CLR James, critical theory, and the dialectic

The writings of the Trinidadian Marxist and revolutionary Cyril Lionel Robert James contain some of the noblest reflections on human freedom ever put to page. Obviously the present author does not agree with all of James’ arguments, especially those concerning national self-determination as a step toward global emancipation. Eventually this mistaken belief led him to extend his “critical support” to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Mao Tse-Tung’s China, as Matthew Quest has amply shown for Insurgent Notes. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from reading the works of James.

Postcolonial theorists in particular would do well to learn from his appreciation of the universal achievements of capitalist modernity. “I denounce European colonialism,” he wrote in 1980. “But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilization.” Similarly, James always insisted that “the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics.” He stressed in his landmark study of The Black Jacobins that “to think of imperialism in terms of race would be disastrous.” Whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who blogs under the handle Of C.L.R. James, ought to take note.

James might well be denounced as a “class reductionist” these days for his 1960 speech before an audience in Trinidad. “The great problem of the United States,” he declared, “with all due respect to the color of the majority of my audience, is not the ‘negro question’… If the question of workers’ independent political organization were solved, the ‘negro question’ would be solved. As long as this is not solved the ‘negro question’ will never be solved.” From first to last, James remained a Marxist in his strict emphasis on the primacy of working-class autonomy.

Even as the yoke of colonial oppression was finally being lifted, in 1958, he maintained: “We are breaking the old connections, and have to establish new ones… Let us not repel [onlookers] by showing them that we are governed by the same narrow nationalist and particularist conceptions which have caused so much mischief in Europe and elsewhere… Help [from the rest of the world] is precious and, far from being a purely economic question, is a social and political necessity. Industrial expansion is not merely a question of material forces but of human relations.”

Zimbabwe is only the latest example of a failed postcolonial state. Apart from a few stray tankies like Caleb Maupin — who somehow still contends that Mugabe was not a dictator, despite having ruled the country for 37 years straight — not too many tears have been shed on account of the African leader’s sudden downfall. No one, except for brazen racists and white nationalists, longs for a return to colonial times or the restoration of Rhodesia. Yet Zimbabwe is proof that underdevelopment was not solely due to colonialism. The once-rich nation has plummeted into poverty over the past couple decades.

Moreover, I feel vindicated by James’ skepticism toward cultural studies programs. Jewish studies, to speak only of the discipline that’s grown up around my culture of origin, have always seemed to me a colossal waste of time. “I do not know, as a Marxist, black studies as such,” James told students in 1968, “but simply the struggle of people against tyranny and oppression in a certain social and political setting [capitalism]. During the last two hundred years, in particular, it’s impossible to separate black studies from white studies in any theoretical point of view.”

Regardless, enough from me already. You can download the following works by James by clicking on the links below:

  1. At the Rendezvous of Victory: Selected Writings, 1931-1981
  2. The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies (1932)
  3. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts (1934-1936)
  4. World Revolution, 1917-1936 (1937)
  5. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938)
  6. On the “Negro Question” (1939-1950)
  7. “Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution?” (1946)
  8. with Raya Dunayevskaya, A New Notion: The Invading Socialist Society and Every Cook Can Govern (1947, 1956)
  9. Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin (1948)
  10. with Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya, State Capitalism and World Revolution (1950)
  11. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1952)
  12. The Nobbie Stories for Children and Adults (1953-1956)
  13. Modern Politics (1960)
  14. Beyond a Boundary (1963)
  15. Marxism for Our Times: On Revolutionary Organization (1963-1981)
  16. “Wilson Harris andthe Existentialist Doctrine” (1965)
  17. Lectures on The Black Jacobins (1970)
  18. with Grace Lee and Cornelius Castoriadis, Facing Reality (1974)

And you can download the following pieces of secondary literature:

  1. Louise Cripps, C.L.R. James: Memories and Commentaries (1997)
  2. Aldon Lynn Nielsen, C.L.R. James: A Critical Introduction (1997)
  3. Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C.L.R. James and the Struggle for a New Society (2008)
  4. Ornette D. Clennon, The Polemics of C.L.R. James and Contemporary Black Activism (2017)
  5. Beyond Boundaries: C.L.R. James and Postnational Studies (2006)
  6. C.L.R. James’ Caribbean (1992)
  7. The Black Jacobins Reader (2017)
  8. Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (2014)

What follows is an exploration of the affinities between James and the Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno, written by the Italian Marxist Enzo Traverso as part of his new book Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (2016). Continue reading

On “conference communism”

Some thoughts in closing

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Fol­low­ing the ap­pear­ance of my be­lated re­port on “con­fer­ence com­mun­ism” a couple days ago, I re­ceived a num­ber of ap­pre­ci­at­ive com­ments, e-mails, and replies. It would seem I wasn’t alone in my rather low opin­ion of these con­fer­ences. A few of the people who sent me notes to this ef­fect caught me genu­inely off guard; it al­ways feels vin­dic­at­ing to know that oth­ers agree with you.

