Capital as subject and the existence of labor

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Werner Bonefeld
Open Marxism
Volume 3, 1995

Editorial note

Been reading furiously through the Theories of Surplus Value and the 1863 manuscripts on the relation of “subject” and “object” in Marx’s later writings. My hunch is that Postone is right in his reversal of Lukács, who had the proletariat as the simultaneous subject-object of History. For Postone, it’s capital that is the simultaneous subject-object of History. The thing is, they’re both right. And I’m not saying this just so as not to pick a side, though I think ultimately it’s Lukács who gets the better of Postone (at the precise moment the latter seems to have the upper hand).

Living labor or variable capital — i.e., the proletariat as the embodiment of wage-labor — is the subjective factor in production. Dead labor or constant capital — i.e., the bourgeoisie, or rather the means of production they own, as the embodiment of capital — is the objective factor in production. Early in Capital, Marx identifies the vitality of labor-power as “the subjective factor of the labor process,” and goes on to state that “the same elements of capital which, from the perspective of the labor process, can be distinguished respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, can be distinguished from the perspective of the valorization process as constant and variable capital.”

 However, under capitalism these roles appear reversed: the products rule over their producers. Consider a couple passages from the 1863 manuscripts. First,

Objectified, past labor… becomes the sovereign of living, present labor. The relation of subject and object is inverted. If already in the presupposition the objective conditions for the realization of the worker’s labor capacity and therefore for actual labor appear to the worker as alien, independent powers, which relate to living labor rather as the conditions of their own preservation and increase — the tool, the material [of labor] and the means of subsistence only giving themselves up to labor in order to absorb more of it — this inversion is still more pronounced in the result. In both directions, therefore, the objective conditions of labor are the result of labor itself, they are its own objectification, and it is its own objectification, labor itself as its result, that confronts labor as an alien power, as an independent power; while labor confronts the latter again and again in the same objectlessness, as mere labor capacity.

[Die vergegenständlichte, vergangene Arbeit wird so zum Herrscher über die lebendige, gegenwärtige Arbeit. Das Verhältnis von Subjekt und Objekt wird verkehrt. Wenn in der Voraussetzung schon dem Arbeiter die gegenständlichen Bedingungen zur Verwirklichung seines Arbeitsvermögens und daher zur wirklichen Arbeit als fremde, selbständige Mächte gegenüber erscheinen, die sich vielmehr zur lebendigen Arbeit als die Bedingungen ihrer eignen Erhaltung und Vermehrung verhalten — Werkzeug, Material, Lebensmittel, die sich nur an die Arbeit hingeben, um in sich selbst mehr Arbeit einzusaugen —, so erscheint dieselbe Verkehrung noch mehr im Resultat. Die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit sind selbst Produkte der Arbeit und, soweit sie von der Seite des Tauschwerts betrachtet werden, nichts als Arbeitszeit in gegenständlicher Form. Nach beiden Seiten hin sind also die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit Resultat der Arbeit selbst, ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, und es ist diese ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, sie selbst als ihr Resultat, die ihr als fremde Macht, als selbständige Macht, gegenübertritt und der gegenüber sie immer wieder in derselben Gegenstandslosigkeit, als bloßes Arbeitsvermögen, gegenübertritt.]


Since the economists identify past labor with capital — past labor being understood in this case not only in the sense of concrete labor embodied in the product, but also in the sense of social labor, materialized labor time — it is understandable that they, the Pindars of capital, emphasize the objective elements of production and overestimate their importance as against the subjective element, living, immediate labor. For them, labor only becomes efficacious when it becomes capital and confronts itself, the passive element confronting its active counterpart. The producer is therefore controlled by the product, the subject by the object, labor which is being embodied by labor embodied in an object, etc. In all these conceptions, past labor appears not merely as an objective factor of living labor, subsumed by it, but vice versa; not as an element of the power of living labor, but as a power over this labor.

[Da die Ökonomen die vergangene Arbeit mit dem Kapital identifizieren — vergangene Arbeit hier sowohl im Sinne der konkreten, in den Produkten realisierten Arbeit, als im Sinne der gesellschaftlichen Arbeit, materialisierter Arbeitszeit — , so versteht sich bei ihnen, als den Pindaren des Kapitals, daß sie die gegenständlichen Elemente der Produktion geltend machen und ihre Bedeutung überschätzen gegenüber dem subjektiven Element, der lebendigen, unmittelbaren Arbeit. Die Arbeit wird ihnen erst adäquat, sobald sie Kapital wird, sich selbst gegenübertritt, das Passivum der Arbeit ihrem Aktivum. Das Produkt ist daher bestimmend über den Produzenten, der Gegenstand über das Subjekt, die realisierte Arbeit über die sich realisierende etc. In allen diesen Auffassungen tritt die vergangene Arbeit nicht auf als bloß gegenständliches Moment der lebendigen und von ihr subsumierten, sondern umgekehrt; nicht als ein Machtelement der lebendigen Arbeit, sondern als Macht über diese Arbeit.]

Capital is the actual, albeit unconscious, form of society’s self-objectifying subjectivity, while the proletariat is rather its potential form. Only by becoming conscious of its position within the totality of production (in other words, by attaining class consciousness in the Lukácsean sense) can the subjectivity of the latter be actualized. Wage labor and capital are, after all, only two sides of the same value-relation, constitutive of yet antithetical to one another. Inverting this inverted relationship — expropriating the expropriators, negating the negation — humanity masters its own social organization and finally sets itself off from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the workers [object] must be the task of the workers themselves [subject]” captures precisely this image of the proletariat as subject and object of social emancipation. Yet this “historic mission” does not mean affirming the class essence of workers. Socialist revolution will not result in universal proletarianization; capitalism has already accomplished this. “Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class.”

