Kennzeichen f¸r Schutzh‰ftlinge in den Konz.-Lagern

Hatred of homosexuality

Gegen Kapital und Nation
Streifzüge (April 15 2014)

Theses toward a critique
of bourgeois sexuality

A) Nature, society, individual

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

Gay workers' autonomy 1

Capitalism and gay identity


John D’Emilio’s classic essay, with a brief
contextual introduction by Rosemary Hennessy.
Reblogged from Communists in Situ.

The birth and short-lived life of gay Marxism:
“Capitalism and gay identity” in context

Rosemary Hennessy
Profit and Pleasure
(July 26, 2000)

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

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

Sigmund Freud standing next to a bust of Marx copy 2

Early Marxist criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis: Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács

Much has been written over the years about the similarity between and compatibility of Marxian sociology and Freudian psychology. Here is not the place to evaluate those claims. Suffice it to say, for now, that both social critique and psychoanalysis have seen better days. Both doctrines have lost whatever pretense they once had to scientific status and today are relegated mostly to the humanities. One is more likely to hear Marx and Freud mentioned in the halls of the academy than shouted in the streets or whispered in clinical settings.

Tomorrow or the next day I plan to post PDFs of the complete works of Wilhelm Reich in English, German, and possibly Spanish. I will perhaps devote a few lines to the question of Marxism and Freudism, to the way each approaches and interprets irrationality. Whether as social ideology or psychopathology, this is their shared concern and primary motivation. Each aims to render that which is unconscious conscious, to master the forces of nature (external or internal) in a more rationally ordered life. “Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the exploitation of a majority by a minority,” asserted Reich, “so psychoanalysis is the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”

Freudian analysis tends to fall back on biological explanations of irrational behavior, whereas Marxist theory places more emphasis on the historical dimension. Yet both of them ultimately fall under the heading of materialism, even if somewhat “idealistic” strains. Psychoanalysis gives too much priority to sexual factors, important though these doubtless are. Vulgar Marxism is quite often guilty of reducing everything to economic factors. Desires and drives are a major part of psychoanalysis, while needs and motivations are a major part of Marxism.

A word about these texts. Korsch’s article first appeared in the councilist periodical Living Marxism in February 1938. Its main point of reference, besides Freud’s work, is Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were virtually unknown in America at the time. Reuben Osborn’s 1937 book on Marx and Freud: A Dialectical Study is also dealt with, but Reich is the one Korsch for the most part has in mind. He is generally appreciative of both Freud, whose postulates about the unconscious Korsch calls a “genuine discovery,” as well as Reich’s efforts to understand the rise of fascism on its basis. Oddly, Korsch — who by then had long since abandoned Leninism and increasingly considered Marxism a lost cause — had recourse to Lenin’s arguments against the Economists in defending Marxist methodology.

Lukács’ review of Group Psychology by Sigmund Freud appeared even earlier, in the German communist paper Die rote Fahne [The Red Flag] in 1922. For whatever reason, Lukács never struck me as someone interested in Freud. Victor Serge had described him as “a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud” in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, so maybe I just forgot. Either way, Lukács makes very clear that he considers Freud “a researcher of integrity,” and even after criticizing psychoanalytic interpretations of military psychology insists: “We did not quote this example in order to expose an otherwise meritorious researcher to deserved ridicule.” Interesting stuff.
Continue reading

anti-imperialist exhibition copy

We are not “anti”

Bernard Lyon
Revue Internationale
(May 25, 2005)

Amadeo Bordiga once famously quipped that the worst product of fascism, politically speaking, was anti-fascism. The same could also probably be said of imperialism, only substituting anti-imperialism for anti-fascism. Nothing is worse than anti-fascists who call for communists to bloc with the Democrats in a popular front against the fascist scourge of Trump. Except, maybe, going to some anti-war march to see anti-imperialists waving around placards with Bashar al-Assad’s face on them. So it goes, more or less, down the line: anti-nationalism, anti-Zionism, anti-Stalinism, anti-globalization, etc. While such prefixes may serve as a convenient shorthand indicating opposition to a given feature of the social totality, as part of the overall effort to overcome that totality, to fixate upon one or another facet of capitalist society as the ultimate evil and prioritize it above all others is at once short-sighted and one-sided.

Certainly, there are many for whom anti-fa and anti-imp are the bread and butter of Marxist politics. It is unsurprising, then, that they would take issue with criticisms of their preferred modes of popular protest and organization. Raymond Lotta of the RCP-US, for instance, polemicized against Slavoj Žižek in 2012 for his “anti-anti-imperialism,” simply for questioning the simplistic logic which says “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Angela Mitropoulos, an Australian academic, recently scolded David Broder for his “anti-anti-fascism,” simply for questioning “The Anti-fascism of Fools.” (This is another common trope, incidentally, decrying “the X of fools,” following August Bebel. Broder’s article is far better than Richard Seymour’s article from a couple years ago on “The Anti-Zionism of Fools.” See Camila Bassi’s 2010 critique of “The Anti-Imperialism of Fools” for a much better example of this genre of article). Very few have positively embraced the “anti-anti-imperialist” label, though Loren Goldner and Arya Zahedi are among them, two of the best.

