and there is little comment on, let alone condemnation of, for example, atrocities committed in South Sudan. In general, faraway wars invite only the uncomprehending sentiment of, a pox on both houses. Why is it then that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so immediately comprehensible? Why does political imagination so imbue Israel with the capacity for autonomous agency? Individuals of the left claim they are directing their hostility towards the policies of Israel and not against Israel’s existence and/or that of the Jews. They argue that they make a political distinction between Jews and Israel. Perhaps that is so but this begs two questions: a. by what process does this act of making a distinction emerge? b. why are the military actions of Israel so significant to the left?

For the sake of brevity, it is to be taken here as a given that the answer to both of these can only be grasped in terms of there being at work in leftist discourse an irrational but historically structured anti-Semitism that is of the same type as what I described as the “meant metaphor” of nationalism. There is within the arrangement of leftist awareness, a preconscious responsiveness to the subjective agency of Jews which is correlative with the tendency to anthropomorphize institutional power as the outcome of the conspiracy of the powerful. That is to say, even though individuals of the left are personally opposed to anti-Semitism, the inherited arrangement of their argumentation, the procedures, the propositions, the inferences, the deductions, is structured to find archetypical moral personifications at the heart of what it opposes, and one of these figures, perhaps the most discernible and significant, is the Jew.

Or their more substantive “Islands in a Sea of Land”:

Proletarian internationalism (no war but class war) discloses the rallying cry for a “Free Palestine” as a retreat from the possibility of human community. Leftist support for reactionary nationalism on the grounds of siding with the underdog is both preposterous and repugnant. It is a wanton irrationality. Whomsoever brandishes the Palestinian flag sustains the general category of nationhood. And yet this left sentimentalism is also intelligible. Of greater interest than ostensible popular frontist rationalizations around my enemy’s enemy, is the how of leftism’s pro-nationalism. It appears in protest form against the historical process of demolition and bulldozing of that which has been defeated. The Left perpetually seeks another means for returning to the historically obsolete modes of religion, nation-state, and sentimentalized cultural particularity. Indeed, this seeking out of ways back, is the Left’s political function.

Historically, it has been the task of communists to simply refute this backward drifting of the Left, hitherto understood as mere opportunism or blatant racketeering. The refutation has always taken the same form: there can be no dialogue (and still less common cause) with the nation, with religion, with class. In their approach to leftism, it has been conventional for communists to fall into line with the progressive historical lockout of obsolete forms in the name of proliferating past potentialities. Evidently, this policy is inadequate and implicitly assumes the absolute unworthiness of all of that which is no longer supported by the present productive apparatus. While it is true that all past social forms institutionalized themselves as a specific mode of inhuman violence, repression, and denial, they also recorded something of an eternally renewed “passion and will” for the human community. The Left has imperfectly sought out connection to that which is good but buried in the past. This is not to suggest that a “return” to that which is otherwise lost forever is a plausible or even desirable option. National liberation is untenable and in all cases incompatible with human community. The no state, no religion, and no class demands, which communism makes upon society, remain invariant. There can not be and must never be a “free Palestine.”

Jacob Blumenfeld’s “Negation of the Diaspora,” from which the cover image above is taken, is also worth reading. Blumenfeld is a contributor to the Communists in Situ project in Germany, influenced by the anti-national Marxism that cropped up in that country following reunification in 1991. Pay no attention to the idiotic spectacle going on in Britain right now. Enjoy the translated Il Lato Cattivo text below.

A seldom-remembered historical fact: Stalin's USSR backed the foundation of Israel as a Jewish state, precisely under the rationale of national liberation

The perils of national liberation

Letter on anti-Zionism

R.F. (pseudonym)
Il Lato Cattivo
July 19, 2014
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Dear comrades,