Postone is of course understandably wary of the “notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary Subject, in the sense of a social agent that both constitutes history and realizes itself in socialism.” He writes: “Far from entailing the realization of the proletariat, overcoming capitalism involves the material abolition of proletarian labor.” But Lukács wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment:

Subjectively, i.e. for the class consciousness of the proletariat, the dialectical relationship between immediate interests and objective impact on the whole of society is located in the consciousness of the proletariat itself. It does not work itself out as a purely objective process quite apart from all (imputed) consciousness — as was the case with all classes hitherto. Thus the revolutionary victory of the proletariat does not imply, as with former classes, the immediate realization of the socially given existence of the class, but, as the young Marx clearly saw and defined, its self-annihilation.

Qua embodied negativity, as the negative condition of class society and the promise of its dissolution, “affirmation” of the proletariat can only mean abolishing the present state of affairs. This is what Engels meant when he remarked that “communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, capital is nothing other than the alienated agency of unrealized humanity. The proletariat does not presently represent the material human community in nuce, but it alone is capable of realizing it. By taking command over the accumulated instruments of production, it finally makes possible the advent of a truly human history. Lukács confirms this:

The “realm of freedom,” the end of the “prehistory of mankind” means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. For the blind power of the forces at work will only advance “automatically” to their goal of self-annihilation as long as that goal is not within reach. When the moment of transition to the “realm of freedom” arrives this will become apparent just because the blind forces really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss, and only the conscious will of the proletariat will be able to save mankind from the impending catastrophe.

Werner Bonefeld addresses some of these same issues in the essay appended below, albeit in a somewhat different manner than I do here. He’s addressing Bob Jessop, rather than Postone, whose work he engages with elsewhere. Bonefeld makes many similar points, although as a rule he tends to denigrate “class consciousness.” I take this to be symptomatic of his anti-Leninism, but otherwise agree with his position.

To be sure, he’s right that “[i]n Marx’s work there is hardly any reference to ‘class consciousness’… Marx was not interested in the psychology of the working class.” Nevertheless, though the word Klassenbewußtsein does not appear in Marx’s work, its rudiments can be made out in numerous places. E.g., the Manifesto, where it is written that “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

(As far as I can tell, Kautsky coined the “class consciousness,” indicated by Engels’ 1891 comment: “Instead of ‘class-conscious,’ which in our circles is an easily understood abbreviation, I would say the following to facilitate universal understanding and translation into foreign languages: ‘with workers conscious of their class position,’ or something like it.”)

Personally, I think the issue of proletarian consciousness, what Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution called “the subjective factor in the socialist transformation,” is indispensable. “The stronger [the] contradiction [within production] becomes,” wrote Lenin in 1899, “the more developed become the objective conditions for this transformation, as well as the subjective conditions [объективные условия этого превращения, так и субъективные условия], the workers’ consciousness of this contradiction [сознание противоречия работниками].”

Contra Kautsky, sixteen years later, Lenin thundered: “Not every revolutionary situation…gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the… objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.” Continue reading

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

Not yet human: Universality, common inhumanity, and Marx


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

— L’Internationale, 1871

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

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

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

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

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

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


The works of Leon Trotsky

This post has been a long time coming. Not only because it’s taken time to track down and convert some of these massive files into manageable sizes, though that also. Rather, it is more that I’ve been busy reassessing my own relationship to Trotsky’s works. Some reflections on his career, in thought and in deed, follow the documents posted below. For now, here are all fourteen volumes of his Writings during his last exile, from 1929 to 1940, along with his three-volume History of the Russian Revolution, his biographical works (his autobiography, biography of Lenin, and incomplete biography of Stalin), along with some of his earlier works (Results and Prospects, Terrorism and CommunismAn Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, Exhausted Peoples of Europe, The Permanent Revolution, Problems of Everyday Life, Literature and Revolution, and Lessons of October).

Assorted Writings

  1. Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution (1920) and Results and Prospects (1906)
  2. Leon Trotsky, An Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed, and Exhausted Peoples of Europe (1915)
  3. Leon Trotsky, Dictatorship vs. Democracy: A reply to Karl Kautsky on Terrorism and Communism (1919)
  4. Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Foundations for a New Society in Revolutionary Russia (1922)
  5. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1923)
  6. Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924)
  7. Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin (1928)
  8. Leon Trotsky, My Life (1928)
  9. Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? (1933)
  10. Leon Trotsky, Writings on Literature and Art (1905-1940)
  11. Leon Trotsky, Diary in Exile, 1935
  12. Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence (1940)

History of the Russian Revolution

  1. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 1: The Overthrow of Tsarism
  2. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 2: Attempt at Counterrevolution
  3. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: The Triumph of the Soviets

Writings, 1929-1940

  1. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1929
  2. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1930
  3. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1930-1931
  4. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1932
  5. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1932-1933
  6. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1933-1934
  7. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1934-1935
  8. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1935-1936
  9. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1936-1937
  10. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1937-1938
  11. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1938-1939
  12. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, 1939-1940
  13. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, Supplement (1929-1933)
  14. Leon Trotsky, Collected Writings, Supplement (1934-1940)

Enjoy. If you like this post and are looking for some other free downloads, check out my past entries dedicated to the works of Marx and Engels as well as those of Roland Barthes.

Leon Trotsky drawing

My reevaluation of the legacy of Leon Trotsky is largely due to my belated exposure to the left communist tradition. Or, more specifically, the writings of the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga. To be more specific still, Bordiga’s early writings — from 1919 to 1926 — have left a deep impression on me. As will become clear, I’d hardly endorse his entire corpus. Particularly his later stuff tends to be more hit or miss, though there’s still quite a bit to be learned from his undying (invariant) Bolshevism. His article “Against Activism” is an instant classic, and his longer essay on “The Factors of Race and Nation in Marxist Theory” is epic as well.

Council communism is a tradition I’m decidedly less keen upon. Early on, in the 1920s, when the Dutch councilists Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek hadn’t yet completely forsaken the role of the party, there was perhaps a little more substance to their arguments. Later, when Otto Rühle and Paul Mattick took up the mantle of council communism, their politics tended to devolve into empty moralizing and a quasi-religious faith in the spontaneity of the masses. Nevertheless, Mattick’s various articles on economic theory and his critique of nationalism are excellent. They almost cannot be recommended highly enough. Karl Korsch intersects with this milieu in his flight from Leninism, but only to his detriment.

