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Crisis and Critique

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CRISIS AND CRITIQUE: Critique Of Political Economy

Volume 3, issue 3, 16-11-2016 Edited by Frank Ruda &  Agon Hamza

It is 2016, and we are still living under capitalism. Yet, how does  contemporary capitalism function? How is it possible for a system, which declared its final victory in the beginning of the last decade of the previous century, to already face some of its most serious and profound crisis since the first decade, of the present century? The on-going crisis has reopened some of the (half) forgotten and prematurely answered & questions about the modes in which capitalism operates: the relation between the State and capital, the limits of capital, the forms of changes within capitalism, forms of domination and exploitation, social classes, et cetera . . .

Table of Contents

Introduction by Frank Ruda &  Agon Hamza PDF

A Marxian Critique of Neoclassical Economics’ Reliance on Shadows of Capital’s Constitutive Social Forms by…

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Early Soviet children’s books, 1924-1932

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The Young Polytechnician: Housing
(1931)

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Out with bourgeois crocodiles!
How the Soviets rewrote children’s books

Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian
May 4, 2016
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In 1925, Galina and Olga Chichagova il­lus­trated a two-pan­el poster that called for a re­volu­tion in chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion in the new So­viet Uni­on. The left pan­el fea­tured tra­di­tion­al char­ac­ters from Rus­si­an fairytales and folk­lore — kings, queens, the Fire­bird, the witch Baba Yaga and, my fa­vor­ite, a cro­codile in el­eg­ant night­cap and dress­ing gown. “Out,” read the cap­tion, “with mys­ti­cism and fantasy of chil­dren’s books!!” Continue reading

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Self-loathing on the campaign trail, 2016

My last post dealt with fear. This post, by con­trast, will deal with loath­ing.

Self-loath­ing, to be ex­act.

As soon as it be­came clear Trump was go­ing to win the elec­tion last Tues­day night, a wave of des­pair swept over lib­er­als and pro­gress­ives alike. Even left­ists who’d up to then feigned in­dif­fer­ence to the res­ult now joined in the out­pour­ing of emo­tion that fol­lowed Clin­ton’s de­feat. Gen­er­ally this took the form of an­ger, an­guish, or grief. Usu­ally it was some mix­ture there­of. One re­ac­tion was par­tic­u­larly use­less, however: guilt.

White guilt, to be ex­act.

Nu­mer­ous think­pieces and ed­it­or­i­als ap­peared over the course of the fol­low­ing days. Rep­res­ent­at­ive titles in­clude “Dear White Wo­men: We Fucked Up” in The Huff­ing­ton Post, and “I am Ashamed to be Part of the Demo­graph­ic that Elec­ted Trump” from Af­fin­ity Magazine. Sarah Ruiz-Gross­man wrote in the former: “I am ashamed of my coun­try and ashamed of white people. But more than any­one else, I am ashamed of white wo­men.” Cas­sie Baker soun­ded off in the lat­ter: “I can­not even be­gin to con­vey how em­bar­rassed and ashamed I am that this is what it has come to.” Pub­lic an­nounce­ments of this sort had already be­gun to pour in on so­cial me­dia the night be­fore. Laurie Penny, a fre­quent con­trib­ut­or to The Guard­i­an and New In­quiry, con­fessed on Twit­ter: “I have had white lib­er­al guilt be­fore. Today is the first time I’ve ac­tu­ally been truly hor­ri­fied and ashamed to be white.” An­oth­er au­thor, who has writ­ten for Marx­ist pub­lic­a­tions like Sal­vage and So­cial­ist Work­er in the past, echoed Penny’s sen­ti­ment on Face­book: “Not sure if I’ve ever felt as ashamed to be a white Amer­ic­an man as I do today.”