Let me give you my opinion about what happened around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and forgive me if I am forced to dwell on this question. So-called anti-Zionism — with the alibi of staying in the concrete — changes more and more the present events into a metaphysical question. On the one hand, this is normal: it is characteristic of the “anti” to have an absolute enemy, compared to which the other enemies become relative enemies. At the moment it is Israel’s turn to be the target, and in my opinion it is necessary to distinguish oneself from that. It’s not the assault on the synagogues during the demonstrations of Saturday July 19th in Paris that ought determine this necessity, even if it makes it stronger in some measure. It is not necessary to exaggerate the importance of the uncontrolled behaviors that occurred; it is certain however that they are symptomatic of something — of a drift — whose possibility is consubstantial to anti-Zionism. The confusion between Jews, Zionism and Israel, the fluidity with which these different terms become interchangeable, if they do not appear in the public speeches and in the programmatic slogans, can nevertheless be noticed in the informal conversations that can be heard here and there in the demonstrations, and are on the other hand obvious enough. It is absolutely not the point to operate the slightest defense of the state of Israel — which would be merely absurd — but merely to replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history, as the transformation of the enemy into absolute enemy sustains itself on myth and reproduces it. Similarly, the point is to escape from two equally unsustainable positions for a communist: on one side, the “solidarity with Palestinian resistance,” on the other side the proletarian internationalism as abstract principle. On this last point, I first want to say that what the ant-Zionists misunderstand is that — if some margins of pressure on the Israeli government exist — they lie on the side of those who live in Israel. The demonstrations that occurred in Israel against the slaughter in Gaza are encouraging, and forcefully more significant than those which occurred elsewhere; but they are in any case only few things, especially if we think that they rather spring from an impulse of moral indignation or from the affirmation of principles than from anything else, as it generally happens for the present pacifist movements; they are the most fertile field for the petty bourgeoisie with leftist sympathies and a cultural level, with all their generous feelings (some can remember the great demonstrations in Italy against war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the flags for peace hanged from the windows… and how it all ended). Concretely, a general strike striking the Israeli economy would be necessary (or at least the menace of this) to provisionally make Israeli government draw back. On the other hand, it is not surprising that this does not happen. It’s useless to launch general appeals to class struggle and solidarity among exploited peoples. The Israeli working class and the Palestinian working class can with difficulty unite in any common struggle, simply because they do not live in the same conditions. It is not a question of “class consciousness,” rather an objective situation: we can be the best comrades in the world, but this changes nothing if your situation is objectively in your advantage. I quote a passage from the book by Théorie Communiste on Middle East that seems to me particularly appropriate to this subject:

It is an illusion to hope within a predictable future in any junction between the struggles of Israeli proletariat and the struggles of the Palestinian proletariat. The major changes of Israeli capital have aggravated the situation of Israeli proletariat and this worsening is deeply linked to the transformations of the management of the territories and to the use of the Palestinian workforce. The disappearance of historical Zionism in those transformations is equivalent to the weakening of all the enterprises of the public sector and of the sector in the hand of the Histadrut [General Organization of Workers in the Land of Israel, Israel’s organization of trade unions]. Above all, the use of Palestinian workforce exposes the Israeli working class to the competition of the low wages of this workforce and of the still lower ones practiced beyond the frontier in the surrounding Arab countries. A great deal of Jewish workers of the public sector today are employed under a fixed-term contract, mostly the young people, the women and the new immigrants. The rallying of precarious workers or the new “radical” little unions that appeared during strikes, like the ones in the railway (2000) have the greatest difficulties to get recognized by the Histadrut (Aufheben, “Behind the Twenty-First Century Intifada” No. 10, 2002). The worsening of the situation of the Israeli proletariat and the reduction of the Palestinian proletariat to a “fourth-world” condition belong in fact to the same mutations of Israeli capitalism, but this nevertheless does not provide in any way the conditions of the slightest “solidarity” between both proletariats, quite the reverse. For the Israeli proletarian, the Palestinian with low wage is a social danger, and more and more a physical one, for the Palestinian proletarian the advantages the Israeli can retain rest on his own exploitation, his increased relegation and the seize of the territories. (Théo Cosme, Le Moyen-Orient, 1945-2002, Senonevero, Marseille 2002, p. 259)

