The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014

Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha

We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?


Preliminary remarks

Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Further adventures in intersectionality

On the hounding of Laurie
Penny & Richard Seymour
James Heartfield

“White settlers” who “cut off indigenous people’s hair as part of genocide”; you make “a lot of erasing statements,” to “silence” and “exclude,” in the name of “white solidarity.”

— commenter, discussing a piece
about women with short hair

How fucking dare you…turn around and put the word “racist” in quotation marks like the accusation is a trivial or silly one…your response has been at all times to try and define this racism out of existence…your response at all turns has been to argue, essentially, we’ve got a moral chip on our shoulders. YOU FUCKING CRACKER.

— commenter, discussing the
racism of an advertisement

Who could they be talking about? Are these perhaps some racist white settlers exterminating indigenous people, and degrading blacks?

Well, no. In the first paragraph are tweets to the New Statesman columnist and feminist Laurie Penny, and the second paragraph are replies to the Guardian columnist and self-styled revolutionary socialist Richard Seymour. Both Penny and Seymour have made a point of arguing, moreover, for the latest fad in leftist thinking: intersectionality. “Intersectionality” supposedly means taking seriously the many different oppressions, and how they intersect. “My socialism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit,” Seymour has made a point of saying. Given that they are so keen to speak out against oppression in all its multi-layered forms, it seems really bad luck that they should be accused of being “racist crackers” and “white settlers.”

Why are they the ones denounced? And who are the critics who judge them so harshly? They are their friends. Yes, that’s right. That is what their friends think of them. In Richard Seymour’s case, it is what his own comrades in the International Socialist Network — that he recently helped to set up — think of him: that he is “a fucking cracker.” Laurie Penny says that the woman who tweeted or re-tweeted all of the posts above — about her being a settler engaged in genocide — is someone she takes very seriously: “I care what you think,” Penny reassured her. Continue reading

All that exists deserves to perish

Against the Proudhonian
popery of Père Naphtha

Père Naphtha is a delightful contradiction: a self-identified papist with pretensions to Marxism. Specifically, he belongs to the Maoist/Stalinist persuasion. It’s possible that he, like Roland Boer, thinks his religiosity adds some sort of unexpected “twist” or nuance to his otherwise pedestrian “heartthrob for the welfare of humanity,” to quote Hegel. Recently his tempers have been roused by the controversy over Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article and identity politics on the Left, and by the flurry of responses (some okay, most bad) that issued from it. He has thus seen fit to pen his own reply “On Identitarianism: A Defense of a Strawman.”

Though it’s probably poor form to dismiss an entire article and its argument out of hand, in one sweeping gesture, I feel confident in characterizing Naphtha’s “response” as basically an excuse to bang on about Nietzsche‘s pernicious influence on the Left. Obviously, this has been getting a lot of play lately, with Malcolm Bull‘s book Anti-Nietzsche having come out recently, followed by a long and seemingly interminable debate on Doug Henwood’s wall about the (un)salvageability of Nietzsche, which has since been reprised several times in other contexts. Evidently Père Naphtha had a horse in the race here, though the main knight tilting at the Antichrist was Harrison Fluss, an Hegelian and HM groupie. (Fluss is, for the record, a far more worthy opponent than Naphtha in this debate). For Naphtha, the true problem plaguing the Left is not identity politics, as authors such as Fisher, Dean, and Rectenwald believe, but rather the ominous silhouette lurking behind their haughty denunciation of ressentiment: Friedrich Nietzsche.

If for nothing else, however, we should thank Père Naphtha for proffering yet more proof of Nietzsche’s suspicion that most self-proclaimed socialists are in fact Christians in disguise. As if any more proof was needed given the maudlin, moralizing sentimentality of most leftists today. Naphtha’s brand of anti-Nietzscheanism seems to be lifted from the standard Stalinist sources: Georg Lukács and Domenico Losurdo.

