Bordiga on Sorel

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It is as­ser­ted that in or­der to elim­in­ate so­cial in­justice, all that is re­quired is to re­late every com­mod­ity’s ex­change value to the value of the labor con­tained with­in it. Marx shows — and will show later, pit­ting him­self against Bak­un­in, against Las­salle, against Dühring, against Sorel and against all the oth­er lat­ter-day pyg­mies — that what lies be­neath all this is noth­ing oth­er than the apo­lo­gia, and the pre­ser­va­tion, of bour­geois eco­nomy.

For about ten years or so pri­or to the Oc­to­ber Re­volu­tion, re­volu­tion­ary syn­dic­al­ism had been fight­ing against so­cial-demo­crat­ic re­vi­sion­ism. Georges Sorel was the main the­or­eti­cian and lead­er of this cur­rent, even if earli­er ante­cedents cer­tainly ex­is­ted. It was a move­ment which was par­tic­u­larly strong in the Lat­in coun­tries: to be­gin with they fought in­side the so­cial­ist parties, but later split off, both be­cause of the vi­cis­situdes of the struggle and in or­der to be con­sist­ent with a doc­trine which re­jec­ted the ne­ces­sity of the party as a re­volu­tion­ary class or­gan.

The primary form of pro­let­ari­an or­gan­iz­a­tion for the syn­dic­al­ists was the eco­nom­ic trade uni­on, whose main task was sup­posed to be not only lead­ing the class struggle to de­fend the im­me­di­ate in­terests of the work­ing class, but also pre­par­ing, without be­ing sub­ject to any polit­ic­al party, to lead the fi­nal re­volu­tion­ary war against the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem.

Sore­li­ans and Marx­ism

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A com­plete ana­lys­is of the ori­gins and evol­u­tion of this doc­trine, both as we find it in Sorel’s work, and in the mul­ti­far­i­ous groups which in vari­ous coun­tries sub­scribed to it, would take us too far off our track; at this point we shall there­fore just dis­cuss its his­tor­ic­al bal­ance sheet, and its very ques­tion­able view of a fu­ture non-cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.

Sorel and many of his fol­low­ers, in Italy as well, star­ted off by de­clar­ing that they were the true suc­cessors of Marx in fight­ing against leg­al­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ism in its pa­ci­fist and evol­u­tion­ist guise. Even­tu­ally they were forced to ad­mit that their tend­ency rep­res­en­ted a new re­vi­sion­ism; left rather than right wing in ap­pear­ance but ac­tu­ally is­su­ing from the same source, and con­tain­ing the same dangers.

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Marxism and historical predictions

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Be­cause Marx­ism ad­dresses it­self prin­cip­ally to his­tory, its ad­her­ents of­ten traffic in his­tor­ic­al pre­dic­tions. This was true of Marx and En­gels no less than their fol­low­ers, and more of­ten than not their pre­dic­tions turned out to be in­ac­cur­ate or mis­taken. Pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion — which Marx some­times called “the re­volu­tion of the nine­teenth cen­tury” — did not ul­ti­mately win out or carry the day. Cap­it­al­ism has not yet col­lapsed, and des­pite the peri­od­ic pro­nounce­ments of Marx­ist pro­fess­ors every time the stock mar­ket dips, none of the crises it’s en­dured has proved ter­min­al.

Karl Pop­per, Ray­mond Aron, and oth­er op­pon­ents of Marxi­an the­ory of­ten raise the fail­ure of such fore­casts as proof that its doc­trine is “un­falsifi­able.” Op­pon­ents of Marx­ism are not the only ones who re­joice at Marx­ism’s frus­trated pro­gnost­ic­a­tions; op­por­tun­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ists have also taken com­fort whenev­er things don’t quite pan out. Georg Lukács ob­served al­most a hun­dred years ago that “the op­por­tun­ist in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx­ism im­me­di­ately fastens on to the so-called er­rors of Marx’s in­di­vidu­al pre­dic­tions in or­der to elim­in­ate re­volu­tion root and branch from Marx­ism as a whole.”

Some of this is rather un­avoid­able. De­bates about wheth­er the cap­it­al­ist break­down is in­ev­it­able, the vagar­ies of Zu­sam­men­bruchs­theo­rie, ne­ces­sar­ily in­volve spec­u­la­tion about the fu­ture res­ults of present dy­nam­ics — wheth­er self-an­ni­hil­a­tion is a built-in fea­ture of cap­it­al­ism, wheth­er the en­tire mode of pro­duc­tion is a tick­ing time-bomb. Yet there have been con­crete in­stances in which the foresight of cer­tain Marx­ists seems al­most proph­et­ic in hind­sight. Not just in broad strokes, either, as for ex­ample the even­tu­al tri­umph of bour­geois eco­nom­ics across the globe.

