El Lissitzky exhibition in Moscow, November 2017-February 2018

El Lissitzky, renaissance man of the Soviet avant-garde, is the subject of a major career survey in Russia that opened last week. It is the first such show in the country for thirty years.

Ambitiously organized across two venues, the State Tretyakov Museum and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the shows are being treated as a single exhibition. They draw on an archive of the artist’s work preserved against all odds by Sophie Küppers, his German wife, an art historian and collector. Roughly 400 works are on display.

Lissitzky spent a significant portion of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany, promoting revolutionary art. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1925, he left dozens of his paintings, photographs, architectural and graphic designs behind.

Lissitzky married Küppers in 1927 — for which she later paid a chilling price. Three years after her husband’s death in 1941, she was exiled to Siberia as an enemy alien, and works in her collection were seized by Soviet authorities. In July 2017, her heirs won a major battle in a German court over a work she had owned by Paul Klee, which was seized by the Nazis in 1937 and sold off as “degenerate” art.

Tatyana Goryacheva, the Tretyakov’s curator, says Küppers sold “part of her archive and nearly 300 graphic works” to the museum in 1959. “The collection includes drawings and sketches of Prouns” as well as “lithographs, sketches of architectural and exhibition projects, posters and book designs,” she says.

Goryacheva says that while the exhibition underscores Lissitzky’s talent, it also illuminates “the interrelations between the artist and the authorities, avant-garde art, and totalitarian ideology — an issue that inevitably arises in connection with art of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde.”

  • El Lissitzky, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, until 4 February 2018
  • El Lissitzky, Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Moscow, until 18 February 2018

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Georg Lukács, philosopher of Bolshevism

I’ve posted about Georg Lukács in the past: here, here, and here. Lukács’ excellent polemic against Kautsky, from 1924, was also featured. Though he was denounced in 1924 by the vulgarian Zinoviev, and later forced to recant, the arguments he laid out in History and Class Consciousness, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought, and his unpublished rebuttal Tailism and the Dialectic represent a high point in the history of revolutionary thought.

Victor Serge later recalled:

I held Georg Lukács in greatest esteem; indeed, I owe him a great deal. A former university teacher in Budapest, and then commissar to a Red division in the front line, Lukács was a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud, and possessing a free-ranging and rigorous mind. He was engaged in writing a number of outstanding books that were never to see the light of day. In him I saw a first-class brain that could have endowed Communism with a true intellectual greatness if it had developed as a social movement instead of degenerating into a movement in solidarity with an authoritarian power. Lukács’ thinking led him to a totalitarian vision of Marxism within which he united all aspects of human life; his theory of the Party could be taken as either superb or disastrous, depending on the circumstances. For example, he considered that since history could not be divorced from politics, it should be written by historians in the service of the Central Committee.

One day we were discussing the problem of whether or not revolutionaries who had been condemned to death should commit suicide; this arose from the execution in 1919 at Budapest of Otto Korvin, who had been in charge of the Hungarian Cheka, and whose hanging afforded a choice spectacle for “society” folk. “I thought of suicide,” said Lukács, “ in the hours when I was expecting to be arrested and hanged with him. I came to the conclusion that I had no right to it: a member o f the Central Committee must set the example.” (I was to meet Georg Lukács and his wife later, in 1928 or 1929, in a Moscow street. He was then working at the Marx-Engels Institute; his books were being suppressed, and he lived bravely in the general fear. Although he was fairly well-disposed towards me, he did not care to shake my hand in a public place, since I was expelled and a known [Left] Oppositionist. He enjoyed a physical survival, and wrote short, spiritless articles in Comintern journals.)

Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Henri Lefebvre, and Guy Debord would not have been possible without the groundbreaking work of Lukács. You can download full-text PDFs of his assorted writings below. And then, below that, you can read a brief reflection by Lukács’ fellow Marxist and countryman G.M. Tamás, occasioned by the removal of a statue in Budapest earlier this year.