Continuing our narrative: In the comment thread below his article, Naphtha took exception to the harsh rhetoric I slung his way, describing his own position as “an egalitarian argument against elitism.” Nietzsche was anti-egalitarian, to be sure, and anti-moralistic. Most pointedly so in his polemics against those famous anti-semites who were for him exemplars of socialism: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (also by extension, the 1848 Proudhonist Richard Wagner), Bakunin, and Eugen Dühring. Continue reading

The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis

IMAGE: Cover to Alain Badiou’s
Communist Hypothesis (2010)

Platypus Review 29 | November 2010

Chris Cutrone

Against Badiou

Alain Badiou’s recent book (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Žižek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.”[1] This is also the title of Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review[2] on the historical significance of the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency.[3] There, Badiou explains his approach to communism as follows:

What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, “communist” means, first, that the logic of class — the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity — is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.[4]

Badiou goes on to state that,

As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts — the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer — might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.[5]

Badiou thus establishes “communism” as the perennial counter-current to civilization throughout its history. Continue reading

Anti-Duhring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche

Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ, I

Marx, Engels, and Nietzsche
on equality and morality

Image: Anti-Dühring
and Anti-Christ


Return to the introduction to “Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”
Return to “Malcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche”

In his defense, Bull is hardly the first to have made this mistake. Many of Nietzsche’s latter-day critics, self-styled “progressives,” actually share his vulgar misconception of socialism. The major difference is that where Nietzsche vituperated against the leveling discourse of equality, believing it to be socialist, his opponents just as gullibly affirm it — again as socialism. Noting that Nietzsche’s antipathy toward the major currents of socialism he encountered in his day was an extension of his scorn for Christianity and its “slave morality,” which he saw apotheosized in the modern demand for equality, some critics go so far as to uphold not only the equation of socialism with equality, but also to defend its putative precursors in traditional religious practices and moral codes. This is of a piece with broader attempts by some Marxists to accommodate reactionary anti-capitalist movements that draw inspiration from religion, whether this takes the form of apologia for “fanaticism” (as in Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism),[48] “fundamentalism” (as in Domenico Losurdo’s “What is Fundamentalism?”),[49] or “theology” (as in Roland Boer’s trilogy On Marxism and Theology).[50] These efforts to twist Marxism into a worldview that is somehow compatible with religious politics ought to be read as a symptom of the death of historical Marxism and the apparent absence of any alternative.

According to the testimony of Peter D. Thomas, “[Losurdo] argues that Nietzsche’s…critiques of Christianity…were a response to the role [it] played in the formation of the early socialist movement. The famous call for an amoralism, ‘beyond good and evil,’ is analyzed as emerging in opposition to socialist appeals to notions of justice and moral conduct.”[51] Corey Robin touches on a similar point in his otherwise uninspired psychology of “the” reactionary mind, a transhistorical mentalité across the centuries (from Burke to Sarah Palin, as the book’s subtitle would have it): “The modern residue of that slave revolt, Nietzsche makes clear, is found not in Christianity, or even in religion, but in the nineteenth-century movements for democracy and socialism.”[52] Finally, Ishay Landa differentiates between Marxist and Nietzschean strains of atheism in his 2005 piece “Aroma and Shadow: Marx vs. Nietzsche on Religion,” in which he all but confirms the latter’s suspicion that socialism is nothing more than a sense of moral outrage against empirical conditions of inequality.[53]

To make better sense of this confusion, it is useful to glance at the various texts and authors that Nietzsche took to be representative of socialism. Once this has been accomplished, the validity of his claim that nineteenth-century socialism was simply the latest ideological incarnation of crypto-Christian morality, repackaged in secular form, can be ascertained. Notwithstanding the incredulity of Losurdo,[54] even the German Social-Democrat and later biographer of Marx, Franz Mehring, who had little patience for Nietzsche (despite his indisputable poetic abilities), confessed: “Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism.”[55] (Mehring added, incidentally, much to Lukács’ chagrin, that “[t]he Nietzsche cult is…useful to socialism…No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people…growing up within the bourgeois classes…, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. But for such people, Nietzsche is only a transitional stage on the way to socialism.”[56] Other than the writings of such early socialists as Weitling and Lamennais, however, Nietzsche’s primary contact with socialism came by way of Wagner, who had been a follower of Proudhon in 1848 with a streak of Bakuninism thrown in here and there. Besides these sources, there is some evidence that he was acquainted with August Bebel’s seminal work on Woman and Socialism. More than any other, however, the writer who Nietzsche most associated with socialist thought was Eugen Dühring, a prominent anti-Marxist and anti-Semite. Dühring was undoubtedly the subject of Nietzche’s most scathing criticisms of the maudlin morality and reactive sentiment in mainstream socialist literature. Continue reading

“A Vision for an Emancipated Future”

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

As if anticipating our own historical moment, Guy Debord once offered the following advice to anyone seeking to change the world: “Be realistic,” he insisted.  “Demand the impossible!”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the only politics befitting the dignity of human freedom today seems to us an impossibility.  We stand at the end of a long line of revolutionary defeats — some tragic, others farcical.  The world lies strewn with the detritus of dead epochs.  The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

And yet the past feels unbearably remote and out of reach, uncomprehended; it confronts us as an alien entity.  Yesterday’s grand visions of emancipation appear to us as so many distant, delicate daydreams — untenable, unthinkable.  Still in the background one can hear the faint echoes of La Marseillaise and L’Internationale, the notes all run together.

