Theories of the young Marx


Wer die Ju­gend hat, hat die Zukun­ft.

— Karl Lieb­knecht

In a civil­iz­a­tion that’s grown old, ours is a cul­ture that prizes youth. No longer as pres­age to a ra­di­ant fu­ture, but part of a per­man­ent present. Philo­sophy paints its gray on gray onto the pages of Teen Vogue, the Ar­ab Spring fol­lowed by an Is­lam­ist Winter. From Young Thug to la jeune-fille — to the fa­mil­i­ar re­frain of “I like their early stuff bet­ter” — all beauty is fleet­ing, as the pro­verb goes. A sea­son or so later, it loses its luster. Ef­forts at re­in­ven­tion or renov­a­tion more of­ten than not end up a laugh­ing stock. Worse yet: ig­nored. Mod­ern­ity thrives off the eph­em­er­al, Baudelaire no­ticed long ago, to the point that an en­tire style took youth as its theme. “Ju­gend­stil is a de­clar­a­tion of per­man­ent pu­berty,” ob­served Ad­orno, “a uto­pia that barters off its own un­real­iz­ab­il­ity… Hatred of the new ori­gin­ates in a con­cealed ten­et of bour­geois on­to­logy: that the tran­si­ent should be tran­si­ent, that death should have the last word.”

Raoul Peck’s film Der junge Karl Marx premiered last month in Ber­lin. It’s his second ma­jor re­lease already this year, the first be­ing I am Not Your Negro, a doc­u­ment­ary based on the life of the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an writer James Bald­win. Though it was nom­in­ated for an academy award, the Haitian film­maker’s ef­fort ul­ti­mately lost out to the five-part ES­PN epic OJ Simpson: Made in Amer­ica. Most of the Marx biop­ic was shot in Bel­gi­um back in 2015. While I’m al­ways wary of sil­ver screen por­tray­als of great his­tor­ic­al fig­ures, I per­son­ally can’t wait to see it. As a way of cel­eb­rat­ing its de­but, then, I’m post­ing sev­er­al ma­jor art­icles and es­says on the theme of the “young” Marx. Usu­ally, the young­er Marx is con­tras­ted with or coun­ter­posed to the older Marx, al­though the dates as­signed to each phase is a mat­ter of some con­tro­versy among schol­ars. If you don’t be­lieve me, just glance at the fol­low­ing pieces to get a sense of the wide range of opin­ions:

  1. Erich Fromm, “The Con­tinu­ity in Marx’s Thought” (1961)
  2. Gajo Petrović, “The ‘Young’ and the ‘Old’ Marx” (1964)
  3. Louis Althusser, “On The Young Marx (1960) and “The Evol­u­tion of the ‘Young’ Marx” (1974)
  4. Ir­ing Fetscher, “The Young and the Old Marx” (1970)
  5. István Mészáros, “The Con­tro­versy about Marx” (1970)
  6. Paul Mat­tick, “Re­view of Marx Be­fore Marx­ism (1971)
  7. Lu­cio Col­letti, In­tro­duc­tion to The Early Writ­ings of Karl Marx (1973)
  8. Michel Henry, “The Hu­man­ism of the Young Marx” (1976)

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Fidel Castro on the Frankfurt School

One of the last Cold War­ri­ors left stand­ing fi­nally bit the dust last night. If we’re lucky, Henry Kis­sing­er will also be dead by year’s end. Good fuck­ing rid­dance. Com­rade Emanuel San­tos put it splen­didly: “Fi­del Castro, Sta­lin­ist butcher and en­emy of the work­ers, is dead. The work­ing class won’t be happy un­til the last bur­eau­crat is hung with the in­test­ines of the last cap­it­al­ist.” [Fi­del Castro, ver­dugo Es­ta­linista y en­emigo de los obrer­os, ha falle­cido. La clase tra­ba­jadora no estará con­tenta hasta que el último burócrata cuelgue de las entrañas del último cap­it­alista].

An­oth­er com­rade, Ash­meet Teemsa, ex­claimed that “the en­emy of Cuban pro­let­ari­at is dead, a man no more a friend of the work­ing class than Thatch­er,” adding: “Shame on the ‘an­arch­ists’/’com­mun­ists’ who eu­lo­gize or mourn!” He then quoted from the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mun­ist Cur­rent’s Ba­sic Po­s­i­tions: “The strat­i­fied re­gimes which arose in the USSR, east­ern Europe, China, Cuba etc and were called “so­cial­ist” or “com­mun­ist” were just a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal form of the uni­ver­sal tend­ency to­wards state cap­it­al­ism.”

There is no such thing as so­cial­ism in one coun­try, and na­tion­al­ism (wheth­er Amer­ic­an or Cuban, “right-wing” or “left-wing”) is noth­ing more than the con­sort of war, de­signed to fa­cil­it­ate the di­vi­sion of the world pro­let­ari­at, to lead the work­ing-class onto the bat­tle­field, march­ing un­der “its own” na­tion­al flag, and pre­pare the sep­ar­ated sec­tions of the work­ing class for re­cip­roc­al slaughter, all this in the name of “their” na­tion­al in­terest, the in­terest of “their” na­tion’s bour­geois­ie. The self-pro­claimed Castroite “anti-im­per­i­al­ists” (i.e. anti-west­ern im­per­i­al­ism) fail to un­der­stand that im­per­i­al­ism is simply the lo­gic of world cap­it­al­ism’s atom­ic com­pon­ents, na­tion-states — im­per­i­al­ism is cap­it­al­ism’s meta­bol­ism in a world di­vided in­to na­tion-states. As com­pet­ing zones of ac­cu­mu­la­tion with­in this world-sys­tem, na­tion-states are led to clash with one an­oth­er. Only the dis­sol­u­tion of na­tion-states, as politico-eco­nom­ic units, can put an end to this sys­tem, and hence bring about world pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion.

