A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

Four months back, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art opened an ex­hib­it en­titled A Re­volu­tion­ary Im­pulse: Rise of the Rus­si­an Av­ant-Garde. The show re­ceived mostly fa­vor­able write-ups in lib­er­al out­lets like New York Times and New York­er as well as art/cul­ture mags like Stu­dio In­ter­na­tion­al, Seca Art, and He­don­ist. Marx­ist and left­ish pub­lic­a­tions such as World So­cial­ist Web­site (or­gan of the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party) and Brook­lyn Rail also ran ap­pre­ci­at­ive re­views of the ex­hib­i­tion.

Per­haps my fa­vor­ite crit­ic­al re­flec­tion on the show came from Caesura, an off­shoot from the Platy­pus Af­fil­i­ated So­ci­ety ex­clus­ively fo­cused on art, mu­sic, and lit­er­at­ure. It fea­tured a fairly char­ac­ter­ist­ic but nev­er­the­less poignant ob­ser­va­tion:

Of the stag­ger­ing num­ber of ob­jects on dis­play, most strik­ing was film­maker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 col­lab­or­a­tion with Rod­chen­ko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a pro­pa­ganda film (the title trans­lates to cinema-truth) track­ing the fail­ing health, death and fu­ner­al of Len­in. Black and white graph­ics con­trib­uted by Rod­chen­ko de­pict­ing, without com­ment, the med­ic­al stat­ist­ics of the ail­ing re­volu­tion­ary lead­er cre­ated a palp­able sense of worry as they edge, at an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow pace, to­wards the res­ult we all know already: Len­in’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced pro­ces­sion of mourn­ers at his fu­ner­al, ded­ic­at­ing por­trait shots and name plates to party lead­ers: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Le­on Trot­sky and Joseph Stal­in stead­fastly look­ing ahead. The lat­ter was ut­terly chilling — a glimpse of a fu­ture yet un­known to the film­makers but known all too well today. Stand­ing, in 2017, in the Amer­ic­an Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in a mo­ment of ut­ter polit­ic­al con­fu­sion, the tragedy of this mo­ment was cut­ting. Could the mourn­ers have pos­sibly known that they had wit­nessed both the be­gin­ning and the end of a mo­ment of tre­mend­ous his­tor­ic­al po­ten­tial? Did Vertov and Rod­chen­ko real­ize that in their mont­age of party lead­ers it would be Stal­in who would take power? Did they know that, after the crip­pling de­feat of the Ger­man Left the year pri­or, 1924 would mark a clos­ing and not an open­ing of his­tory?

Caesura’s re­view­er fur­ther spec­u­lates that “if the art of the Rus­si­an av­ant-garde has a time­less qual­ity, it is be­cause of its unique his­tor­ic­al ori­gin. Nev­er be­fore or since have artists op­er­ated un­der the thrall of three so­ci­et­ies — crum­bling czar­ist Rus­sia, the dy­nam­ic bour­geois west, and the ad­van­cing specter of so­cial­ism — so dif­fer­ent. It ex­presses all three but be­longs to none.” A sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment is cap­tured by a line in the New York­er: “His­tory is not a con­stant march for­ward; it can stand still for dec­ades and then, as it did in Rus­sia a hun­dred years ago, ex­plode in a flash.” This line it­self merely para­phrases a quip at­trib­uted to Len­in, to the ef­fect that “there are dec­ades where noth­ing hap­pens, but then there are weeks where dec­ades hap­pen.”

I my­self at­ten­ded the ex­hib­it, and was im­pressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had ap­peared in spe­cial gal­ler­ies across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of ma­ter­i­al con­cen­trated in one space was breath­tak­ing. Fur­ther­more, the way this ma­ter­i­al was or­gan­ized and form­ally ar­ranged was skill­ful. You can see a pic­ture of me stand­ing next to Lis­sitzky’s “new man of com­mun­ism,” taken from his series for Vic­tory over the Sun. Be­low you can read a fine med­it­a­tion on the show writ­ten by Bloom Correo, a young ul­traleft au­thor who vis­ited NYC just to see it.