But these notes have largely been drowned out by the white noise of postmodernity.  The memory of such past struggles has faded, humanity’s deepest wish-fulfillments forgotten.  Instead we remain spellbound and transfixed by the current state of affairs.  We have lost the ability to imagine a society built on principles fundamentally different from our own.

Without an adequate understanding of the past, we have chained ourselves to the dumb reality of the present, abandoning all hope for a better future.  What little political imagination still survives is kept alive only by scavenging the desiccated remains of what once was possible.  We have thus set sail into the open seas of ahistory, and landed promptly in oblivion.  Only now are we beginning to glimpse the first rose-fingered rays of the dawn of a new era.

Despite all the emphasis placed upon “letting voices be heard” or “hearing voices” (one almost begins to feel schizophrenic) we have as yet been unable to voice a single demand.  Every attempt to articulate a unified vision of the world to come has been lost amidst the general cacophony and confusion.

Feelings of futility notwithstanding, we are nonetheless compelled to go back to the old drawing-board — to “give it another go.”  To launch a manifesto one has to want: A, B, & C; and fulminate against: 1, 2, & 3.  One must sign, shout, swear, and organize prose into a form that is absolutely and irrefutably obvious, in order to prove its ne plus ultra.

Section I: Liberty

But rather than just air a laundry-list of social grievances, a kitchen-sink of disconnected single issues divorced from any broader vision of global emancipation, we prefer to rally under the banner of one overarching principle that encompasses them all.  This is at once the most abstract, metaphysical, but for that very reason the most radical of all demands:

Humanity can accept nothing less than the promise of limitless, inalienable liberty — or what is the same, freedom.

This universal ideal has in recent years been rendered increasingly banal and diluted, robbed of the radicalism it once held.  Yet it is incumbent upon us to rescue this once noble notion from the clutches of its supposed spokesmen, to defend its honor against those who presently claim to act in its name.  For the false “freedom” that has so far been offered up to us under our present system is akin to the cheap sense of freedom one gets from selecting among various brands of the same basic product at the supermarket.  It is the illusory freedom of the slave who merely gets to freely choose his master.

The question of freedom must be posed afresh — in its most profound sense — so that it might be retrieved.  For in the answer to this question alone resides the secret of the Revolution.  The cry of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” still rings through the ages, but it has fallen on deaf ears.  Humanity must be awakened from its comatose state, its long ahistorical torpor, so that freedom can at last be realized.

By “freedom” or “liberty” is understood at least the following:

1. Freedom from oppression.
2. Freedom from want.
3. Freedom from fear.
4. Freedom from war (Kant’s “perpetual peace,” fœdus pacificum).
5. Freedom from disease.
6. Freedom from ignorance.
7. Freedom from apathy (the anomie described by Durkheim).
8. Freedom from boredom (the colorless tedium of daily life, Baudelairean ennui).
9. Freedom from imposed necessity.
10. Freedom without borders (liberté sans frontières).

The only limits that can be reasonably placed on freedom are in fact not limits at all: they only limit the false and shallow sense of freedom that has been sold to us under our present society.  Quite obviously, one person’s freedom cannot be had at the expense of another person’s freedom.  One cannot impinge upon the rights of others, and thus the civic freedom granted to every member of society does not grant anyone the license to kill, rape, exploit, or otherwise delimit the freedom of a fellow human being.  As Kant put it, “The definition of freedom would thus be as follows: freedom is the ability to act in ways in which one does no wrong to anyone else in so acting.”

Moreover, the freedom to live as one wants in the present cannot be at exercised at the expense of the freedom to live as one wants in the future.  This, we maintain, is the rational essence of the fashionable notion of “sustainability.”  Of course, this should not imply its converse, its abstract negation: living for tomorrow at the expense of living today.  Living freely should not be conceived as requiring some sort of new asceticism, the austerity measures of eco-scarcity.  Rather, this should challenge us to find ways of cultivating inexhaustible abundance.  Perhaps it is not just some happy accident of etymology that the old Aristotelian notion of εύδαιμονία (eudaimonia), traditionally translated as “the good life,” should at the same time signify an unparalleled “flourishing.”