One final factor has been decisive in this process of reevaluation: the critical and theoretical edifice left by Korsch, Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt School (Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm). Unlike Bordigism or council communism, I have been thoroughly acquainted with this body of literature for some time now. It has informed my own writings and opinions since college. Still, in reviewing Trotsky’s writings I have focused a bit more on the orientation of these figures vis-à-vis Trotsky and Trotskyism.

With respect to Trotskyism, the innumerable tendencies that lay claim to the theoretical and practical lineage of Bronshtein himself, I am much less enthusiastic. Like his famous biographer, Isaac Deutscher, I even find the founding of the Fourth International somewhat perplexing. Understandable, perhaps, in that his friends in the Left Opposition abroad were defecting, or else being tortured and shot, but perplexing nevertheless. It was a non-starter from the word “go.” Trotsky still put out some great essays and texts during this period, and some of his squabbles with Shachtman, Eastman, Burnham, and Rivera are entertaining, if not all that enlightening. Cannon was certainly a great organizer, but was a piss-poor theorist. Only orthodox Trotskyism has anything redeeming to say after the 1950s and 1960s, especially James Robertson and the Sparts. Today, I suppose I retain some respect for Alan Wood of the IMT, ignoring his Bolivarian boosterism, the Spart-lite star-brights in the IBT, and the polemical pricks in the League for the Revolutionary Party. But that’s it.

The International Socialist Organization is a hodgepodge of brainless Cliffite heterodoxy, academic jargon (mostly in and through their publishing house, Haymarket Books), and the latest in trendy activism (intersectionality, “x lives matter” hashtags, and so on). I’d almost say they’re unworthy of the name. Anyone who is interested in Trot genealogies, check out this. The author is a social democrat, basically, but his sprglord game is tight and so he can be relied upon for encyclopedic information.

Robert Alexander, International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: A Documentary Analysis of the Movement (1990)

In a series of upcoming posts, I will try to briefly summarize my thoughts regarding each of these camps or schools. Spoiler alert: Trotsky belongs to a bygone era of revolutionary politics. A gulf divides his work from the present. Even within his own epoch, some of his positions seem to have been ill-advised. But perhaps this is the wisdom of retrospect, as the line he took on anti-imperialist “national liberation” was made in the context of approaching war (on the eve of each world war). The “united front” tactic is not as universally applicable as Trotskyists would like to believe; nor is it as universally inapplicable as Bordigists believes. Nevertheless, in every instance, Trotsky the man is far more salvageable than contemporary Trotskyism.

P.S. — I am of course fully aware that the headpiece used for this post is a malicious representation of Trotsky, taken from a Polish anti-bolshevik propaganda poster from 1919. Nevertheless, I have decided to keep it, because it is fucking metal.


The theory of “reification”

A re­sponse to Georg Lukács

Izrail’ Vain­shtein
Un­der the Ban­ner of
10 (1924)


The philo­soph­ic­al ex­plan­a­tions present among people claim­ing to be Marx­ists mani­fest a haphaz­ard­ness of spec­u­lat­ive philo­soph­iz­ing that must meet their nemes­is in the philo­sophy of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The his­tory of hu­man thought, from the dia­lect­ic­al stand­point, is least of all a ground for con­struct­ing hy­po­theses, con­coct­ing du­bi­ous con­cepts that bear on their face the im­print of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic­al striv­ings. True and deep thought, thought that opens a new epoch in his­tory, of­ten be­comes a pole of at­trac­tion for philo­soph­iz­ing per­sons whose con­cep­tu­al fancy seizes upon such thought only to cov­er it over with their own ques­tion­able designs. Such a ques­tion­able design is the the­ory of re­ific­a­tion of Georg Lukács.1

Marx, as is known, dis­closed the fet­ish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­ity. He showed that value is not a fet­ish in­vis­ibly resid­ing in the com­mod­ity, but a pro­duc­tion re­la­tion in a so­ci­ety based on in­di­vidu­al ex­change between com­mod­ity pro­du­cers. The struc­ture of com­mod­ity so­ci­ety in gen­er­al, and cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, is such that a thing be­comes a point of in­ter­sec­tion in a nex­us of in­ter­link­ing labors. The com­mod­ity es­tab­lishes links in such a so­ci­ety, where there is no planned reg­u­lat­ory con­trol over pro­duc­tion and where a thing, dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cer that made it, des­cends on to the mar­ket as a com­mod­ity unit, obed­i­ent to the spe­cif­ic laws of cir­cu­la­tion: “The labor of the private in­di­vidu­al mani­fests it­self as an ele­ment of the total labor of so­ci­ety only through the re­la­tions which the act of ex­change es­tab­lishes between the products, and, through their me­di­ation, between the pro­du­cers.”2 A thing is dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cers be­cause they them­selves are dis­con­nec­ted from each oth­er. The over­com­ing of this sep­ar­a­tion is car­ried out in com­mod­ity cir­cu­la­tion, through which things es­tab­lish so­cial ties. To un­der­stand the con­scious­ness of such a so­ci­ety and its con­stitutive classes (a means in the struggle) it is ne­ces­sary to go bey­ond the lim­its of thing­hood and to ad­dress the liv­ing con­crete act­ors in struggle. Things do not struggle amongst them­selves. If the so­cial con­scious­ness is a crit­ic­al factor in this mu­tu­al his­tor­ic­al rivalry, then, of course, it is ne­ces­sary to un­der­stand it in terms of so­cial class in­terest, which only finds ex­pres­sion in liv­ing agents of the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess. The geni­us of Marx’s dis­clos­ure con­sisted in re­veal­ing be­hind re­la­tions of things the re­la­tions of people and, con­versely, in es­tab­lish­ing the ne­ces­sity of the re­ific­a­tion of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in a com­mod­ity so­ci­ety. Lukács, pro­ceed­ing from the fact of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism — which Marx so bril­liantly dis­sec­ted hav­ing seen be­hind this oc­cult idol hu­man re­la­tions — at­tempts to con­struct an en­tire “mon­ist­ic” the­ory of re­ific­a­tion in whose im­age and like­ness all phe­nom­ena of this so­ci­ety are for­mu­lated, in­clud­ing con­scious­ness. However, Lukács’s con­struc­tion stands in sharp con­tra­dic­tion to the sense of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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First of all, when Marx speaks about cap­it­al “as auto­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion”3 in which all traces of its ori­gin dis­ap­pear, he in this case does not at all de­scribe, as Lukács thinks, “the in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness to­ward re­ific­a­tion.”4 Rather, Marx is speak­ing about the re­frac­tion of de­term­in­ate forms of so­cial re­la­tions, op­er­at­ing as re­la­tions of things in the con­scious­ness of bour­geois the­ory and rep­res­ent­a­tion. Polit­ic­al eco­nomy is the sci­ence of re­la­tions between people rep­res­en­ted as re­la­tions between things. The cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy is a com­mod­ity eco­nomy, the single cell of which — the private busi­ness en­ter­prise — is man­aged by form­ally in­de­pend­ent com­mod­ity pro­du­cers, between whom an in­dir­ect link is es­tab­lished in the pro­cess of ex­change. Speak­ing about com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism and all its modi­fic­a­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, Marx least of all psy­cho­lo­gizes. He is de­scrib­ing an in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness, but he spe­cifies it in re­la­tion to the pro­duct­ive re­la­tions of people char­ac­ter­ist­ic of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. Ru­bin is com­pletely right to say that the the­ory of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism could be bet­ter called “a gen­er­al the­ory of the pro­duc­tion re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”5 Continue reading