En­gels’ very de­tailed pre­dic­tion, ori­gin­ally made in 1887, came true al­most to the let­ter:

The only war left for Prus­sia-Ger­many to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an ex­tent and vi­ol­ence hitherto un­ima­gined. Eight to ten mil­lion sol­diers will be at each oth­er’s throats and in the pro­cess they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of lo­custs.

The de­pred­a­tions of the Thirty Years’ War com­pressed in­to three to four years and ex­ten­ded over the en­tire con­tin­ent; fam­ine, dis­ease, the uni­ver­sal lapse in­to bar­bar­ism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; ir­re­triev­able dis­lo­ca­tion of our ar­ti­fi­cial sys­tem of trade, in­dustry, and cred­it, end­ing in uni­ver­sal bank­ruptcy; col­lapse of the old states and their con­ven­tion­al polit­ic­al wis­dom to the point where crowns will roll in­to the gut­ters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the ab­so­lute im­possib­il­ity of fore­see­ing how it will all end and who will emerge as vic­tor from the battle.

Only one con­sequence is ab­so­lutely cer­tain: uni­ver­sal ex­haus­tion and the cre­ation of the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class.

Re­gard­ing this last line, “the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class” un­doubtedly were cre­ated by the world war between great cap­it­al­ist powers. Wheth­er these con­di­tions were ac­ted upon is an­oth­er, sad­der story. Coun­ter­fac­tu­als aside, the fact re­mains that things could have been oth­er­wise. His­tor­ic cir­cum­stances con­spired to open up a def­in­ite field of po­ten­tial out­comes, in which in­ter­na­tion­al pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion seemed not just ab­stractly pos­sible but con­cretely prob­able.

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Society, totality, and history

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Dia­lectics elude straight­for­ward defin­i­tion. No doubt it is easi­er to say what dia­lectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdin­and Las­salle, Marx re­marked in a let­ter to En­gels that “Hegel nev­er de­scribed as dia­lectics the sub­sump­tion of vast num­bers of ‘cases’ un­der a gen­er­al prin­ciple,” and there­fore con­cluded that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od is wrongly ap­plied.”1 Vladi­mir Len­in like­wise poin­ted out that Geor­gii Plekhan­ov, the founder of Rus­si­an Marx­ism, erred in treat­ing dia­lectics as “the sum-total of ex­amples,” a mis­take from which even En­gels was not fully ex­empt.2

Still less is dia­lectics re­du­cible to an ab­stract for­mula or ste­reo­typed pro­ced­ure of thes­is-an­ti­thes­is-syn­thes­is. James re­garded this series as “a ru­in­ous sim­pli­fic­a­tion” in his 1948 Notes on Dia­lectics,3 while Len­in fol­lowed Hegel in con­sid­er­ing “the ‘tripli­city’ of dia­lectics… [as] its ex­tern­al, su­per­fi­cial side.”4 In sim­il­ar fash­ion, the Frank­furt School the­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno re­called that “Hegel ex­pressed the most cut­ting ob­jec­tions to the claptrap tripli­city of thes­is, an­ti­thes­is, and syn­thes­is as a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al schema.”5 Early in his ca­reer, Len­in up­braided the pop­u­list Nikolai Mikhail­ovsky for his fatu­ous por­tray­al of the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic as some sort of par­lor trick which “proves” cap­it­al­ism must col­lapse. “Marx’s dia­lect­ic­al meth­od does not con­sist in tri­ads at all,” ex­plained Len­in in 1894, “but pre­cisely in the re­jec­tion of ideal­ism and sub­ject­iv­ism in so­ci­ology.”6

How can this meth­od be re­tained in so­ci­ology, however, while at the same time get­ting rid of its ideal­ist residues? Ob­vi­ously, if the dia­lectic is to be any­thing more than a sub­ject­ive ad­di­tion, an ar­bit­rary “way of think­ing” about the world, its lo­gic has to be dis­covered in the ob­ject (i.e., so­ci­ety) it­self. The ma­ter­i­al­ist in­ver­sion of Hegel’s dia­lectic can only be jus­ti­fied if its con­tours ap­pear at the level of so­cial real­ity. “Dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing is noth­ing but the con­cep­tu­al form of a real dia­lect­ic­al fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 mono­graph Len­in: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ con­tem­por­ary, the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion­ary Le­on Trot­sky, main­tained that the meth­od should not be ap­plied to just any sphere of know­ledge “like an ever-ready mas­ter key,” since “dia­lectics can­not be im­posed upon facts, but must be de­duced from their char­ac­ter and de­vel­op­ment.”8 Re­flect­ing on his con­ver­sion to Marx­ism, Trot­sky wrote that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od re­vealed it­self for the first time, not as an ab­stract defin­i­tion, but as a liv­ing spring found in the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess.”9