What follows is a translation of « Nous ne sommes pas Anti », a 2005 text by Bernard Lyon of the French group Theorie Communiste. Lyon has a couple articles that have been rendered into English, including “Intervention and the Communizing Current” as well as “The Suspended Step of Communization: Communization vs. Socialization.” I have my reservations when it comes to communization theory, roughly similar to those expressed in more traditional terms by Donald Parkinson of the Communist League of Tampa and in more value-critical terms by Kosmoprolet. Nevertheless, I think Lyon’s article gets at some essential points. Moreover, I do not think that it contradicts my last couple posts, in which I made the case for a politics of negation and non-identity over a politics of affirmation and difference. To be pro-communism is to be for the abolition of existing conditions, an essentially negative operation. Being anti-fascist often means affirming bourgeois democracy in developed countries, while being anti-imperialist often means affirming bourgeois dictatorship in undeveloped countries.


Translated by Jake Bellone, with some
substantial revisions by Ross Wolfe.


We are not “anti.” That is to say, we are not against extreme forms of exploitation, oppression, war, or other horrors. Being “anti” means to choose a particularly unbearable point and attempt to constitute an alliance against this aspect of the capitalist Real.

Not being “anti” does not mean to be a maximalist and proclaim, without rhyme or reason, that one is for total revolution and that, short of that, there is only reformism. Rather, it means that when one opposes capital in a given situation, one doesn’t counterpose to it a “good” capital. A demand, a refusal poses nothing other than what it is: to struggle against raising the age of retirement is not to promote the better administration of direct or socialized wages. To struggle against restructuration is not to be anti-liberal; it is to oppose these measures here and now, and it is no coincidence that struggles can surpass themselves in this way. We’re neither anti-this nor anti-that. Nor are we “radical.” We pose the necessity of communization in the course of immediate struggles because the non-immediate perspective of communization can serve as the self-critical analytic frame of struggles, as such, for the historical production of the overcoming of capital.

If anti-liberalism, or at least anti-ultraliberalism — which currently [2005] constitutes a national union, a nearly total frontism — furnishes a blinding example of how the “anti” approach permits position within a front, then it is organized along the lines of “Attac” [Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens] or something more informal. The archetype of this attitude is anti-fascism: first the ideology of popular fronts in Spain and France, then the flag uniting the Russo-Anglo-Saxon military coalition against the Germano-Japanese axis. Anti-fascism had a very long life, since it was the official ideology of Western democratic states as well as Eastern socialist states up to the fall of the [Berlin] Wall in 1989.

Besides anti-fascism there was anti-colonialism, an ideology combining socialism and nationalism within the tripartite world of the Cold War. This structuring ideology of the aptly-named national liberation fronts placed the struggles of colonized proletarians alongside those of local bourgeois elements under the political and military direction of the autochthonous bureaucratic layers produced by colonial administrations. Anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism were also the frame for the alliance of bureaucratic-democratic revolutionaries with the socialist camp. Such ideologies have then always functioned as state ideology (existent or constituent) in the context of confrontations and wars, global and local, between the different poles of capitalist accumulation. In the metropoles anti-imperialism was, with anti-fascism, an essential element for communist parties after the Second World War, presented as the defense of the socialist fatherland and the “peace camp.” It articulated the conflict-ridden day-to-day management of exploitation with capital in a global perspective where socialism remained on the offensive. Anti-imperialism has been, and to a certain extent remains, a framework of mobilization intrinsically linked to and for war. Continue reading

fly_printemps03 copy

Non-identity and negation

“Identitarianism” and the
affirmation of difference


we are generation identity, blood and soil

Renovators and renegades

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

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

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

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

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

Not yet human, behind the scenes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey copy 2

Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx


The earth will rise on new foundations.
We have been nothing; we will be everything.
’Tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place.
The International will be the human race.

— L’Internationale, 1871

Universality today seems a lost cause, the mild resurgence of Marxism in recent years notwithstanding. A number of prominent theorists have championed this category in their critiques of multicultural neoliberalism, perhaps most notably Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, but have made little headway. Vivek Chibber’s noble (if somewhat flawed) 2013 polemic against Postcolonial Studies was made to suffer the indignity of a public scolding by whiteboy academic Chris Taylor, who writes under the handle Of CLR James: “If postcolonial theorists want to hold onto the particularity of the particular, and engage the universal through it, Chibber uses these ‘two universalisms’ [the universalism of capital and the universalism of labor] in order to denude the particular, to remove the particularity of the particular in order to reduce it to the universal.” He claims that Chibber’s book is thus not even Marxist, since the real Marxists à la mode have already all accepted the legitimate points raised by postcolonial and decolonial theory and moved on:

The Marxism fashionable both inside and outside the academy today is one which has learned to meet people where they are, that has learned that a caring approach to particularity and a concern to foster difference is not opposed to the universal but is, rather, one way of producing new universals, of realizing freer modes of being in common. Indeed, the Marxism fashionable today is that one which has taken postcolonial theory as a serious incitement, as a spur to think critically about its own deficits but also as a challenge to uncover its hidden possibilities.