Thus, if we look closely, the way the thing are is that the movement against war that was the basis of the demonstrations in Israel has been in any case the most dignified thing, as far as it has been something in the frame of the present hodgepodge. Vice versa the anti-Zionists — if it were not for the troubles they to generate — seem almost tender for their blessed ignorance of the things of this world. Particularly the “anticapitalists” ones: moreover their problem — as collectors of anti-isms — is that having an absolute enemy means forcefully that one can have only one at a time …. and have to choose between capitalism and Israel, they usually choose Israel. They usually do so also for convenience, as it is easier to be simply against individuals than against the social relation that determines their social function and position. I said before that we must in any case replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history. Then let us start from a banal fact. Let us consider the geographic map of the area and the different evolutions of the territories from the end of the Second World War until today: starting from a few settlements — mainly situated on the coast and in the north — out of which was constituted its proto-state in 1946, Israel has appropriated in 60 years almost the totality of historical Palestine. To the Palestinians, very few is left from what Gaza and the West Bank still represented in 1967 (these frontiers are claimed today by the Hamas). In this sense, the problem of determining the frontiers that would delimit a “legitimate” Israeli state is irrelevant, so trivially impossible it is to solve: the logic of the seizing of the territories has revealed itself inseparable from its existence as national state. From this undeniable fact, the anti-Zionists deduce the illegitimate character of Israeli state, defined by them as “Zionist” — as if this adjective already said everything per se. This implicitly means that some states have a right to exist, and other not. But to ask the question of the legitimacy of Israeli state compared to other states simply means to ignore how the nation-states constitute themselves as homogeneous areas. It would be enough to look at the history of the Italian state: internal colonization promoted by the previous reign of Savoy, persecution of the “brigandage” in the South, Italianization of Trentino-South Tyrol and Istria under fascism, centrifugal surges and “national liberation” movements in Sicily and Sardinia, etc.. What is then a legitimate state? And what is an illegitimate state? We will say the same about the so-called “right to the land.” Who has a “right” to the land? According to what may one argue that a given geographic area “belongs” to a given population? According to passed history? And first, who had settled there, who was living there? It is the accomplished fact that establishes the “right,” and that’s all… at least in the world as it exists today. It is absolutely vain to participate (or sustain) the controversy over “who came first.” In facts, any reasoning over this point must resort to juridical formalism. In the fact that somebody may drive me out of my home, the real problem lies in the fundamental question, in the fact that there is something mine and something not mine…. And in the fact that what is mine may arouse the lust of somebody else, insofar as to be ready to resort to the abuse of his power to seize it. With some luck and adequate economic and military means, I will perhaps to seize back my home. If I am less lucky, I will not succeed to do that. In any case, the essential of the whole thing is that it doesn’t contain a dynamic that would go beyond itself — beyond the resentments and reciprocal accusations of suffered wrongs. The “reason” may be on my side or not, it is a conflict of typically military nature: action calls for reaction, and thus until the weakest is worn out . To come back to it and try to find in it something more, it is necessary that the concerned usurper represents the interests of the absolute enemy (the USA, pressure groups, or “Jewish finance”: we’ll come back to that). What’s more, it is simply stupid to contest — as the ridiculous [Roger] Garaudy does, following the ultra-orthodox Jews, in The Founding Myths of Modern Israel — the character of nation of Judaism, arguing that it is merely a religion: this only consists in opposing the idea to history, or to get lost in useless investigations that look back into the past since the dawn of time in order to affirm the authenticity, true or presumed, of one or other nationality. Similarly, to reproach to Israel — as, conversely, the Marxish professor Bertell Ollman does in his Letter of Resignation from the Jewish People — to have betrayed the universalist tradition of the Judaism of the diaspora, leads to make of this Judaism an essence which would be at safe from historical becoming. It is enough for us to know that everybody lives and relives his own past according to his own present. The experience of the present continuously selects and reworks the existing historical material. No national identity is produced ex nihilo; but the internal coherence and the times of incubation required are less important than one may think. As far as a given “feeling of national belonging” — for reasons we could consider as more or less good — appears in history and succeeds in consolidating itself, it becomes effective in reality. No nation is “legitimate” in itself, its legitimacy simply depends on its ability to unite, maintain and transform itself in history without disappearing. Exactly the way it happens for certain social movements that always have minority origins and a completely unpredictable future trajectory. The PKK — official embodiment of the Kurdish nationalist movement, previously “Stalinist” and today advocating a “democratic confederalism” — was constituted at the moment of its creation in the beginning of the seventies by a handful of students living in Ankara. To insist on the exceptional character of the denominational nature of the Israeli state, then, it is merely taking at face value what the Likud likes to tell about Israel. Continue reading