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Tamás Krausz on the life and thought of Vladimir Lenin

From the Monthly Review press release: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is among the most enigmatic and influential figures of the twentieth century. While his life and work are crucial to any understanding of modern history and the socialist movement, generations of writers on the left and the right have seen fit to embalm him endlessly with superficial analysis or dreary dogma. Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union and “actually-existing” socialism, it is possible to consider Lenin afresh, with sober senses trained on his historical context and how it shaped his theoretical and political contributions. Reconstructing Lenin, four decades in the making and now available in English for the first time, is an attempt to do just that.

Tamás Krausz, an esteemed Hungarian scholar writing in the tradition of György Lukács, Ferenc Tőkei, and István Mészáros, makes a major contribution to a growing field of contemporary Lenin studies. This rich and penetrating account reveals Lenin busy at the work of revolution, his thought shaped by immediate political events but never straying far from a coherent theoretical perspective. Krausz balances detailed descriptions of Lenin’s time and place with lucid explications of his intellectual development, covering a range of topics like war and revolution, dictatorship and democracy, socialism and utopianism. Reconstructing Lenin will change the way you look at a man and a movement; it will also introduce the English-speaking world to a profound radical scholar.

Krausz, wrote this shorter piece that was translated for the Platypus Review back in 2011. Though I’m not a Wallersteinian, hopefully a PDF will appear of his new biography shortly so that I can read and review it.


Lenin’s legacy today

Tamás Krausz
Platypus Review 39
September 2011

An historically adequate interpretation of Lenin’s Marxism must begin with the recognition that Lenin’s legacy is essentially a political application of Marx’s theory of capital as a historically-specific social formation. It required further development in light of experiences under determinate historical circumstances, such as the development of capitalism in Russia, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the crisis of Marxism in 1914, the evolution of imperialism, the October Revolution of 1917, War Communism, and the New Economic Policy. Lenin’s basic awareness of the concrete possibility of social revolution and the transition to communism grew more determinate in the course of his political practice after 1905. Because of this, Lenin’s political and theoretical legacy, as a historical variant of Marxism, is unique and unrepeatable. On the other hand, the original experience of revolutionary theory and action, its “methodology” in practice, has played an undeniably colossal role in the history of the twentieth century. In our own time, under less than promising circumstances, there are attempts to “refurbish” Lenin’s Marxism for the anti-globalization movement.[1] The main reason for this is that the Leninist tradition of Marxism is the only one that has offered, at least for a time, an alternative to capitalism. It alone has breached the walls of capitalism, even if today that breach seems mended. The world situation over the last two decades demonstrates that the global dominance of capital has engendered new forms of discontent. These did not obviate the need for Marxism as a theory and a movement. Indeed, they could not. Instead, in their search for alternatives, the discontented run into “Lenin’s Marxism” at every turn. Thus, if we talk of Marxism, the stakes are higher than we may think, for this legacy — that is, the primacy of Lenin’s Marxism — is not a thing of the past.

Concept and systemization

Though he knew everything there was to know at that time about Marx and Engels, Lenin did not simply excavate Marxist theory from beneath layers of Western European social democracy and anarchism. He applied it in his own way to Russian circumstances by tying theory and revolutionary practice together. In the process he contributed many original ideas to the theoretical reconstruction of the revolutionary actions and the movement as a whole in confronting reformist social democratic tendencies.

The systematization of Lenin’s legacy began in his lifetime as part of the struggle over the inheritance of his mantle. What was characteristic of these “deconstructions” was not that Marxism was identified with Lenin’s legacy, nor its embodiment in him, nor that Marxism was “Russified” and, later, “Stalinized” as a result of that struggle. Rather, it was interpreted simply as the theory and practice of revolution and class struggle, omitting the stages and method of development that made the phenomenon what it was. This reductionist approach simplified Lenin’s Marxism to the ideology of political class struggle and eventually to an ideology that justified the Bolsheviks’ preservation of power above all. The subsequent Stalinist period came to see Leninism as party ideology, the main and almost exclusive “vehicle” of Marxism, with the Communist Party, then its general staff, and eventually its leader alone functioning as its sole guardian. The soviets, the labor unions, and other forms of social self-organization, all of which Lenin thought to be central elements in the transition to socialism, were increasingly omitted in the “reproduction” of theory and ideology: Everything became nationalized. Marxism-Leninism became the legitimation of this new state socialism. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did it become an “emperor with no clothes” as Leninism as the Soviet Union’s legitimizing ideology sank into the dustbin of history. The result is a condition in which it is impossible to “excavate” the legacy of Lenin without steady determination and strict analysis.

