Hatred of homosexuality

Gegen Kapital und Nation
Streifzüge (April 15 2014)
.
.

Theses toward a critique
of bourgeois sexuality
.

A) Nature, society, individual

.
1
Homo-, hetero-, and bisexuality are not biologically determined. Every scientific inquiry into the biological origins of homosexuality seeks to establish statistical correlation between sexual preference and physical attributes. Bigger earlobes, the properties/condition of testicles, shape of the brain, DNA sequences, etc., cannot count as causes, even if correlates exist within the group under review. For, in order to prove cohesion, one has to find not only a formal coherence of phenomena, but material coherence as well. After all, the high incidence of men with white beards and red coats around Christmas Eve does not prove that Santa Claus in fact brings the presents. Human sexuality is a specifically social thing. So it is just wrong to look for purely biological determinants or explanations.1

2 Nature provides the material preconditions of human sexuality: a body equipped with nerves, the brain, diverse fluids, etc. But it’s society that provides the historical conditions under which it takes place: everything from the form of political authority with its rules and acts, the prevailing perceptions, expectations, and aspirations of human coexistence, as well as the available knowledge about sexuality (including stimulants, toys, assorted utilities). The forms and contents of sexuality, however, originate in the thoughts and feelings of individuals who interpret these biological preconditions and sociological conditions.

3 The reason the “nature” argument appears obvious to so many people is that their sexual desires cannot be changed at a mere whim. Even if their sexual orientation changes once again after a certain point in their lives, they quite often think that now they’ve finally discovered their very own, formerly suppressed, true sexual identity. Precisely because modern human beings want to express their true nature in love and sexuality, they also seem to find here the identity of who they really are (not as determined by others). Henceforth, their sexuality and falling in love shall be entirely their own. The long road bourgeois subjects must take from birth so as to develop explicit sexual fantasies and practices — along with the wealth of experiences and decisions, all the sensible and senseless thoughts and feelings about human desire, objects of desire and their behaviors — this then appears to them like the long road to themselves. And all of this is put retrospectively in order to make sense of it. When this result is obtained, the process is at an end.

4 [“Born this way”] sexual inheritance was politically welcomed by the gay movement, because it could serve as an argument against concepts of therapy to reform and punish gay people. It also came in handy to confront fundamentalist Christians with the following question: Why would the Lord create gay and lesbian people, if he hates them so much? The notion of sin implies free will, the ability to violate God’s commandments. If homosexuality is inherited, it can’t be a sin. Yet this argument is defensive, often helpless, but always foolish and dangerous. At worst, it could even have brutal consequences. Defensive because gays appear as predetermined ninnies who might want to be otherwise if only they could, instead of saying that it’s fun and doesn’t harm anyone.2 Helpless because ideologies long ago evolved to reconcile the contradiction between divine creation and allegedly natural homosexuality (e.g., “special burden,” or “we love homosexuals but hate their sinful lifestyle,” etc.). Right-wing moralists will not be dissuaded from their hatred of gays after learning about gay penguins. Foolish and dangerous because the argument affirms biologism, which purports to derive everything from the links between amino acids to unemployment, French kissing [Zungenkuss], as well as Zionism. Manmade affairs are thereby transfigured into unalterable matters of nature. Lastly, it could have at worst brutal consequences, for if homosexuality is seen as an evil caused by nature this might lead to the conclusion that homosexuals and other miscellaneous “deviants” need to be outlawed and marginalized, if not annihilated outright.2

5 Humans make their own sexuality, but they do not make it as they please. They cannot simply undo what has already happened to them, either by or without their consent, as well as what they have (un)consciously made of these experiences. Psychoanalysis once promised to render these mechanisms visible and thereby enable patients to better handle them. That sounded appealing to a number of gay people looking for a psychoanalytic “cure” in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. With regard to homosexuality, over the decades psychoanalysis developed into a form of heteronormative enforcement therapy, in only partial compliance with its founder. It managed to promote some of the silliest and most contradictory psychological theories about homosexuality being conditioned by the family. Either the mother was too cold, affectionate, dominant, absent, or the father was too cold, affectionate, dominant, absent. Nowadays psychologists will say “multifactorial,” at least putting it on record that they have no idea where homos come from either.