Trot­sky’s meta­phor of the spring re­curs fre­quently in his art­icles and speeches. “Marx­ism without the dia­lectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later de­clared.10 Wound tightly in­to the shape of a spir­al, the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic simply mir­rors the dy­nam­ic ten­sion of cap­it­al­ism it­self. “Cycles ex­plain a great deal,” Trot­sky main­tained in 1923, “form­ing through auto­mat­ic pulsa­tion an in­dis­pens­able dia­lect­ic­al spring in the mech­an­ism of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”11 Earli­er in the year he stressed that an ad­equate so­ci­olo­gic­al ac­count must be both strong and flex­ible, since “dia­lect­ic­al thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12

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David Riazanov and the tragic fate of Isaak Rubin

Re­portedly, the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion­ary and pi­on­eer­ing Marx­o­lo­gist Dav­id Riazan­ov once in­sul­ted Stal­in to his face at a party meet­ing held dur­ing the mid-1920s. At the time, the ma­jor top­ic of de­bate was over the feas­ib­il­ity of so­cial­ism ab­sent a re­volu­tion in the West. In the years that fol­lowed Oc­to­ber 1917 the fledgling So­viet re­gime had sur­vived bru­tal win­ters, food short­ages, and an in­ter­na­tion­al block­ade while fight­ing off a bloody do­mest­ic coun­ter­re­volu­tion staged by dis­par­ate ele­ments of the old re­gime (the Whites) with the sup­port of for­eign powers (the Al­lied In­ter­ven­tion). The civil war was over, but re­volu­tion had else­where stalled out as the USSR’s bor­ders sta­bil­ized: the European pro­let­ari­at failed to over­throw the crisis-rid­den bour­geois gov­ern­ments of France, Ger­many, Eng­land, Aus­tria, and a host of oth­er na­tions. Now the ques­tion on every­one’s mind where the Bolshev­iks should go from there. Could so­cial­ism could be es­tab­lished in one (re­l­at­ively back­wards) na­tion?

Bukhar­in was the chief ar­chi­tect of the pro­gram for those who af­firmed that it could. His days as a left com­mun­ist be­hind him, Nikolai Ivan­ovich had mean­while suc­cumbed to prag­mat­ism and un­ima­gin­at­ive Real­politik. Mar­ket re­forms put in place by Len­in un­der the New Eco­nom­ic Policy after 1921 were to be con­tin­ued, and the trans­ition to “a high­er stage of com­mun­ist so­ci­ety” delayed, but its achieve­ment no longer de­pended on the spread of world re­volu­tion. Eager to make a name for him­self as a lead­ing the­or­eti­cian, Stal­in in­ter­jec­ted with some com­ments of his own. “Stop it, Koba,” Riazan­ov acerbically replied. “You’re mak­ing a fool of your­self. We all know the­ory isn’t ex­actly your strong suit.” Little won­der, then, that Stal­in would later want Riazan­ov’s head on a plat­ter; he’d in­flic­ted a deep nar­ciss­ist­ic wound. For as Trot­sky would later point out, in a two-part art­icle mock­ing “Stal­in as a The­or­eti­cian,” noth­ing was more im­port­ant to the Gen­er­al Sec­ret­ary than to be re­garded as well-versed in the sci­ence of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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Henri Lefebvre and Marxism: A view from the Frankfurt School

Le­fe­b­vre and con­tem­por­ary
in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx

Al­fred Schmidt
Frankfurt, 1968

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In re­cent years the lit­er­at­ure that has ap­peared about, for, and against Marx and Marx­ism has in­creased to the point where it can hardly be sur­veyed. Yet it would be false to con­clude that the de­bate over mat­ters of con­tent has been ad­vanced. To the ex­tent that this lit­er­at­ure does not speak the lan­guage of the Cold War and at­tempt to es­tab­lish a du­bi­ous “counter-ideo­logy,” it pro­duces (as polit­ic­al sci­ence or Krem­lino­logy) works full of in­form­a­tion con­cern­ing the state of So­viet Marx­ist doc­trines in terms of their de­pend­ence on cur­rent polit­ic­al trends. To the ex­tent that Marxi­an the­ory it­self still enters its field of vis­ion, it is dulled by the fact that people (gen­er­ally fol­low­ing Karl Löwith) clas­si­fy it in the his­tor­ic­al tra­di­tion of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, or else re­duce it to an ahis­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of the prob­lem­at­ic of ali­en­a­tion in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts.