Hon­estly, though I’ve been known to be a bit cyn­ic­al, I won­der what such state­ments ac­tu­ally aim to ac­com­plish. Of­ten they seem like vir­tue-sig­nal­ing rituals of atone­ment, meant to con­vey to oth­ers what a good ally someone is. Either that or as­suage their guilty con­science. And the same goes with the safety pins act­iv­ists have star­ted to wear, as in the af­ter­math of the Brexit vote this sum­mer. Ruby Ha­mad put it bluntly in an ed­it­or­i­al pub­lished by The Sydney Morn­ing Her­ald: “Safety pins are mean­ing­less acts of solid­ar­ity made to as­suage white guilt.” “Make no mis­take, that’s what the safety pins are for,” Chris­toph­er Keelty wrote with equal blunt­ness in a blog entry for The Huff­ing­ton Post, “help­ing white people feel bet­ter.” Chris­toph­er Lasch dia­gnosed long ago the nar­ciss­ism that mo­tiv­ates many in­di­vidu­als com­mit­ted to act­iv­ist causes: “Polit­ic­al move­ments ex­er­cise a fatal at­trac­tion for those who seek to drown the sense of per­son­al fail­ure in col­lect­ive ac­tion.” Continue reading

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Fear trumps love

One sign, waved by someone some­how #Still­With­H­er, reads: “Not my pres­id­ent.” An­oth­er echoes the pop­u­lar chant: “We re­ject the pres­id­ent elect.” Fi­nally, and most ubi­quit­ously: “Love trumps hate.”

Such are the slo­gans seen and heard at anti-Trump ral­lies since elec­tion res­ults rolled in. Call­ing them ri­ots is push­ing it; these are pretty pro­sa­ic af­fairs. I usu­ally don’t put too much stock in the mot­toes and phrases mind­lessly re­peated at rituals of dis­sent, but here the last ex­ample men­tioned at the out­set in­struct­ive. Does love in­deed trump hate? Per­haps. Read­ers of Ma­chiavelli will re­call that there’s an­oth­er sen­ti­ment, however, more power­ful than love or hate: fear. More on this a bit later; for now, let’s ex­am­ine the forms of mo­bil­iz­a­tion that have cropped up in re­sponse to the pro­spect of a Trump pres­id­ency.

Hysterical liberalism and protest politics

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Lib­er­als know that people are angry, so they’ve brought in their ap­poin­ted “com­mu­nity lead­ers,” preach­ers, and vari­ous oth­er “peace­keep­ers” to pre­vent these protests from be­ing any­thing oth­er than im­pot­ent cry-ins. M. Har­lan Hoke was for­tu­nate enough to at­tend a de­mon­stra­tion in Philly or­gan­ized by So­cial­ist Al­tern­at­ive, rather than by dis­gruntled Dems. He com­ments that SAlt at least man­aged to stay on point by fo­cus­ing on val­id eco­nom­ic griev­ances and the need for com­pre­hens­ive so­cial re­form, while also ac­know­ledging the con­cerns of groups frightened by Trump’s in­flam­mat­ory rhet­or­ic on im­mig­ra­tion, re­li­gious dis­crim­in­a­tion, and abor­tion.

Else­where, in the more “spon­tan­eous” marches — quickly com­mand­eered by pro­fes­sion­al act­iv­ists and NGO rep­res­ent­at­ives loy­al to the Demo­crat­ic Party — their pur­pose was much less clear. In a post on his new blog, Im­per­i­um ad In­fin­itum, Hoke ob­serves that “in oth­er cit­ies, the theme of the protests is ba­sic­ally angry ob­li­vi­ous Demo­crats. Their mes­sage is what? Vote Demo­crat in the 2018 and 2020 midterms? Just keep protest­ing Trump?” Protest polit­ics are fairly lim­ited to be­gin with, and I have my cri­ti­cisms even of pop­u­lar front co­ali­tions formed by parties and or­gan­iz­a­tions fur­ther to the left (I’ll get to this later). For now it’s enough to em­phas­ize that lib­er­al­ism is a total dead end.