Obviously, there’s no accounting for fashion. And I won’t even touch the platitude about “meeting people where they are.” Loren Goldner is perhaps a little old-fashioned. In any case, he has little patience for this fashionable nonsense. Deploring postcolonial theory as “a relativizing discourse of cultural ‘difference’ incapable of making critical judgments,” Goldner argues that Marxist universality must be recovered, reasserted, and boldly upheld. “Today, the idea that there is any meaningful universality based on human beings as a species is under a cloud, even if the opponents of such a view rarely state their case in so many words (or are even aware that this is the issue),” he writes. “For them, such an idea, like the idea that Western Europe from the Renaissance onward was a revolutionary social formation unique in history, that there is any meaning to the idea of progress, or that there exist criteria from which one can judge the humanity or inhumanity of different ‘cultures,’ are ‘white male’ or ‘Eurocentric’ constructs designed to deny to women, people of color, or gays the ‘difference’ of their ‘identity’.”

Goldner’s fulminations against the influential Heideggerian idea of ontological difference and its French variations are well known. He suspects that the partisans of “the current climate of postmodern culturalism” are mostly disturbed by the fact the Marxian critique does not have recourse to its usual explanatory mechanisms: “What bothers them is that the concept of universality for Marx and Engels was ultimately grounded neither in cultural constructs nor even in the metaphysics of ‘power,’ which is the currency in which today’s fashion trades.”

Questions of fashion aside, it might still be asked whether the method described above by Taylor is the way Marxists actually approach matters of universal import. In what does the universality of Marx consist? Goldner tells us: “The universalism of Marx rests on a notion of humanity as a species distinguished by its capacity to periodically revolutionize its means of extracting wealth from nature, and therefore as free from the relatively fixed laws of population nature imposes on other species.” According to Marx, then, the special characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, or rather potentially sets it apart, is that humans exist historically. Unlike other species, knowledge and customs are transmitted from one generation to the next through record-keeping, allowing individual humans to participate in the past as more than just temporary embodiments of genetic code. “History itself is a real part of natural history and of nature’s becoming man,” Marx concluded in Paris 1844. Élisée Reclus, a prominent nineteenth century anarchist and professional geographer, put it pithily: “Man is nature become conscious.”

One crucial detail is omitted in Goldner’s otherwise accurate formulation of Marx’s view, however: namely, that this uniquely human capacity manifests only at a specific moment in history, though perhaps it was always latent in its nature. By a confluence of factors, many of them fortuitous and by chance, a systemic logic took hold which would sweep away older forms of local community in the name of a global society founded on exchange. With the historic emergence of capital, new vistas of possibility are opened up (even if today they seem to have closed). Powers and capacities that did not hitherto exist become available for the first time. Continue reading


Capital as civilization


Few words arouse such controversy as “civilization,” which calls to mind the self-appointed mission civilisatrice undertaken by great colonial empires of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and politesse. It is thus historically tied to the sporadic growth of cities, population centers separate from the countryside which often doubled as the seat of political power. Amadeo Bordiga had this in mind when he briefly sketched the meaning of civilization in his polemical letter to the post-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil” (1951), initially defining civilization by way of contrast. “Barbarism is the opposite of civilization and also of bureaucracy,” wrote Bordiga. “Our barbarian ancestors, lucky them, did not have organizational apparatuses based (old Engels!) on two elements: a defined ruling class as well as a defined territory. Under barbaric conditions there were clans and tribes but not the civitas, meaning city as well as state. Civilization is the opposite of barbarism and means state organization, therefore necessarily bureaucracy; this is what Marxism says.” Henri Lefebvre, a French dissident Marxist, located “the political city at the point of origin on the space-time axis of total urbanization, populated primarily by priests, warriors, princes, ‘nobles,’ and military leaders, but also administrators and scribes.” (The Urban Revolution, pg. 8). Later the political city was supplanted by the mercantile city in Lefebvre’s schema, and this in turn was supplanted by the industrial city.

All this squared neatly with the Marxist classics, as Bordiga alluded to above. Friedrich Engels claimed in his work on Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that “the fixation of the antithesis between town and country as the basis of the entire social division of labor [is one of the] marks of civilization” (MECW 26, pg. 275). Karl Marx jotted down in one of many barely-legible polyglot scribblings that “about 850 BC civilization began unter the Asiatic Greeks.” Commenting on John Lubbock’s 1870 The Origin of Civilization and Lewis Morgan’s 1877 Ancient Society: Research in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, Marx noted the historic passage from gentility to civility: “Griechische society first comes under notice around time of… legislation of Cleisthenes, vorgehend Übergang von gentile in political (or civil) Organisation… Er hätte sagen sollen dass political hier Sinn des Aristoteles hat = städtisch und politisches animal = Stadtbürger, ζῷον πολιτικόν. Der Township, mit der fixed property it contained und people who inhabited for the time being, was to become the unit of organization; gentilis transformed into civis” (Ethnographic Notebooks, pgs. 196-197). Vere Gordon Childe, like Lefebvre, considered civilization the result of an urban revolution, calling the very notion of prebourgeois “civilization” a contradictio in adjecto. “There was never such a thing as neolithic civilization,” argued Childe (Man Makes Himself, pg. 65). Lefebvre, for his part, maintained that “cities have always been a place of civilization.” In another text, he continued: “By excluding the urban from groups, classes, and individuals, one also excludes them from civilization, if not society itself” (Writings on Cities, pg. 195).