On the oth­er hand, the group of au­thors hon­estly in­ter­ested in the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of Marxi­an the­ory is ex­cep­tion­ally small. They are able to ab­stract from what still fre­quently passes for Marx­ism in the East­ern half of the world without deny­ing the ob­ject­ive sig­ni­fic­ance of the East-West con­flict for their thought. They have in­volved them­selves in­tens­ively with texts of Hegel and Marx, which by no means have fi­nally been dis­posed of, without fall­ing in­to the hair-split­ting on­to­logy — with its con­sec­rated body of quo­ta­tions — that is typ­ic­al for the post-Sta­lin­ist peri­od in So­viet philo­sophy. To this group be­longs Henri Le­fe­b­vre (who has re­cently be­come known in Ger­many through his acute ana­lys­is of Sta­lin­ism).1 His writ­ings are in­dis­pens­able to those who aim at an ad­equate (and there­fore crit­ic­al) un­der­stand­ing of Marx with­in the lim­its of the al­tern­at­ives that have been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the polit­ic­al arena: either call­ing dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism a “wa­ter­tight world­view” (Robert Mu­sil) or dis­miss­ing it out of hand as a product of the dis­cred­ited nine­teenth cen­tury.

If a pub­lish­er has de­cided to bring out an edi­tion of Le ma­té­ria­lisme dia­lec­tique,2 a work that ap­peared over three dec­ades ago, it is be­cause it has scarcely lost its ac­tu­al­ity — aside from a few points that needed cor­rec­tion. The philo­soph­ic­al dis­cus­sion of Marx­ism that began dir­ectly after the First World War with Ernst Bloch’s Spir­it of Uto­pia and Georg Lukács’ His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, and was es­pe­cially furthered by Karl Korsch, Her­bert Mar­cuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Ad­orno, broke off with Hitler’s seizure of power. There­fore, works on Marx from that peri­od, as well as those writ­ten in west­ern Europe in the late thirties, are still of great im­port­ance to us: not least be­cause those works ap­proached prob­lems in a way far more polit­ic­al and closer to real­ity than was pos­sible for the new West Ger­man at­tempts at an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx after 1945, which re­mained more or less aca­dem­ic. These were all es­sen­tially centered on the “young Marx” in whom the au­thors (Thi­er, Po­pitz, Fromm) wanted to see an “ex­ist­en­tial thinker.”

Since Le­fe­b­vre’s book also seems at first glance to be­long to the ex­ist­ence-philo­soph­ic­al, mor­al­iz­ing, and ab­stract an­thro­po­lo­gic­al school of in­ter­pret­a­tion, it seems ne­ces­sary to make the read­er some­what more con­vers­ant with Le­fe­b­vre’s in­tel­lec­tu­al de­vel­op­ment.3 Only on that basis can the cent­ral concept of “ali­en­a­tion” in his Dia­lect­ic­al Ma­ter­i­al­ism be un­der­stood and dif­fer­en­ti­ated from in­ter­pret­a­tions us­ing this concept in a sense al­most ex­actly op­posed to the Marxi­an one.

First, some dates in pre-World War II French philo­sophy. About the year 1930, the philo­soph­ic­al as­pect of Marx­ism began to arouse in­terest in France. At the same time, a broad gen­er­al re­ceptiv­ity to­ward Hegel, in­ter­woven with at­ti­tudes to­ward Kierkegaard, was an­nounced by Jean Wahl’s book, Le mal­heur de la con­science dans la phi­lo­soph­ie de He­gel. Wahl is in­clined to re­duce the rich­ness of Hegel’s work to the stage of the “un­happy con­scious­ness.” With this em­phas­is on the ro­mantic mo­ment in Hegel, it be­comes al­most im­possible to sep­ar­ate Hegel and Kierkegaard. Sub­sequently, the ap­pro­pri­ation of the ideal­ist dia­lectic is par­alleled by an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx’s early writ­ings in the light of Heide­g­ger’s Be­ing and Time. This pro­cess led to the birth of the French vari­ety of ex­ist­en­tial on­to­logy: to ex­ist­en­tial­ism. It was com­pleted between 1933 and 1938, years in which Al­ex­an­dre Kojève gave his now fam­ous lec­tures on the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Spir­it4 at the Ecole des Hautes Et­udes be­fore stu­dents such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Mer­leau-Ponty, Ray­mond Aron, and R. P. Fes­sard. These lec­tures fol­low the same ques­tion­able lines as Wahl and see ac­cess to Hegel’s en­tire oeuvre in a single level of con­scious­ness. With Kojève, it is the much-com­men­ted-on chapter “De­pend­ence and In­de­pend­ence of Self-Con­scious­ness: Lord­ship and Bond­age.” Al­though he wants his in­ter­pret­a­tion of Hegel to be con­sidered “Marx­ist,” he does not fo­cus on Marx’s ma­ter­i­al­ist “in­ver­sion” of the dia­lectic. Rather, as Fetscher em­phas­izes, Kojève already sees in the phe­nomen­o­lo­gic­al dia­lectic it­self “all the ul­ti­mate con­sequences of the Marx­ist philo­sophy of his­tory.”5 Thus “mo­tifs of thought” that first arose from Marx’s cri­tique of Hegel are ascribed to Hegel. But even Marx’s po­s­i­tion is not done justice, since Kojève lags be­hind his claim that one should el­ev­ate one­self to real his­tory, that is, to the con­crete forms of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, which are de­term­ined dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent mo­ments in time. In­stead, he is sat­is­fied with the sterile defin­i­tion of a Heide­g­geri­an “his­tor­icity of ex­ist­ence” that is sup­posedly present in the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Mind as an “ex­ist­en­tial”6 and rad­ic­ally “fi­nite”7 an­thro­po­logy. Ac­cord­ing to Kojève, the an­thro­po­lo­gic­al char­ac­ter of Hegel­i­an thought be­comes un­der­stand­able only on the basis of Heide­g­ger’s em­phas­is on “on­to­lo­gic­al fi­nitude,” al­though the an­thro­po­logy of Be­ing and Time (which Kojève as­serts in op­pos­i­tion to Heide­g­ger’s in­ten­tion) adds noth­ing new to that de­veloped by Hegel.