The still-powerful elements of pre-Stalinist Marxism were analyzed in the 1960s by [Georg] Lukács and his anti-Stalinist followers, just as they had been earlier by Gramsci. The resulting “Lenin renaissance” permitted under Khruschev rose to a high philosophical level. By the 1970s many European and anti-Soviet Marxist Communist authors (from Rudolf Bahro to Valentino Gerratana, or even Ferenc Tőkei or [György] Bence and [János] Kis) attempted to mobilize these views as a criticism of state socialism, and in the service of constituting an authentic socialist alternative. Such writers made it clear that the historical, political, and theoretical-scientific power of Lenin’s Marxism could not be reduced exclusively to power management or to the “welfare state” as the Soviet ideologues and their bourgeois adversaries had tried to do for the past several decades. These efforts formed part of an attempt worldwide to sketch a new, critical framework for Marxism. Marxists from a wide range of perspectives sought during these decades to forge a kind of “third way” between the preservation of state socialism and the restoration of capitalism — a way back to a Marxist politics that could lead to authentic socialism. In contrast to these attempts, which may be considered various expressions of individual and collective freedom, or participatory democracy, the arguments of the anti-Leninists, almost regardless of ideology, all derive from folding Lenin’s heritage back into Stalinism. To this day they form vital elements of the discourse of anti-Leninist anti-capitalism.

The reservations voiced with regard to Lenin’s Marxism are understandable, as it only became widely apparent after the collapse of the Soviet Union that this historically specific intellectual and practical achievement, which no longer served state legitimation, can resist liberal and nationalist justification of the system. At the same time, the internal logic of Lenin’s Marxism can only be resuscitated through a new combination of Marx’s theory of social formations with revolutionary anti-capitalist practice. Yet another subjective ground for the rejection of Lenin’s Marxism on scientific grounds by leftist experts in academia is that Lenin’s ideas philosophically resist fragmentation by discipline as the experience of many decades has shown. All its constituent elements point toward the totality, the indivisible process. Following Marx, Lenin knocked down the walls separating science from philosophy, and theory from practice. Lenin’s theoretical work cannot possibly be separated from the movement overcoming the capitalist system. In this sense his Marxism is linked indissolubly to the workers movement in the 20th century as a surprisingly adept methodological tool for the apprehension of processes as a whole within different frameworks. Marx’s philosophical and economic achievements may continue apart from any revolutionary workers movement, but not Lenin’s. Until 1917 all his theoretical and political arguments were aimed at the workers movement and revolution. After 1917, as the founder of a Soviet state in the grips of the acute contradictions between holding on to power and the announced aims of the revolution, between tactics and strategy, Lenin tended to vacillate, becoming increasingly aware that the objectives of the revolution had to be postponed for the unforeseeable future.

The origins of Lenin’s Marxism

Lenin’s Marxism derives from different directions, each representing in its time an opportunity for changing society in a revolutionary way. These included the French Enlightenment and revolutionary Jacobinism as the inheritance of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, without which it would not be possible to transcend traditional society. Then there was the Paris Commune as the apex of French socialism. Among his Russian roots we find [Nikolai] Chernyshevsky and the Westerners ([Aleksandr] Herzen, [Vissarion] Belinsky, and others), reinforcing and complementing one another, as well as the revolutionary Narodniks, the mainstay of the Russian Jacobin tradition. All these Lenin synthesized in the name of Marx and Engels, absorbing a lot, particularly the interpretation of philosophical materialism, from the earlier generation of Russian Marxists, chiefly [Georgii] Plekhanov. He finally he absorbed the ideology and practice of modern workers movement organization from German social democracy, chiefly [Karl] Kautsky. Continue reading

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 Weil

The science that wasn’t: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to critical theory

Marco A. Torres
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

NOTE: I’m republishing this piece by Marco Torres from 2008 because it underscores the shift away from revolutionary optimism toward critical pessimism that took place among more perceptive Marxists during the 1920s and 1930s. The Frankfurt School, as it’s come to be known, is exemplary of this turn. Nevertheless, this does not mean they ceased to be Marxists. Rather, they represented an attempt to grasp the failure of revolutionary Marxism using the tools of historical materialism itself.

As the economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel explained, this critical reappraisal “began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor Adorno and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter. The paradoxical condition of this ideological movement may help to explain its almost exclusive preoccupation with superstructural questions, and the conspicuous lack of concern for the material and economic base that should have been underlying it.”


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From their canonization in the 1960s through to their appropriation by postmodernism in the 1980s, the writings of the Frankfurt School have had their Marxian dimension minimized, vulgarized, and ultimately ignored. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Horkheimer — the only names of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory’s roster that seem to be remembered today — have instead been characterized as anything from old-timey liberals to mystical eclectics, Left Hegelian hippies to ivory tower elitists. According to the standard narrative, these thinkers abandoned Marxism in the 1940s, when the continued atrocities and political unviability of the Soviet Union turned them into Cold War liberals of varied stripes.