Finally, the universal nature of this liberty would simultaneously entail the total equality of all society’s individual members, irrespective of their particular race, gender, age, or religious/sexual orientation.  The freedoms guaranteed under an emancipated society would extend to all the peoples of the world.  This would make possible, for the first time, the true “liberty of all” (omnium libertati).

In order to ensure the freedom and equality that such a society would grant to each of its individual members, the wealth of the world must be made equally available to all.  However, this should not be mistaken for some vulgar distributist notion, whereby society would simply “carve up the pie” and apportion the pieces out equally (according to fixed quotas).  Different people have different needs.  The needs of a blind man are not the same as someone who can see.  True freedom would thus require that each person’s individual needs be met.  Only then would they be free to creatively develop and express their individuality as they wish.

To illustrate this idea, we may take as an example the commodity pepper — a spice once so rare and valuable that entire wars were fought over its possession.  Today, however, if one goes and sits down in a restaurant, she will typically notice that there is a well-stocked peppershaker at every table.  The question of whether each person has the exact same quantity of pepper as her neighbor never even arises.  It exists in such abundance that one simply takes as much as she needs.  In a truly emancipated society, this concept would be generalized to include all the needs of society.

Section II: History

All this said, let us briefly take stock of our present situation and how we came to this point.  Once this has been achieved, we might be better able to discern the practical exigencies that face us in our time, and from there ascertain the possibilities for an emancipated future moving forward.  A glance into the past drives us on toward the future, inflames our courage to go on living, and kindles the hope that justice will someday come, that happiness is waiting just on the other side of the mountain we are approaching.

From Nature we have built up our own “second nature” — society — which still presently compels us and presses us into its service.  To this day we treat its every blind caprice and passing fancy if it were the outcome of some natural law, eternal and unchanging.  Its periodic crises appear to us as accidental, a result of human error.  In reality, however, the entire rotten system is founded upon a perpetual crisis occurring at the core of production.  International capital is as the insatiable god Baal, into whose bloody maw millions upon millions of steaming human sacrifices are thrown.

Though this “second nature” that surrounds us is a product of our own making, it has acquired a phantom objectivity all its own.  It appears to us in an estranged form, as something that operates independently of our will.  Unconscious — and seemingly devoid of agency — we remain entrapped within a prison we ourselves have built.  At the same time, society has further alienated itself from the original Nature from whence it sprang.  We have endured the disenchantment of the world; Nature presents itself to us only in a mediated and obscure fashion.  As helpless spectators we are forced to look on as modern society, driven by its fathomless hunger to extract surplus-value, devours the whole Earth.

This overwhelming feeling of helplessness owes to a severe frustration with the faculty of action in the modern world.  That is, it indicates an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency.  In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, gestures of “resistance” against the dominant order have both served to express the rage of helplessness while at the same time helping to suppress the feeling of disquietude that comes along with this helplessness.  The idea of fundamentally transforming society has for the most part been bracketed and, instead, replaced by the more ambiguous notion of “resistance.”

In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, campaigns of activism-for-its-own-sake amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for theatrical “agitation,” “consciousness-raising,” and “resistance.”  Unwilling to acknowledge this looming sense of lost agency, participants in such blind actions refuse to reflect on their own impotence.  By stubbornly denying the inconsequence of their own actions, however, they only perpetuate their helpless, disenfranchised state.

But what can conquer this feeling of helplessness is the force of life itself; historical consciousness and activity can annul it.  In the final analysis, this feeling is simply the product of tradition, an instinctual vestige of millennia of terror and illiteracy.  More recently, it has been the result of humanity’s repeated failures to resolve its historical dilemma.  Its origin can be traced, however.  To make it the object of history is to recognize its emptiness and overcome it.  By bringing feeling, as well as fact, into the sphere of history, one is finally able to see that it is in history alone that the explanation of our present situation lies.

For we feel an enormous, irresistible force from our human past.  We recognize the good things it has brought us, in the knowledge that what once was possible might someday be possible again.  But we also recognize the bad, in the many living fossils — anachronistic remnants and outmoded states of mind — that persist into the present.  And this is why we must call ourselves modern.  Because, though we feel the past fueling our struggle, it is a past that we have tamed — our servant, not our master — a past which illuminates and does not overshadow us.