All in the family: Hendrik de Man and his nephew, Paul

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Texts by Paul de Man

  1. Aesthetic Ideology
  2. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust
  3. Critical Writings, 1953-1978
  4. Notebooks
  5. Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism
  6. The Post-Romantic Predicament
  7. The Resistance to Theory

Texts on Paul de Man

  1. The Political Archive of Paul de Man: Property, Sovereignty, and the Theotropic
  2. Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory

Texts by Hendrik de Man

  1. The Psychology of Marxian Socialism
  2. Beyond Marxism: Faith and Works

Texts on Hendrik de Man

  1. Zeev Sternhell, The Idealist Revision of Marxism: The Ethical Socialism of Henri De Man
  2. José Carlos Mariátegui, A Defense of Marxism

Texts on Paul and Hendrik de Man

  1. Dick Pels, The Intellectual as Stranger: Studies in Spokesmanship

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Hendrik and Paul de Man

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In a 1973 article on “Semiology and Rhetoric,” the literary theorist Paul de Man raised a question posed by Archie Bunker: “What’s the difference?” Bunker was of course the lovably racist protagonist of the popular sitcom All in the Family. Playing on the character’s last name, de Man therefore continued: “Suppose it is a de-bunker rather than a ‘Bunker,’ and a de-bunker of the arche (or origin), an archie Debunker such as Nietzsche or Derrida for instance, who asks the question ‘What is the difference?’ — and we cannot even tell from his grammar whether he ‘really’ wants to know ‘what’ difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn’t even try to find out.”

Deconstruction takes, or took, such punning deadly serious. One hesitates over the tense because, well, it’s unclear whether deconstruction is taken too seriously anymore. After all, the term is usually taken to derive from Martin Heidegger’s Destruktion, as Derrida made clear in a 1986 interview: “It was a kind of active translation that displaces somewhat the word Heidegger uses: Destruktion, the destruction of ontology, which also does not mean the annulment, the annihilation of ontology, but an analysis of the structure of traditional ontology.” (Later Derrida would trace the concept further back to the thought of another German named Martin: namely Luther, whose word destructio prefigured its contemporary use by several centuries. This is somewhat beside the point, however).

Paul de Man accusations leveled against him

Skeletons in the closet

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Ever since the publication of Victor Farías’ incendiary, if imperfect, 1985 exposé Heidegger and Nazism, the great German thinker has fallen into disrepute. Numerous titles were released in the wake of this bombshell, by scholars like Hans Sluga, Tom Rockmore, and Domenico Losurdo. Recently the discovery of the so-called Black Notebooks, which contain Heidegger’s lecture notes for 1933 up through 1935, has added to the mountain of evidence proving he was a committed fascist and virulent antisemite both in private and in public. Translation into English is slated to come out this year from Indiana University Press, but a lengthy commentary and introduction by Emmanuel Faye has been out since 2009.

Many of the criticisms made since Farías reignited the controversy have simply confirmed the judgment already passed on fundamental ontology by figures like Günther Anders and Theodor Adorno. As early as 1948, Anders accused Heidegger of nihilism: “He had no principle whatsoever, no social idea: nothing. When the trumpet of National Socialism started blaring into his moral vacuum, he became a Nazi.” In 1963, Adorno polemicized against The Jargon of Authenticity (by which he meant Heidegger’s philosophy). “Jargon even picks up banal [words], holds them high and bronzes them in the fascist manner which wisely mixes plebeian with elitist elements.”