Pre­dict­ably, however, the re­sponses that came in from the speak­ers who ac­tu­ally par­ti­cip­ated in the event, es­pe­cially those who had been singled out for cri­ti­cism, were less than ap­pre­ci­at­ive. Some seemed to take it all quite per­son­ally — and one of them, George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, went so far as to de­friend me on Face­book. Was a bit sur­prised by it, to be hon­est; I’d al­ways thought he had pretty thick skin, oth­er­wise. For the most part, I think, I’d re­frained from the ad hom­inem at­tacks and man­aged to keep my re­marks strictly ad rem. Maybe he felt that by at­tack­ing his cre­den­tials to speak on a giv­en sub­ject, I was thereby in­dir­ectly at­tack­ing his char­ac­ter. This was not my in­ten­tion.

Congress of Soviet deputies, 1918

Either way, it’s not like it mat­ters. I’d an­ti­cip­ated it any­way. Just goes to show you can’t please every­one. Continue reading

The ghost of communism past

Against “conference communism”

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Image: El Lissitzky, PROUN

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A few months ago I attended the “Communist Currents” mini-conference at Cornell University in Ithaca. Douglas La Rocca and I departed from New York near the crack of dawn, around 5:00 AM, driving upstate to Ithaca. There we met up with his buddy Roger Palomeque, an engineer with an interest in Marxian economics and one of Doug’s fellow Linux-nerds. The drive to and from was cool, as was hanging out with Roger, but I was less than impressed with the actual proceedings of the symposium. I suppose the posh digs of the conference setting at Cornell’s White House were pretty fun/funny. The building’s main claim to fame is that former President (and staunch anti-communist) Ike Eisenhower once ate there. Only fitting that a series of talks on “the communist idea” today should be held there, really — though the very fact such a thing is permitted should give some indication of how benign the “idea” has become.

Over the last five years, books and conferences on “the communist idea” have been greeted by some as heralding the rebirth of the radical Left (“the long night of the Left is coming to a close”). Verso has released a string of titles and essay collections in its “pocket communism” series, featuring marquee names like Alain Badiou, Boris Groys, and Slavoj Žižek, as well as a host of “rising stars” — second-tier up-and-comers like Jodi Dean, Bruno Bosteels, and Alberto Toscano. After a few sellout conferences in London, New York, and Berlin, the organizers brought it to Seoul in South Korea, a longstanding stronghold of anti-communist reaction. Surely all this bodes well for the revolution, right?

Nearly a century ago, there were those who hailed the workers’ councils as the units of proletarian organization par excellence, a vehicle for the self-emancipation of the working class. Led by figures like Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, they were called the “council communists.” Today, it is instead the academics’ conferences that hold the promise of communism (or so it would seem). It is only fitting that they be dubbed, in like fashion, the “conference communists.” Continue reading

The North Star to the rest of the Left: Disengage from Platypus, engage with [pseudo-]reformism

by Corey Ansel

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Image: Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-1823)
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NOTE: Just to be clear about my own relationship to Platypus as an organization, I must again remind readers that I am not currently a member, though I am obviously still sympathetic to its cause. Corey’s statement defends Platypus against a number of misperceptions and baseless accusations that are commonly leveled against it. Even if such accusations were true, however, I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone, especially university professors, would refuse to participate in Platypus events on the ground that it supposedly “lends ideological support” to reactionary ideologies like Zionism or imperialism. This is all the more true given the fact that most of them hold positions at universities and routinely speak on campuses subsidized by the U.S. military (and all the foreign military forces it aids), in return for the advanced weapons technologies their research and development departments provide.

Not to mention that the historical “Lenin,” unlike Richard Seymour’s epigonal pseudonym, didn’t hesitate for a moment to meet cordially and grant an interview to the Fabian socialist (and apologist for British imperialism!) H.G. Wells during the middle of a bloody civil war. 