6 Still, this isn’t so bad given that the question itself is somewhat stupid. Usually it’s just a prelude to pathologization or persecution which turns gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people into an anomaly demanding explanation. Rather than, say, putting into question the concept of choosing a partner or fuck buddy based on primary or secondary sexual characteristics, of all things. Even if a certain type of build, one’s hairiness, or the presence of a penis or vagina4 can be more or less sexually attractive:

a) biological sex is, in most cases, simply a matter of chance, since men and women and trans* and intersex are fortunately not as uniform as commonly maintained, and
b) the sexual function of bodily attributes is not independent of the thoughts and emotions people have about it.

Moreover, the commonplace notion is that love somehow naturally coincides with sexual attraction. But that’s not necessarily the way things work. Continue reading

They saved Lenin’s brain

 

An autopsy was performed on Lenin the same night as his embalming, lasting four hours and forty minutes. “Approximately halfway through the process Lenin’s brain was opened, and the direct cause of death was ascertained… When Lenin suffered a stroke on January 21, 1924, a large amount of blood rushed into his brain, much more blood than the sclerotic arteries had been transmitting. This pressure was too great for the brain’s damaged vessels, and the walls of those vessels broke down, flooding the brain with blood.” An official report of the autopsy was published the day of Lenin’s funeral. One reader, a non-party intellectual, criticized it for conveying the message that “Lenin is only matter, nothing more than a combination of a cranial hemisphere, intestines, an abdominal cavity, a heart, kidneys, a spleen…”

The weight of Lenin’s brain was 1,340 grams.

.
In 1968, Paragon Films adapted one of its older theater releases for television. Madmen of Mandoras (1963) only ran for seventy minutes, so about twenty minutes of footage had to be added to fill an hour-and-a-half slot. The result was They Saved Hitler’s Brain, an awful potpourri of shitty sixties sci-fi, WWII nostalgia, and spy film.

Of course, no one actually saved Hitler’s brain. As everyone knows, most of it was left splattered over the walls of a Berlin bunker. What little remained could hardly be salvaged.

However, the brain of another world-historical figure — one who was comparable in stature, if politically his polar opposite — was in fact preserved. Vladimir Lenin’s brain is still soaking in a vat somewhere inside the Moscow Institute of Brain Research, founded shortly after his death. Nikolai Semashko, Commissar of Health, summoned a pair of internationally renowned neurologists to the Russian capital to examine Lenin’s brain. Cécile and Oskar Vogt were the ultimate brain cytology power couple in Paris at the time. Semashko and his Politburo ally, Stalin, ostensibly wanted to establish the genius of the deceased Soviet premier on a materialist basis.

Upon their arrival in 1925, the Vogts were warmly greeted by party officials. Given a team of understudies and laboratory aids, as well as a building in which they could conduct their research, the husband-and-wife tandem immediately set to work. Oskar in particular was impressed by Lenin’s neuronal arrangements. His brain apparently housed a high number of abnormally large pyramidal cells clustered near the cortex, supposedly indicating a strong associative faculty. Vogt referred to Lenin in private as an “association athlete.”

lenin's brain compared with another

But there was an ulterior motive behind their invitation to Moscow. Lenin had left a testament in which he commented upon the strengths and weaknesses of the leading Bolsheviks, many of whom were now vying to succeed him. While none emerged wholly unscathed, the sharpest criticisms were reserved for Stalin. In the final months before Lenin’s death, he and Stalin had fought vociferously. Things got so heated that Lenin recommended Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary.

Krupskaya, Trotsky, and a few others hoped Vogt would find Lenin was compos mentis up to his death. Stalin of course hoped that Vogt would vindicate Lenin’s brilliance, but judge him to be not fully competent at the time he dictated his testament. At the end of the day, not much came of the inquiry. Provisional results were published in 1929, but no follow-up articles or essays immediately succeeded it. Not until 1967 would more information be released regarding the tests performed on Lenin’s brain.