Until we gain self-conscious mastery over this social world we have created, however, humanity will remain unfree.  To date, men have made their own history, but have not made it as they please; they have not made it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.  Once we are able to finally take command of the vast forces of production we have released into the world, humanity’s own social organization — hitherto confronting it as a necessity imposed by history — will now become the result of its own free action.  The heteronomous forces that have up to this point governed history now pass under the control of humanity itself.

Only from that time forth will humanity make its own history, rather than be made by history.  It will signal humanity’s ascent from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Behold what quiet now settles upon the Earth.  Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.  In hours like these, one rises to address history, the ages, and all creation.

This, then, is the task that confronts us.

Section III: Democracy

So it is with this vision that we claim our rightful inheritance to the legacy handed down to us by the great radical thinkers of the past.  And thus do we also take up the mantle of democracy once again in opposition to those who would deny it to us.  With Jefferson, we swear “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  And with the firebrand Paine, we unflinchingly proclaim that

Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations that preceded it.  The vanity and presumption of governing from beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all despotisms.

And if this vision of human emancipation seems too unimaginable, too wildly utopian, I have merely to reply that the only more utopian idea is the naïve belief that things will ever change under the present system — that the prevailing order could somehow be reformed through piecemeal legislation within the framework of the existing state.

A word about the philosophy of reform.  The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to its august claims have been born of earnest struggle.  The conflict has been exciting, agitating, and all-absorbing.  For the time being, it puts all other tumults to silence.  Humanity must do this or effectively do nothing at all.  If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

For “democracy” is nothing but the proclaiming and exercising of “rights” that are very little and very conventionally exercised under the present order.  But unless these rights are proclaimed and a struggle for their immediate realization waged — and unless the masses are educated in the spirit of such a struggle — emancipation is impossible.  This brings into sharpest possible relief the relationship between reform and revolution.

Every freshly drafted legal constitution is but the product of a revolution.  Throughout history, revolution has been the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already been established.  In other words, the work of reform does not contain its own force independent from revolution.  During each historic period, work for reforms is carried on only by the impetus of the last revolution.  Or, to put it more concretely, reforms can only come by way of the institutional scaffolding and state apparatus set in place by the last revolutionary struggle.

These, in turn, invariably reflect the underlying structure of society that sparked this struggle in the first place.  From this real basis there arises a legal and political superstructure, along with definite corresponding forms of social consciousness.  After reaching a certain level of development, the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the already existing relations of production.  An epoch of social revolution commences.

Only after this has taken place can reforms become both lasting and meaningful.  Democracy cannot be achieved through cosmetic, incremental alterations to the existing state.  Real reform thus presupposes that the basis of society has already been radically transformed.  Along with it, this would require a simultaneous reconfiguration of the state.

But all this begs the question: Can a state ever exist without state repression? Or is the state inconceivable apart from servitude and subjection?

History teaches us that the state has always served as an instrument of the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society.  It would be folly to think it could act otherwise.  So long as the state exists there will be violence.  Indeed, it even lays claim to a monopoly on violence (or the use of “legitimate” force).  A transitional state may be necessary until society learns to freely govern itself, without recourse to some external body.  But the aim of such a state would be its own self-abolition, as its functions become increasingly redundant.  After a certain point, this state would simply “wither away” of its own accord — leaving society to democratically pursue its own ends.

The chief object of politics must therefore ultimately be freedom from the necessity of politics; this alone is what makes politics so indispensable today.

Dies Iræ

Let it be remembered, however, that this journey through history has hardly been a one-way street.  The triumph of the human spirit and democracy is by no means guaranteed.  For humanity has not just blithely wandered on from victory to victory, along a linear path toward progress.  Condorcet wrote his Future Progress of the Human Mind while awaiting the guillotine.  History has been made subject to any number of regressions and cycles of recurrence.  At best, history can be said to proceed in a cyclolinear fashion, charting a spiral course across the annals of time.

This should serve as both an admonition and a call to arms.  For until humanity chooses to transcend the tyranny of the present, unless it seizes the destiny that history has afforded it — we will be doomed to relive all the injustices of the past.  If humanity fails to take advantage of the opportunity that lies before it, the same relations of inequality and unfreedom will be reproduced yet again.  It will be just as Zarathustra warned:

[We] will return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this snake — not to a new life or a better life or a similar life, but to this same and selfsame life…to once again teach the eternal recurrence of all things — to once again speak the word about the great earth of noon and human beings.