While the word is rooted in these ancient Latin words, “civilization” as a neologism dates only from around the age of Enlightenment. The timing of its coinage is no mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. Like “society,” it is a concept of the Third Estate, as Adorno liked to point out. Émile Benveniste, a French semiotician, discovered the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau. In its post-1765 usage, Benveniste observed that “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as a state of civilized society.” From there the concept was imported to Britain by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith, likely through their contact with the physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot in France. Anticipating Sigmund Freud’s later conceit that the civilization of society resembles the maturation of the individual, Ferguson in his Essay on the History of Civil Society postulated: “Not only does the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.” See Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents: “The development of civilization is a special process comparable to the normal growth of individuals.” Millar and Smith each felt civilization was marked by a complex division of labor, wherein “the human mind can be fully cultivated and expanded; man thereby rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.” Once again, this lined up with the earlier gloss on the word provided by Victor Riqueti, alias Mirabeau. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists,’ he began, ‘they would reply, “the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the place of laws of detail.”

Following the European discovery and conquest of the New World, maritime commerce expanded as cities again came to dominate the countryside. Seigneurial virtues like courage, magnanimity, and noblesse oblige gave way to entrepreneurial virtues such as cunning, austerity, and philanthropy. Contracts took the place of oaths. Norbert Elias has forcefully argued that certain conventions from prebourgeois European court life (manners, etiquette, dress codes, behavioral norms) were carried into bourgeois society out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although moral philosophers like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic selflessness with bourgeois self-love, these courtly vestiges in civic life account for the high premium placed on “courtesy” [courtoisie, cortesia] as well as “civility” [civilité, civiltà, Zivilität] among representatives of the rising middle class. Yet this legacy passed down from medieval court society was only part of what Elias called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, the process entailed a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this new regime of self-restraint. Some have suspected a similarity between Elias’ notion of civilized “restraint” and Michel Foucault’s concept of “discipline” through correct training, but this similarity is only apparent. Elias’ concept of self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression. Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias was quick to acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms or expectations associated with the workplace, rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis. The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Jean Starobinski, the Swiss philologist and literary critic, definitively showed that “the word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.” Denis Diderot, Marx’s favorite political author, was already using the term in exactly this sense around 1775, declaring that “civilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.” Lucien Febvre of the Annales school of historiography wrote in his 1930 essay “Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” François Guizot,

“The idea of progress, of development, appears to me the fundamental idea contained in the word, civilization. What is this progress? what this development? Herein is the greatest difficulty of all. The etymology of the word would seem to answer in a clear and satisfactory manner: it says that it is the perfecting of civil life, the development of society, properly so called, of the relations of men among themselves.”

Freud, Future of an Illusion: “Human civilization [Kultur], by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts — and I scorn to distinguish between civilization and culture — presents, as we know, two aspects to the observer.” Pg. 2.

Marx, Grundrisse: “all the progress of civilization, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production [gesellschaftische Produktivkräfte], if you like, in the productive powers of labor itself — such as results from science, inventions, division, and combination of labor, improved means of com­munication, creation of the world market, machinery etc. — en­riches not the worker but rather capital; hence it only magnifies again the power dominating over labor; increases only the pro­ductive power of capital.” (Pg. 308)

Spengler, Decline of the West: “the period of Civilization is that of the victory of city over country, whereby it frees itself from the grip of the ground, but to its own ultimate ruin” (Volume 2, Pg. 107)

“The word ‘Capital’ signifies the center of this thought — not the aggregate of values, but that which keeps them in movement as such. Capitalism comes into existence only with the world-city existence of a Civilization.” (Volume 2, pg. 493)

Humboldt: “In every survey of world history there is a progress… With the rise of man, the seed of civilization is also planted, and grows as his existence evolves. This humanization we can perceive in advancing stages.” On Language (1835)

Gilles Dauvé, “Crisis of Civilization”

Capitalism is driven on by a social and productive dynamism, and by an unheard-of regenerative ability, but it has this weakness: by its very strength, by the human energy and the technical power it sets into motion, it wears out what it exploits, and its productive intensity is only paralleled by its destructive potential, as proved by the first civilization crisis it went through in the twentieth century.

No value judgement is implied here. We do not oppose civilized people to savages (even noble ones) or barbarians. We do not celebrate “great civilizations” which would have been witness to the progress of mankind. On the other hand, we do not use the word in the derogatory sense it has with writers like Charles Fourier, who called “civilization” a modern society plagued by poverty, trade, competition and the factory system. Neither do we refer to those huge geohistorical sociocultural constructs known as Western, Judeo-Christian, Chinese, or Islamic civilizations.

The civilization we speak of does not replace the notion of mode of production. It merely emphasizes the scope and depth of a world system that tends to be universal, and is also capable of disrupting and then reshaping all kinds of societies and ways of life. The hold of wage-labor and commodity over our life gives them a reality and dynamics that were unknown in the past. Capitalism today is the only all-encompassing network of social relationships able to expand geographically and, with the respective differences being considered, to impact on Jakarta as well as Vilnius. The spread of a world capitalist way of life is visible in similar consumer habits (McDonald’s) and architecture (skyscrapers), but has its deep cause in the dominance of value-production, of productivity, of the capital-wage labor couple.