What we see in Cuba, Venezuela, etc., con­trary to tankie/Chom­sky­ite non­sense, is noth­ing pro­gress­ive, no step for­ward for the work­ing class. The dis­place­ment of the old bour­geois­ie and their re­place­ment by a new, “red” bour­geois­ie and the re­place­ment of privat­ized in­dus­tries and free-mar­ket cap­it­al­ism with na­tion­al­ized in­dus­tries and state-cap­it­al­ism (and a flour­ish­ing black mar­ket) are ir­rel­ev­ant. The ob­vi­ous fea­tures of cap­it­al­ism, as de­scribed by Marx in Cap­it­al — the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of value, com­mod­it­ies, the ex­ploit­a­tion of work­ers, etc. — re­main the same. In­ter­na­tion­al­ists re­ject the choice between “cap­it­al­ist” bosses, po­lice and pris­ons and “so­cial­ist” bosses, po­lice and pris­ons. Between “right-wing”/pro-Amer­ic­an and “left-wing”/anti-Amer­ic­an re­gimes or coun­tries. This is all su­per­fi­cial, left­ist (left of cap­it­al) non­sense. In­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions are in­her­ently flu­id. Those who eu­lo­gize or pro­pa­gand­ize on be­half of the “red” bour­geois­ie help to foster and re­in­force il­lu­sions about the “re­volu­tion­ary” or “pro­gress­ive” nature of vari­ous anti-pro­let­ari­an, na­tion­al­ist re­gimes and state-cap­it­al­ism. We have reas­on neither to mourn nor cel­eb­rate.

My own thoughts add little to this, though one might also con­sult the ex­cel­lent 1966 bul­let­in on “Cuba and Marx­ist The­ory.” Leav­ing aside the egre­gious treat­ment of LGBT in­di­vidu­als in Cuba un­der Fi­del, forced in­to labor camps from 1959 to 1979, a few words might be said.

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On progress: Critical theory and the “decolonial” imperative

I repost below Bruce Robbins’ excellent review of Amy Allen’s very poor book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. My reasons for titling this post “Critical Theory and the ‘Decolonial’ Imperative” is that Allen clearly thinks decolonization is something that ought to happen (i.e., a moral guideline or maxim that determines practical action). She somehow fails to self-reflexively see the normative foundations of her own critique of critical theory, at least until the very last chapter, as Robbins points out in his review. He is a bit disingenuous, I think, when he remarks at the outset that The End of Progress is a “difficult but rewarding book” — a begrudgingly charitable judgment not borne out by what follows, which thoroughly dismantles Allen’s argument. Nevertheless, her argument deserved to be panned, so I don’t see this as a problem.

Apart from this specific instance of “decolonial” thought, I should perhaps explain my more general objections to the discourse. One of my reasons for being so skeptical is purely aesthetic, a result of my distaste for clunky academic language. “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity,” a 2015 collection of articles edited by Mohammad Tamdgidi, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Ramón Grosfoguel, provides ample evidence of the jargon employed by theorists of decolonization. The title alone should be enough to discredit it. Beyond this aesthetic disgust, however, a more intellectual objection I’ve always had to decolonial theory is its anachronism and its consequent reliance on metaphor. Great colonial empires are today mostly a thing of the past, the colonizers having been driven out by anti-colonial movements for national liberation or self-determination. In fact, the only real colonies that remain today are arguably Palestine (occupied by Israel) and Tibet (occupied by China). Even then, they’re odd sorts of colonies. Palestine is not directly administered, and Tibet is ruled by a government which claims to be communist.

Whenever decolonial activists go beyond the metaphoric injunction to decolonize — “kill the pilgrim in yr head!” — and insist on its literal meaning, they veer into absurdity. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” proposes to forcibly expel everyone who is not of Amerindian or African descent from the Americas, i.e. Occupied Turtle Island. By that logic, all East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians would have to repatriate, to say nothing of individuals who are of mixed descent. Sadly, claims of “indigeneity” can be used to justify the most ridiculous ends. Ryan Bellerose, an indigenous rights activist from Alberta, Canada, advocates on behalf of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland, upholding their native rights. It’s hard to counter this line of reasoning once you accept indigenist premises. Unless one wants to concoct some statute of limitations for Blut und Boden ethnic claims to historic lands, it’s impossible to resolve the issue within the framework of indigenous politics. Fortunately Marxism does not aim to permanently restore territories to any particular group. Individuals should be able to live peaceably wherever they damn well please, irrespective of any “organic connection” to the land.

Paul-KleeProving the impossibility of progress

Bruce Robbins
LA Review of Books
May 13, 2016

REVIEW: Amy Allen, The End of Progress:
the Normative Foundations
of Critical Theory
(January 12, 2016)

Walter Benjamin famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn’t compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention. Continue reading

Open-source Marxism 2016: Fresh batch of “pirate scab” PDFs

Happy New Year from the Charnel-House.

2015 was a fairly shit year. Lemmy died, and yet another Star Wars movie came out, so right off the bat you know it’s awful. Add to that the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Colorado, California, throughout Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the list goes on and on. Plus rising xenophobia and outright racism in Europe and the United States, where cops seem to be shooting unarmed black kids on a weekly basis.

I guess Stephen Curry’s MVP season, culminating in a Finals victory over Lebron, mitigated things somewhat, made the year a little more worthwhile. Only somewhat, though.

We are insufficiently gripped by the terror of existence.

Regardless, start the year off right with some high-quality “pirate scab versions” of commie e-books and PDFs. First of all, more or less all of the books published in the Historical Materialism series. But also 365 different author folders, one for each day of 2016. It seems that butthurt from one of the prime movers at Verso and HM has already commenced, and so he’s issued a middle school “him or me” ultimatum.

Budgen butthurt

Of course, I don’t begrudge anyone who would defriend me or badmouth me for careerist reasons, because the sacred principles of #getpaid and #mansgottaeat override everything. You can’t be blamed the guy acts like a teenager, or that he can only tolerate suck-ups and sycophants. Just enjoy the free books. Anyway, most of these are in English, but the Hero of Labor who uploaded these tells me other languages could be provided as well. Also included are some worthwhile reactionaries like Michels, Pareto, and de Maistre, and some liberal thinkers from the era of bourgeois revolutions.

Note: If you’re not familiar with MEGA, the way downloads work can be kind of confusing. When you click on a given file, it goes to “transfers,” which then usually saves to your desktop. But there should be a gear in the lower left hand side which allows you to specify where everything is saved. Continue reading

Walter Benjamin’s writings in German and in English

Besides studying Soviet history, reading Walter Benjamin was what got me hooked on all this commie crap. It was probably “On the Concept of History” that first did it. Enigmatic, baffling, simple yet sophisticated — these were my initial impressions of it. The rest is history, or a storm blowing in from the Absolute.

Of course, I was fortunate to be introduced to Benjamin the way I did. Following a few of his texts in Illuminations, I started in on Adorno and read Gershom Scholem’s Story of a Friendship. At least to some extent this immunized me to the different “readings” offered over the years by postmodernists, poststructuralists, hermeneuticists, and beyond. No one can pretend to be surprised that the secondary literature on Benjamin has become so voluminous, or all the uses to which his thought has been put. Because the Marxist component of his writing is muted, or methodologically opaque, theorists have been able to sidestep or otherwise evade critical engagement with Benjamin’s Marxism.