Such narratives, which tend to claim that the deepest insights of these thinkers were accomplished in spite of their Marxism or even in the process of overcoming it, are just plain wrong. From the beginning of Horkheimer’s directorship of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory in 1930 through to Adorno’s death in 1969, the goal of the Frankfurt school was to maintain the critical purchase of a Marxian social critique as it was threatened by the accelerated process of decay that the Left began in the 1920s. A look at the Institute’s early history allows us to see how the necessity of this approach came to be. In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute — half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman, and Karl August Wittfogel — were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction. They understood their task as an advancement of the sciences that would prove useful in solving the problems of a Europe-wide transition into socialism, which they saw, if not as inevitable, at least as highly likely. But as fascism reared its head in Germany and throughout Europe, the younger members of the Institute saw the necessity for a different kind of Marxist Scholarship. Beyond accumulating knowledge relevant to an orthodox Marxist line, they felt the need to take the more critical and negative approach that is required for the maintenance of an integral and penetrating understanding of society during a moment of reaction. This could be described as the politically necessary transition from Marxist positive science to critical theory.

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After the German worker’s revolution of 1918-1919 had been betrayed and crushed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the early 1920s saw a period of relative stability slowly settle upon Germany. Despite the fact that further attempts by the German Communist Party (KPD) to challenge the SPD’s rule were weak and ineffective, the possibility of Europe-wide socialist revolution continued to be a topic of conversation among Leftist intelligentsia in postwar Germany. This sense of possibility seemed justified: the Soviet Union had succeeded in surviving its civil war and from a distance seemed to be on a path to successful stabilization; the KPD’s membership continued to grow in the permissive atmosphere of the Weimar Republic; and, with the exception of Italy, Fascism did not yet appear to be an immediate threat. In spite of their deep conservatism, the Social Democrats continued to hold up Marxism as their ideology, legitimizing it and thus making it into an open, officially sanctioned field of discussion.

It was in this environment that Felix Weil, a young graduate of the Frankfurt University who, at age 20, had fought with the workers during the revolution of 1919, began to use his great inherited wealth to finance initiatives for Marxist theoretical discussion. Having written his dissertation on “the essence and methods of socialization,” financially supported left-wing artists such as George Grosz and taken part in the social circle around KPD members Klara Zetkin and Paul Frölich, his joking self-description as a “Salon Bolshevik” was not far from the truth. One of the initiatives he financially supported was the First Marxist Workweek [Erste Marxistische Arbeitswoche] a retreat at a hotel on the edge of the Thuringian Forest in which more than two dozen Marxist intellectuals, most of them affiliated with the KPD, gathered to discuss the latest works by Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, respectively “Marxism and Philosophy” and the seminal History and Class Consciousness. Among the attendants were Korsch and Lukács themselves, Horkheimer, Zetkin, and economist Friedrich Pollock. As it turned out, thanks to Weil’s efforts, this gathering could retrospectively be seen as the first “seminar” of what would become the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory, since throughout the next decade most of its participants would become affiliated with the Institute in some function or another.

Continue reading


Nietzsche through the lens of Nazism and Marxism

Mazzino Montinari
Reading Nietzsche
West Berlin, 1982

Mazzino Montinari (4 April 1928 – 24 November 1986) was an Italian scholar of Germanistics. A native of Lucca, he became regarded as one of the most distinguished researchers on Friedrich Nietzsche, and harshly criticized the edition of The Will to Power, which he regarded as a forgery, in his book The Will to Power Does Not Exist.


After the end of fascism in Italy, Montinari became an active member of the Italian Communist Party, with which he was occupied with the translation of German writings. During 1953, when he visited East Germany for research, he witnessed the Uprising of 1953. Later, after the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, he drifted away from orthodox Marxism and his career in party organizations. He did however keep his membership in the Italian Communist Party and upheld the ideals of socialism.

At the end of the 1950s, with Giorgio Colli, who was his teacher in the 1940s, Montinari began to prepare an Italian translation of Nietzsche’s works. After reviewing the contemporary collection of Nietzsche’s works and the manuscripts in Weimar, Colli and Montinari decided to begin a new, critical edition. This edition became the scholarly standard, and was published in Italian by Adelphi in Milan, in French by Éditions Gallimard in Paris, in German by Walter de Gruyter and in Dutch by Sun (translated by Michel van Nieuwstadt). Of particular help for this project was Montinari’s ability to decipher Nietzsche’s nearly unreadable handwriting, which before had only been transcribed by Peter Gast (born Heinrich Köselitz).

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In 1972, Montinari and others founded the international journal Nietzsche-Studien, to which Montinari would remain a significant contributor until his death. Through his translations and commentary on Nietzsche, Montinari demonstrated a method of interpretation based on philological research that would forgo hasty speculations. He saw value in placing Nietzsche in the context of his time, and to this end, Colli and he began a critical collection of Nietzsche’s correspondence. Montinari died in Florence in 1986.

I’m posting this here in anticipation of the 1,000+ page book by Domenico Losurdo, Nietzsche: The Aristocratic Rebel, translated by Peter Thomas. From the reviews that’ve been written of the book by Thomas and Jan Rehmann, it appears to be an epic screed. Last year I wrote up a bit on Malcolm Bull’s The Anti-Nietzsche. Sunit Singh also wrote up a good article on “Nietzsche’s Untimeliness,” from a Marxist perspective.


