George Galloway and Nigel Farage Brexit

Brexit stage Left? Or maybe better not at all

The amount of leftist posturing around the issue of Brexit exists in inverse proportion to the actual potential of the situation, which as everyone knows is zilch. It reflects the flailing impotence of the contemporary Left and the total absence of a viable proletarian or internationalist alternative. Neither the vote to leave nor the vote to remain is radical in the least.

Several months ago, in their official statement on the matter, the Communist Party of Great Britain therefore observed: “Cameron’s referendum is a cynical maneuver that pits reactionaries against other reactionaries… Likewise, the ‘out’ campaign is dominated by noxious chauvinism, [aiming to replace] ‘Fortress Europe’ with the stronger ‘Fortress Britain’.” From Cardiff a voice justly proclaims a pox upon both Britannia and Europa, advising abstention from this plebiscitary farce.

Yet even the call for communists to abstain feels like something of an empty gesture given the current context. Mike Macnair, one of the authors of the aforementioned statement, has basically said as much. “Boycotting the vote is what I am arguing for,” explained Macnair at a panel organized by Platypus in London. “Had we more forces, I’d argue not merely for a boycott but to disrupt this vote as a sham, a fraud, and an anti-democratic initiative.”

Amidst the cacophony and confusion a quote from Lev Trotsky has resurfaced, which echoes uncannily across the ages and seems to speak to the present dilemma. While the constellation of forces is no doubt quite different, and Marxists should refrain from drawing hasty historic parallels, the quote is nevertheless well suited to the task of trolling left Brexiteers — for example the Swappers (slang for members of the British Socialist Workers Party), as well as the independent Trot septuagenarian Tariq Ali:

If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to “autonomous” national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.

Meanwhile, Sp!ked has been running a public campaign in support of the Brexit. The whole thing has been an embarrassment, painful to watch, with Neil Davenport holding fast to a naïve majoritarian model of democracy. “Particular people seem not to trust ordinary people to vote the right way in an election. So how would they feel about them taking over the means of production?” As if this were not simply repeating the same populist platitudes always inimical to revolutionary Marxism. Continue reading

Bernstein and Kautsky together in 1910a

Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In critiquing Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is more or less right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the decontextualized abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s convenient insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.


Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)

The main thing, however — as I’ve already told you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.1 “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

rosa-luxemburg-and-other-international-socialist-leaders-including-karl-kautsky-german-victor-adler-austria-georgii-plekhanov-russia-edouard-vaillant-france-and-sen-katayama amsterdam-1904-hall-paint

Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading


Walking between precipices: An interview with Ernesto Laclau

Hegemony vs. reification,
Gramsci contra Lukács .

Platypus Review 2
February 1, 2008
Ashleigh Campi

May 2014: Ernesto Laclau, the post-Marxist Argentine political theorist of populism and democracy, died a little under a month ago. I’m reposting this interview Ashleigh Campi conducted several years ago with him because I think it gets at some of the tensions within Marxist thought and the differential legacy of concepts like “hegemony” and “reification.” To be sure, I’m not really an admirer of Laclau’s work, and consider post-Marxism (a term coined by Laclau and his French colleague Chantal Mouffe) a form of late capitalist dementia, a senility of sorts. But it is one that expresses a broader pattern of degeneration across the board during the 1980s, that is not merely the fault of various intellectuals’ “loss of nerve” or idiosyncratic “deviations.” It reflects an objective political reality that had regressed from the position it occupied even a few decades earlier.

February 2008: Confronting the confusion and fragmentation that wrought progressive politics in recent decades, Ernesto Laclau’s work attempts to theorize the path to the construction of a radical democratic politics. Drawing on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to devise his own theory by that name, Laclau describes the processes of social articulation that creates popular political identities. By redefining democratic politics as the construction of hegemony, Laclau reminds political actors of the work necessary to construct the plurality of democratic structures vital to any emancipatory political project. In December 2007, Laclau sat down to talk about the use and misuse of Marx’s theories, and what he sees as the essential questions for political theory today. Laclau teaches political theory at the University of Essex and at Northwestern University, in Chicago. .


Ashleigh Campi: In describing the process of uniting disparate social demands behind a common politics, your work argues that the proliferation of social movements and politicization of certain identities in recent decades offers the potential for a deepening of the democratic process and presents new possibilities for social emancipation. Politics is to be understood as process through which demands are articulated by particular identities; immigrants, public-housing residents, the unemployed, etc. Do you see this emphasis on the plurality of political demands as a challenge to the creation of a coherent progressive politics?