He was not a political writer. And many of his references are esoteric or willfully obscure. From this derives the denseness of so many of his texts. Jewish mysticism certainly figures into Benjamin’s conceptual and theoretical apparatus, largely nourished by his friendship with Scholem. Still, I despise nothing more than interpretations which seek to make Benjamin into some sort of communist rabbi, à la Moses Hess (Marx used to disparagingly refer to the proto-Zionist Hegelian in this manner, before Engels cuckolded the man’s wife). Reading his notes and correspondence it is clear that the allusions to Jewish mysticism in his writings are metaphorical or allegorical, and possess no religious content.

You can download all of Benjamin’s work in German and in English below, along with some biographies and introductions to his work. Beneath the picture gallery I’ve reposted an article Michael Löwy wrote for the Platypus Review ages ago. Enjoy.


  1. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften I
  2. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften II
  3. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften III
  4. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften IV
  5. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften V
  6. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VI
  7. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VII
  8. Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, 6 Bände


  1. Walter Benjamin, Early Writings, 1910-1917
  2. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926
  3. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1, 1927-1930
  4. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 2, 1931-1934
  5. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938
  6. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940
  7. Walter Benjamin, Correspondence, 1910-1940
  8. Walter Benjamin, Correspondence with Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940
  9. Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht
  10. Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire
  11. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media
  12. Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin
  13. Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary
  14. Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings
  15. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Secondary sources

  1. Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin
  2. Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
  3. Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism
  4. Uwe Steiner, Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work
  5. György Markus, “Walter Benjamin, or, The Commodity as Phantasmagoria”
  6. Fredric Jameson, “Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia”
  7. Georg Lukács, “On Walter Benjamin”
  8. Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait
  9. Ferenc Feher, “Lukács and Benjamin: Parallels and Contrasts”
  10. Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Color of Experience
  11. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

Walter Benjamin

Michael Löwy

Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

Walter Benjamin occupies a unique place in the history of modern revolutionary thought: he is the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. His thinking has therefore a distinct critical quality, which sets him apart from the dominant and “official” forms of historical materialism, and gives him a formidable methodological superiority.

This peculiarity has to do with his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of civilization and from the Jewish messianic tradition. Both elements are present in his early writings, particularly in “The Life of the Students” (1915), where he already rejects “a conception of history, whose confidence in the infinity of time only distinguishes the speed by which men and epochs roll, quicker or slower, along the track of progress” — a conception characterized by the “inconsistency, the lack of precision and force of the demands it addresses at the present” — opposing it to utopian images such as the messianic kingdom or the French Revolution.

Benjamin’s first reference to communism appears in 1921, in his “Critique of Violence,” where he celebrates the “devastating and on the whole justified” critique of the Parliament by the Bolsheviks and the anarcho-syndicalists. This link between communism and anarchism will be an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism will to a large extent take a libertarian color.

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Trotsky and the Frankfurt School

Helmut Dahmer
Platypus Review
October 1, 2015

Disrespect for a reality that demands adoration as if it were a god is the religion of those, who in today’s Europe under the ‘Iron Heel’ risk their life in order to prepare a future better one.

— Max Horkheimer, September 19391

Looking through the register of names in the writings and letters of the circle of friends around Max Horkheimer we find only rare references to Leon Trotsky. Theodor Adorno, for instance, who claims in his Aesthetic Theory (1969) that the ambitious art has been bourgeois art, remarks approvingly that Trotsky also had said in his book Literature and Revolution (1923/24) that (after the revolution) there would be no possibility for the development of any “proletarian” art, and that there would be produced a post-bourgeois art only in the future, after an international socialist society will have been established. Erich Fromm, who belonged to Horkheimer’s Institute of Social Research until 1939, wrote a sympathetic, but unpublished review in 1958, when Trotsky’s Diary in Exile (1935) was translated and published. Horkheimer also mentioned Trotsky (together with Lenin) in conversations with Adorno and other members of his circle concerning the Bolshevik Revolution, remarking that it had changed its character by answering white terror with red terror during the civil war. Horkheimer quoted Rosa Luxemburg’s early criticism of the Bolshevik rule, praising Luxemburg as “one of the most important political figures of the 20th century.” Walter Benjamin is the only member of Horkheimer’s circle of social philosophers of whom we know that he not only read (in 1926) Trotskyʼs essay Where is Britain Going? but later, in 1932-33, Trotsky’s most important books, My Life and The History of the Russian Revolution, with great enthusiasm, “I think it is the most interesting book I have read in many years,” he wrote to Adorno’s wife, Gretel Karplus.2 We can find traces of this reading in Benjamin’s notes on Blanqui (in The Arcades Project) and in his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History” from 1940.

In Horkheimer and Adorno’s writings on fascism we find, in spite of many similarities of description and analysis, no indication that they had knowledge of Trotsky’s commentaries concerning the agony of the Weimar Republic, the failure of the German communist party and the rise of the fascist movement. Trotsky’s theory of fascism is not even mentioned in Horkheimer’s essay “Lehren aus dem Faschismus” [“What fascism did teach us” 1950].3 The main contributions to a theory of fascism, that were written and published by the scholars around Max Horkheimer were those of Franz Neumann4 and Adorno.5  The pioneer work of Neumann on the political economy of German fascism owes a lot to Trotsky’s analyses but doesn’t mention him. Both authors were analyzing the victory of Hitler’s fascist party in 1933 as the result of the struggle between the three German classes: the bourgeoisie, intermediate strata (petit-bourgeois), and the proletariat. The majority of the electorate and the troops supporting the fascist mass movement were recruited from the expropriated and disorientated old and new middle classes and from the reservoir of six million unemployed. The fascist program combined the conservative, anti-modern ideology with anti-capitalist and nationalist slogans in order to recruit as many followers out of the middle and working class as possible. In the November 1932 election, the fascist NSDAP got 11.7 million votes, the proletarian parties KPD and SPD together 13.2 million votes. The main promoters and beneficiaries of the fascist movement and of the fascist regime were finance capital and large landed property ownership. But millions of fellow travelers also made their profit, when the German and European Jews were expropriated and the countries under German rule were plundered (between 1938 and 1945). Trotsky had demanded the formation of an armed united front of all working-class organizations in order to attract the majority of the middle-classes, to destroy the fascist movement and to complete the social revolution of November 1918. The study of Adorno and the Frankfurt School attempted the first analysis to explain why certain people choose to give up their personal autonomy and to become blind followers of this or that charismatic false messiah.6 The Frankfurt School’s Marxism (or “critical theory”) was an exploration of the social totality from two sides: from the side of the institutionalized politico-economical relationships and from the side of the individuals that are stretched into the frame of these class relations. In a latent rebellion against this Procrustean bed, they often do not know how to realize their own interests. The analysis of the fascist economy and the analysis of the fascist mentality (Behemoth and Authoritarian Personality) were combined in order to gain a realistic picture of the terrible totality, whose reproduction our generation must prevent.7