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Tamás Krausz on the life and thought of Vladimir Lenin

From the Monthly Review press release: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is among the most enigmatic and influential figures of the twentieth century. While his life and work are crucial to any understanding of modern history and the socialist movement, generations of writers on the left and the right have seen fit to embalm him endlessly with superficial analysis or dreary dogma. Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union and “actually-existing” socialism, it is possible to consider Lenin afresh, with sober senses trained on his historical context and how it shaped his theoretical and political contributions. Reconstructing Lenin, four decades in the making and now available in English for the first time, is an attempt to do just that.

Tamás Krausz, an esteemed Hungarian scholar writing in the tradition of György Lukács, Ferenc Tőkei, and István Mészáros, makes a major contribution to a growing field of contemporary Lenin studies. This rich and penetrating account reveals Lenin busy at the work of revolution, his thought shaped by immediate political events but never straying far from a coherent theoretical perspective. Krausz balances detailed descriptions of Lenin’s time and place with lucid explications of his intellectual development, covering a range of topics like war and revolution, dictatorship and democracy, socialism and utopianism. Reconstructing Lenin will change the way you look at a man and a movement; it will also introduce the English-speaking world to a profound radical scholar.

Krausz, wrote this shorter piece that was translated for the Platypus Review back in 2011. Though I’m not a Wallersteinian, hopefully a PDF will appear of his new biography shortly so that I can read and review it.


Lenin’s legacy today

Tamás Krausz
Platypus Review 39
September 2011

An historically adequate interpretation of Lenin’s Marxism must begin with the recognition that Lenin’s legacy is essentially a political application of Marx’s theory of capital as a historically-specific social formation. It required further development in light of experiences under determinate historical circumstances, such as the development of capitalism in Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crisis of Marxism in 1914, the evolution of imperialism, the October Revolution of 1917, War Communism, and the New Economic Policy. Lenin’s basic awareness of the concrete possibility of social revolution and the transition to communism grew more determinate in the course of his political practice after 1905. Because of this, Lenin’s political and theoretical legacy, as a historical variant of Marxism, is unique and unrepeatable. On the other hand, the original experience of revolutionary theory and action, its “methodology” in practice, has played an undeniably colossal role in the history of the twentieth century. In our own time, under less than promising circumstances, there are attempts to “refurbish” Lenin’s Marxism for the anti-globalization movement.[1] The main reason for this is that the Leninist tradition of Marxism is the only one that has offered, at least for a time, an alternative to capitalism. It alone has breached the walls of capitalism, even if today that breach seems mended. The world situation over the last two decades demonstrates that the global dominance of capital has engendered new forms of discontent. These did not obviate the need for Marxism as a theory and a movement. Indeed, they could not. Instead, in their search for alternatives, the discontented run into “Lenin’s Marxism” at every turn. Thus, if we talk of Marxism, the stakes are higher than we may think, for this legacy — that is, the primacy of Lenin’s Marxism — is not a thing of the past.

Concept and systemization

Though he knew everything there was to know at that time about Marx and Engels, Lenin did not simply excavate Marxist theory from beneath layers of Western European social democracy and anarchism. He applied it in his own way to Russian circumstances by tying theory and revolutionary practice together. In the process he contributed many original ideas to the theoretical reconstruction of the revolutionary actions and the movement as a whole in confronting reformist social democratic tendencies.