Nietzsche between
Alfred Bäumler and
Georg Lukács

Nietzsche and National Socialist ideology: Alfred Bäumler’s interpretation

1. A national socialist “ideology” in the current sense of the word could, perhaps, be reconstructed. But it would be impossible, on the contrary, to speak of a genuine national socialist assimilation of Nietzsche’s ideas. As recent research has determined, Nietzsche was as good as alien to the founders of national socialism. Alfred Rosenberg, who laid claim to him as a forerunner to “the movement” in Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts, placed Nietzsche in the dubious company of Paul de Lagarde (whom Nietzsche despised) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (who, from his Wagnerian and racist standpoint, rejected Nietzsche). Hitler himself had no relation to Nietzsche; it is questionable whether he had read him at all. The entire ideology of race was profoundly alien to Nietzsche. It would be carrying coals to Newcastle if I were to cite the countless passages in which Nietzsche spoke out against the racial theories of the true forerunners of national socialism in general and anti-Semitism in particular. He even had occasion to correspond with someone who later was a national socialist representative, Theodor Fritsch; his two letters to the latter are a complete mockery of the muddled racial theories of the eighties in the previous century, with their — as Nietzsche said — dubious concepts of “Aryanism” and “Germanism.” Shortly after his correspondence with Nietzsche, Theodor Fritsch reviewed Beyond Good and Evil in 1887 and found in it (with good reason!) a “glorification of the Jews” and a “harsh condemnation of anti-Semitism.” He disposed of Nietzsche as a “philosopher-fisherman of the shallows” who had abandoned “any and all understanding for national essence” and who cultivated “old wives’ philosophical twaddle in Beyond Good and Evil.” According to Fritsch, Nietzsche’s pronouncements concerning the Jews were the “flat twaddle, too forced, pretending to be intellectual, of a Judaized type, self-taught in some apartment”; luckily, he believed, “Nietzsche’s books will be read by scarcely more than two dozen men.”1 This was Nietzsche’s actual relationship to anti-Semitism and Germanism as long as he lived. And yet still today, among the wider public, Nietzsche is considered an “intellectual pathfinder of national socialism.”

2. We owe Hans Langreder credit for having carefully examined “the confrontation with Nietzsche in the Third Reich” using the methods of historical-empirical research in his dissertation at Kiel from 1970. In this way he was able to determine that there was no consensus in the Third Reich in the evaluation of Nietzsche. He spoke of a “positive” (in the sense of national socialist ideology) and a “negative” image of Nietzsche in the Third Reich. Among national socialist ideologues, there were several who endeavored to win him for Hitlerism; others who on the contrary opposed the unsettling, cosmopolitan, decadent, individualistic Nietzsche; and as a result, still others who sought to mediate between the two positions. The so-called positive image of Nietzsche officially won the upper hand and unfortunately still holds it today. Langreder rightfully named the “conservative revolutionary” Alfred Bäumler as the key figure in Nietzsche’s appropriation into the Third Reich. “At the inception and at the mid-point of the development of a positive Nietzsche image in the national socialist period stands […] Alfred Bäumler”: thus Langreder in his dissertation. After the “seizure of power,” Bäumler was called to the newly founded academic chair for political pedagogy at the University of Berlin; soon afterward he became head of the science department in the governmental office of the “führer’s deputy for oversight of the general spiritual and philosophical schooling and education of the NSDAP,” hence in the so-called Rosenberg bureau [Amt Rosenberg].2 Continue reading


Marxism and the unfinished business of philosophy

.Continued from the  previous entry.

The Marxist attitude toward philosophy is far more nuanced than either Boyer or Althusser suspect. For the young Marx, the entire goal of historical development was the “immediate realization of philosophy,” or to make the world philosophical. “[A]s the world becomes philosophical,” he explained, “philosophy also becomes worldly.” Philosophy had been consummated in thought with the arrival of Hegel’s philosophy. Now the more pressing task was to bring this philosophy into reality — not by grafting its systematic features onto the world as it is, but by employing its dialectical methodology in order to ruthlessly criticize the world as it is (to invoke Engels’ distinction from Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy). Later Marxists, during the Second International, had very little patience for philosophical questions, preferring to have done with it rather than study its implications. Many of them fell under the sway of fashionable philosophies or intellectual currents from the time, such as Comtean positivism or neo-Kantianism, without even knowing it. Such “eclecticism” was the primary target of Lenin’s 1908 polemic Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and a decade later the Marxist theorist Georg Lukács would provocatively assert that

[o]rthodox Marxism…does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the “belief” in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a “sacred” book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to methodology. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction…that all attempts to surpass or “improve” it have led and must lead to oversimplification, triviality, and eclecticism.

Shortly before his death, Lenin called upon Marxists everywhere to “arrange for the systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint, i.e., the dialectics which Marx applied practically in his Capital and in his historical and political works.” This quote soon became the epigraph for Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (1923), released the following year. In this work, Korsch argued that Marxists’ general neglect of the philosophical questions that had preoccupied Marx and Engels had allowed a major theoretical conflict brewing within revolutionary Marxism to go unnoticed until it was too late. Lenin was virtually the only exception to this rule. Korsch therefore maintained: “Bourgeois consciousness must be philosophically fought with revolutionary materialistic dialectic, which is the philosophy of the working class. This struggle will only end when the whole of existing society and its economic basis have been totally overthrown in practice, and this consciousness has been totally surpassed and abolished in theory. — ‘Philosophy cannot be abolished without first being realized’.”

Philosophy should have been sublated — simultaneously realized and abolished — during the global conflagration that took place a century ago this year. Because this opportunity came and went without bearing fruit, philosophy lives on in a kind dim afterlife. Or as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics (1966): “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”[1]


[1] Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Translated by E.B. Ashton. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2004). Pg. 3.


On the Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg

Greg Gabrellas
Platypus Review

This piece was originally published about two years ago in the Platypus Review. Greg Gabrellas, its author, was at that point a leading member of the organization in Chicago. He and the group have since parted ways, as happened in my case as well. I repost it here not only because it’s a good piece (it is), but also because it touches on the marginalization of Marxism within leftist politics in recent decades. Beginning in the 1960s an 1970s, Marxism came to be regarded, for better or worse, as just one strategy for emancipation among many. Some of this is quite understandable, insofar as revolutionary Marxism — not just in its Stalinist and Maoist but also its Trotskyist and left communist forms — had been vulgarized to such a point that it became little more than glorified class reductionism. Today, syncretistic approaches such as “intersectionality” have been anointed as the latest word in praxis. For his part, Greg devoted much of his own attention to problems of race relations in the US today and the persistent question of sexual liberation. Yet it’s my suspicion that it was his very dissatisfaction with these discourses that led him to the historical project of Marxism as offering a more radical vision of human freedom.

At the Marxist Literary Group’s Institute on Culture and Society 2011, held on June 20-24, 2011 at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago, Platypus explored “The Marxism of Second International Radicalism: Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky.” What follows is an edited version of Greg’s opening remarks.