 

Woke celebrit­ies like Lena Dun­ham, Beyoncé Knowles, and Aman­da Mar­cotte are also out in force, of course, ex­press­ing their sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous dis­may. Katy Perry is pro­claim­ing open re­volu­tion in widely-shared tweets. But these are un­likely to carry over in­to the real world. Pop sing­er and Ary­an god­dess Taylor Swift has re­mained con­spicu­ously si­lent throughout all of this. Then again, she’s un­wit­tingly be­come the darling Valkyrie of the al­tern­at­ive right, so maybe it’s in her best in­terest to hang back for a bit and see how things play out. Ri­ot grrrl pi­on­eers Le Tigre hope­fully re­gret that cringe-in­du­cing video en­dorse­ment of the would-be Ma­dame Pres­id­ent. Continue reading

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Reap the whirlwind

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But muh rain­bow co­ali­tion of mar­gin­al­ized iden­tit­ies will smash the kyri­archy as we sprinkle ma­gic di­versity pix­ie dust over every­one and cre­ate a shiny lib­er­al Star­bucks uto­pia. Yes­ter­day was 18 Bru­maire CCXXV ac­cord­ing to the French Re­pub­lic­an cal­en­dar, by the way. Just a happy co­in­cid­ence, I’m sure.

Left-lib­er­al “pro­gress­ives” did this to them­selves. This is ex­actly what re­treat­ing in­to cul­tur­al (i.e., iden­tity) polit­ics, while abandon­ing class as the basis for a so­cially trans­form­at­ive co­ali­tion, gets you. If you make no at­tempt to ap­peal to work­ers qua work­ers, the Right will in­ev­it­ably make in­roads with­in that group. As they in­deed have. So I don’t pity any­one who is ser­i­ously dis­traught by these res­ults. Blame for Trump can­not be laid solely at the door­step of “crack­ers” and hicks; he did sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter among blacks and Lati­nos than Rom­ney, his Re­pub­lic­an pre­de­cessor.

Most anti-af­firm­at­ive ac­tion shit is totally right-wing, so I will be­gin by say­ing that I in no way share the polit­ics of most people who look to cri­ti­cize it. But it’s ul­ti­mately a cos­met­ic meas­ure, which cre­ates a black and minor­ity bour­geois­ie and polit­ic­al elite (“black faces in high places,” etc.). When coupled with gen­er­al eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion and wage de­pres­sion, grow­ing in­come in­equal­ity and job loss, it’s a re­cipe for re­vanchist ma­jor­it­ari­an back­lash. Edu­cated lib­er­al elites ex­pressed noth­ing but con­tempt for the work­ing poor in fly­over coun­try, whom they vil­i­fied as “one re­ac­tion­ary mass” — i.e., a “bas­ket of de­plor­ables” — of ig­nor­ant ra­cists.

In such an at­mo­sphere, even the slight­est over­ture to the work­ing class was bound to res­on­ate enorm­ously. Here, of course, the ap­peal was made us­ing xeno­phobic and hate­ful rhet­or­ic, ex­ploit­ing long­stand­ing ra­cial di­vi­sions and cap­it­al­iz­ing on deeply-felt anxi­et­ies. Plus, the lack of any ap­peal to the work­ing class by the Demo­crats also meant that poor minor­it­ies were not en­er­gized to vote for them. Smug, latte-sip­ping lib­er­als just res­ted on their laurels, se­cure in their be­lief that vic­tory was as­sured by simple demo­graph­ic shifts. All this while of­fer­ing noth­ing to work­ing blacks or Lati­nos, and prom­ising con­tin­ued war on those parts of the globe from which the refugee crisis first arose. Continue reading

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Brexit means… what? Hapless ideology and practical consequences

Auf­heben № 24
November 2016
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The EU mi­grants’ or­deal and the lim­its of dir­ect ac­tion

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We be­gin this art­icle with a case dealt with by Brighton Solfed (SF) and CASE Cent­ral so­cial center — the story of an EU mi­grant in Brighton.

At the end of 2015, L., a Span­ish hos­pit­al­ity work­er, sought help from SF. She had worked in a res­taur­ant for more than a year but, as soon as she fell ill, her em­ploy­er sacked her with a flimsy ex­cuse, in or­der to avoid pay­ing Stat­utory Sick Pay (SSP). Re­ceiv­ing SSP would have been this work­er’s right un­der both do­mest­ic and European Uni­on (EU) le­gis­la­tion. However, the em­ploy­er in­sisted that she left her job vol­un­tar­ily, and re­fused to re-em­ploy here.