Originally posted at the Chair Leg of Truth. My one editorial gripe would be that The North Star does not even insist that one engage reformists, since this would seem to suggest that a genuine reformism today exists. What exists today is rather a pseudo-reformism of sorts, which calls for “realistic” programs of reform to reinstate the welfare state or government-funded social programs, even when such programs are no longer viable. The reformists of yesteryear — Bernstein, Schmidt, and the lot — actually deserved to be taken seriously by the likes of Luxemburg. Anyway, for more on The North Star, a shitty webzine owned and chiefly inspired by the living fossil Louis Proyect, and two of its “leading lights,” please see:

1. Dario Cankovic’s report on the Platypus International Convention 2013 in Chicago
2. Ben Campbell’s Sidney Hook moment

For some responses to this hysteria written by Platypus’ president, Chris Cutrone, see:

1. On the so-called “rational kernel of racism”
2. Platypus’ “position” on “imperialism”

Apparently I was not the only person to learn a lesson or two from Homer Simpson in my childhood. It appears that The North Star is at it again, primarily its editor Ben Campbell, having taken to Homer’s immortal quotes to nourish a newly drafted letter calling for total and unconditional disengagement with the public fora and publications of the Platypus Affiliated Society: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

In my article “Dissecting the Platypus,”1 published in issue #963 of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker, I raised many political points about Platypus as a project that Ben Campbell and Chris Cutrone, the President of the Platypus Affiliated Society, were gracious enough to engage with in the letters’ page of the CPGB’s paper. Thus, I will waste no time attempting to continue my assessment of Platypus in the interest of leaving that dead horse be.

When it comes to a revolutionary regroupment of forces on the left, The North Star’s project is content to ‘try and try again’ in breathing air into the dead horse (or the “stinking corpse”, as Rosa Luxemburg put it) of the Second International. As of the time of this article, Ben Campbell’s letter calling for a disengagement with Platypus as a project due to its stated goalto make war on the existing (“dead,” fake/pseudo) “Left” and to overcome it” has been posted on Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb blog and been signed by just over a dozen well-known figures amongst the Marxian left.2 Not surprisingly, the list of signatories includes numerous pseudo-Marxists such as Sherry Wolf, a leader of the US-based International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Richard Seymour, a former oppositionist within the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who after breaking with the group, has recently decided to add another sect, titled the International Socialist Network (ISN), to the sectarian embarrassment that has become the ostensibly revolutionary left. Ironically, I have attempted to engage both politically and polemically to no avail. Continue reading

Plaksin, A Spectrum of Glass (1920)

Hysteria in Historical Materialism

A labile disorder (1995-2013)

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Image: Plaksin, A Spectrum of Glass (1920)
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Though one might point to any number of possible precursors, the advent of hysterical materialism proper only occurred with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. From this point forward, the phenomenon began to spread in earnest. Many factors contributed to its rise, overdetermining its eventuality, but at an etiological level the most approximate cause of hysterical materialism was the historic death of the Left in this moment. The Left had already by then been limping along for several decades, especially after “the century of Marxism” drew to a close around 1973. But the final breakup of the Bolshevik experiment brought an end to an age; the trauma of this loss proved too much  for some to handle. History having now ceased to take place, material reality itself became hysterical.

We thus at last come to hysterical materialism, and begin with a concrete case. Barely a century after historical materialism was first proclaimed, and only a few years after its seeming defeat, the germs of this new dementia found their way into a fledgling journal project dedicated to the doctrine’s renewal. As if History were playing a practical joke, the name of the journal where “materialist” hysteria became most firmly entrenched was none other than Historical Materialism. Over time some of its most notable editors and event planners came to be afflicted by this terrible illness, and to this day continue in its throes. To be sure, the vast majority of its contributors and fellow-travelers remain untouched by hysterical materialism, with outbreaks of so-called “mass hysteria” appearing far less frequently than its individual manifestations.

1. MATERIALIST ⇆ HYSTERIA
2. MATERIALIST HYSTERIA
3. MATERIALYSTERIA Continue reading

special issue on communism

Platypus Review № 54: Special issue on “communism”

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Special Issue on “Communism”

The Platypus Review, № 54 [PDF]

1305823769_www.nevsepic.com.ua_doloy-kuhonnoe-rabstvo-1931-shegalVerso’s Pocket Communism series seeks to reorient leftist discourse by taking the idea of “communism” as a shared point of departure.  In this series of articles and interviews, the Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to host a critical dialogue on this subject in order to clarify the various positions and oppositions that are at work, situate them within the broader history of the Left, and evaluate their salience for the present.

‘Communism’ is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects. It is a name that can not only express the Idea which guides radical activity, but can also help expose the catastrophes of the twentieth century, including those of the Left.

— Slavoj Žižek and Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism (2010), pgs. viii-ix.