The identity of capital and civilization

“Capital is only another name for civilization.” Marx quoted this dictum by John Wade repeatedly in the economic manuscripts, and with approval each time. Another quotation was usually situated nearby, this one by the Swiss Sismondian Antoine-Elisée Cherbuliez, whose writings on political economy Marx generally held in high esteem: “The capitalist is the social man par excellence; he represents civilization.” His reason for citing these remarks is opaque. Often they just hang there, like epigraphs awaiting excogitation. Reminders are attached: “Wade’s explanation of capital. Labor mere agency of capital… Civilization, together with my remarks about it” (Grundrisse, pg. 584). A clue is contained in another section of the Grundrisse, with suggestive allusions to free time: “Since all free time is time for free development, the capitalist usurps free time created by the workers for society, i.e. civili­zation, and Wade is again correct in this sense, insofar as he posits capital = civilization” (Grundrisse, pg. 34). Echoing this in his notebooks from 1861-1863, Marx later wrote that “surplus labor is on the one hand the basis of society’s free time, and on the other hand, by virtue of this, the material basis of its whole development and of civilization in general. Insofar as it is capital’s compulsion which enforces on the great mass of society this labor over and above its immediate needs, capital creates civilization, and performs a sociohistoric function.” Lenin similarly stressed the “luxury” generated by labor under capitalism: “The proletariat showed by deeds that modern civilization owes its existence to it and to it alone, that its labor creates wealth and luxury.”

Despite its uniform pattern, capitalism maps unevenly onto preexisting cultures, producing multiform results. While this does entail peripheral variations on the central theme of capitalist production — which is, as always, the antagonism between labor and capital in the constitution of value — this surface heterogeneity belies a fundamental homogeneity. Marx called this “the great civilizing influence of capital, its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.” “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility,” he continued. “Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, …and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse, pgs. 409-410). All parochial relations brought into its fold are either swiftly dissolved or irrevocably modified. “It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, “introducing what it calls civilization into their midst — in a word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Elsewhere, in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dealt with this twin tendency of capital to both create and destroy, or create new conditions by destroying old ones. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed this double-edged property of capitalist production “creative destruction.” Polemicizing against Proudhon, who wanted to simply get rid of the bad byproducts of bourgeois society while retaining the good ones, Marx assigned priority to the negative or destructive moment of the value-relation. Famously, he argued that “history progresses according to the bad side” (the left communist group Il Lato Cattivo takes its name from the Italian translation of this passage). Destructiveness, negativity is what drives progress. Read now the following line from Marx’s Grundrisse in light of this: “It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labor which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests” (Grundrisse, pg. 287). Marx returns to this motif once more toward the end of volume three of Capital, in chapter on the trinity formula. Just before passing on to his discussion of socialism as the “realm of freedom,” he explained that “one of the civilizing aspects of capital is that it extorts surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” (Capital, Volume 3, pg. 958).

On this last point, Marx announced in an 1867 speech to Polish delegates of the First International in London that “Russia, by the emancipation of the serfs, has entered the family of civilized nations” (MECW 20, pgs. 199-200). Rosa Luxemburg almost five decades later welcomed the 1905 revolution in Russia with similar sentiments: “All lovers of civilization and freedom, that is, the international working class, can rejoice from the bottom of their hearts… For on this day the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilization in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action.” Her comrade August Bebel affirmed that same year that “it is not our object to destroy civilization… We do not wish to throw humanity back into barbarism; on the contrary, we desire to lift the whole of humanity to the highest thinkable plane of civilization.” This simply restated what Wilhelm Liebknecht stated thirteen years prior: “Socialism presupposes modern civilization. It does not run counter in any way — far from being the enemy of civilization, socialism wishes to extend it to all humanity.” Bebel died in 1913 and Liebknecht in 1900, before the wholesale relapse of capitalist society into barbarism, but Karl Liebknecht carried their message forward in an address to workers for May Day 1916. “Let us fight for everything that means the future triumph of the working classes, the future of humanity and civilization,” declared Liebknecht before he was arrested for agitation.

Postcolonial critiques

Marx’s identification of capital with civilization, so often overlooked, has given rise to many misunderstandings. Postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said, for example, have taken exception to some of Marx’s journalistic writings on India from the 1850s. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India,” Marx wrote for the New York Tribune, “one destructive, the other regenerative — the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia. The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindu civilization” (MECW 12, pgs. 217-218). On this passage, Said disparagingly remarked that “Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking” (Orientalism, pg. 154). “In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution,” added Said (ibid., pg. 153). Aijaz Ahmad has already highlighted Said’s “anti-Marxism,” as well as his attempt to define “a postmodern kind of anti-colonialism” (In Theory, pg. 222) — in other words, a relativist anti-colonialism. However, it is enough to turn to Marx’s follow-up article on “The Future Results of British Rule in India” to understand the sweeping scope and grandiose scale of the history he sought to articulate. Note his implicit association of civilization with urban centers:

The centralization of capital is essential to the existence of capital as an independent power. The destructive influence of that centralization upon the markets of the world does but reveal, in the most gigantic dimensions, the inherent organic laws of political economy now at work in every civilized town. The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world: on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of material production into a scientific domination of natural agencies. Bourgeois industry and commerce create these material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the earth. When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch — the market of the world and the modern powers of production — and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain. (MECW 12, pg. 222)