Мозг Ильича Журнал «Смена» за 1925 год, рассказывает о «лучшем образце мозга человека с крупнейшим интеллектом»

Much has been written about this bizarre episode in the history of medical science and the early Soviet state. Tilman Spengler, a German author, novelized the story in 1991. Lenin’s Brain has since been widely translated. Paul R. Gregory, a Cold War liberal, included a chapter on it in his hokey collection Lenin’s Brain, and Other Stories from the Soviet Secret Archives. Igor Klatzo’s joint biography of Cécile and Oskar Vogt features a chapter about their time in Moscow. Jochen Richter’s “Pantheon of Brains: The Moscow Brain Research Institute, 1925-1936” can be read here.

Dubious though the science must seem, at nearly a century’s remove, the cult of genius within neuroscientific circles was not limited to Lenin. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s brain was also donated to the Institute and studied at length. Following the death of Albert Einstein in 1955, the great physicist’s brain was removed, mapped, cut into cross-sections, and scrutinized at length. Like Lenin, Einstein considered himself a socialist (albeit of a different stripe). Go figure.

Communist cranial capacity crushes cretinous capitalism.

The first building of the Moscow Brain Institute "Mozga" DETAIL_PICTURE_697657_80754362untitledVogt, Oskar *06.04.1870-+Hirnforscher, D- in seinem Forschungsinstitut im Schwarzwald bei der Betrachtung einer Filfolie aus einer Serie von Gehirnschnitten- 1943

Dialectics and porn: Two parables

.
Real dialectics is like porn: you know it when you see it. And talking about it too much just shows a profound sickness of the mind. It should seldom be brought up in polite conversation.

— Art V. Cabrera

librianna_bitch_of_black_sea_poster_01

The distinction between “socialism from above” and “socialism from below” has always struck me as unhelpful. Anarcho-populist weasel words, in my opinion. Socialism does it every which way: on top, underneath, from the side, reverse cowgirl. Not to mention on the kitchen counter. (“Every cook should govern,” as Lenin said).

Councilists do it spontaneous. I guess 69ing would be mutualism, but dual power is difficult to sustain.

— Ross Wolfe

Metaphysical theater

The transformation of the human body, its metamorphosis, is made possible by the costume, the disguise. Costume and mask emphasize the body’s identity or they change it; they express its nature or they are purposely misleading about it; they stress its conformity to organic or mechanical laws or they invalidate this conformity.

The native costume, as produced by the conventions of religion, state, and society, is different from the theatrical stage costume. Yet the two are generally confused. Great as has been the variety of native costumes developed during the course of human history, the number of genuine stage costumes has stayed very small. They are the few standardized costumes of the commedia delle arte: Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine, etc.; and they have remained basic and authentic to this day.

Schlemmer &cvt=JPEG

The following can be considered fundamentally decisive in the transformation of the human body in terms of this stage costume:

  1. The laws of the surrounding cubical space. Here the cubical forms are transferred to the human shape: head, torso, arms, legs are transformed into spatial-cubical constructions.
    Result: ambulant architecture.
  2. The functional laws of the human body in their relationship to space. These laws bring about a typification of the bodily forms: the egg shape of the head, the vase shape of the torso, the club shape of the arms and legs, the ball shape of the joints.
    Result: the marionette.
  3. The laws of motion of the human body in space. Here we have the various aspects of rotation, direction, and intersection of space: the spinning top, snail, spiral, disk.
    Result: a technical organism.
  4. The metaphysical forms of expression symbolizing various members of the human body: the star shape of the spread hand, the x sign of the folded arms, the cross shape of the backbone and shoulders; the double head, multiple limbs, division and suppression of forms.
    Result: dematerialization.