Despite the contrary assertions of conservatives, Marxism as a body of thought is widely known and disseminated among activists, academics, and political intellectuals. They take Marxism to mean a theory of what is wrong in the world, and how it can be practically changed — essentially a normative political philosophy with a radical disposition. Marxism takes its seat next to feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies as a philosophy of liberation. But this view is insufficient, and would have been unthinkable to the radicals of the Second International. Moreover, Marxism today is not only practically ineffectual. It stands in the way of future developments within Marxism, and with it the possibility of socialism.

This judgment might seem surprising, perhaps even shocking, to the activists, academics, and intellectuals who consider themselves Marxists or at least sympathizers. There exist Marxist political organizations, journals, reading groups, and conferences. Activist projects continue to arise, countering imperialist war and punitive sanctions against the poor and working class, and Marxists play a definitive role in all forms of contemporary activism. But the historical optimism implicit in activism for its own sake, manifest by the slogan “the struggle continues,” condemns itself to impotence. Marxism is different from radical political theory only insofar as it is an active recognition of possibility amidst social disintegration and calamity. Marxists have forgotten that self-critical politics is the form in which progressive developments within Marxist theory take place.

At first this inward orientation might seem misplaced. But just as modern painting recovers and transforms the aesthetic conventions of previous generations, so the radicals of the Second International understood socialism to be exclusively possible through the self-criticism and advancement of the actually-existing-history of the movement. Understandably, the splotches on a Jackson Pollock painting, or the overlapping figures of a de Kooning, might confuse first-time visitors to any museum of modern art. With its historical link severed, Marxism too risks becoming unintelligible amid the chatter of contemporary theory.

For example, in The Crisis of German Social Democracy, written under the pseudonym Junius while imprisoned for her opposition to world war in 1914, Rosa Luxemburg wrote,

Unsparing self-criticism is not merely an essential for its existence but the working class’s supreme duty. On our ship we have the most valuable treasures of mankind, and the proletariat is their ordained guardian! And while bourgeois society, shamed and dishonored by the bloody orgy, rushes headlong toward its doom, the international proletariat must and will gather up the golden treasure that, in a moment of weakness and confusion in the chaos of the world war, it has allowed to sink to the ground.[1]

The “most valuable treasures of mankind” to which Luxemburg refers may be necessarily cryptic, but her phrase illuminates objective social sensibilities that have since vanished. Socialism was seen by the radical masses of workers and intellectuals alike as the fulfillment of humanity’s highest social and cultural achievements. Marxism was itself a historical achievement rendered possible by the organized politics of the working class. The task of Marxist theory was the criticism of socialist politics as a means of developing Marxism itself, and with it the possibility for new social freedoms. For Luxemburg, the project of political Marxism was not simply a matter of ideology or a political program that could be right or wrong. Socialism was, as she put it in the same pamphlet, “the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind.” In the wake of this movement’s crisis and ultimate collapse in the twentieth century, we must struggle to discern why and how this nearly forgotten generation of workers, intellectuals, and students came closest to achieving a real utopia. Continue reading

George Tooker_Landscape with Figures_tooker

Alienation, reification, and the fetish form: Traces of the Hegelian legacy in Marx and Marxism

Everyone remembers Althusser’s numerous objections to the overemphasis placed on the concept of “alienation” amongst Marxists, and in general the fascination with the young, “humanistic” Marx at the expense of the old, “scientific” Marx. What is less often remembered, however, is that even many who stressed the Hegelian underpinnings of Marxism had grown tired of the all the talk of “alienation” by the 1960s. In his Introduction to Sociology lecture series delivered in 1961, no less a dialectician than Theodor Adorno remarked:

One hears much talk about the concept of alienation — so much that I myself have put a kind of moratorium on it, as I believe that the emphasis it places on a spiritual feeling of strangeness and isolation conceals something that is really founded on material conditions. (Introduction to Sociology, pg. 3).

Since the word “alienation” is used ad nauseum today, I try to dispense with it as far as I can. Nevertheless, it does impinge on the subject under discussion, and I shall mention it at least as a general heading for what I mean. We live within a totality which binds people together only by virtue of their alienation from each other. (Ibid., pg. 43)

Clearly, Adorno is not objecting to the concept of alienation as such, but rather a pernicious effect resulting from its overuse. Two years later, he linked this tendentious usage of the young Marx’s terminology to a rekindled communitarianism enchanted by the memory of “community” [Gemeinschaft] and distraught over the reality of “society” [Gesellschaft]. In one of his lectures on History and Freedom (1963), he maintained:

Infected by an irrational cult of community, the term “alienation” has recently become fashionable in both East and West, thanks to the veneration of the young Marx at the expense of the old one, and thanks to the regression of objective dialectics to anthropology. This term takes an ambivalent view of a repressive society; it is as ambivalent as genuine suffering under the rule of alienation itself. (History and Freedom, pg. 265)

As has already been mentioned above, the French Marxist Louis Althusser was likewise exhausted with the jargon of “alienation” being bandied about in the universities. Unlike Adorno, however, this led him to reject the entire philosophical apparatus of the young Marx root and branch. Furthermore, adopting the rather hazy distinction made by the humanist Marxists — he had in mind here Jean-Paul Sartre, Erich Fromm, and Roger Garaudy rather than Raya Dunayevskaya — Althusser posited a decisive, unequivocal “epistemic break” between the young Marx and the old Marx supposedly taking place around 1845. (Though, for the curious, Dunayevskaya had this to say about Althusser: “Althusser really goes backward. Compared to him, [Eduard] Bernstein was practically a revolutionary. Althusser wants to ‘drive Hegel back into the night’.”)

George Tooker, Lunch

Rejecting the earlier category of “alienation,” Althusser now railed against the theory of “reification” proposed by Marxist Hegelians influenced by Georg Lukács and Isaak Rubin during the 1920s. Continue reading