Ernesto Laclau: I think we are dealing with two edges of a sword, because on the one hand it is obvious that the horizontal proliferation of social demands in recent decades is enlarging the area from which an emancipatory project can be launched. On the other hand to put together all of these social demands in a coherent project is more complicated than when people thought that there was just one social agent of emancipation which was the working class. For instance, I remember thirty years ago in San Francisco; everybody said that we had all the conditions for a very large emancipatory movement, popular pole etc., because we had the demands of the chicanos, the demands of the blacks, the demands of the gays, but at the end of the day, some of these demands clashed with the demands of the other groups, so nothing happened. There have been attempts like the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson to put together a plurality of these demands but the task is not easy; the Rainbow Coalition didn’t have a particularly good end. So I think that the dilemma of contemporary politics is how to create a unity out of diversity. That is the political challenge that we are facing today.

Ashleigh Campi: You’ve described the process of radicalizing political demands as the process through which disperse localized claims become discursively linked such that political subjects come to identify themselves in common as the bearers of rights that are not being met by an institutional order. This unity then becomes asserted as the demand for the radical overhaul of the institutional order, or some process of radical reform or revolution. Does this common antagonism provide a sufficient mechanism of unification among ‘the people’ of democratic politics to allow them to carry out the task of self-governance?

Ernesto Laclau: Well, I have tried to argue that all demands taking place in a public sphere are always internally divided. For instance you can have a demand for higher wages, but if it is articulated in some kind of repressive regime in which the demand is not immediately responded to, on the one hand the demand will have its particular content (higher wages), but on the other hand people will see the demand as a challenge to the existing system as a whole. Because of this second, more universal side of the demand, the demand could generate other social demands whose content is very different from the first; for instance, student demands for increasing autonomy in schools will start to form an equivalential relation so that the two demands, higher wages and increased autonomy — which are very different from the point of view of their particularity, come to be seen as equivalent in their opposition to a regime which is challenged by both. Thirdly let’s suppose that you have a third demand: the demand for freedom of the press from some liberal sector. Again this demand is a particularity that establishes the opposition to an existing state and creates some equivalential relations and in this way it constructs what I would call an equivalential chain. Now, at some point you would see not only the individual demand, but the chain of demands as a whole. At that point, because the means of representation of this chain is one individual demand — this demand is charged with the function of representing the whole. This is an example that I have used in my work: the demands of Solidarnosc in Poland. In the beginning there were the demands of a group of workers in the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, but because these demands took place in a situation in which many other demands were not recognized by a repressive regime, these demands assumed the function of representing the whole. This is what I call an empty signifier. Why empty? Because, if the signifier is going to represent the totality of the chain, it has to abandon its only relationship with the particular demand from which it originated, and it has to represent a vast array of demands which are in an equivalential relationship; so it is less clearly a particularity and more and more a universal, and at the same time it is a hegemonic signifier because it has the function of representing — through its particular body — the universality transcending it. As I see it, this is the process of generation of a popular will as a whole. But as we were saying before there are counter tendencies that go against this popular representation of the collective will. For instance there is the tendency to reduce each demand to its own particularity so that this equivalential effect — the construction of the popular will — is finally defeated. And in the societies in which we live, these two tendencies — the tendency toward universalization through the production of empty signifiers and the tendency towards the particularism of the special demands — create a tension that is the very terrain in which the political is constructed. Continue reading

Frank Lloyd Wright’s unabashedly pro-Soviet sentiments during the 1930s

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. and Mrs. Iofan, Society of Cultural Relations Banquet, Moscow (1937)

Frank Lloyd Wright, almost indisputably the greatest architect America ever produced, was throughout his life a strong supporter of the ideals of liberty and democracy and strove to find their expression through architecture.  However, it is less well known that he was a staunch supporter of the Soviet social experiment during the 1930s.  Of course, he did not believe that this support was in any way incompatible with his prior belief in democracy and liberty.  Quite the opposite, he considered the Soviet Union to be embarking upon an entirely new path toward a more perfect democracy.  Like many other observers in the West, he failed to recognize the totalitarian and undemocratic nature of the Stalinist regime.  Wright can probably be excused for not seeing this at the time, though he did problematically endorse program of “Socialism in One Country” as a fitting course of action for the Russian people.  Nevertheless, Wright’s belief in the emancipatory potential of the Bolshevik Revolution is symptomatic of the great surge of utopian sentiment involving the young USSR, as well as of a deep disillusionment with the capitalist socioeconomic order, which was in shambles over the whole course of that decade.