One then claimed a sick­ness be­ne­fit, Em­ploy­ment and Sup­port Al­low­ance (ESA). As an EU work­er, she should have been en­titled to equal rights un­der EU le­gis­la­tion, and to ESA. However, the state re­fused the be­ne­fit: they said that, due [to] a “gap” between the end of her job and her claim, she was no longer a “work­er” when she claimed ESA. A be­ne­fits ad­vice group helped with an ap­peal, but the state re­fused to re­con­sider. L. was in a des­per­ate situ­ation, with no money and far from her fam­ily, and was temp­ted to move back to Spain. This would amount to eco­nom­ic de­port­a­tion — not im­posed through phys­ic­al force, but through ex­treme hard­ship.

Back in [the] 1970s the UK’s mem­ber­ship of the European Com­mon Mar­ket was op­posed by left-wing mil­it­ants, as the Com­mon Mar­ket was seen as a neo­lib­er­al club de­signed to pre­vent the ad­vance of so­cial­ism, or just the im­ple­ment­a­tion of Keyne­sian policies. Continue reading

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Class, segmentation, racialization: Reading notes

Théorie Communiste
Lucha No Feik Club
(October 26, 2016)
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Editorial note

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Ori­gin­ally pub­lished by Théorie Com­mun­iste as «Classe/seg­men­ta­tion/raci­sa­tion. Notes». Trans­lated from the French by LNFC, with sub­stan­tial re­vi­sions by Ross Wolfe. I can’t take cred­it for the ma­jor­ity of this trans­la­tion, as I worked from the one pos­ted by the Lucha No Feik Club. Nev­er­the­less, I found this trans­la­tion al­most un­read­able, and so de­cided to go over it again with my (ad­mit­tedly quite poor) French and make some modi­fic­a­tions. Right now it’s prob­ably still un­read­able, but hope­fully a little less so. Just to point out some of my own ed­its, and give a sense of my reas­ons for mak­ing them, a few words might be ad­ded here. For ex­ample, I changed cho­si­fiée from “thingi­fied” to “re­ified.” Un­doubtedly the former is used from time to time, but it comes across here as clunky and in­el­eg­ant. Also, I rendered face à face as “faceoff,” rather than the dread­fully lit­er­al “face-to-face.” Vari­ous oth­er minor cor­rec­tions were made, some of them slight over­sights. Part of the prob­lem is in the ori­gin­al text, however, as there are a couple places where there are word-for-word re­pe­ti­tions of en­tire sen­tences. These were no doubt un­in­ten­tion­al, and have been ex­cised from the present ver­sion.

As re­gards the con­tent, I am quite in­ter­ested in see­ing how Théorie Com­mun­iste relates the phe­nomen­on of “ra­cial­iz­a­tion” [raci­sa­tion] to the struc­tur­al lo­gic of cap­it­al and its his­tor­ic un­fold­ing. Clearly, the art­icle takes race to be a more ar­bit­rary con­struc­tion than gender. Gender is rooted in the sexu­al di­vi­sion of labor with­in the oikos, wherein the fam­ily is the fun­da­ment­al eco­nom­ic unit. There are more bio­lo­gic­al de­term­in­ants for gender, at least ini­tially. Some of this is sketched out in an­oth­er short art­icle pub­lished by Théorie Com­mun­iste, “Uter­us vs. Melan­in,” which as yet re­mains un­trans­lated. However, while race is more re­cent and based on ac­ci­dent­al fea­tures, it is no less real than gender. Théorie Com­mun­iste loc­ates ra­cial­iz­a­tion with­in the seg­ment­a­tion of the work­force, where su­per­fi­cial dis­tinc­tions such as skin col­or and dif­fi­culties of com­mu­nic­a­tion (mul­tiple lan­guages, etc.) be­come mark­ers of dif­fer­ence. Deni­al of these dif­fer­ences, in the name of some norm­at­ive ideal of what class should be, is sharply cri­ti­cized for ig­nor­ing the seg­men­ted real­ity of so­cial­ized labor. Loren Gold­ner put this quite nicely a while back, when he wrote that “the ‘col­orblind’ Marx­ism of many left com­mun­ist cur­rents — a pro­let­ari­an is a pro­let­ari­an is a pro­let­ari­an — is simply… blind Marx­ism.”