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Trotsky had denounced Stalin as the “gravedigger of the revolution” as early as 1926. We cannot be sure if Horkheimer knew his fragmentary biography of Stalin published in 1941, the year after Trotsky was killed by the GPU-agent Ramón Mercader; but Horkheimer’s reaction when he learned in early March 1953 that the tyrant of the Kremlin had died sounds like an echo of Trotsky’s damnation of (“Cain”) Stalin. Here is the report of Monika Plessner:

Horkheimer was in high spirits, jubilated, rubbed his hands in glee: “The monster is dead. Call the students together. We have to do something immediately.” (Half an hour later the students were sent into the city of Frankfurt in order to ask passengers what their opinion was concerning the main news of the day).8

Much more important than these direct (or indirect) references to Trotsky and his writings is the political and cultural constellation: On the one side we find the tiny informal group of Marxist philosophers around Horkheimer driven into exile by the German fascists; on the other, the group of international revolutionaries around Trotsky — the so-called “Left Opposition,” later known as the “Fourth International,” organized in the form of a new party, one that the Stalinists hunted down from the Soviet Union to Turkey, then to France, from France to Norway, from Norway to Mexico. Between 1929 and 1942 both the Trotskyists and the Frankfurt School published their own journals, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung [Journal for Social Research] and the Бюллетен оппозиции [Bulletin of the Opposition]. We could say that in different ways both journals met Hegel’s demand to grasp the specific historical situation and to give it a theoretical reconstruction.9 We don’t know if Horkheimer and his friends took note of Trotsky’s Bulletin, whose main articles were published simultaneously in German, French and English, but in July 1939 a review of Horkheimer’s journal and its program was published in Unser Wort, the journal of the German Trotskyist group (IKD) written by Trotskyʼs brilliant secretary Walter Held (Heinz Epe) whom the Stalinists killed three years later. Its title was “Kritische Theorie ohne politische Praxis?” (“Critical Theory without Political Practice?”).

The Marxists of Horkheimer’s circle were (like Freud) critics of the Hegelian idealism in succession of Ludwig Feuerbach. But they knew — like Marx himself — that the concepts of their sociological theory originally had been developed by Hegel. So we can say that they were Hegelian (or“Western”) Marxists like Antonio Labriola, the Italian philosopher whose “non-orthodox” interpretation was decisive for Trotsky’s understanding of Marxʼs critical theory.10

They were convinced that, in order to understand and to criticize the actual form and functioning of society, it was not only necessary to analyze the economic development but to understand and to criticize the philosophical and artistic productions that were typical for the actual stage of societal evolution and that determined the consciousness of their contemporaries. In order to change society it was necessary to understand it in its totality. This orientation enabled the social philosophers around Horkheimer as well as Trotsky (and in contrast to the majority of the Marxists, who didn’t understand that Marx had developed a criticism of society, not a Weltanschauung) to welcome Freud’s new (therapeutic) psychology of the unconscious. They realized that the Viennese physician had developed a new criticism of psychological and cultural institutions, one that complemented their own sociological criticism. Horkheimer and Benjamin were Marxist historians (of philosophy or literature). Adorno updated and radicalized the criticism of idealistic philosophy (not only that of Hegel but also that of Edmund Husserl) and became classic and modern music and literature’s most important Marxist interpreter. Trotsky the revolutionary was also a man of letters, and his very original interpretations of the literature of the 19th and the early 20th century written between 1900 and 1940 will be published soon in German in two large volumes.

Thüringen, 1923. Hintere Reihe- Zweiter von links- Friedrich Pollock, Mitte- Georg Lukács, Zweiter von rechts- Felix Weil. Vordere Reihe- Erster von links- Karl August Wittfogel, Mitte- Karl Korsch, rechts vor ihm Käthe Weiltrotskyeternalre00volk_0377 copy

The conception of “political practice” as we find it in the letters and essays of Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Adorno during the thirties was (more implicitly than explicitly) the same as that of the revolutionary Marxists Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg. Yet, they were anxious to omit any public mention of Trotsky. After the Second World War, Adorno and Horkheimer saw no possibility of any revolutionary practice, for they saw no revolutionary subject (class). With the notable exception of Marcuse, they didn’t think that the German (and international) protest movement of the students had any chance to change capitalist society. Continue reading

Adorno’s Leninism

Lenin and Adorno are not often placed side by side, conceptually or historically. More often than not they are counterposed — the former was a revolutionary man of action, while the latter ruminated most of his life on a revolution that never came to pass. It therefore came as a surprise to many when it came to light that Adorno insisted on “a strictly Leninist manifesto” in 1956, during his recorded conversation with Horkheimer. Even Martin Jay, who long sought to distance Frankfurt School critical theory from Leninism, was forced to acknowledge this passing remark, though it was immediately downplayed as an uncharacteristic bit of exuberance (“a brief paroxysm of enthusiasm”). Other critics, such as Todd Cronan, held that Adorno regressed behind Marx in following Lenin, since being determines consciousness and not the other way around. Chris Cutrone, my old mentor/nemesis of Platypus fame, has already criticized this view, so I won’t reprise his comments here.

The majority of Adorno’s public pronouncements regarding Lenin were deprecatory, if appreciative, playing coy with his authority on questions of materialist epistemology. Brecht had wondered why Adorno would bother reexamining philosophers like Mach or Husserl, especially since Lenin had dealt with them so roughly in Materialism and Empiricriticism (1908). Adorno objected that Lenin’s critique of empiriocriticism remained purely transcendental — i.e. rejecting it on the basis of false premises rather than provisionally accepting these false premises and immanently working through them. “When Lenin, rather than go in for epistemology, opposed it in compulsively reiterated avowals of the noumenality of cognitive objects, he meant to demonstrate that subjective positivism is conspiring with the powers that be,” wrote Adorno. “His political requirements turned him against the goal of theoretical cognition. A transcendent argumentation disposes of things on the basis of its claim to power, and with disastrous results: the unpenetrated target of criticism remains undisturbed as it is, and not being hit at all, it can be resurrected at will in changed constellations of power.”