Sadik Jalal al-’Azm perhaps came closest to grasping this underlying “civilizational” theme in Marx’s theory of capital, even if he did not explicitly name it as such. Capital’s civilizing effect consists precisely in its “development of the productive powers of man” and so forth. In his 1981 review of Said for the Marxist journal Khamsin, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” al-’Azm unequivocally upheld the superiority of British civilization at this historical juncture: “That nineteenth century Europe was superior to Asia and much of the rest of the world in terms of productive capacities, social organization, historical ascendency, military might and scientific and technological development is indisputable as a contingent historical fact,” he asserted. “Orientalism, with its ahistorical bourgeois bent of mind, did its best to eternalize this mutable fact, to turn it into a permanent reality — past, present, and future. Hence Orientalism’s essentialistic ontology of East and West. Marx, like anyone else, knew of the superiority of modern Europe over the Orient. But to accuse a radically historicist thinker such as Marx of turning this contingent fact into a necessary reality for all time is simply absurd.” Al-’Azm went further than this, even, claiming that “the fact that he utilized terms related to or derived from the Orientalist tradition does not turn him into a partisan of the essentialistic ontology of East and West any more than his constant use of pejorative epithets like ‘nigger’ and ‘Jew’ (to describe foes, class enemies, despised persons, and so on) could turn him into a systematic racist and antisemite.”

Kevin Anderson, whose 2010 book Marx at the Margins grapples with postcolonial criticisms leveled at Marx, concedes too much to Said on this matter. “Marx repeatedly extols the beneficial impact of Britain’s ‘higher’ civilization on India’s ‘lower’ one,” Anderson laments. “This problem needs to be acknowledged” (Marx at the Margins, pg. 20). Anderson is far too keen a scholar not to have noticed Marx’s equation of capital and civilization in his mature economic texts, and the greater nuance implied. He thus reluctantly granted the point raised by Spencer Leonard in their 2012 interview, regarding the relationship of these two terms. Leonard contended:

When Marx says England represents a higher civilization [than India], he is not really talking about the “Englishness” of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in such a way that the past can only be said to be so by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the battering down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.

Though civilization is certainly a loaded term, selections from Engels lend credence to this interpretation of Marx’s view: “Civilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.” Marx in his 1863 economic manuscripts chided the prerevolutionary French author Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who had criticized Voltaire, Rousseau, and the phisolophes, preferring Oriental tributary states to European absolutism. “Linguet is not a socialist,” wrote Marx. “His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie then beginning, are thus given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance, defending Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.”

Relapse into barbarism

After the revolutionary cycle of 1917-1923 drew to a close without spreading westward, the USSR was surrounded, encircled, and besieged. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 attempted to transform the world war between nations into an international civil war, the idea being that relatively backward countries like Russia represented the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Everything depended on successful revolution in the advanced capitalist core, however, especially in Germany. Uprisings broke out across Europe, but all of them save the Russian Revolution were eventually crushed. Lenin recognized the desperate situation in which the fledgling Soviet Union now found itself, and framed the possibility of socialism’s victory as resting on civilization. “To ensure our existence until the next military conflict between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, compromise the majority, this majority must become civilized,” wrote Lenin in 1923. “We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requisites for it [Нам тоже не хватает цивилизации для того, чтобы перейти непосредственно к социализму, хотя мы и имеем для этого политические предпосылки].” Here again civilization signifies a certain level of economic development brought about by capital, which constitutes an objective conditio sine qua non for socialist transition.

Nevertheless, Marx and his followers were never blind to the violence of capitalist accumulation, particularly along its periphery. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” he declared in 1853, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” (MECW 12, pg. 221). Barbarism is in no sense extrinsic to civilization, qua capital. It is an ever-present possibility intrinsic to its development from the start, and exists in dialectical tension with capital’s civilizing qualities. Lenin conceptualized this dialectical tension as “civilized barbarism” in a 1913 article. Discussing the proposal to connect England and France via an underwater tunnel, amidst fears of invasion, he remarked that “the civilized nations have driven themselves into the position of barbarians. Capitalism has brought about a situation in which the bourgeoisie, in order to hoodwink the workers, is compelled to frighten the British people with idiotic tales about ‘invasion,’ …in which a whole group of capitalists who stand to lose ‘good business’ from the tunnel are doing their utmost to wreck this plan and to hold up technical progress. On all sides, at every step one comes across problems which man is quite capable of solving immediately, but capitalism is in the way; capitalist barbarism is stronger than civilization.” As Marx and Engels had before him, Lenin recognized in 1913 that capitalism had actually become an impediment to further progress.

Following Lenin’s lead, Adorno would also write of “civilized barbarism” in his 1951 essay on Kulturkritik: “Were mankind to possess the wealth of goods [produced by capitalism], it would shake off the chains of that civilized barbarism which cultural critics ascribe to the advanced state of the human spirit, rather than to the retarded state of society.” Along with Horkheimer, he endeavored to “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. xvi). Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.

this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights. After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as  Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery.