The systematization of Lenin’s legacy began in his lifetime as part of the struggle over the inheritance of his mantle. What was characteristic of these “deconstructions” was not that Marxism was identified with Lenin’s legacy, nor its embodiment in him, nor that Marxism was “Russified” and, later, “Stalinized” as a result of that struggle. Rather, it was interpreted simply as the theory and practice of revolution and class struggle, omitting the stages and method of development that made the phenomenon what it was. This reductionist approach simplified Lenin’s Marxism to the ideology of political class struggle and eventually to an ideology that justified the Bolsheviks’ preservation of power above all. The subsequent Stalinist period came to see Leninism as party ideology, the main and almost exclusive “vehicle” of Marxism, with the Communist Party, then its general staff, and eventually its leader alone functioning as its sole guardian. The soviets, the labor unions, and other forms of social self-organization, all of which Lenin thought to be central elements in the transition to socialism, were increasingly omitted in the “reproduction” of theory and ideology: Everything became nationalized. Marxism-Leninism became the legitimation of this new state socialism. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did it become an “emperor with no clothes” as Leninism as the Soviet Union’s legitimizing ideology sank into the dustbin of history. The result is a condition in which it is impossible to “excavate” the legacy of Lenin without steady determination and strict analysis.

The still-powerful elements of pre-Stalinist Marxism were analyzed in the 1960s by [Georg] Lukács and his anti-Stalinist followers, just as they had been earlier by Gramsci. The resulting “Lenin renaissance” permitted under Khruschev rose to a high philosophical level. By the 1970s many European and anti-Soviet Marxist Communist authors (from Rudolf Bahro to Valentino Gerratana, or even Ferenc Tőkei or [György] Bence and [János] Kis) attempted to mobilize these views as a criticism of state socialism, and in the service of constituting an authentic socialist alternative. Such writers made it clear that the historical, political, and theoretical-scientific power of Lenin’s Marxism could not be reduced exclusively to power management or to the “welfare state” as the Soviet ideologues and their bourgeois adversaries had tried to do for the past several decades. These efforts formed part of an attempt worldwide to sketch a new, critical framework for Marxism. Marxists from a wide range of perspectives sought during these decades to forge a kind of “third way” between the preservation of state socialism and the restoration of capitalism — a way back to a Marxist politics that could lead to authentic socialism. In contrast to these attempts, which may be considered various expressions of individual and collective freedom, or participatory democracy, the arguments of the anti-Leninists, almost regardless of ideology, all derive from folding Lenin’s heritage back into Stalinism. To this day they form vital elements of the discourse of anti-Leninist anti-capitalism.

The reservations voiced with regard to Lenin’s Marxism are understandable, as it only became widely apparent after the collapse of the Soviet Union that this historically specific intellectual and practical achievement, which no longer served state legitimation, can resist liberal and nationalist justification of the system. At the same time, the internal logic of Lenin’s Marxism can only be resuscitated through a new combination of Marx’s theory of social formations with revolutionary anti-capitalist practice. Yet another subjective ground for the rejection of Lenin’s Marxism on scientific grounds by leftist experts in academia is that Lenin’s ideas philosophically resist fragmentation by discipline as the experience of many decades has shown. All its constituent elements point toward the totality, the indivisible process. Following Marx, Lenin knocked down the walls separating science from philosophy, and theory from practice. Lenin’s theoretical work cannot possibly be separated from the movement overcoming the capitalist system. In this sense his Marxism is linked indissolubly to the workers movement in the 20th century as a surprisingly adept methodological tool for the apprehension of processes as a whole within different frameworks. Marx’s philosophical and economic achievements may continue apart from any revolutionary workers movement, but not Lenin’s. Until 1917 all his theoretical and political arguments were aimed at the workers movement and revolution. After 1917, as the founder of a Soviet state in the grips of the acute contradictions between holding on to power and the announced aims of the revolution, between tactics and strategy, Lenin tended to vacillate, becoming increasingly aware that the objectives of the revolution had to be postponed for the unforeseeable future.