Of course, race does not op­er­ate every­where uni­formly. It doesn’t al­ways fall along a col­or spec­trum run­ning from “white” to “black.” To be sure, the leg­acy of ra­cial­ized slavery in the United States over­shad­ows most oth­er his­tor­ic­al de­term­in­a­tions of race. But xeno­pho­bia to­ward vari­ous poor im­mig­rant groups — the Ir­ish in the 1850s, the Chinese in the early 1900s, Itali­ans in the 1920s-1930s, Lati­nos today — also plays a ma­jor role. Para­noia about Is­lam also in­forms a great deal of the hate­ful rhet­or­ic we’ve seen spouted against refugees since 2001. An­ti­semit­ism is less pro­nounced in the United States than in con­tin­ent­al Europe, cer­tainly, but it’s not al­to­geth­er un­known. Ra­cial dy­nam­ics work them­selves out a bit dif­fer­ently in France, with its his­tory of co­lo­ni­al­ism. However, I’m heartened to read that Théorie Com­mun­iste has no pa­tience for the re­ac­tion­ary polit­ics of race peddled by groups like the Parti des indigènes de la République and its lead­er, Houria Bouteldja. Roughly two years ago I cri­ti­cized the cul­tur­al re­lativ­ism of this par­tic­u­lar group, which per­vades de­co­lo­ni­al dis­course in gen­er­al, its “tac­tic­al ho­mo­pho­bia” and “lat­ent an­ti­semit­ism” (as the fol­low­ing art­icle puts it). Later I re­pos­ted an ex­cel­lent piece writ­ten by Ma­lika Amaouche, Yas­mine Kateb, and Léa Nic­olas-Te­boul.. «Classe/seg­men­ta­tion/raci­sa­tion» lam­bastes the PIR, who Théorie Com­mun­iste calls the “en­tre­pren­eurs of ra­cial­iz­a­tion.” I don’t blame Bouteldja et al. for pur­su­ing this en­ter­prise, though; someone had to tap the mar­ket left un­touched by Bloc Iden­titaire.

There has al­ways been seg­ment­a­tion with­in labor power. We must take it, then, as an ob­ject­ive de­term­in­a­tion of labor power un­der cap­it­al that nat­ur­ally leads to a di­vi­sion of labor. Here we have noth­ing more than a di­vide between a ho­mo­gen­eous ma­ter­i­al and a simple quant­it­at­ive grad­a­tion of the value of labor power. (Both simple and com­plex work un­der­go a kind of os­mos­is with­in the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, from the gen­er­al­ized con­straint of sur­plus labor to spe­cial­ized labor un­der co­oper­at­ive man­age­ment, etc.). However, this seg­ment­a­tion would not be so if it were not but a qual­it­at­ive di­vide with­in an oth­er­wise ho­mo­gen­eous ma­ter­i­al. Two pro­cesses in­ter­vene as they weave to­geth­er: On the one hand the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion is glob­al, cap­able of ap­pro­pri­at­ing and des­troy­ing all oth­er modes of pro­duc­tion while con­serving for it­self the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of those it has re­defined. On the oth­er hand the value of labor power rep­res­ents a mor­al, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­ic­al com­pon­ent. Since cap­it­al­ist ex­ploit­a­tion is uni­ver­sal — i.e., be­cause cap­it­al can take over oth­er modes of pro­duc­tion or make them co­ex­ist along­side it, ex­ploit labor power to­geth­er with those oth­er modes or de­tach them from their former ex­ist­en­tial con­di­tions — cap­it­al­ism is thus an his­tor­ic­al con­struc­tion that brings about the co­ex­ist­ence of all the dif­fer­ent strata of his­tory in a single mo­ment. Seg­ment­a­tion is not merely “ma­nip­u­la­tion.” It ex­ists as the vol­un­tary activ­ity of the cap­it­al­ist class and its pro­fes­sion­al ideo­logues, which forms and an­im­ates an ob­ject­ive pro­cess, a struc­tur­al de­term­in­a­tion of the mode of pro­duc­tion.