Jean-Pierre Faye, father of Emmanuel, further implicated Heidegger’s French admirers in the camp of deconstruction already in the 1970s. Unlike Anders or Adorno, who primarily addressed a German and American readership, Faye extended his critique of Heideggerianism to the Francophone world. Loren Goldner, a left communist and outspoken opponent of poststructuralism, explained the substance of his critique in a review entitled “Jean-Pierre Faye’s Demolition of Derrida”:

[He] shows that the famous word Dekonstruktion was first used in a Nazi psychiatry journal edited by the cousin of Hermann Göring, and that the word Logozentrismus was coined (for denunciatory purposes) in the 1920s by the protofascist thinker Ludwig Klages. In short, sections of French and, more recently, American academic discourse in the “human sciences” have been dominated for decades by a terminology originating not in Heidegger but first of all in the writings of Nazi scribblers, recycled through Latin Quarter Heideggerians. Faye zeroes in with surgical skill on the evasions of those, particularly on the left, for whom the “greatest philosopher” of the century of Auschwitz happened to be — as a mere detail — a Nazi.

After 1933, under pressure from Nazi polemics, Heidegger began to characterize the prior Western metaphysical tradition as “nihilist” and worked out the whole analysis for which he became famous after 1945: the “fall” in the Western conception of Being after Parmenides and above all Aristotle, the essence of this fall in its modern development as the metaphysics of the “subject” theorized by Descartes, and the evolution of this subject up to its apotheosis in Nietzsche and the early Heidegger of Being and Time. Between 1933 and 1945, this diagnosis was applied to the decadent Western democracies overcome by the “internal greatness” of the National Socialist Movement; after 1945, Heidegger effortlessly transposed this framework to show nihilism culminating not in democracy but…in Nazism. In the 1945 “Letter on Humanism” in particular, Western humanism as a whole is assimilated to the metaphysics of this subject The new project, on the ruins of the Third Reich, was to overthrow the “Western humanism” that was responsible for Nazism! Thus the initial accommodation to Krieck and other party hacks, which produced the analysis in the first place, passed over to a “left” version in Paris, barely missing a step. The process, for a more American context, goes from Krieck to Heidegger to Derrida to the postmodern minions of the Modern Language Association. The “oscillation” that Faye demonstrated for the 1890-1933 period in Langages totalitaires has its extension in the contemporary deconstructionists of the “human sciences,” perhaps summarized most succinctly in Lyotard’s 1988 call to donner droit de cite a l’inhumain.

Faye is tracking the oscillation whereby, in 1987-1988, it became possible for Derrida, Lyotard, Lacoue-Labarthe, and others, to say, in effect: Heidegger, the Nazi “as a detail,” by his unmasking of the nihilistic “metaphysics of the subject” responsible for Nazism, was in effect the real anti-Nazi, whereas all those who, in 1933-1945 (or, by extension, today) opposed and continue to oppose fascism, racism, and antisemitism from some humanistic conviction, whether liberal or socialist, referring ultimately to the “metaphysics of the subject”-such people were and are in effect “complicit” with fascism. Thus the calls for an “inhuman” thought.

Paul de Man’s reputation in the meanwhile has suffered a fate similar to that of Heidegger. Shortly after his death in 1983, it was revealed that he enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Between 1940 and 1942, de Man contributed a number of articles to Le Soir while the newspaper was under the management of fascist ideologues. One of the articles, on “The Jews and Contemporary European Literature,” was extremely antisemitic. Coming fresh on the heels of the Heidegger controversy, defenders of deconstruction were now faced with another scandal. De Man’s friends and co-thinkers rallied to defend his memory, organizing conferences in the vain hope that his legacy might yet be salvaged. Though several essay collections resulted from this engagement, featuring heavyweights from across the theoretical spectrum, de Man’s writings are no longer fashionable. Not the way they once were.

DoubleLifeofPauldeMan

Last year, though, Evelyn Barish released a biography detailing The Double-Life of Paul de Man. Suzanne Gordon, one of his former students, wrote a piece for Jacobin in which she denounced de Man as “a Nazi collaborator, embezzler, bigamist, serial deadbeat, and fugitive from justice in Belgium.” Here is not the place to wag fingers at de Man’s extramarital affairs, lackluster parenting skills, or casual misappropriations. While public interest in these aspects of his life is perhaps to be expected, as is its craving for salacious details, a lot of the information in Barish’s book is pure tabloid. Rumors and gossip do not merit serious consideration in the evaluation of a person’s work. Biography is not destiny.

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