Writings by Lukács

In English
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  1. Selected Correspondence: Dialogues with Weber, Simmel, Buber, Mannheim, and others (1902-1920)
  2. “The Sociology of Modern Drama” (1909)
  3. Soul and Form (1910)
  4. Theory of the Novel (1914-1915)
  5. “The Old Culture and the New” (1920)
  6. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (1920-1923)
  7. Reviews and Articles for Die Rote Fahne (1922)
  8. Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1924)
  9. Tailism and the Dialectic (1925-1926)
  10. “Art for Art’s Sake and Proletarian Writing” (1926)
  11. Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays (1919-1929)
  12. The Historical Novel (1937)
  13. Writer and Critic, and Other Essays (1930s-1940s)
  14. Goethe and His Age (1934-1940)
  15. The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics (1938/1948)
  16. Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki, and Others (1940-1947)
  17. The Culture of People’s Democracy: Hungarian Essays on Literature, Art, and Democratic Transition (1945-1948)
  18. “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1948)
  19. German Realists in the Nineteenth Century (1951)
  20. The Destruction of Reason (1952)
  21. “Max Weber and German Sociology” (1955)
  22. The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1957)
  23. “Reflections on the Cult of Stalin” (1962)
  24. “On Bertolt Brecht” (1963)
  25. “On Walter Benjamin” (1963)
  26. Essays on Thomas Mann (1963) [1909, 1936, 1948, 1955]
  27. “An Entire Epoch of Inhumanity” (1964)
  28. Solzhenitsyn (1964, 1969)
  29. The Process of Democratization (1968)
  30. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 1: Hegel’s False and His Genuine Ontology (1971, published posthumously)
  31. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 2: Marx’s Basic Ontological Principles (1971, published posthumously)
  32. The Ontology of Social Being, Volume 3: Labor (1971, published posthumously)
  33. Record of a Life: An Autobiographical Sketch (1971, published posthumously)
  34. Selected Writings

In other languages
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  1. L’anima e le forme
  2. Die Theorie des Romans: Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die großen Formen der Epik
  3. Storia e coscienza di classe
  4. La letteratura sovietica
  5. Écrits de Moscou
  6. „Zur philosophischen Entwicklung des jungen Marx (1840-1844)”
  7. Thomas Mann e la tragedia dell’arte moderna
  8. Socialismo e democratização: escritos políticos, 1956-1971
  9. Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins. Die ontologischen Grundprinzipien von Marx

Writings about Lukács

In English
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  1. Victor Zitta, Georg Lukács’ Marxism: Alienation, Dialectics, Revolution — A Study in Utopia and Ideology (1964)
  2. Lucien Goldmann, Lukács and Heidegger: Towards a New Philosophy (1970)
  3. George Lichtheim, Georg Lukács (1970)
  4. István Mészáros, Lukács’ Concept of Dialectic (1972)
  5. Michael Löwy, Georg Lukács: From Romanticism to Bolshevism (1976)
  6. Ágnes Heller, “Lukács and The Holy Family (1984)
  7. Constanzo Preve, “Viewing Lukács from the 1980s” (1987)
  8. Tom Rockmore (ed.), Lukács Today: Essays in Marxist Philosophy (1988)
  9. Moishe Postone, “Lukács and the Dialectical Critique of Capitalism” (2003)
  10. Michael J. Thompson (ed.), Lukács Reconsidered (2011)

The neverending Lukács debate

Gáspár Miklós Tamás
LA Review of Books
March 6, 2017
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Before 1914, Lukács’ early works were received with great antipathy by the literary establishment in Hungary; they were found to be too “German” — that is to say, too philosophical, not impressionistic and positivist enough. That was only the beginning, of course; from then on, Lukács would be attacked from the right incessantly, all his life. Lukács didn’t fare much better in leftist circles, either. When his most important book, History and Class Consciousness (1923), came out, it was savaged by both the Second and the Third International. It wasn’t to be republished until the 1960s. Lukács was given an ultimatum: if he wanted to stay in the Party, he had to repudiate the book and subject himself to self-criticism, which is what he eventually did.