[Formentanz of Oscar Schlemmer] [Formentanz of Oscar Schlemmer] Rudolph Binnemann, German, about 1927 - 1928 Abbaspour, Mitra, Lee Ann Daffner, and Maria Morris Hambourg. Object-Photo rene (Hecht) Bayer, American (Chicago, Ill., USA 1898 - 1991 Los Angeles, Cal., USA) Title Equilibristic Dance [by Oskar Schlemmer] Continue reading

Gosprom: The State Industry building in Kharkov, 1925-1928

Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)a Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)b Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)c Robert Byron, Gosprom in Kharkov (1929)d

.
The most breathtaking of all constructivist projects has to be the Gosprom complex (or “Palace of Industry”) in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. There can’t have been anything else of this scale and ambition anywhere else in Europe at the time: indeed, it resembles more some particularly ambitious work of the late 1960s than the mid-twenties, an unacknowledged prototype of that sixties motif, the elevated walkway, the street in the sky. Constructed between 1926 and 1928, apparently by volunteers from the local Komsomol, this is Metropolis — or Aelita — actualized. Concrete and glass blocks from 7 to 13 storeys connected by skyways, curving round a huge public square, this resembles a small city in its own right. Its designers, Serafimov, Kravets, and Felger, appear to have been as obscure at the time as they have been since, yet only an El Lissitsky, a Gropius, or a Corbusier were designing anything as ambitious in 1926. Eisenstein and Vertov both used it on film (The General Line and Three Songs of Lenin, respectively), aptly, as the contrasts, angles and multiple levels had spatial affinities to their montage techniques: more literally, Friedrich Ermler used it in Fragment of Empire, a communist Rip van Winkle tale, as exemplar of the incomprehensible new world that the sleeper awakes to.

(From Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism)

Continue reading

Can a homosexual be a communist? Harry Whyte’s letter to Stalin, 1934

.
Editor’s Note. 
The following is an excerpt from
Moscow (Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2013), the new book by New York-based artist Yevgeniy Fiks. Moscow, which will be officially released on February 15, documents gay cruising sites in Soviet Moscow, from the early 1920s to the USSR’s dissolution in the early 1990s. Photographed in 2008 in a simple but haunting documentary style, these sites of the bygone queer underground present a hidden and forgotten Moscow, with a particular focus on Revolutionary Communist sites appropriated by queer Muscovites. The book concludes with the first English-language publication of a 1934 letter to Joseph Stalin in which British communist Harry Whyte presents a Marxist defense of homosexuality in light of its re-criminalization in the USSR.

Given post-Soviet Russia’s recent turn towards aggressive official homophobia, we thought it might be illuminating for our readers to read Whyte’s letter. We thank Yevgeniy Fiks and Ugly Duckling Presse for their permission to reprint it in full here.

See also “Cruising Past: Moscow’s Forgotten Gay History.”

P.S., the image at the top is André Gide speaking before a crowd atop Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, 1936. Molotov and Stalin stand behind him. I am ironically including images below from the 1950s, celebrating the short-lived friendship between the USSR and PRC. Not only to travesty the shamefully homophobic legacies of Stalin and Mao (though that also), but because they’re some of the most unconsciously homoerotic images I’ve ever seen.

e15-542 -китаец

Can a homosexual be a member of the Communist Party?
.

Harry Whyte
Moscow, USSR
May 1934

.
Comrade STALIN,

The content of my appeal is briefly as follows. The author of this letter, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, requests a theoretical grounding of the March 7 decree of the USSR Central Executive Committee on [the institution of] criminal liability for sodomy.[1] Since he strives to approach this question from a Marxist viewpoint, the author of this letter believes that the decree contradicts both the facts of life itself and the principles of Marxism-Leninism.

Here is a summary of the facts that are discussed in detail in the attached letter:

  1. On the whole, the condition of homosexuals under capitalism is analogous to the condition of women, the colored races, ethnic minorities, and other groups that are repressed for one reason or another;
  2. The attitude of bourgeois society to homosexuality is based on the contradiction between:
    1. capitalism’s need for “cannon fodder” and a reserve army of labor (leading to repressive laws against homosexuality, which is regarded as a threat to birth rates);
    2. the ever-growing poverty of the masses under capitalism (leading to the collapse of the working-class family and an increase in homosexuality).
  3. This contradiction can be resolved only in a society where the liquidation of unemployment and the constant growth of the material well being of workers fosters conditions in which people who are normal in the sexual sense can enter into marriage.
  4. Science confirms that an insignificant percentage of the population suffers from constitutional homosexuality.
  5. The existence of this insignificant minority is not a threat to a society under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
  6. The new law on homosexuality has provoked the most various and contradictory interpretations.
  7. The March 7 law fundamentally contradicts the basic principle of the previous law on this question.
  8. The March 7 law essentially calls for “leveling” in the realm of sexual life.
  9. The March 7 law is absurd and unjust from the viewpoint of science, which has proven the existence of constitutional homosexuals and has no means at its disposal to change the sexual nature of homosexuals.

Dear Comrade Stalin:

Although I am a foreign communist who has not yet been promoted to the AUCP(b),[2] I nevertheless think that it will not seem unnatural to you, the leader of the world proletariat, that I address you with a request to shed light on a question that, as it seems to me, has huge significance for a large number of communists in the USSR as well as in other countries.

The question is as follows: can a homosexual be considered someone worthy of membership in the Communist Party?

The recently promulgated law on criminal liability for sodomy, which was affirmed by the USSR Central Executive Committee on March 7 of this year, apparently means that homosexuals cannot be recognized as worthy of the title of Soviet citizen. Consequently, they should be considered even less worthy to be members of the AUCP(b).

Since I have a personal stake in this question insofar as I am a homosexual myself, I addressed this question to a number of comrades from the OGPU and the People’s Commissariat for Justice, to psychiatrists, and to Comrade Borodin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where I work.[3]

plakat_45+67

All that I managed to extract from them was a number of contradictory opinions which show that amongst these comrades there is no clear theoretical understanding of what might have served as the basis for passage of the given law. The first psychiatrist from whom I sought help with this question twice assured me (after verifying this with the People’s Commissariat for Justice) that if they are honest citizens or good communists, his patients may order their personal lives as they see fit. Comrade Borodin, who said that he personally took a negative view of homosexuality, at the same time declared that he regarded me as a fairly good communist, that I could be trusted, and that I could lead my personal life as I liked. Somewhat earlier, when the arrests of homosexuals had only just begun, Comrade Borodin was quite disinclined to view me as a potential criminal; he did not regard me as a bad communist, and this was confirmed by the fact that he promoted me at work by appointing me head of editorial staff, which is the highest-ranking supervisory position with the exception of members of the editorial board. Somewhat later, when the December 17 version of the law already existed, but before the March 7 decree, I contacted the OGPU in connection with the arrest of a certain person with whom I had had homosexual relations. I was told there that there was nothing that incriminated me.

All these statements produced the impression that the Soviet organs of justice were not prosecuting homosexuality as such, only certain socially dangerous homosexuals. If this is really the case, then is there a need for the general law?

On the other hand, however, after the law was issued on March 7, I had a conversation in the OGPU in which I was told that the law would be strictly applied to each case of homosexuality that was brought to light.

In connection with the lack of clarity that exists in this matter, I turn to you in the hope that you will find the time to give me an answer.

Allow me to explain to you this question as I understand it.

First and foremost, I would like to point out that I view the condition of homosexuals who are either of working-class origin or workers themselves to be analogous to the condition of women under the capitalist regime and the colored races who are oppressed by imperialism. This condition is likewise similar in many ways to the condition of the Jews under Hitler’s dictatorship, and in general it is not hard to see in it an analogy with the condition of any social stratum subjected to exploitation and persecution under capitalist domination.

When we analyze the nature of the persecution of homosexuals, we should keep in mind that there are two types of homosexuals: first, those who are the way they are from birth (moreover, if scientists disagree about the precise reasons for this, then there is no disagreement that certain deep-seated reasons do exist); second, there are homosexuals who had a normal sexual life but later became homosexuals, sometimes out of viciousness, sometimes out of economic considerations.