The sup­posedly broad­er “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al-on­to­lo­gic­al basis”8 with which Kojève wants to dote dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism is more li­able to re­duce it to a doc­trine of in­vari­able struc­tures. Not the least of the ways that this would de­vel­op is in strictly polit­ic­al terms. In­so­far as Kojève breaks the struc­tur­al ele­ments of the Mas­ter-Slave dia­lectic away from its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al back­ground (which must al­ways be thought of with it), he in­flates labor and the struggle for life and death in­to etern­al factors, à la so­cial Dar­win­ism. Stripped of every con­crete de­term­in­a­tion, man ap­pears as an es­sence “which is al­ways con­scious of his death, of­ten freely as­sumes it and some­times know­ingly and freely chooses it”; Hegel’s “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al philo­sophy” is viewed as “ul­ti­mately one… of death.”9 Ana­chron­ist­ic­ally, and thus in a way that fals­i­fies Hegel, Kojève equates the struggle for “re­cog­ni­tion” with a “fight for pure prestige.”10 Hu­man es­sence and know­ledge con­sti­tutes it­self with a de­cided “risk” of life. It is as if “self-con­scious ex­ist­ence is pos­sible only where there are or — at least — where there have been bloody fights, wars for prestige.”11 On the oth­er hand, it mat­ters little that he ab­stractly holds firm to the idea of the “realm of free­dom” that Hegel an­ti­cip­ated and that has to be real­ized by Marx­ism.12 It is a re­con­ciled con­di­tion that does not oc­cupy a situ­ation, in which neg­at­iv­ity (time and ac­tion in their present mean­ings) ceases, as do philo­sophy, re­volu­tions and wars as well: his “polit­ic­al-ex­ist­en­tial” an­thro­po­logy sharpened by “de­cision­ism” bears fas­cist­oid traces.13 If one starts from the premise that the Hegel and Marx ex­eges­is out­lined here was dom­in­ant in the France of the thirties, it be­comes clear that Le­fe­b­vre, even with all the un­avoid­able con­ces­sions to the spir­it of the times, took a path all his own. Op­posed to every on­to­logy, to the late-bour­geois as well as to the Sta­lin­ist ones, he de­veloped him­self in­to a crit­ic­al Marx­ist whose stand­ards grew out of a ma­ter­i­al­ist ana­lys­is of the course of his­tory. His aca­dem­ic teach­ers were hardly ap­pro­pri­ate to lead his thought in this dir­ec­tion. In Aix-en-Provence he stud­ied Au­gustine and Pas­cal14 with the lib­er­al Cath­ol­ic Maurice Blondel, and at the Sor­bonne he worked with Léon Brun­schvig, the “in­tel­lec­tu­al­iste” philo­soph­er of judg­ment who was an en­emy of every dia­lectic. What made Le­fe­b­vre (by no means without con­flict) turn to Marx­ism had little to do with uni­versity philo­sophy. It was the polit­ic­al and so­cial up­heavals of the post­war peri­od, and more par­tic­u­larly per­son­al prob­lems, psy­cho­ana­lys­is, and as­so­ci­ation with the lit­er­ary and artist­ic av­ant-garde, the sur­real­ist move­ment.15 Lastly, it was the sus­pi­cion, which turned in­to a firm con­vic­tion, that philo­sophy as it had been handed down to us had demon­strated that it in­creas­ingly was less able to come to grips with, not to men­tion mas­ter, the prob­lems posed by the his­tor­ic­al situ­ation of be­ing and con­scious­ness in so­ci­ety. At this point, the call of Marx and En­gels, in their early writ­ings, for the “neg­a­tion” of philo­sophy and the turn to­ward a prax­is “which would real­ize philo­soph­ic­al in­sight,” seemed to of­fer it­self to him. A pos­sib­il­ity seemed to open up, not only of more or less ar­tic­u­lately mir­ror­ing the frag­ment­a­tion de­vel­op­ing in mod­ern ex­ist­ence — the way it happened in ir­ra­tion­alist ideo­lo­gies — but of grasp­ing it con­cretely, that is, as something which could be tran­scen­ded.