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”

August Bebel

Continue reading


“Gay imperialism”: Postcolonial particularity

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

Homonationalism and “pinkwashing”

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

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

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

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

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Weekend at Bernie’s: On Sanders 2016

Two articles I’m reposting here. Both concern the Bernie Sanders campaign. One, written by Jake Verso, specifically focuses on US politics. It also provides some historical context, mentioning past socialist figures such as Bernstein and Debs. The other, written by Michael Rectenwald, compares the enthusiasm surrounding the Sanders campaign to the outpouring of support for the Syriza coalition in Greece.


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Weekend at Bernie’s

Jake Verso
Communist League Tampa
August 20th, 2015

However fed up it claims to be, a certain portion of the Left in the United States remains sympathetic (if not outright loyal) to the Democratic Party. Many of these people are coming to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and for them, the legacy of the postwar American economy looms large. When not focusing on identity politics and fear of republicans, Keynesian economic policy tends to be the ideological basis of the left wing of the Democratic Party. However, that same institution is incapable of bringing forth such reforms, not only due to the capitalist nature of the organization, but also because the leadership understands, at least unconsciously, that such reforms are impossible in the current historical moment.

In the dark comedy classic Weekend at Bernie’s, two reformist insurance employees discover the corpse of their boss at his weekend beach house. In order to protect their lives and keep the party going, they spend the rest of the film working to maintain the illusion that the lifeless corpse of their boss is still alive and is having the time of his life. To their surprise, and the delight of most of the unknowing spectators, the ruse is successful: the dead guy brings more joy to everyone who encounters him as a corpse than he probably would have were he still alive.

Bernie Sanders has frequently identified himself — in interviews, speeches, etc. — as a “socialist.” When pressed as to what this means, he usually mentions something about Sweden or else sticks the “democratic” moniker in front of it, presumably to be less scary. Yet Sanders is deliberately appealing to something bigger and more powerful than what is normally found within the bounds of typical political rhetoric. While most of the Democratic Party has stoically marched right, Sanders has veered left, raising the specter of a revamped populism with his appeal to outrage over growing economic inequality. His seemingly unpolished style, appearing and talking like your old socialist uncle who probably still mimeographs his own newsletters, Sanders appeals to the legacy of American unionism and nostalgia for its former strength. During this period of escalating election hype, it is important to remember that this remains within a framework of mainstream left-of-center politics. Positioning himself within Democratic Party primary politics, Sanders has drawn more attention to this type of rhetoric than one might have thought feasible. Since Sanders has nowhere to go but up, this has been the key to his appeal: raise the specter of working class strength, state directed social development, and populist economic outrage contained within a palatable framework and channeled into old political currents.

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This is nothing new. If anything, it is the new normal. This same self-congratulatory politics could be seen during the 2008 Obama campaign. In his tone and diction Obama sought to subtly evoke the legacy of Martin Luther King, and would later famously install a bust of the man in the Oval Office. Today the Eugene Debs poster in Sander’s office is a similar object of note for reporters. Obama also acted as insurgent candidate against Clinton, filling a necessary power vacuum in the Democratic Party’s shallow bench of celebrity politicians. Obama promised a new kind of politics, albeit of a vaguer sort than Sanders, and sailed in on a wave of popular outrage toward the Bush administration and panic at the sudden emergence of the economic crisis. During Obama’s rise, all of the usual useful idiots pressed the line, excited that someone is able to appeal to loftier notions in anything resembling a mainstream context. To his credit, Sanders policies and political history go slightly deeper than Obama’s, but at the same time this poses a greater hurdle for him. A good deal of the Democratic Party base identifies as moderate or conservative. If Sanders hopes to actually secure a nomination, like Obama or anyone else, he will be forced to make concessions to those components of the party. All of this is moot anyway. Whether or not Sanders gets the nomination, or even if he somehow gets elected, the Democratic Party as a whole and as an institution is both unwilling to and incapable of implementing the kind of economic policy Sanders is touting. For now, Sanders has skillfully exceeded the extremely low expectations surrounding his candidacy and made great strides in closing the gap in the polls against Hillary Clinton. There has been a great deal of euphoria on some sectors of the American Left (to the extent that a Left can be said to exist in America). There has also been a growing chorus of dissident voices pointing out that Sanders platform is much less radical than some are touting it as. I suppose that I stand in the latter camp. But rather than listing the numerous political sins he’s committed over the years through his relationship with the Democrats, I’m going to examine and critique some of the assumptions underlying his appeal and then briefly look at just how meaningless Sanders conception of socialism really is.

Reformism and neoliberalism

The extent to which one can place hope in reformist efforts today, depends in part as to one’s conception of neoliberalism. It can be tough to characterize the economic opinions of the Left, since so little of it can be said to hold any kind of economic conception of capitalism. For many people, in today’s environment Clintonite stooge Robert Reich has come to constitute some kind of economic guru for many people. Still, a unifying theme, from soft Marxists like David Harvey and Richard Wolf to liberal reformists like Robert Reich is that the period encompassing neoliberalism roughly amounts to an attack on the working and middle classes by the rich. That the gutting of US manufacturing, international trade deals, the welfare state, and dying off of trade unions was the result of a concerted effort, lead on a political front by greedy elites who were not satisfied with the previous equilibrium that had been established in the economy. This skillfully and self-servingly reduces structural economic problems to a question of political leadership, and from this standpoint, it makes sense to expect that the United States could return to “peace and prosperity” through the policy decisions of elected officials. Unfortunately this picture does not correspond to the reality of the last forty years or to capitalism in general. Continue reading