“[D]ialectics as critique implies the criticism of any hypostasization of the mind as the primary thing, the thing that underpins everything else,” he recalled in his 1966 Lectures on Negative Dialectics. “I remember how I once explained all this to Brecht when we were together in exile. Brecht reacted by saying that these matters had all been settled long since — and what he had in mind was the materialist dialectic — and that there was no point in harking back to a controversy that had been superseded by the unreal course of history. I am unable to agree with this. On the one hand, it seems to me that the book whose authority he relied on, Lenin’s book on empiriocriticism, in no way succeeds in delivering what it undertakes to perform, namely a philosophical critique of the hypostasization of the mind or of idealism. It remains a thoroughly dogmatic work which simply presents a specific thesis with a torrent of abuse and in endless variations, without at all attempting a fundamental explanation.”

Just going on these statements, Adorno would seem to be lukewarm toward Lenin at best. Yet Adorno’s references to Lenin made in private, repeatedly in his letters from the 1930s and then again in his taped conversation two decades later, paint a different picture. There are several likely reasons for this. Lars Quadfasel speculates that public mention of Lenin during the 1930s, particularly after the Nazi seizure of power, would have been extremely unwise unless one was heaping scorn upon the Bolshevik leader’s memory. Similarly, after World War II, it was illegal for anyone living in West Germany to belong to the communist party. Moreover, since Lenin’s successors had transformed his teachings, along with those of Marx, into an unmoving set of dogmas collectively referred to as “DiaMat,” it is understandable that Adorno would hesitate to invoke the great revolutionary.

Detlev Claussen’s 2003 biography of Adorno, One Last Genius, perhaps provides the richest picture of Lenin’s enduring influence on Adorno. Claussen writes:

It was [Adorno’s] collaboration with Horkheimer [during the 1930s] that enabled him to shed these intellectual infantile disorders. His letters are full of bizarre references to Lenin, as if he wanted to outdo the “orthodox Marxism” advocated in Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness. Adorno’s original politicization took place when he was still very young, evidently in the course of his readings with Kracauer. This supplied him with key terms that expanded his horizon beyond his artistic and aesthetic concerns. This habit of thinking in keywords recurs in the taped records of the 1950s, when he would refer to Lenin, in the middle of the cold war, at a time when the Communist Party was banned and even party members scarcely dared to mention his name. It was at this time that he proposed to Horkheimer that they should produce a reworked Communist Manifesto that would be “strictly Leninist.” Behind the closed doors of the Institute, Adorno’s aim in 1956 was not to go back to Marx, but to go beyond him. He told Horkheimer that “I always wanted to try to produce a theory that would be faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while not lagging behind the achievements of the most advanced culture.” Paradoxically, summing up the course of his life to that point in 1956, Adorno mentions his road toward politicization. He had arrived at Lenin, he claimed, via music. Using one of his key ideas, the idea that all knowledge is socially mediated, Adorno once again confirmed the importance of Lenin: “Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as a milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.”

In reality it was only Lenin’s contemporary Freud who noticed people’s subjectivity. Horkheimer and Adorno’s original idea of writing something jointly, the original seed of Dialectic of Enlightenment, was concerned with a critique of the individual. It was the attitude toward psychoanalysis that revealed the split in the material which produced critical theory, on the one hand, and revisionist psychoanalysis, as pioneered by Erich Fromm, on the other. The directness of the political vocabulary that was retained until well into the fifties becomes clear from a letter of Adorno’s to Horkheimer dated 21 March 1936. Adorno complains that Fromm has placed him in the “paradoxical situation of having to defend Freud. He is both sentimental and false, a combination of social democracy and anarchism; above all, there is a painful absence of dialectical thinking. He takes far too simple a view of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s vanguard nor his dictatorship is conceivable. I would urgently advise him to read Lenin.”

Below are two long articles, each titled “Adorno’s Leninism.” The first, by Cutrone, presents a number of parallels between Lenin, Trotsky, and Adorno, some passages being virtual paraphrases. It’s a bit quote-heavy, in that almost Benjaminian style that presents long blocks of quoted texts followed by brief commentary, but it’s quite good. After that, there’s an article by Quadfasel in German (“Adornos Leninismus”) where he touches on several of the matters discussed in this introduction, as well as ongoing textual controversies about the compatibility or incompatibility of Adornian theory with Leninist practice — again, mostly in German. Quadfasel’s article includes a rather long fragment by Adorno from 1935 titled “The Fulcrum,” which I’ve attempted to translate below. Claudia Dallek assisted in the translation:

To learn from Lenin: Shouldn’t that really mean more than taking over methods of illegal work that were appropriate for the police state of Prussia? Such methods are not appropriate for a dictatorship whose power to rule [Herrschgewalt] strikes with even greater precision (insofar as it is able to con people, not based on democracy, but on a population of willing servants, informants, and pimps). Instead of sacrificing our best workers in the distribution of flyers — which publish about revolutionary developments that are simultaneously hindered by the arrest of these very same agitators — it is preferable to study Lenin’s attitude toward the revolution of Kerensky [in February 1917]: his ability to discover and use the fulcrum [Hebelpunkt, leverage point] of society to lift the measureless weight of the state with minimal energy. The proletariat was too weak to take on tsarist state authority; only the bourgeoisie could do that, by hastily bringing in the harvest of its revolutionary century. But this late bourgeoisie was like the bourgeoisie of other countries, sworn to war and therefore unable to keep its mass basis [Massenbasis] in a subordinate state. It was numerically spread too thin to fill the sphere of power and too ideologically divided to shape it, so it had to yield to the push that was made in the name of peace. To deliberately intervene in the concatenation of all these was necessary on Lenin’s part. He could have never defeated the autocracy, but certainly [could defeat] the democracy of the Brusilov offensive [the government that took over following the disastrous “June advance” of 1916]. He was able to recognize this beforehand and managed to master this blind violence by planning for it, the way cunning defeats the monster in fairy tales. That’s what made the immortal dialectical moment of his act the starting point and the prototype of every genuine communist state and revolution. The fate of the German working class, maybe that of humankind, depends on finding such a point, if it’s still indeed possible to find. There is no other hope to avoid war than this. Those who prophesy communism as the certain end of war, and therefore let things take their course, should remember that nobody knows (let alone the generals) what productive forces and means of production will be left to begin establishing the world.

Another friend, Sebastian Vetter, tells me that Adorno’s student Helmut Dahmer is preparing an essay on the influence of Leon Trotsky on Walter Benjamin. Dahmer is a specialist in psychoanalysis and critical theory, who hasn’t had much of his work translated into English since the 1970s, so I’m hoping it comes out soon and is good enough to merit a wider, Anglophone readership.