I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner.  On the contrary, we must help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.  Thus communism in particular is a dogmatic abstraction.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” (September 1843)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself.  We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)

Contents

Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis (2010) The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis
by Chris Cutrone
And yet a very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a very different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the society of capital.

bosteels1

Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels
by Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe
On October 14th, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe both interviewed Bruno Bosteels, a Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jodi Dean's Communist Horizon (2012)

What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left? An interview with Jodi Dean
by Ross Wolfe
On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of Žižek’s Politics (2006) and The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Boris Groys' Communist Postscript (2009)

A remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys
by Ross Wolfe
On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, the Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), and The Communist Postscript (2009). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Further reading:

Editorial statement of purpose

Taking stock of the universe of positions and goals that constitutes leftist politics today, we are left with the disquieting suspicion that a deep commonality underlies the apparent variety: What exists today is built upon the desiccated remains of what once was possible.

In order to make sense of the present, we find it necessary to disentangle the vast accumulation of positions on the Left and to evaluate their saliency for the possible reconstitution of emancipatory politics in the present. Doing this implies a reconsideration of what is meant by the Left.

Our task begins from what we see as the general disenchantment with the present state of progressive politics. We feel that this disenchantment cannot be cast off by sheer will, by simply “carrying on the fight,” but must be addressed and itself made an object of critique. Thus we begin with what immediately confronts us.

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring model Sputnik, Rome 1958

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring a model of Sputnik, Rome 1958

The Platypus Review is motivated by its sense that the Left is disoriented. We seek to be a forum among a variety of tendencies and approaches on the Left — not out of a concern with inclusion for its own sake, but rather to provoke disagreement and to open shared goals as sites of contestation. In this way, the recriminations and accusations arising from political disputes of the past may be harnessed to the project of clarifying the object of leftist critique.

The Platypus Review hopes to create and sustain a space for interrogating and clarifying positions and orientations currently represented on the Left, a space in which questions may be raised and discussions pursued that would not otherwise take place. As long as submissions exhibit a genuine commitment to this project, all kinds of content will be considered for publication.

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What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist left? An interview with Jodi Dean

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IMAGE: Cover to Jodi Dean’s
The Communist Horizon (2012)

Platypus Review № 54 | 2013

Ross Wolfe

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On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Ross Wolfe:
 Your new book, The Communist Horizon, builds upon a body of literature that has accumulated around the concept of “communism” over the last decade. What is the significance of this renewed emphasis on communism?

Jodi Dean: The shift towards communism puts leftist thought into a distinct political horizon. It is no longer a sort of touchy-feely, identity issue-based, and fragmented emphasis on each person’s unique specificity. It is no longer a generic, attitudinal lifestyle, preoccupation with “awareness” or the spontaneous, and momentary reduction of politics to the minuteness of the everyday. Communism returns politics to grand, revolutionary possibilities — to projects of political power. And that change is absolutely, crucially enormous, even if forty years out of date. Continue reading

Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

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IMAGE: Cover to Bruno Bosteels’
The Actuality of Communism (2011)

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe

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On October 14, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe interviewed Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Alec Niedenthal:
 It is well known that 1968 was a critical moment for the Left in France, but the simultaneous events in Mexico are not so well-known. What was at stake for you in making this connection more explicit?

Bruno Bosteels: The events of 1968 were definitely pivotal globally for the Left. The reason why 1968 in France was a key moment was because the so-called theories, what people now call “French theory” and the philosophical elaborations and politics stemming from it, all share this interest in “the event.” Whereas Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Deleuze were once read as philosophers of “difference,” now it is common to read them as philosophers of the event — that is, 1968. So, we might ask, “Why is it an important moment or event in the history of France or Mexico or other places where, in the same year, there were riots, uprisings, popular movements, rebellions, and so on?” But also, “What does it mean to think about ‘the event’ philosophically?” The theoretical traditions that led to this pivotal moment have a longer history in France than in other places where one must search obscure sources to get to the same theoretical problem. Within the French context, for institutional, historical, and genealogical reasons we have a well-defined debate that can be summed up, as what Badiou himself called “The last great philosophical battle”: the battle between Althusser and Sartre, between structuralism and humanism, or between structure and subject. One can place these in different contexts, but they are extreme versions of the debate on the transparency of the subject versus the opacity of the structure. What I thought was interesting was that the most intriguing theoretical (but also experimental, literary-essayistic, or autobiographical) writings to emerge from 1968 are situated somewhere at the crossover between those two traditions, breaking down both and making caricature impossible. A similar debate also took place in Mexico with José Revueltas, typically considered a kind of Sartrean humanist-existentialist writer and theorist, versus a very strong tendency of Althusserianism on the Mexican left. Continue reading