You can download Wright’s various statements and articles written with regard to the Soviet Union by clicking the following link:

Frank Lloyd Wright on the Soviet Union

Frank Lloyd Wright with Mr. and Mrs. Arkin, outside Moscow (1937)

 The following is an excerpt from one of these exchanges:


October 19, 1933

Dear Mr. Wright:

A year ago the Pravda asked your opinion about the position of the intellectuals in the United States in connection with the economic crisis. Your opinion was then forwarded to Moscow. Today the Pravda editors, wishing to acquaint their readers more thoroughly with the changes wrought in the life of the intellectuals, during the last year, solicit your opinion on the following questions:

1. What change, if any, has taken place in the life of the intellectuals (engineers, technicians, architects, artists, writers, teachers, etc.) during the last year?

2. How has the prolongation of the crisis influenced the creative activities in this country in the realm of technique, art, literature and the sciences?

3. Do you see improvement ahead for the intellectual groups?

An early reply will be highly appreciated.

Yours sincerely,

Moissaye J. Olgin

My dear Mr. Olgin:

Little visible change in the life or the attitude toward life of the intelligentsia of the United States is evident. No clear thinking is possible to them. They are all the hapless beneficiaries of a success-system they have never clearly understood, but a system that worked miracles for them while they slept. The hardships of the last three years have left them confused but not without hope that more miracles will come to pass in their behalf. They are willing to wait for them to happen.

The capitalistic system is a gambling game. It is hard to cure gamblers of gambling and everybody high and low in this country prefers the gamblers chance at a great fortune to the slower growth of a more personal fortune.

It is true that the educational system of the country has for many decades been breeding inertia. It aims to produce the middle-class mind which is able to function only in the middle of the road, boulevard preferred. It is the “safe” mind for the system as set up.

Machine power is vicarious power at best and breeds a lower type of individuality, it seems, the longer it functions. Action of any sort becomes less and less likely. So creative activity is a thing of the past — so far as it goes with machine power in these United States. Little art of any but the most superficial kind — the formula or the fashion — now characterizes the life of the States. The capacity for spiritual rebellion has grown small and the present ideals of success are making it smaller every day. No radical measures have been undertaken in the New Deal but there has been a great deal of tinkering and adjusting and pushing with prices to bring the old game alive again. Something more is needed than an arbitrary price-system to re-awaken capitalistic confidence in the spending of money.

The capitalistic system has evidently come to the necessity for a radical change that no tinkering can effect.

It is now proposed among the more sensible of the intelligentsia that all absentee-ownership be declared illegal by legislation.

The far-reaching consequences of such an enactment are hard to forecast but certainly the stranglehold of capitalism would be cut by such a measure and a freedom would ensue that would soon make Democracy a reality instead of the pretense it is. There is little chance however for any such measure until all the expedients have been tried and have failed in plain sight of everyone.

In the course of the next five years a real demand for such “repeal” of special privilege may come to pass. This is the feeling of the minority among the intelligentsia but they are doing nothing about it. They are spectators by birth, breeding, and habit.

Meantime all are getting on with about one-tenth of their former incomes.

I believe all three of your questions are answered in this answer to the first question.

1. The present economy has practically eliminated our profession, such as it was.

2. An entirely new set of ideas more in keeping with the principles of architecture are needed before thinking men can be inspired with sufficient confidence to go on building any more buildings. In the epoch now painfully closing — disguised as “economic depression” — architecture was only bad form of surface decoration: landlord bait for tenants. If the profession of architecture has any future it must get the building more directly and sensibly out of nature for the native.

3. Nor do I see any possibility of any return to the abnormality which has become normal, without some serious recognition of such organic integrity as a matter of means as well as an end to be achieved. Capitalistic centralization was content to employ the makeshift. Its economic structure was a makeshift. Its buildings were makeshifts. Its social life was an economic anxiety to makeshift. And finally its devotion to the makeshift is sterilizing all human creative power. There is left but ingenuity and scientific research.

4. I view the U.S.S.R. as a heroic endeavor to establish more genuine human values in a social state than any existing before. Its heroism and devotion move me deeply and with great hope. But I fear that machine worship to defeat capitalism may become inverted capitalism in Russia itself and so prostitute the man to the machine. Because the heart beats of the human soul are not like the ticking of a watch creative art is essential in any up-building of any social order worthy to be called organic and to endure. Individuality is a precious asset of the human race where it rests upon a common basis fair to all and should be rewarded according to its just value. This just reward is no less the problem of Russia now than of every other sincere attempt to enable all to rule and be ruled by their own bravest and their own best.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Lloyd Wright