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L’affaire Ciccariello-Maher: “White genocide” and beyond

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George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s “off-col­or” joke about gen­o­cide over the hol­i­days has eli­cited a range of re­ac­tions on so­cial me­dia. In the week or so that’s elapsed since he sent out those con­tro­ver­sial tweets, sev­er­al cycles of pub­lic opin­ion have already run their course. Fol­low­ing the ini­tial op­pro­bri­um, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er was even re­buked by his em­ploy­ers at Drexel Uni­versity. This in turn led his sup­port­ers to gath­er sig­na­tures, ur­ging the ad­min­is­tra­tion not to rep­rim­and him fur­ther. Some be­grudgingly offered their solid­ar­ity, more as a mat­ter of prin­ciple than out of ap­prov­al for what he said. While they did not en­dorse his mes­sage, they be­lieved that ex­tra­mur­al polit­ic­al speech should be pro­tec­ted. Oth­ers en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally leapt to de­fend the ori­gin­al “white gen­o­cide” re­mark, al­though Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er in­sists he it made in jest, “not only on grounds of aca­dem­ic free­dom and free speech, but even more strongly on the basis of its polit­ic­al con­tent.” A few re­fused to provide him with any back­ing what­so­ever, cit­ing his fail­ure to do like­wise after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Par­is two years earli­er. Luck­ily, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er later re­vealed that he’d re­cently re­ceived ten­ure, so the whole af­fair proved rather a tem­pest in a tea­cup. His job was nev­er in ser­i­ous danger to be­gin with.

Nev­er­the­less, now that it’s over, it might be worth tak­ing a look at the vari­ous re­sponses to this im­broglio. Be­fore sur­vey­ing all these, however, I might as well lay my cards out on the ta­ble: I’m not a “free speech ab­so­lut­ist.” Un­der ex­traordin­ary con­di­tions — say, of re­volu­tion­ary civil war — some demo­crat­ic rights will likely have to be sus­pen­ded. Even un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, there are lim­its re­lated to li­bel, slander, and in­cit­ing a pan­ic. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, though, people should be able to say or write whatever the fuck they want. Trot­sky had it more or less right in his tract on “Free­dom of Press and the Work­ing Class” (1938). “Once at the helm [of the state],” wrote Dav­idovich, “the pro­let­ari­at may find it­self forced, for a cer­tain time, to take spe­cial meas­ures against the bour­geois­ie, if the bour­geois­ie as­sumes an at­ti­tude of open re­bel­lion against the work­ers’ state. In that case, re­strict­ing free­dom of the press goes hand in hand with all the oth­er meas­ures em­ployed in wa­ging a civil war: if you are forced to use ar­til­lery and planes against the en­emy, you can­not per­mit this same en­emy to main­tain his own cen­ters of news and pro­pa­ganda with­in the armed camp of the pro­let­ari­at… Yet in this in­stance, too, if the spe­cial meas­ures are ex­ten­ded un­til they be­come an en­dur­ing pat­tern, they in them­selves carry the danger of get­ting out of hand and of the work­ers’ bur­eau­cracy gain­ing a polit­ic­al mono­poly that would be one of the sources of its de­gen­er­a­tion.”

Colin Beckett, Corey Robin, and Richard Seymour

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Verso Books published a con­cise sum­mary of the or­deal by Colin Beck­ett, which went over the timeline of events. Beck­ett con­cluded that “Drexel’s ini­tial re­sponse to com­plaints about Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er il­lus­trates that un­prin­cipled, PR-con­scious ad­min­is­trat­ors are eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by the slight­est hint of con­tro­versy,” and im­plored his read­ers to “re­main vi­gil­ant and make it more dif­fi­cult for uni­versit­ies… to cater to right-wing out­rage, real or fake, than po­lice the speech of its em­ploy­ees.” Jac­obin re­pos­ted Corey Robin’s call to “De­fend George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er” from his per­son­al blog, a reas­on­able enough piece, des­pite its praise for the as­so­ciate pro­fess­or’s “ex­cel­lent work on Venezuela and polit­ic­al the­ory.” With all due re­spect to Robin, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s stuff on Venezuela is lazy tripe. It amounts to little more than re­hash­ing the crudest talk­ing points pre­pared by the Bolivari­an re­gime. He once gran­ted an in­ter­view to Amy Good­man of Demo­cracy Now! in which jus­ti­fy Ma­duro’s jail­ing of Leo­poldo López, the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion lead­er, back in 2015. López was sen­tenced to four­teen years for fo­ment­ing un­rest and al­legedly plot­ting to over­throw the gov­ern­ment. Guess what evid­ence was presen­ted as proof of his crime? Yup, that’s right: prob­lem­at­ic tweets.