He was harshly criticized in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Soon after he relocated from Vienna to Moscow, Lukács was exiled to Tashkent, and silenced. But in 1945, the Party needed him — or rather, his fame — in Hungary. He agreed to return there rather reluctantly; East Germany was also an option. After the dictatorship was established and consolidated in Hungary in 1947–1948, the “Lukács Debate” was launched in earnest: he was attacked as a “deviationist,” a “bourgeois,” as a man who did not esteem Soviet “socialist realism.” (Truth be told, he was indeed all these things.) He was again silenced, forbidden to teach or publish in Hungarian, but some of his work was smuggled out and printed in West Germany.

In 1956, Lukács was a member of the revolutionary Nagy government. That’s why he was arrested by the Soviet soldiers and temporarily deported to Romania. When he was brought back, he was expelled from the Party, blacklisted, and pensioned off. Once again, he had to smuggle his texts abroad, this time to West Germany, where Luchterhand Verlag began to publish his complete works (a project taken over by Aisthesis Verlag in 2009). A slander campaign was launched against him both in Hungary and in the DDR; he was now condemned as a “revisionist” and, possibly, “counter-revolutionary.” Entire volumes were dedicated to making this case; they were even translated into quite a few languages.

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On the Venezuelan crisis

With the global fall in oil prices, Venezuela’s fifteen-year experiment in “petrol populism” seems to be winding to a close. Either the regime will collapse in short order, or it will maintain itself through increasingly bloody and repressive measures, as Maduro’s claim to represent the interests of the people grows even more tenuous. George Ciccariello-Maher, a seasoned apologist of Chavismo in the United States, writes in an article for Jacobin that the “enemies” are the ones who are out there “in the streets, burning and looting.” Socialists, he contends, should be supporting the recent state crackdown on the protestors, which has already left 130 or so dead.

Pavel Minorski, a Croatian left communist and trustworthy comrade, comments that “[Ciccariello-Maher’s latest piece] is basic leftism. There is good capitalism and bad capitalism. Good capitalism is run by The People, bad capitalism by (((the elite))). Eventually, of course, people will revolt against good capitalism. But don’t worry, those aren’t The People. They’re malicious, deluded, or both. Here’s how national developmentalism can still win!” For anyone interested, “Dialectics and Difference: Against the ‘Decolonial Turn’,” my polemic against Decolonizing Dialectics by Ciccariello-Maher just came out, and can be read over at the Insurgent Notes website.

Michael Roberts’ analysis of “The Venezuelan Tragedy” paints a much bleaker picture. The numbers are just brutal. “Income poverty,” observes Roberts, “increased from 48% in 2014 to 82% in 2016, according to a survey conducted by Venezuela’s three most prestigious universities.” Chávez, like every other leader who came before him, was content to rake in profits when times were good, i.e. when the price of oil was high, funding ambitious social programs with the profits as part of his wedge electoral strategy. He didn’t bother trying to diversify the country’s production, so when its sole export monocommodity plummeted in value, the whole country went tits up.

Sergio López of Kosmoprolet saw this coming as early as 2009. “21st-century socialism? Charitable kleptocracy! A kleptocracy, indeed, which is steering the country to its next economic and social crisis.” López noted then, at the pinnacle of Chavismo, the popularity of slogans such as “Chávez is the People!” and “President Chávez is a tool of God!” “Postmodern Bonapartism,” as Marco Torres dubbed Bolivarianism in a 2010 piece, is “a bricolage of thirties vintage pop-frontism together with nineties antiglobalization, molded upon sixties developmentalist Third Worldism.” Continue reading

Mihály Biró, 1886-1948

Bud­apest nat­ive Mihály Biró (1886-1948) joined the So­cial Demo­crat­ic cause early in life. He spent the peri­od between 1910 and 1914, design­ing strik­ing and widely noted posters and il­lus­tra­tions for the SZDP [Hun­gari­an So­cial Demo­crat­ic Party].