As for the second type, the question is decided relatively simply. People who become homosexuals by virtue of their depravity usually belong to the bourgeoisie, a number of whose members take to this way of life after they have sated themselves with all the forms of pleasure and perversity that are available in sexual relations with women. Amongst those who take to this way of life out of economic considerations, we find members of the petit bourgeoisie, the lumpenproletariat, and (as strange as it might seem) the proletariat. As a result of material necessity, which is particularly aggravated during periods of crisis, these people are forced temporarily to turn to this method of satisfying their sexual urges insofar as the absence of means deprives them of the possibility of marrying or at least contracting the services of prostitutes. There are also those who become homosexuals not in order to satisfy their urges, but in order to earn their keep by means of prostitution (this phenomenon has become especially widespread in modern Germany).

But science has established the existence of constitutional homosexuals. Research has shown that homosexuals of this type exist in approximately equal proportions within all classes of society. We can likewise consider as established fact that, with slight deviations, homosexuals as a whole constitute around two percent of the population. If we accept this proportion, then it follows that there are around two million homosexuals in the USSR. Not to mention the fact that amongst these people there are no doubt those who are aiding in the construction of socialism, can it really be possible, as the March 7 law demands, that such a large number of people be subjected to imprisonment?

Just as the women of the bourgeois class suffer to a significantly lesser degree from the injustices of the capitalist regime (you of course remember what Lenin said about this), so do natural-born homosexuals of the dominant class suffer much less from persecution than homosexuals from the working-class milieu. It must be said that even within the USSR there are conditions that complicate the daily lives of homosexuals and often place them in a difficult situation. (I have in mind the difficulty of finding a partner for the sexual act, insofar as homosexuals constitute a minority of the population, a minority that is forced to conceal its true proclivities to one degree or another.)

What is the attitude of bourgeois society to homosexuals? Even if we take into account the differences existing on this score in the legislation of various countries, can we speak of a specifically bourgeois attitude to this question? Yes, we can. Independently of these laws, capitalism is against homosexuality by virtue of its entire class-based tendency. This tendency can be observed throughout the course of history, but it is manifested with especial force now, during the period of capitalism’s general crisis.

Capitalism, which needs an enormous reserve army of labor and cannon fodder in order to flourish, regards homosexuality as a factor that threatens to lower birth rates (as we know, in the capitalist countries there are laws that punish abortion and other methods of contraception).

Of course, the attitude of the bourgeoisie to the homosexual question is typical hypocrisy. Strict laws are the cause of few nuisances for the bourgeois homosexual. Anyone who is at all familiar with the internal history of the capitalist class knows of the periodic scandals that arise in this regard; moreover, members of the dominant class who are mixed up in these affairs suffer to an insignificant degree. I can cite a little-known fact in this connection. Several years ago, one of the sons of Lord and Lady Astor was convicted of homosexuality. The English and American press omitted to report this fact, with the exception of the Morning Advertiser. This newspaper is owned by beer manufacturers, and it was in its interests to compromise Lord and Lady Astor, who had been agitating for the introduction of prohibition. Thus the fact of [Astor’s conviction] became known thanks to contradictions within the dominant class.

Thanks to its wealth, the bourgeoisie can avoid the legal punishment that descends in all its severity on homosexual workers with the exception of those cases when the latter have prostituted themselves to members of the dominant class.

I have already mentioned that capitalism, which has need of cannon fodder and a reserve army of labor, attempts to combat homosexuality. But at the same time, by worsening the living conditions of workers, capitalism produces the objective conditions for an increase in the number of homosexuals who take to this way of life by virtue of material necessity.

This contradiction is reflected in the fact that fascism, which employed the pederast [Marinus] van der Lubbe[4] as a weapon in its provocation, at the same time brutally suppressed the liberal-intelligentsia “liberation” movement of homosexuals led by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.[5] (See the Brown Book, which cites the Hirschfeld case as an instance of the anti-cultural barbarism of the fascists.)[6]

Another reflection of this contradiction is the figure of André Gide, French homosexual writer, leader of the antifascist movement, and ardent friend of the USSR. The general public in France knows about Gide’s homosexuality, for he has written about it openly in his books. And despite this, his authority amongst the masses as a fellow traveller of the communist party in France has not been shaken. The fact that Gide has joined the revolutionary movement has not hindered its growth or the support of the masses for the leadership of the communist party. In my view, this shows that the masses are not intolerant of homosexuals. Continue reading