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Free speech on and off campus: In defense of George Ciccariello-Maher

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Yes­ter­day I learned that George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, an as­so­ciate pro­fess­or at Drexel Uni­versity in Phil­adelphia, has re­cently come un­der fire for a stu­pid joke he sent out on Twit­ter a couple of days ago. On Christ­mas Eve, he tweeted: “All I want for Christ­mas is white gen­o­cide.” Im­me­di­ately Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er began re­ceiv­ing angry replies and death threats. Soon the right-wing news di­gest Breit­bart picked up the story, which then led to fur­ther out­cry around the web. Drexel re­spon­ded the next day by is­su­ing a state­ment that con­demned the “in­flam­mat­ory tweet,” call­ing it “ut­terly rep­re­hens­ible” while as­sur­ing read­ers that the school “takes this mat­ter very ser­i­ously.”

Need­less to say, this is an out­rageous ef­fort by a ma­jor con­ser­vat­ive out­let to muzzle a minor left-wing aca­dem­ic. By whip­ping up pub­lic in­dig­na­tion, this gang of on­line re­ac­tion­ar­ies hopes to ex­ert enough in­sti­tu­tion­al pres­sure to threaten Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s live­li­hood. This comes only a few weeks after the un­veil­ing of Turn­ing Point USA’s Pro­fess­or Watch­list, a neo-Mc­Carthy­ite ini­ti­at­ive that pur­ports to mon­it­or “pro­fess­ors who ad­vance a rad­ic­al agenda in lec­ture halls” by com­pil­ing a dossier of their “sub­vers­ive” activ­it­ies. Were Drexel to pun­ish or oth­er­wise dis­cip­line Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er, it would set an alarm­ing pre­ced­ent. Ex­tra­mur­al polit­ic­al speech ought to be pro­tec­ted.

Cyn­thia Walk­er has drawn up a pe­ti­tion in sup­port of the em­battled pro­fess­or, which I en­cour­age every­one to sign. I’ve ad­ded my own sig­na­ture to it, along with sev­en thou­sand or so who have done like­wise, des­pite some linger­ing doubts about the ef­fic­acy of such meas­ures. (Maybe oth­er people had more ex­cit­ing civics classes than I did, but I nev­er much saw the point of writ­ing con­cerned let­ters or fer­vent en­treat­ies. Just takes a second, though, so it’s not really a hassle). Re­gard­less of what one may think of him, it’s not as if he de­serves to lose his job over this petty shit.

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Wilhelm Reich’s synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis

Back in June, in a post fea­tur­ing cri­tiques Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács wrote on Freu­di­an psy­cho­ana­lys­is, I an­nounced that I’d shortly be post­ing a num­ber of works by the Marxi­an psy­cho­ana­lyst Wil­helm Reich. A couple days earli­er, of course, I’d pos­ted an ex­cel­lent piece by Ber­tell Oll­man on Reich from his 1979 es­say col­lec­tion So­cial and Sexu­al Re­volu­tion. Need­less to say, this post is long over­due.

Some brief re­marks are there­fore ap­pro­pri­ate, in passing, to frame Reich’s rel­ev­ance to the present mo­ment.

First of all, Reich is rel­ev­ant to con­tem­por­ary dis­cus­sions of fas­cism. His work on The Mass Psy­cho­logy of Fas­cism re­mains one of the most in­nov­at­ive and pro­found Marx­ist ef­forts to un­der­stand ideo­logy as a ma­ter­i­al force that has ap­peared to date.

Moreover, this forms a pivotal point of de­par­ture for a host of sub­sequent at­tempts to the­or­ize re­volu­tion­ary sub­jectiv­ity — both in terms of con­scious­ness and of de­sire. To­mor­row or the next day I hope to jot down some of my own thoughts on the mat­ter, us­ing Reich for ref­er­ence.

Last but not least, Reich’s thoughts on sexu­al eman­cip­a­tion are con­sid­er­ably ahead of their time. Con­sider, for ex­ample, this ex­cerpt from one of his journ­al entries dated 1939, while in Oslo:

The past few nights I wandered the streets of Oslo alone. At night a cer­tain type of per­son awakes and plies her trade, one who these days must view each bit of love with great fear but who will someday hold sway over life. Today prac­tic­ally a crim­in­al, to­mor­row the proud bear­er of life’s finest fruits. Whores, os­tra­cized in our day, will in fu­ture times be beau­ti­ful wo­men simply giv­ing of their love. They will no longer be whores. Someday sen­su­al pleas­ure will make old maids look so ri­dicu­lous that the power of so­cial mor­al­ity will slip out of their hands. I love love!