Fol­low­ing the First World War, Biró be­came the graph­ic mouth­piece of the new Red Army of the Hun­gari­an So­viet Re­pub­lic. The ad­vent of the right-wing dic­tat­or­ship of Miklós Hort­hy soon forced him to flee to Vi­enna, however, where he cre­ated the Hort­hy Port­fo­lio (1920), con­sist­ing of col­or litho­graphs doc­u­ment­ing the at­ro­cit­ies of the Hort­hy re­gime.

Along­side the polit­ic­al posters — Biró’s true call­ing — he also cre­ated posters for in­di­vidu­al busi­nesses and the boom­ing film in­dustry. Biró fi­nally fled from Aus­tro­fas­cism in 1934 and settled in Czechoslov­akia, where he be­came ill and deeply de­pressed. In 1938, he suc­ceeded in flee­ing on to Par­is, where he was to stay un­til 1947.

It was only in 1947 that he was able to re­turn to Bud­apest, where he died in 1948.

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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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Early Soviet children’s books, 1924-1932

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The Young Polytechnician: Housing
(1931)

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Out with bourgeois crocodiles!
How the Soviets rewrote children’s books

Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian
May 4, 2016
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In 1925, Galina and Olga Chichagova il­lus­trated a two-pan­el poster that called for a re­volu­tion in chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion in the new So­viet Uni­on. The left pan­el fea­tured tra­di­tion­al char­ac­ters from Rus­si­an fairytales and folk­lore — kings, queens, the Fire­bird, the witch Baba Yaga and, my fa­vor­ite, a cro­codile in el­eg­ant night­cap and dress­ing gown. “Out,” read the cap­tion, “with mys­ti­cism and fantasy of chil­dren’s books!!” Continue reading

Demonology of the working class

One of the most common charges leveled at Marxists is that, for all their atheistic pretensions, they retain a quasi-religious faith in the revolutionary dispensation of working class dictatorship. “It’s become an almost compulsory figure of speech to refer to Marxism as a Church,” observed the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1951. Barthes was reviewing a book by the surrealist author Roger Caillois, which had just been released, but if anything the use of this lazy metaphor has grown more frequent over time. Just a few years after Barthes’ review was published, the public intellectual Raymond Aron came out with a polemic cuttingly titled The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955). He’d lifted the title from a bon mot by the philosopher Simone Weil, who despite her youthful Bolshevism in the twenties had gone on to publicly debate Leon Trotsky during the thirties. Repeating this old anticommunist jibe, Aron quipped that “in Marxist eschatology, the proletariat is cast in the role of collective savior… that is, the class elected through suffering for the redemption of humanity.” Evidently, in Aron’s understanding, workers were held up as an object of mythic exaltation among the socialists.

To be sure, some of the language adopted by Marxists — e.g., heresies, dogma, sects, orthodoxy, schisms — is clearly borrowed from theological disputes. Furthermore, the recantations made by ex-communists at times seems to lend credence to this view. You need look no further than the famous 1949 essay collection The God that Failed for proof of this fact. Wolfgang Eckhardt’s newly-translated study of The First Socialist Schism (2016), on the split between Bakunin and Marx in the Workingmen’s International, is only the latest in a very long line of examples. André Gorz opened his Farewell to the Working Class (1980) with a chapter on “The Working Class According to Saint Marx,” riffing on the section of The German Ideology dedicated to a critique of “German socialism according to its prophets.” Gorz thus concluded that “orthodoxy, dogmatism, and religiosity are not accidental features of Marxism, since the philosophy of the proletariat is a religion.” More recently, the former Situationist TJ Clark confessed that his own Farewell to an Idea (1999) will likely be seen “as a vestige of early twentieth-century messianism.” Clark sardonically added that “if I can’t have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan” (though he got this last part a bit mixed up, as we shall see).

Socialism, however, is not about worshiping but rather abolishing the worker. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, perhaps the two most prominent theorists of proletarian revolution during the nineteenth century, by no means deified the class they felt might lead to the socialization of humanity. In their first written collaboration, from 1845, the young firebrands maintained:

When socialist writers ascribe [a] world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. In the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, and even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete. The conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, and at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life, and cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.