No scabs

.
In the history of modern class struggle, those who cross picket lines to fill jobs temporarily vacated by workers on strike are known as “scabs.” Scabs are thus low-cost replacement workers, whose willingness to work for less allows employers to starve out the more organized regular workforce. They are therefore looked down upon, understandably, and treated with disdain. Not all strikebreakers are scabs, however. Company muscle, whether made up of mafiosos or Pinkerton men, are typically deployed in order to clear pickets and escort scabs into work.

Many today on the Left, either unaccustomed to labor disputes or unschooled in their past, are confused by the term “scab.” For example, Sebastian Budgen — an editor for Verso, New Left Review, and Historical Materialism, formerly a member of the SWP in Britain — has written frothy diatribes against anyone who illegally downloads books published by his company (er, I mean “counterhegemonic apparatus”). He bravely denounced the “petit-bourgeois individualist swine” and “loudmouthed freeloading scum” who dared to download “pirate scab versions.”

Thank fuck his series co-editor Peter Thomas stepped in at this point, though apparently for the umpteenth time, to remind him that “scabs” refer exclusively to workers who cross picket lines during a strike. I thought it pretty sad that a publisher of leftist literature would be so terminologically ignorant. Anyway, a more detailed etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary can be read here. Jack London’s famous excoriation of scab workers, from 1915, follows below.

Ode to a scab

Jack London
Circa 1915
.

After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab.

A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles.

When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.

don__t_scab

No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared with a scab. For betraying his master, he had character enough to hang himself. A scab has not.

Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British Army. The modern strikebreaker sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation.

Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a strikebreaker is a traitor to his God, his country, his wife, his family and his class.

Capitalism and bourgeoisie: The sorcerer’s apprentice

The magic and necromancy
of commodity production

.
Goethe’s famous 1797 ballad Der Zauberlehrling [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] provides probably the best allegory for Marx’s own conception of capitalism, which he memorably described as partaking of a kind of sorcery — “the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities.”

Under the capitalist mode of production, the producer is ruled by the products of his labor rather than the other way around. Living labor in the present serves the accumulated dead labor of the past. “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [The dead holds the living in its grasp!]

An illustration of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found on nucius.org

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels implicitly allude to Goethe’s poem, comparing society’s relation to capital to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Marshall Berman, the late Marxist critic, reflected on this line at some length in his 1982 masterpiece All that is Solid: The Experience of Modernity:

This image evokes the spirits of that dark medieval past that our modern bourgeoisie is supposed to have buried. Its members present themselves as matter-of-fact and rational, not magical; as children of the Enlightenment, not of darkness. When Marx depicts the bourgeois as sorcerers — remember, too, their enterprise has “conjured whole populations out of the ground,” not to mention “the specter of communism” — he is pointing to depths they deny. Marx’s imagery projects, here as ever, a sense of wonder over the modern world: its vital powers are dazzling, overwhelming, beyond anything the bourgeoisie could have imagined, let alone calculated or planned. But Marx’s images also express what must accompany any genuine sense of wonder: a sense of dread. For this miraculous and magical world is also demonic and terrifying, swinging wildly out of control, menacing and destroying blindly as it moves. The members of the bourgeoisie repress both wonder and dread at what they have made: these possessors don’t want to know how deeply they are possessed.

All this ought to be perfectly familiar to attentive readers of Marx. Remarking on this peculiar double aspect, by which all things seem to engender their own negation, Marx observed: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, as if by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.”

.
To illustrate this, here is Walt Disney’s animated epic Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse. (Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein already recognized Mickey as a revolutionary in the early 1930s). Capital appears here as a spell to alleviate necessary labor, the bewitched broomsticks as automata. But it works too well. It overwhelms its putative master, resulting in serial overproduction, overflowing basins of water, etc.

Isaak Babel, writer and revolutionary (1894–1940)

Isaak Babel

Jorge Luis Borges
El Hogar [Home]
December 1938
.