If the work­ing class has al­ways been seg­men­ted, it is still ne­ces­sary to con­tex­tu­al­ize this seg­ment­a­tion. That is to say, it must be situ­ated in the gen­er­al form of the con­tra­dic­tion between pro­let­ari­at and cap­it­al with­in a giv­en cycle of struggles. Without this, the op­pos­i­tion to iden­tit­ies — iden­tit­ies wrongly as­so­ci­ated with com­munit­ies — would be solely norm­at­ive. Even if we were to con­fer great cir­cum­stan­tial im­port­ance on this seg­ment­a­tion, its be­ing lies else­where, with­in a pur­ity that is either ac­cess­ible or not. We do not es­cape the mutually ex­clus­ive op­pos­i­tion to iden­tit­ies simply by pit­ting what is against what should be.

Re­gard­ing the re­la­tion between seg­ment­a­tion and ra­cial­iz­a­tion [raci­sa­tion], there ex­ist two uni­lat­er­al stances fa­cing one an­oth­er. Ac­cord­ing to the first, ma­ter­i­al­ism boils down to re­du­cing iden­tity to its found­a­tion — without tak­ing its ef­fect­ive­ness or its lo­gic in­to ac­count. The second, equally ma­ter­i­al­ist stance but­tresses it­self on a re­fus­al to con­sider the facts. It says that if ra­cial­ identity is reduced in toto to its found­a­tion, it’s noth­ing but an arbitrary [volon­taire] and det­ri­ment­al con­struct. Hence, those who turn it in­to an ob­ject merely di­vide the class and pro­mote bar­bar­ism. (I’m hardly dis­tort­ing their po­s­i­tion). What always es­capes both of these stances is the ques­tion of ideo­logy, which is not a re­flec­tion [of the base] but an en­semble of prac­tic­al and be­liev­able re­sponses. Beneath these operate cer­tain prac­tices. Iden­tity comes in­to be­ing wherever there is a sep­ar­a­tion and auto­nom­iz­a­tion of a proper sphere of activ­ity. Each identity or ideo­logy — in the sense of the term em­ployed here — has its own his­tory and mod­us op­erandi, which can be ascertained with reference to the prac­tices op­er­at­ing be­neath the ideo­logy in ques­tion. Iden­tity is therefore an es­sen­tial­iz­a­tion which defines an in­di­vidu­al as a sub­ject.

A norm­at­ive deni­al of ra­cial­ized seg­ment­a­tion does not seek con­tra­dic­tions with­in that which ex­ists, but is rather content to po­s­ition it­self in con­tra­dic­tion to that which ex­ists: class against its seg­ment­a­tion, without con­sid­er­ing that class only ex­ists with­in this seg­ment­a­tion (i.e., with­in the con­tra­dic­tion of pro­let­ari­at and cap­it­al that provides for its re­pro­duc­tion). Norm­at­ive op­pos­i­tion to the real seg­ment­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at leads to an ideo­lo­gic­al ec­lipse of this real­ity — something the Parti des indigènes de la République [PIR] does in­versely, in its own way. Continue reading

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Red leaves of red books (1935)

Richard Wright
The New Masses
(April 30, 1935)
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Turn
….Red leaves of red books

Turn
….In white palms and black palms

Turn
….Slowly in the mute hours of the night

Turn
….In the fingers of women and the fingers of men
….In the fingers of the old and the fingers of the young

Turn
….Under the nervous flickering of candles
….Under yellow gas sputterings
….Under dim incandescent globes

Turn
….In the North and in the South
….…In the East and in the West

Turn
….…Ceaselessly and reveal your printed hope

Turn
….Until your crispness leaves you
….Until you are dog-eared
….…Until the calloused hands that grip you

Are hardened to the steel of unretractable purpose!

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Note: Credit goes to Clara Everbeck for tracking down this poem and bringing it to my attention. She suggested that I publish it on my blog along with a short bio or introduction to Wright and the issues he was looking to address. My familiarity with his work is unfortunately limited to the recollections featured in The God that Failed, alongside contributions by Arthur Koestler, André Gide, and Ignazio Silone.