Expanding on this passage, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted on the terrestrial foundations of the Marxist hypothesis. “If [Marxism] accords a privilege to the proletariat, it does so because on the basis of the internal logic of its condition… apart from any messianic illusion,” he claimed in Humanism and Terror (1947). “Proletarians, ‘who are not gods,’ are the only ones in a position to realize humanity. Marxists discern a mission in the proletariat — not a providential, but an historical one — and this means that, if we take the proletariat’s role in the present social constellation, it moves toward the recognition of man by man…” Nevertheless, in the meantime workers are hardly godlike; indeed, they’re barely even human, if Marx and Engels are to be believed. As the former would later explain in Capital (1867), “manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity.” His description is reminiscent of the lyrics to that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “Sixteen Tons,” written about a Kentucky coal miner in 1947: “Some people say a man is made outta’ mud / A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bones / A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong / You load sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Over and above the image of the proletariat as divine redeemer, here emerges a picture of the proletariat as beyond redemption. Workers have sold their souls to the company store. Consider the following lines from Marx’s Capital on the topic of automation: “An organized system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from an automatic center, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, instead of the isolated machine, a vast mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power [dämonische Kraft], at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs.” Little wonder that the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga drew upon these words in elaborating his own “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil,” from 1951. Quoting Marx, who in turn was quoting Goethe, Bordiga explained how, “by incorporating living labor into capital’s lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labor in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil’.” The dispossessed (which is, after all, just another word for “proletariat”) are thus demonically possessed by the alienated products of their labor. For Marx, this was all part of “the magic and necromancy [der Zauber und Spuk] that surrounds the products of labor on the basis of commodity production.”

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the Hungarian communist dissident turned born-again Marxist, is one of the only theorists in recent memory to have grasped the demonic character of the working class. In his brilliant 2006 essay “Telling the Truth About Class,” Tamás framed his view by contrasting it with that of the British cultural historian EP Thompson:

There is an angelic view of the exploited (that of Rousseau, Karl Polányi, E.P. Thompson) and there is a demonic, Marxian view. For Marx, the road to the end of capitalism (and beyond) leads through the completion of capitalism, a system of economic and intellectual growth, imagination, waste, anarchy, destruction, destitution. It is an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word, a “falling away of the veils” which reveals all the social mechanisms in their stark nakedness; capitalism helps us to know because it is unable to sustain illusions, especially naturalistic and religious illusions. It liberated subjects from their traditional rootedness (which was presented to them by the ancien régime as “natural”) to hurl them onto the labor market where their productive-creative essence reveals itself to be disposable, replaceable, dependent on demand — in other words, wholly alien to self-perception or “inner worth.” In capitalism, what human beings are, is contingent or stochastic; there is no way in which they are as such, in themselves. Their identity is limited by the permanent reevaluation of the market and by the transient historicity of everything, determined by — among other contingent factors — random developments in science and technology. What makes the whole thing demonic indeed is that in contradistinction to the external character, the incomprehensibility, of “fate,” “the stars,” participants in the capitalist economy are not born to that condition, they are placed in their respective positions by a series of choices and compulsions that are obviously manmade. To be born noble and ignoble is nobody’s fault, has no moral dimensions; but alienation appears self-inflicted.

Marx is the poet of that Faustian demonism: only capitalism reveals the social, and the final unmasking; the final apocalypse, the final revelation can be reached by wading through the murk of estrangement which, seen historically, is unique in its energy, in its diabolical force. Marx does not “oppose” capitalism ideologically; but Rousseau does. For Marx, it is history; for Rousseau, it is evil.