He was born in the jumbled catacombs of the stair-stepped port of Odessa, late in 1894. Irreparably Semitic, Isaak was the son of a rag merchant from Kiev and a Moldavian Jewess. Catastrophe has been the normal climate of his life. In the uneasy intervals between pogroms he learned not only to read and write but to appreciate literature and enjoy the work of Maupassant, Flaubert, and Rabelais. In 1914, he was certified a lawyer by the Faculty of Law in Saratov; in 1916, he risked a journey to Petrograd. In that capital city “traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews” were banned: the category was somewhat arbitrary, but — implacably — it included Babel. He had to rely on the friendship of a waiter who took him home and hid him, on a Lithuanian accent acquired in Sevastopol, and on an apocryphal passport.

His first writings date from that period: two or three satires of the Czarist bureaucracy, published in Annals, [Maksim] Gorky’s famous newspaper. (What must he think, and not say, about Soviet Russia, that indecipherable labyrinth of state offices?). Those two or three satires attracted the dangerous attention of the government. He was accused of pornography and incitement of class hatred. From this catastrophe he was saved by another catastrophe: the Russian Revolution.

In early 1921, Babel joined a Cossack regiment. Those blustering and useless warriors (no one in the history of the universe has been defeated more often than the Cossacks) were, of course, anti-Semitic. The mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite. A couple of well-timed and flashy exploits enabled Babel to make them leave him in peace. By reputation, though not according to the bibliographies, Isaak Babel is still a homo unius libri.

His unmatched book is titled Red Cavalry.

The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes.

One of the stories — “Salt” — enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems, and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart.

.
Isaak Babel was Leon Trotsky’s favorite Soviet author. He was purged by Stalin in the late 1930s. To  download a PDF of his complete works, click here.

babel

Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner

Gabo-Red-Kinetic-Painting-97-largeThe realistic manifesto (1920)

.

Above the tempests of our weekdays,
Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past,
Before the gates of the vacant future,

We proclaim today to you artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, poets…to you people to whom Art is no mere ground for conversation but the source of real exaltation, our word and deed.

The impasse into which Art has come to in the last twenty years must be broken.

The growth of human knowledge with its powerful penetration into the mysterious laws of the world which started at the dawn of this century,

The blossoming of a new culture and a new civilization with their unprecedented-in-history surge of the masses towards the possession of the riches
of Nature, a surge which binds the people into one union, and last, not least, the war and the revolution (those purifying torrents of the coming epoch), have made us face the fact of new forms of life, already born and active.

Naum Gabo in his studio, 1935 Antoine Pevsner in his Paris studio

What does Art carry into this unfolding epoch of human history?

Does it possess the means necessary for the construction of the new Great Style?

Or does it suppose that the new epoch may not have a new style?

Or does it suppose that the new life can accept a new creation which is constructed on the foundations of the old?

Naum Gabo

Naum Gabo

In spite of the demand of the renascent spirit of our time, Art is still nourished by impression, external appearance, and wanders helplessly back and forth from Naturalism to Symbolism, from Romanticism to Mysticism.

The attempts of the Cubists and the Futurists to lift the visual arts from the bogs of the past have led only to new delusions.

Cubism, having started with simplification of the representative technique ended with its analysis and stuck there.

The distracted world of the Cubists, broken in shreds by their logical anarchy, cannot satisfy us who have already accomplished the Revolution or who are already constructing and building up anew.

One could heed with interest the experiments of the Cubists, but one cannot follow them, being convinced that their experiments are being made on the surface of Art and do not touch on the bases of it seeing plainly that the end result amounts to the same old graphic, to the same old volume and to the same decorative surface as of old.

Antoine Pevsner

Antoine Pevsner

One could have hailed Futurism in its time for the refreshing sweep of its announced Revolution in Art, for its devastating criticism of the past, as in no other way could have assailed those artistic barricades of “good taste”…powder was needed for that and a lot of it…but one cannot construct a system of art on one revolutionary phrase alone.

Continue reading