Gustav Klutsis RED

Marxism and biography

Here I have assembled some biographies of preeminent Marxists, radicals, and other random intellectuals that have been written in the last hundred or so years. You can download them here:

Many have noted that the biography is an undertheorized literary genre: Mikhail Bakhtin, Lewis Mumford, and Leo Löwenthal, to name a few. Below is an abridged version of an essay by Löwenthal, a literary theorist associated with the Frankfurt School. Obviously, his view of the biography — focusing on the popular biography, a form perfected by authors like Emil Ludwig and Stefan Zweig — is fairly bleak. This was only fitting, however, given the quality that life itself had acquired under capitalism grown overripe. As Adorno wrote appreciatively to Löwenthal,

Ultimately, the very concept of life as a self-developing and meaningful unity has as little reality today as the concept of the individual, and it is the ideological function of the biographies to conjure up the fiction on arbitrarily selected models that there is still such a thing as life…Life itself in its completely abstract appearance has become mere ideology.

If anyone could scan and upload the Monthly Review biography of Lenin (done!!) by Tamás Krausz, it’d be greatly appreciated. Quite good. Enjoy.


Theory of biography

Leo Löwenthal
Essays in honor of



The biography (we are here excluding scholarly works of history) reminds us of the interior in large department stores. There in the rambling basements, heaps of merchandise have been gathered from all sections of the establishment. These goods have become outdated and now whether they were originally offered for sale on the overcrowded notion counters or in the lofty silence of the luxury-furniture halls, are being indiscriminately remaindered for relatively little money. In these basements we find everything; the only common principle is the necessity for fast sales. The biography is the bargain basement of all fashionable cultural goods; they are all a bit shop-worn, they no longer quite fulfill their original purpose, and it is no longer particularly important whether there is relatively much or little of one or the other item.

With almost statistical accuracy, the same material has been collected and displayed in about the same package. To be sure, from the outside it looks quite different. The biographies are presented as if in the intellectual realm they represent that which the exclusive and specialty stores represent in the realm of consumer goods. This comparison designates the social atmosphere in which the popular biography belongs: one of apparent wealth. It lays claim to the philosopher’s stone, as it were, for all contingencies of history of life situations, but it turns out that the motley mixture of generalizations and recipes is actually an expression of utter bewilderment.

An analysis of the popular biography is first of all an analysis of its reading public, and as such it comprises a critique of late European liberalism. Arbitrariness and contradiction have destroyed any claim to theory; ultimately this literature is a caricature of theory. During the ascendancy of the middle classes, when the educational novel characterizes narrative literature, the individual vacillated between his own potentials and the demands of his environment. The author drew material, which represented the substance of each individual destiny, from imagination; in only rare exceptions were data used for surface decoration and coloration. But, while imaginative, the educational novel was at the same time exact, because, as a product of poetic imagination, social and psychological reality were mirrored as they were observed within the social stratum of the author and his public. Wilhelm Meister, Illusions Perdues, David Copperfield, Éducation Sentimentale, Der Gruene Heinrich, Anna Karenina — these novels not only evoked the readers’ experience of déjà vu, but confirmed the salvation of the individual by demonstrating the burdens and good fortunes of an invented individual existence in such a way as to permit the reader to experience them for himself. In these works, specific individuals, consistent within themselves and living within a concrete world, are represented as a complex of subjects closely connected with the fate of living and reading contemporaries. This is “reality” conceived as historians have conceived it since the Enlightenment, and in this sense there exists a direct relation between scientific and literary realism and the theory of society: one formulates the concern about the individual, the other tries to sketch the conditions for his happiness.

The biography is both a continuation and an inversion of the novel. Documentation in the middle-class novel had the function of background — raw material as it were. Quite otherwise in the popular biography: there documentation, the pompous display of fixed dates, events, names, letters, etc., serves in lieu of social conditions. The individual who is fettered by these paraphernalia is reduced to a typographical element which winds itself through the narrative as a convenient device for arranging material. Whatever the biographies proclaim about their heroes, they are heroes no longer. They have no fate, they are merely variables of the historic process.


History and time have become reified in biography — as in a kind of petrified anthropology.

Consider, e.g., “The stronger will of history is indifferent to the innermost will of individuals, often involving persons and powers, despite themselves, in her murderous game,” or else: “the sublime breaths of history sometimes determine the rhythm of a period at times even contrary to the will of the genius that animates it,” or history, “the sternest of the goddesses, unmoved and with an incorruptible glance” looks over “the depths of the times and …with an iron hand, without a smile or compassion” brings “events into being,” or history, “possibly the most terrible and most depriving sea journey, …the eternal chronicle of human sufferings,” “almost always justifies the victor and not the vanquished,” when she “in the ultimate sense is based on force; or, history acts “neither morally nor immorally”; “0ne comes to term with her,” so decrees the biographer personifying world-reason which, however, does not deter him from occasionally calling history also “the supreme judge of human actions.” At times history even permits herself to choose “from the million-masses of humanity a single person in order to demonstrate plastically with him a dispute of Weltanschauungen.” Continue reading