Continue reading

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The nihilism of socialism

Robert Rives La Monte
Socialism: Positive and
Negative
(NYC: 1908)
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Introduction
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For a while now I’ve been contemplating writing an essay on “proletarian nihilism.” By this I don’t mean the nihilisme prolétarien Vercesi wrote about in the Bordigist journal Bilan, a pejorative term he applied to German and Dutch council communists who denied the October Revolution had been anything more than bourgeois. Rather, proletarian nihilism would be the listlessness, apathy, and self-destructive instinct that gave rise to punk rock, or else that odd mixture of fatal resignation and reckless abandon that underlies so much of mass psychology.

Of course this is all a bit too simple, grounding the self-abolition and self-realization [Selbstaufhebung] of the working class in some sort of subjective mentalité. Self-overcoming, a term used by both Hegel and Nietzsche, is a key term for any adequate Marxist theory of the transition to a classless society. Marxism’s truth depends on the self-directed negativity of the proletariat, whose interest it is to do away with class altogether. This is why its particular interest is simultaneously universal, in the best interest of all society, which is central to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the “universal class”:

Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class. The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. Meanwhile the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. And indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?

Incidentally, this is also why it’s so misguided to conceive of class as just another identity alongside gender and race. The world-historic significance of the proletariat is not at all its permanent position within capitalist society, but its negation of that society. Negation of identity is not identical to the affirmation of difference. Only on its basis is the dissolution of religion, family, and the state imaginable. Robert Rives La Monte, whose work I mentioned in my last post, formulated this essentially annihilative aim of Marxism as “the nihilism of socialism.”

As La Monte explained, “…‘nihilism’ is not used in strict technical or philosophical sense, but simply as a convenient term by which to designate the aggregate of those aspects of socialism which, viewed from the standpoint of the existing regime, appear as negative and destructive.” Marx famously described this corrosive nihilism as the “rational kernel” of dialectical methodology in the 1871 postface to the second edition of Capital:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

Engels later counterposed the revolutionary method of Hegel’s philosophy with its conservative system, writing in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy that “all that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is irrational by its very destination, tainted beforehand with irrationality… In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the opposite proposition.” Quoting Goethe, Engels wrote: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

La Monte’s essay, which follows, is concerned above all with three negations: “the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state.” He locates “the nihilism of socialism” in the materialist conception of history. I would do him one better, and locate it in the historical formation of the proletariat. For as La Monte himself says: “the nihilism of socialism has no deterrent terrors for him, for as Marx said long ago, ‘he has nothing to lose but his chains, and a whole world to gain’.”

Positive ideals
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In their negative proposals the socialists and anarchists are fairly agreed. It is in the metaphysical postulates of their protest and in their constructive aims that they part company. Of the two, the socialists are more widely out of touch with the established order. They are also more hopelessly negative and destructive in their ideals, as seen from the standpoint of the established order.

— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise. Pg. 338.

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To label a truth a truism is too often regarded as equivalent to placing it in the category of the negligible. It is precisely the salient obviousness, which makes a truth a truism, that places it in the direst peril of oblivion in the stress of modern life. Such a truth was well stated by Enrico Ferri, the Italian Marxist criminologist, in a recent lecture before the students of the University of Naples: “Without an ideal, neither an individual nor a collective can live, without it humanity is dead or dying. For it is the fire of an ideal which renders the life of each one of us possible, useful and fertile. And only by its help can each one of us, in the longer or shorter course of his or her existence, leave behind traces for the benefit of fellow beings.”

Platitude though this may be, our greatest poets have not hesitated to use their highest powers to impress it upon us. Robert Browning put this truth into the mouth of Andrea del Sarto in one of the strongest lines in all English verse, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Continue reading

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For a Dionysian proletariat

Robert Rives La Monte is today a largely forgotten figure in the history of Marxian socialism. He’s probably best remembered for his epistolary exchange with the fiery journalist H.L. Mencken, published in book form as Men versus the Man in 1909. Like Mencken, La Monte was a Nietzsche aficionado and committed advocate of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unlike his individualist adversary, however, he did not feel a system of collective ownership was incompatible with modern freedom, stressing the Marxist remark that this future society would be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Outside this public back-and-forth, La Monte also translated some works by Karl Marx, as well as by Gabriel Deville (one of Marx’s early French supporters) and the Italian Marxist criminologist Enrico Ferri. To be sure, he was quite critical of Deville’s more conservative turn in the 1890s, to say nothing of his horror at Ferri’s sudden admiration for Mussolini late in life. Along with Jack London, the young Walter Lippmann, and a few others, La Monte was an unabashed Nietzschean Marxist. In a magnificent line, he quipped that “today the world’s workers need not Jesus, but Dionysus.” As he went on to explain in his article “Nietzsche, Iconoclast and Prophet” (1908):