Adorno in 1935

Adorno’s Leninism

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review
April 21, 2010

Adorno’s political relevance

Theodor W. Adorno, who was born in 1903 and lived until 1969, has a continuing purchase on problems of politics on the Left by virtue of his critical engagement with two crucial periods in the history of the Left: the 1930s “Old” Left and the 1960s “New Left.” Adorno’s critical theory, spanning this historical interval of the mid-20th century, can help make sense of the problems of the combined and ramified legacy of both periods.

Adorno is the key thinker for understanding 20th century Marxism and its discontents. As T.J. Clark has put it (in “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?,” 2003), Adorno “[spent a lifetime] building ever more elaborate conceptual trenches to outflank the Third International.” The period of Adorno’s life, coming of age in the 1920s, in the wake of the failed international anticapitalist revolution that had opened in Russia in 1917 and continued but was defeated in Germany, Hungary and Italy in 1919, and living through the darkest periods of fascism and war in the mid-20th century to the end of the 1960s, profoundly informed his critical theory. As he put it in the introduction to the last collection of his essays he edited for publication before he died, he sought to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience.” Adorno reflected on his “drastic” historical experience through the immanent critique, the critique from within, of Marxism. Adorno thought Marxism had failed as an emancipatory politics but still demanded redemption, and that this could be achieved only on the basis of Marxism itself. Adorno’s critical theory was a Marxist critique of Marxism, and as such reveals key aspects of Marxism that had otherwise become buried, as a function of the degenerations Marxism suffered from the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of Adorno’s writings, from the 1930s-1940s and the 1960s, illustrate the abiding concerns of his critical theory throughout this period. Continue reading

The (anti-)German ideology: Towards a critique of anti-German “communism”

Raph Schlembach
Interface journal
November 2010

The specter of the anti-Germans has easily become the Feindbild for activists of the Anglophone Left; yet rarely does this translate into a fundamental or informed criticism of the anti-German premise. This article, then, offers an introductory description and a critical analysis of pro-Israeli, anti-German communism in its context within the post-war German Left and as a contemporary protest movement that sits oddly on the fringes of radical politics. Its origins and politics are examined to depict the radicalization of a broad anti-nationalist campaign against German re-unification, and its evolution into a small but coherent anti-German movement, controversial for its pro-Israel polemics and provocations. Current debates within the anti-fascist German Left are reviewed to explore anti-German positions on the Holocaust, Israel, Islam, anti-imperialism, and Germany’s foreign policy. Theoretical works that have heavily influenced anti-German communism are discussed to comprehend the movement’s intellectual inspirations. The purpose of the article is to introduce one of Germany’s most controversial protest movements to an English-speaking audience and to hint at the formulation of a critique that is more than a knee-jerk reaction to pro-Israeli agitation.


Anti-German communism is a political tendency that grew from within the German radical Left, and that has adopted a pro-Western/pro-Israel discourse and critiques of post-Nazi Germany and Islamic antisemitism as its defining ideological characteristics. Despite being intellectually inspired by the writings of Karl Marx and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, the subsequent reinterpretation and political contortion of these texts by the “anti-Germans” has fueled an antagonistic relationship with large parts of the German (and global) Left. The common left-wing premises of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism are regarded by the anti-Germans as expressions of a continuation of the “logic of Auschwitz” that reflects totalitarian, fascistic thought in the national mindsets of most Germans, Europeans, and beyond.

Talking about the anti-Germans is a bit anachronistic, of course. Anti-German communism as a movement, in the sense of informing the practical and strategic politics of German anti-fascism, is connected to the decade or so immediately after German re-unification. In its more narrow sense, as a theoretically distinct but practically irrelevant contrarian position, anti-German communism has also seen its heyday. Anti-German ideas still persist nonetheless, in a number of periodicals and communist organizations, and continue to have some influence on the German anti-fascist movement and some unorthodox Marxist circles. It is also rather unhelpful to speak of “the anti-Germans” as if they represented a homogenous movement. This is even more so as the ideas and positions of anti-German authors, activists and groups have tended to undergo rapid development in an effort to gain “avant-garde” status in the radical Left. A first categorization is often used in German-language debates to distinguish between various “hardcore” and “softcore” trends. Hardcore anti-Germans, around the journal Bahamas and the Freiburg Initiative Sozialistisches Forum, have now mostly taken leave from left-wing political movements; yet it is they who often remain the object of controversy. Bahamas and their supporters in particular have made a point of declaring both left-wing and Islamist anti-imperialism as their enemy, often descending into vitriolic attacks against Muslims and Arabs in Europe — to such an extent that the tendency might now be best described as an “anti-Islam materialism.” The various softcore anti-German projects continue to exert some theoretical influence especially on anti-fascist politics. The journal Phase 2 for example has emerged from the German “Antifa” movement and now combines anti-German thought with elements from critical theory and post-structuralism to form a political perspective that is sometimes described as “post-Antifa.” Now defunct is the journal 17 Grad, which was based on Foucauldean theory and discourse analysis. The longstanding magazine Konkret has evolved from a more orthodox Marxist analysis but has also supported and developed anti-German positions in the past. The widely-read weekly newspaper Jungle World regularly publishes anti-German authors, but actually prints articles from a variety of radical political perspectives. However, it has been years since anti-German publications regularly sparked controversy and sometimes violent conflict amongst the German Left. Now, many writers, publishers and activists who had spearheaded the anti-German movement have retreated from left-wing circles and discussion. Nonetheless, in the English-speaking Left in particular, the anti-Germans are still subject to polemical controversy and outrage, often resulting from a fascination with the waving of American, British, and Israeli national flags by German anti-fascists. There are very few substantial English-language texts available however (Grigat 2005; Radke 2004 are amongst the more illuminating introductions), although whenever the topic is raised on left-wing online forums, blogs or in face-to-face conversation it is sure to generate long discussions. To date, there is only one academic publication about the anti-Germans in English language. The article in the Jewish Political Studies Review is largely descriptive and focuses on the pro-Israel stance of the movement. Keeping in mind the somewhat sketchy information so far available to the English-language reader, what I offer here is primarily a historical overview of the origins and political formation of the anti-Germans and, secondly, a suggestion towards a more fundamental critique of their politics.