Mais tout cela sera balayé [But all this will be swept away],” André Gide once remarked, unless the cyclical return of the wrong triumphs after all.  Humanity’s survival is presently threatened by the very forms of its social constitution, unless humanity’s own global subject becomes sufficiently self-aware to save itself from catastrophe.  The possibility of progress, of averting the most extreme calamity, has migrated to this global subject alone.

This idea of historical progress must not, however, be conceived as a movement through homogeneous, empty time, but as a revolutionary chance to fight for the oppressed past — to blast open the continuum of history.  For our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.  Not only for the sake of our liberated grandchildren, but for the sake of our enslaved ancestors as well, must we carry out this mission.  The dead task us.  Those yet unborn beseech us.  And this is to say nothing of the many who to this day continue to suffer in squalor and destitution.  All humanity yearns to be lifted out from under the yoke of oppression.

The fate of the entire world thus hinges upon humanity’s decision.  The tired, the hungry, and the impoverished all await the final outcome of our deliberation with bated breath.  What will our decision be?

Ernst May, “City Building in the USSR” (1931)

Ernst May and collaborators, “The General Plan of Magnitogorsk — a settlement for 150,000 inhabitants attached to the Magnitogorsk industrial complex” (1931)

From Das Neue Rußland, vol. VIII-IX.  Berlin, 1931:

City Planning in Evolution

If there is any one area of endeavor in the USSR where the Revolution is still in full motion, then city building and dwelling construction must be considered first.  This is not surprising, for the replacement of a thousand-year-old social system by a new one is a process that will take more than just a dozen years to complete, or even to provide a clear and unequivocal direction.  Moreover, since the thorough reorganization of the the entire social life of the USSR, which covers on sixth of the land area of our globe, will vitally affect city development and housing everywhere, it follows that within the context of this general process of change it is at the present moment impossible to offer a panacea that would suddenly cure all the many ills accumulated over centuries and bring about immediate mature results.

Nevertheless, a number of theories have been advanced and are in hard competition with each other.  Some have been published abroad, and this in turn may have led to the impression that it is only these that represent the mainstream of Russian city planning.  Nothing could be more misleading!

So far there has been no firm commitment to one or the other system of city planning, and by all indications no such commitment should be forthcoming in the near future.  This does not mean that the field is dominated by a lack of planning or by arbitrariness.  The basic precepts of modern city planning, which in the past years have found wide acceptance in Europe, and which are now being implemented, have become the A to Z of planning in the USSR as well.  Clear separation of industry and residence, rational traffic design, the systematic organization of green areas, etc., are considered as valid a basis for healthy planning there as here; similarly, open-block planning is giving way to single-row building.

The Central Problem of the Socialist City

However, even though the general principles for the planning of Socialist cities have been established, the real problem is only beginning.  In other words, a city structure will have to be developed that in terms of its entire genesis as well as in terms of its internal articulation and structuring will be fundamentally different from the capitalist cities [189] in the rest of the world.  While our own cities in most cases owe their origin to commerce and the market place, with private ownership of land largely determining their form, the generating force behind the development of new cities in the Soviet Union is always and exclusively industrial economic production, regardless of whether in the form of industrial combines or agricultural collectives.  In contrast to prevailing practice in Europe, and with particular reference to trends in the USA, building densities in Soviet cities are not influenced by artificially inflated land values, as often happens in our case, but solely by the laws of social hygiene and economy.  In connection with this it should be pointed out most emphatically that the word ‘economy’ has taken on an entirely new meaning east of the Polish border.  Investments, which in a local sense may appear to be unprofitable, become convincingly [190] viable when seen from the vantage point of over all national planning by the state.

At this point I should like to point out most emphatically that among the innumerable misjudgments made abroad, none is more incorrect than that which assumes that work in the field of city planning and housing in the USSR is done without rhyme or reason, and that the ground has been cut out from under their feet.  The truth is that the economic and cultural reconstruction of all life in the USSR has no parallel in the history of mankind.  It is equally true that this reconstruction is being accomplished by a sober evaluation of all the realities, and it should be obvious to any observer that in each successive stage, matters recognized as desirable and ideal are being consciously subordinated to matters that are feasible and possible within the limitations of the present.  In the course of this discussion I shall return to this point on appropriate occasions.

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