While some of his views on ho­mo­sexu­al­ity might seem an­ti­quated or back­wards today — he saw it as a de­vi­ant be­ha­vi­or, linked to lat­ent au­thor­it­ari­an tend­en­cies — the fact re­mains that Reich favored de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion and pro­tested adam­antly against its re­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion in the So­viet Uni­on un­der Stal­in.

In­cid­ent­ally, this is why I find it so ab­surd that left­ists look to ex­cuse Castro’s ho­mo­phobic policies pri­or to 1980. Eduard Bern­stein was pro­mot­ing gay rights dur­ing the 1890s, and Au­gust Bebel ad­voc­ated the re­peal of laws against sod­omy as early as 1898.

Re­gard­less, here are the prom­ised PD­Fs, along with some rare im­ages and a trans­lated art­icle by the Itali­an Trot­sky­ist Aless­andro D’Aloia. I have taken the liberty of de­let­ing some need­less asides about the Big Bang, a pe­cu­li­ar hangup the In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ist Tend­ency re­tains with re­spect to the­or­et­ic­al phys­ics des­pite none of its mem­bers be­ing qual­i­fied enough to judge the mat­ter.

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The nihilism of socialism

Robert Rives La Monte
Socialism: Positive and
Negative
(NYC: 1908)
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Introduction
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For a while now I’ve been contemplating writing an essay on “proletarian nihilism.” By this I don’t mean the nihilisme prolétarien Vercesi wrote about in the Bordigist journal Bilan, a pejorative term he applied to German and Dutch council communists who denied the October Revolution had been anything more than bourgeois. Rather, proletarian nihilism would be the listlessness, apathy, and self-destructive instinct that gave rise to punk rock, or else that odd mixture of fatal resignation and reckless abandon that underlies so much of mass psychology.

Of course this is all a bit too simple, grounding the self-abolition and self-realization [Selbstaufhebung] of the working class in some sort of subjective mentalité. Self-overcoming, a term used by both Hegel and Nietzsche, is a key term for any adequate Marxist theory of the transition to a classless society. Marxism’s truth depends on the self-directed negativity of the proletariat, whose interest it is to do away with class altogether. This is why its particular interest is simultaneously universal, in the best interest of all society, which is central to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the “universal class”:

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. The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. Meanwhile the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. And indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?

Incidentally, this is also why it’s so misguided to conceive of class as just another identity alongside gender and race. The world-historic significance of the proletariat is not at all its permanent position within capitalist society, but its negation of that society. Negation of identity is not identical to the affirmation of difference. Only on its basis is the dissolution of religion, family, and the state imaginable. Robert Rives La Monte, whose work I mentioned in my last post, formulated this essentially annihilative aim of Marxism as “the nihilism of socialism.”

As La Monte explained, “…‘nihilism’ is not used in strict technical or philosophical sense, but simply as a convenient term by which to designate the aggregate of those aspects of socialism which, viewed from the standpoint of the existing regime, appear as negative and destructive.” Marx famously described this corrosive nihilism as the “rational kernel” of dialectical methodology in the 1871 postface to the second edition of Capital:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

Engels later counterposed the revolutionary method of Hegel’s philosophy with its conservative system, writing in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy that “all that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is irrational by its very destination, tainted beforehand with irrationality… In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the opposite proposition.” Quoting Goethe, Engels wrote: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

La Monte’s essay, which follows, is concerned above all with three negations: “the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state.” He locates “the nihilism of socialism” in the materialist conception of history. I would do him one better, and locate it in the historical formation of the proletariat. For as La Monte himself says: “the nihilism of socialism has no deterrent terrors for him, for as Marx said long ago, ‘he has nothing to lose but his chains, and a whole world to gain’.”

Positive ideals
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In their negative proposals the socialists and anarchists are fairly agreed. It is in the metaphysical postulates of their protest and in their constructive aims that they part company. Of the two, the socialists are more widely out of touch with the established order. They are also more hopelessly negative and destructive in their ideals, as seen from the standpoint of the established order.

— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise. Pg. 338.

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To label a truth a truism is too often regarded as equivalent to placing it in the category of the negligible. It is precisely the salient obviousness, which makes a truth a truism, that places it in the direst peril of oblivion in the stress of modern life. Such a truth was well stated by Enrico Ferri, the Italian Marxist criminologist, in a recent lecture before the students of the University of Naples: “Without an ideal, neither an individual nor a collective can live, without it humanity is dead or dying. For it is the fire of an ideal which renders the life of each one of us possible, useful and fertile. And only by its help can each one of us, in the longer or shorter course of his or her existence, leave behind traces for the benefit of fellow beings.”

Platitude though this may be, our greatest poets have not hesitated to use their highest powers to impress it upon us. Robert Browning put this truth into the mouth of Andrea del Sarto in one of the strongest lines in all English verse, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Continue reading