Events in the recent history of the extra-parliamentary Left in Germany are crucial to understanding why anti-German currents play a prominent role in it. I trace the development of anti-German communist thought in four steps. First, I look at some of the influences that can be found in the work of pre-unification writers, such as Jean Améry or Eike Geisel. Second, the movement against German political reunification will be discussed as the immediate “trigger” or springboard for the emergence of anti-German communism as protest movement. Third, the anti-German response to events such as the Kosovo war and 9/11 illustrate how parts of the movement have severed their ties with the politics of the Left. In a final section, I indicate how the anti-German ideology remains firmly stuck in nationalist and identity politics.

Post-Holocaust origins

The anti-German self-understanding is one that combines criticism of German nationalism and political Islam with a more general critique of nation and state. It explicitly sees itself in contrast to the anti-imperialist and autonomous Left of the 1970s and 80s with its strong support for national liberation movements and vocal opposition to American and Israeli militarism. Put very simply, for the anti-Germans, anti-fascism in a world divided into states is synonymous with solidarity with Israel. The Israeli state is seen as the necessary reaction to the fascist barbarism of the Third Reich and that continues to rear its head in the Bundesrepublik. This inversion of the anti-imperialist premise is certainly at odds with left-wing politics in Anglo-Saxon countries and elsewhere outside this context. However, calls for solidarity with Israel and distrust of anti-Zionism are more commonplace in the German radical Left. Some of the most fervent critics of the anti-Germans would go to length to defend Zionism as the basis of the Israeli state (for example Robert Kurz 2003). Also many anti-fascist groups that do not belong to the anti-German spectrum practice and demonstrate solidarity with Israel and focus strongly on the continuing antisemitism in neo-Nazi movements.

The specificity of its National Socialist history has always been a central point of reference for the (West-)German Left. Concerned with “explaining the unexplainable,” the Left subscribed to a politics of remembrance. The “lessons” drawn from the terror of National Socialism and the Holocaust thereby remain fundamental to a radical theory and practice. Concepts and ideologies that had been paramount to the Third Reich, such as “the German people,” “nation,” or antisemitism are thus important points of reference. Radical left-wing criticism of anti-Zionism in Germany also emerged long before one could speak of an anti-German movement. Even texts from an armed anti-militarist group (Revolutionäre Zellen 1991) and an autonomist group (Autonome LUPUS-Gruppe 2001) criticized some aspects of anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism. The question of antisemitism had thus taken a prominent place in the internal discussion of the German Autonome movement already in the 1970s and 1980s. Critical voices were often the result of the failures of national liberation movements. A striking example was a failed attempt to liberate a number of Palestinian prisoners and members of the Red Army Faction, including Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. In 1976, a commando group of Palestinians and members of the Revolutionäre Zellen had hijacked a plane leaving Israel, demanding the release of political prisoners. The hijackers eventually let non-Jewish and non-Israeli hostages disembark from the grounded aircraft, while Israeli Jews were kept hostage until their liberation by anti-terror units. Nevertheless, accusations that anti-imperialist politics had slipped into overt antisemitism were voiced by only a few in the radical Left (see Hanloser 2004b).

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The life and works of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro

The following series of interviews from the early 1990s gives a good sense of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro’s life and work. You can download a selection of his writings by clicking on the links immediately below.

Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

Memories of John Dewey, confrontation with Jacques Derrida, visits with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Claude Lévi-Strauss


David Craven: It has been suggested by some people that you were involved behind the scenes in the Erwin Panofsky/Barnett Newman debate that took place in the pages of Art News in 1961. Could you confirm or refute this claim?

Meyer Schapiro: Yes, I was in Israel in the Spring of 1961 when I read Panofsky’s letter in Art News. I sent Barnie one letter, with the understanding that my counsel be kept confidential, in which I pointed out that Panofsky was wrong. I told him to check a large Latin Dictionary and he would see that both sublimis and sublimus are acceptable, as demonstrated by their appearance together in Cicero’s citation of a passage from Accius. Both bits of advice appear in the first letter. Everything else in those two letters was contributed by Barnie himself.

DC: What type of relationship did you have with the philosopher John Dewey?

MS: I was a student of John Dewey, whose classes I very much enjoyed. Dewey asked me to do a critical reading of Art as Experience in manuscript form. The book is important, of course, but it is marked by a tendency to treat humanity and art as extensions of nature, as products of nature, without dealing with how humanity reshapes and remakes nature, hence also itself. This lack of emphasis on mediating nature, on humanity using craft and art to redefine itself, is a problem of the book.

DC: Did you ever meet the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch when he was in the U.S.?

MS: I admire his work very much, but I only met him once or twice. His critique of the Stalinist misuse of Marx’s thought is of fundamental importance.

DC: How often did you see Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo when they were in New York City in the early 1930s?

MS: We met with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo several times. Diego was very entertaining and on one occasion he railed with great emphasis against color reproductions of artworks.

Lillian Milgram: Frida was quite taken with Meyer. She gave him gifts a few times, including a pre-Columbian figurine that we still have.

DC: On October 6, 1977, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a presentation at Columbia University, in which he responded to your refutation of Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1886 oil painting of shoes that is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This presentation by Derrida would later appear in a longer version as “Restitutions” in his book La Vérité en Peinture (1978). Derrida’s paper is surprising because of how the whole tenor of the piece becomes so shrilly ad hominem.

Yet on the one occasion when I had a chance to talk with Derrida up close, in April of 1983 when he was speaking at Cornell University, I found him to be quite approachable and unpretentious, even though I was taking issue with some things that he had said in his public talk about Western Marxism.6 He welcomed this exchange and was much more put off by the sycophantic behavior of some other people in attendance. This is why I find Derrida’s reaction to you so surprising and perhaps uncharacteristic.

MS: He was challenged strongly by many people in the audience. I was abrupt with him, because he neither understood nor cared to understand the nature of my criticism. Furthermore, I discovered later that Heidegger changed his interpretation of the Van Gogh painting when he did an annotated commentary of his own essay and that he ended up admitting that he was uncertain about whose shoes they were. This material will appear in volume 4 of my selected writings.

One of Derrida’s obvious shortcomings is that he entirely disregards artistic intention in his analysis. Continue reading

On the work of Friedrich Pollock

Jake Bellone, a comrade currently living in Canadian exile, has scanned the early Frankfurt School economist Friedrich Pollock’s 1956 work
 Automation: A Study of Its Social and Economic Consequences. I’ve digitized and uploaded it here for anyone who’s interested. You can download it by clicking on the link in the title above.