In every sense, the red-blooded socialist proletariat seems to me Dionysian, and I’d find it difficult to define class-consciousness in terms that would not to a Nietzschean suggest the Dionysian spirit. You and I would like to see the Proletariat aware of its own tremendous strength, glorying in it, and resolved to use it to emancipate themselves and humanity; we would like to see them living in the actual world of reality instead of dreaming in the fictitious world of Apollonian or bourgeois art; and our highest and ultimate hope is to see them reveling in the joy of the earthly paradise, undeterred by any preacher or moralist. Only a Dionysian working class can accomplish the social revolution. The rank and file of the Socialist Party today are undoubtedly Dionysians.

It was Nietzsche’s misfortune to preach the Gospel of Dionysus to a bourgeoisie close upon senile decay and moral degeneracy and live his life in utter ignorance of the only class which in our day is capable of breeding Dionysians — the proletariat.

La Monte was quite adamant on this point: “We socialists must recognize [Nietzsche] as a brother revolutionary… His chief theme seized upon the violent contradiction between the ruthless self-seeking of capitalism in an age when the cash nexus had become the only tie between man and man. No mercy was shown and no quarter given upon the fields of industrial and commercial warfare, despite the [Christian] religion of love, sympathy, and self-sacrifice professed in all capitalist countries.” For Trotsky, writing around the same time in 1908, Nietzsche’s brazen amorality was a weapon against “moralizing populism.” Davidovich rushed to defend Nietzsche against Narodnik platitudes.

Indeed, many Marxist revolutionaries in Russia — Anatoly Lunacharsky, Stanislav Volski, Aleksandr Bogdanov, and Vitaly Bazarov, to name only those listed by George Kline — also took inspiration from Nietzsche. Maksim Gorky, the great realist author, likewise drank deeply from the well of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Clara Zetkin and Erich Mühsam, prominent Marxists in Germany, along with literary champions of socialism like Karl Henckell and Alfred Klineberg, all cited Nietzsche as a formative influence. Even Franz Mehring eventually came around. Upon first encountering the philosopher’s writings in the 1890s, he’d described Nietzsche as “the philosopher of financial capitalism,” writing:

Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism. That was a big mistake for a philosopher at the end of the nineteenth century, because a philosopher who doesn’t know how to confront the most powerful movement of his time is anything but a philosopher. But the real problem was that this gap left open the possibility to whitewash Nietzsche’s philosophy of monopoly capitalism and to aestheticize away the fact that he combated proletarian class struggle from the same elevated circles of thought as did the next best stockbroker or the next best reptile.

By the early 1900s, Mehring had changed his tune. “The Nietzsche cult is useful to socialism,” he wrote. “No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people growing up within the bourgeois classes, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. For such people, however, Nietzsche is often a gateway to socialism.” Victor Serge adopted an opposite approach in a 1917 article, but arrived at the same conclusion about Nietzsche: “He was our enemy. So be it. But he himself said to us: Desire perfect enemies. One can fraternize with ‘perfect’ enemies; our struggle with them makes us more beautiful, more fertile.”

Remarks such as these have not ceased to scandalize Stalinists like Georg Lukács. Or at least the one who wrote The Destruction of Reason in 1952, which Adorno hilariously dubbed “the destruction of Lukács’ own reason.” He read National Socialism back into Nietzsche’s philosophy in such a way that it became simply a straightforward anticipation of the views later promulgated by Alfred Rosenberg. Mazzino Montinari, the Italian Marxist critic who co-edited the critical German edition of Nietzsche’s complete works, observed that “there are cases in which Lukács’ Nietzsche is more of a strict national socialist than [Nazi state philosopher] Alfred Bäumler’s Nietzsche.” Continue reading