The origins of Lenin’s Marxism

Lenin’s Marxism derives from different directions, each representing in its time an opportunity for changing society in a revolutionary way. These included the French Enlightenment and revolutionary Jacobinism as the inheritance of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, without which it would not be possible to transcend traditional society. Then there was the Paris Commune as the apex of French socialism. Among his Russian roots we find [Nikolai] Chernyshevsky and the Westerners ([Aleksandr] Herzen, [Vissarion] Belinsky, and others), reinforcing and complementing one another, as well as the revolutionary Narodniks, the mainstay of the Russian Jacobin tradition. All these Lenin synthesized in the name of Marx and Engels, absorbing a lot, particularly the interpretation of philosophical materialism, from the earlier generation of Russian Marxists, chiefly [Georgii] Plekhanov. He finally he absorbed the ideology and practice of modern workers movement organization from German social democracy, chiefly [Karl] Kautsky. Continue reading

Anatole Kopp (1915-1990): the Engaged Architect and the Concept of Modern Architecture

by Anat Falbel
University of Campinas, Brazil

The bulk of the biographical data amassed below comes from an essay by a Brazilian professor, Anat Falbel, so much so that it has been appended in full. It’s rather awkwardly translated, in parts, so I’ve taken the liberty of purging some bits where he equivocates about which word to use. Beyond that, it’s a serviceable enough piece — rather weak in its gloss on Kopp’s politics despite its attention to his party membership, but filled with helpful facts and information throughout.

On engagement

The Petit Robert dictionary defines engagement as “the act or attitude of an intellectual or artist who, aware of his condition as a member of society and of the world of his time, renounces his position as a mere spectator and puts his thinking or his art to the service of a cause.” While he was still a high school pupil, at a time when the ideological debate in France was polarized between right and left, Anatole Kopp become engaged with the French Communist Party (FCP). For the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who was raised between cultural boundaries that permeated and nourished each other, and who faced the chauvinistic and xenophobic France of his youth, the October Revolution signified a new universality, a society free of social as well as national differences, suggesting affinities between Jewish messianic aspiration and a social utopia interpreted as on ethical enterprise.

Record of Anatole Kopp's birth information

Record of Anatole Kopp’s birth information

Kopp’s engagement and awareness of his role as a militant and Modern architect is illustrated in the excerpt below, taken from the 1952 letter he sent to the French Architectural Board that had been refusing his membership since 1947 because of his militant activities. The passage indicates the emergence of on early idea of a modern monument:

…As for as I am concerned, it is the social aspect of architecture that played a crucial role in the choice of studies I have mode. I believe that the path leading to architecture through the Villejuif School, the proletarian towns in Vienna and the great Dam of Dniepr is just as worthy as the way through the Parthenon, the Farnese Palace or the Louvre Colunatta.

…it is widely known that we cannot transform society through architecture or urban planning. To believe in that would be confounding cause and effect…

This study seeks to understand Kopp’s historical work based on his career as an architect and his role as an engaged intellectual. It recognizes his personal struggle with one of the problematic aspects of the militant’s engagement: the need to recognize the primacy of the revolutionary process and the hegemony of the political entity it personified, namely the Communist Party, a primacy that proved increasingly unsustainable in the late 1950s. Continue reading

The truth of liberalism

The legacy of political and economic liberalism in modern society has been on trial since at least 1848, if not before.1 But whether or not one chooses to locate the crisis of modernity at a prior date, this was the point at which liberal ideology first came into open contradiction with itself. After the bloody “pacification” of the proletarian uprising in Paris — the violent suppression of the June insurgents by military forces loyal to the National Assembly — the classical liberal ideal of a harmonious, self-governing societas unmolested by state intervention had to be dispensed with once and for all. For here the bourgeoisie could no longer console itself with the reassuring thought that its hand had been forced from without. Unlike the Jacobin Terror of 1793, the nation’s recourse to authoritarianism in June 1848 could not simply be attributed to the pressures exerted on it from abroad, by the looming threat of hostile nations surrounding France on all sides. All of Europe was in the throes of political upheaval; this time there was no Holy Alliance to defend the crumbling edifice of traditional authority. Nor could it be claimed that the revolution had somehow been usurped by reactionary agents working from within, by the imperial ambitions and political machinations of Napoleon. That would come only two years later, with his nephew’s coup d’état.2 Here, at the dawn of the summer months in 1848, the mutual antagonisms underlying civil society finally burst into the open and thus were raised to the level of consciousness. June 22nd, observed one commentator, marked “the tremendous insurrection in which the first great battle was fought between the two classes that split modern society. It was a fight for the preservation or annihilation of the bourgeois order.”3 Liberalism had at last run up against its own internal limitations, finding itself unequal to the revolutionary tasks it had first set out to achieve.