As far as I know, this book has been virtually forgotten in terms of the history of economic literature. It’s not the most thrilling read, but it’s a workmanlike survey of a number of studies and publications on the subject of automation. Counter to the prevailing optimism of the period, riding the long postwar boom, Pollock foresaw increasing technological unemployment ahead in the field of industry as automation became further generalized. Here he distinguished full-scale automation from the earlier phenomenon of mechanization, a process well known to political economists since Ricardo.

Pollock’s book has perhaps had a subterranean influence that has generally gone unnoticed. Ernest Mandel, the Belgian Trotskyist economist, cites it repeatedly in his celebrated book on Late Capitalism. An online acquaintance of mine, Elliot Eisenberg, who is close friends with Moishe Postone and studied with the brilliant Soviet Marxist economist Karl H. Niebyl back in 1961, went so far as to claim that “one cannot understand Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization without Pollock’s Automation.” This would seem to accord with Postone’s own estimation of Pollock’s significance:

Pollock’s work in the 1930s provided the implicit political-economic presuppositions of the pessimistic turn in Horkheimer’s theory and the changes in his conception of social critique. More generally, on the basis of an examination of Pollock’s investigations, I shall discuss the intrinsic relation of the political-economic dimension of Critical Theory to its social, political, and epistemological dimensions.

Here Postone mostly has in mind Pollock’s seminal 1941 essay on “State Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitations,” as well as his consideration of the question “Is National Socialism a New Order?” later that same year. But I see no reason not to extend this observation to the Institute’s work during the 1950s.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno dedicated their jointly-written Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to Pollock. Now that I think of it, this work was translated and made available just a year after it was first published in German, in 1956, when Horkheimer and Adorno were still virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. (Outside of the few works they wrote in English, that is). Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Pollock is rather coy when it comes to openly expressing his Marxism. He never mentions Marx by name, but talks about “relative surplus population,” fixed vs. circulating capital, and other concepts clearly derived from the critique of classical political economy. Similarly, early members of the Frankfurt School used “critical theory” as a kind of codeword for Marxist theory, both in order to disguise their communist sympathies and to emphasize a critical dimension that had been lost in the dogmatization of DiaMat in Moscow during the 1930s.

What follows is Rolf Wiggerhaus’ brief biographical sketch of Pollock, taken from his monumental study of The Frankfurt School. My only comment is that Wiggerhaus misleadingly suggests that Pollock and Horkheimer came to agree with SDP’s position on organized “state capitalism,” as if Hilferding had anything original to say on the matter. The Bolsheviks would have readily agreed with Hilferding’s remarks — at least prior to 1928, when Stalin combined Preobrazhenskii’s position on collectivization from the Left with Bukharin’s theory of “socialism in one country” from the Right.

Friedrich Pollock

Friedrich Pollock

Rolf Wiggerhaus
The Frankfurt School
Munich, 1986 (1995)

The frank, limitless enthusiasm which the thirty-two-year-old Friedrich Pollock had for Karl Marx was somewhat artless, although it did have its own appeal. Marx, when he was thirty, had `worked out his philosophical, sociological and political views so clearly that, right to the end of his life, there was never anything he had to retract’, according to Pollock. Marx had “struggled untiringly right up to his death for the proletariat, regardless of obstacles.” This homage to Marx was published in 1926 in a discussion of a pamphlet on Proletarian Socialism [Der proletarische Sozialismus] by Werner Sombart, a former supporter of Marxism and correspondent of Engels. During the 1920s, Sombart had begun to support a “German” form of socialism, and had become an anti-Semite with intellectual links to Oswald Spengler, Johann Plenge, and Othmar Spann. Pollock objected to Sombart’s reference to the phenomenological “intuiting of general essences [Wesensschau],” demanding empirical research instead. He rejected Sombart’s claim that Marx and Engels subscribed to “plebeianism” as a “basic value,” asserting that scientific socialism had the character of a natural science. And he rejected the accusation that materialist dialectics was part of an exclusively proletarian metaphysics of history, mainly by appealing to references in Engels’s Anti-Dühring showing that Marx and Engels had been convinced that dialectics had universal validity.

All of this was characteristic of Pollock. He was born in Freiburg in 1894, and it had originally been intended that he should take over his father’s business, as in Horkheimer’s case. With his indifference towards Judaism and certain conventions — qualities instilled by his upbringing and reinforced by his simple, phlegmatic manner — Pollock made a lasting impression on the sixteen-year-old Horkheimer, and they began a peculiar, but lifelong, friendship. Pollock was less horrified by social injustices than Horkheimer was, but he was also less apprehensive than Horkheimer about committing himself openly to Marxism and communism: when the Munich Soviet Republic was crushed in May 1919, he gave his passport to a Russian who was hoping to escape abroad; the refugee was caught, and Pollock got into trouble with the police. Although Pollock, like the others, studied philosophy, it was only a minor subject alongside his principal interest, economics, in which he took his doctorate in 1923 with a thesis on Marx’s monetary theory. In an article “On Marx’s Monetary Theory” published in 1928 in [Carl] Grünberg’s Archiv, he complained about the “unhappy division between the economic and philosophical elements in Marx’s system.”  But he had a lifelong, philistine contempt for philosophical theory, and held to a pre-Leninist form of Marxist orthodoxy.

At the invitation of David Riazanov, Pollock travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 to take part in the celebrations on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. One of the results of the visit was his book on Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917-1927, with which he took his Habilitation in 1928. The book was published as the second volume in the Institute’s publications series, the Schriften des Instituts für Sozialforschung, and was written in a style similar to that of Carl Grünberg, the “master of historical realism in the investigation of social existence,” as Max Adler described him in 1932 in the Festschrift published on Grünberg’s seventieth birthday. In the preface to his book, Pollock acknowledged his debt to his “friend, teacher, and father-figure, Professor Carl Grünberg.” The reader was informed in the first sentence of the preface that “a theoretical analysis of the material will follow in a later work,” but this was never published. Pollock described the particularly unfavorable conditions which the Russian revolutionaries had faced at the outset, their tremendous, continuing difficulties, the often glaring mistakes they had made, and their constant changes of direction and frequent reorganizations. In the penultimate and longest chapter of the book, `The State Planning Commission [Gosplan] and its Work,” he used all of this to show how plans had been formulated in an absurdly inadequate way from the start, and had only gradually become more realistic. The book’s style was soberly informative, but it nevertheless clearly indicated the sympathy, patience, fascination, and even admiration which Pollock had for the “heroes and martyrs of the planned economy” and their tireless efforts to construct “a complete whole” out of various different plans, one which would, “at its fullest stage of development, consciously and totally incorporate the entire economic process” and gradually guarantee “the conscious structuring of the entire economic process and all of its parts.”

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