Since that time, the historical significance of liberalism has been reckoned in a number of different ways. Various parties have sought to either take up its fallen mantle or forsake it altogether. Among those choosing the former course, many have done so in the name of fulfilling those great promises originally opened up by liberalism — liberté, egalité, fraternité — through the overcoming of bourgeois society as such. Liberal bourgeois democracy, though revolutionary in its day, has outlived its emancipatory potential, and now is felt to only stand in the way of these principles’ higher realization. Others have looked to freeze social relations in their present state, declaring liberal ideology to still be adequate to our moment. In so doing, of course, they are forced to deny or suppress the conflicts that continue to seethe beneath the peaceful veneer of society. More recently, however, some have called into question the emancipatory character of liberalism itself. Its universalism, these critics maintain, is a sham: it is only the elevation of a quite particular (white, male, European) standpoint to the dominant or “hegemonic” position of universality, which then claims a normative status over and above rival, marginalized, and “subaltern” particularities. This is, broadly speaking, the postmodern critique. Still others, looking to fend off this critique, have maintained that liberalism, along with the modern Enlightenment philosophy from which it arose, remains an “incomplete project,” whose results must yet be further generalized.4

Part I: A problematic legacy — The historical genesis of modern liberalism

Losurdo’s Liberalism:
A Counter-History

Into this fraught discursive field enters Domenico Losurdo’s 2006 treatise Liberalism: A Counter-History, translated from the Italian last year by Gregory Elliott for Verso Books. Losurdo, who teaches at the University of Urbino, identifies himself as a philosopher in the Hegelian-Marxist vein of thinkers like Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, and Antonio Gramsci. As its title suggests, his latest book aims to read the history of liberalism against the grain, so as to subvert the triumphalist account provided by its most passionate celebrants and ideologues down through the ages. Adopting the maxims laid down by de Tocqueville at the outset of his 1856 history of The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, Losurdo sets about in good dialectical fashion the work of carrying out an immanent critique of liberal thought through an examination of the writings of its core protagonists, as well as the historical realities in which they lived. Quoting the French political theorist at length, Losurdo similarly vows to render the concepts so often invoked with respect to liberalism deliberately unfamiliar:

We think we know [liberalism] quite well because we are familiar with its glittering surface and, in minute detail, with the lives of its most famous personages, and because we have read clever and eloquent critiques of the works of its great writers. But as for the way in which public business was conducted, how institutions actually worked, how the various classes truly related to one another, the condition and feelings of those segments of the population that still could be neither seen nor heard, and the true basis of opinions and customs, we have only ideas that are at best confused and often misleading.5

It would appear that Losurdo, in following de Tocqueville, is here looking to deploy the classic literary device of defamiliarization, later described by formalist literary critics like Viktor Shklovskii.6 Indeed, one of Losurdo’s primary objectives in this work is to challenge the received wisdom of what liberalism even is in the first place. More than once in the course of delivering his interpretation, he repeats the foundational question: “What is liberalism?”7 Against some of the more commonplace answers typically offered up in response, Losurdo points out several ambiguities that problematize any attempt to supply a clear-cut, univocal definition to the term. Was John C. Calhoun, for example, a liberal? He at once sang hymns to the freedom of the individual from state interference, all while ratifying the constitutional unfreedom of black slaves under the law. What about Locke, that Ur-theorist (and indeed the “father”) of liberalism? Here again, Losurdo finds the evidence unclear. On the one hand, Locke denounced in his renowned Second Treatise on Government the political servitude of the citizen to the institutions of Church and State, the alternating tyrannies of the pulpit and the throne. In the space of only a few pages in that same tract, however, Locke can be seen defending the master’s “arbitrary power of life and death” over his legal human property, the slave. John Stuart Mill? An abolitionist, to be sure, but at the same time an apologist for British colonialism.8] Continue reading