Here Tamás was somewhat unfair to Thompson — not to mention Rousseau — but his caricatured presentation served to throw their perspectives into sharper relief. Thompson may have been guilty, from time to time, of romanticizing the English working class, but he entertained no illusions as to the hellish conditions out of which it emerged. After all, it was Thompson who wrote of “the denizens of ‘Satan’s strongholds’ [inhabitants of proletarian neighborhoods in industrial cities], of the ‘harlots, publicans, and thieves’ whose souls the evangelists wrestled for in a state of civil war against the ale-houses.” Every religious doctrine of the age, stated Thompson, had to be “held up to a Satanic light and read backwards” so as to properly grasp their context. One popular Methodist refrain, which he noted in his Making of the English Working Class (1963), spoke of factories as follows: “There is a dreadful Hell, / And everlasting pains, / Where sinners must with devils dwell, / In darkness, fire, and chains.” Regarding “that monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve” (to quote Capital), Thompson echoed Marx’s military metaphor in describing “…an unsettling element in the formative working-class community, a seemingly inexhaustible flow of reinforcements to man the battlements.”

Continue reading

Hatred of homosexuality

Gegen Kapital und Nation
Streifzüge (April 15 2014)
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Theses toward a critique
of bourgeois sexuality
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A) Nature, society, individual

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Homo-, hetero-, and bisexuality are not biologically determined. Every scientific inquiry into the biological origins of homosexuality seeks to establish statistical correlation between sexual preference and physical attributes. Bigger earlobes, the properties/condition of testicles, shape of the brain, DNA sequences, etc., cannot count as causes, even if correlates exist within the group under review. For, in order to prove cohesion, one has to find not only a formal coherence of phenomena, but material coherence as well. After all, the high incidence of men with white beards and red coats around Christmas Eve does not prove that Santa Claus in fact brings the presents. Human sexuality is a specifically social thing. So it is just wrong to look for purely biological determinants or explanations.1

2 Nature provides the material preconditions of human sexuality: a body equipped with nerves, the brain, diverse fluids, etc. But it’s society that provides the historical conditions under which it takes place: everything from the form of political authority with its rules and acts, the prevailing perceptions, expectations, and aspirations of human coexistence, as well as the available knowledge about sexuality (including stimulants, toys, assorted utilities). The forms and contents of sexuality, however, originate in the thoughts and feelings of individuals who interpret these biological preconditions and sociological conditions.

3 The reason the “nature” argument appears obvious to so many people is that their sexual desires cannot be changed at a mere whim. Even if their sexual orientation changes once again after a certain point in their lives, they quite often think that now they’ve finally discovered their very own, formerly suppressed, true sexual identity. Precisely because modern human beings want to express their true nature in love and sexuality, they also seem to find here the identity of who they really are (not as determined by others). Henceforth, their sexuality and falling in love shall be entirely their own. The long road bourgeois subjects must take from birth so as to develop explicit sexual fantasies and practices — along with the wealth of experiences and decisions, all the sensible and senseless thoughts and feelings about human desire, objects of desire and their behaviors — this then appears to them like the long road to themselves. And all of this is put retrospectively in order to make sense of it. When this result is obtained, the process is at an end.

4 [“Born this way”] sexual inheritance was politically welcomed by the gay movement, because it could serve as an argument against concepts of therapy to reform and punish gay people. It also came in handy to confront fundamentalist Christians with the following question: Why would the Lord create gay and lesbian people, if he hates them so much? The notion of sin implies free will, the ability to violate God’s commandments. If homosexuality is inherited, it can’t be a sin. Yet this argument is defensive, often helpless, but always foolish and dangerous. At worst, it could even have brutal consequences. Defensive because gays appear as predetermined ninnies who might want to be otherwise if only they could, instead of saying that it’s fun and doesn’t harm anyone.2 Helpless because ideologies long ago evolved to reconcile the contradiction between divine creation and allegedly natural homosexuality (e.g., “special burden,” or “we love homosexuals but hate their sinful lifestyle,” etc.). Right-wing moralists will not be dissuaded from their hatred of gays after learning about gay penguins. Foolish and dangerous because the argument affirms biologism, which purports to derive everything from the links between amino acids to unemployment, French kissing [Zungenkuss], as well as Zionism. Manmade affairs are thereby transfigured into unalterable matters of nature. Lastly, it could have at worst brutal consequences, for if homosexuality is seen as an evil caused by nature this might lead to the conclusion that homosexuals and other miscellaneous “deviants” need to be outlawed and marginalized, if not annihilated outright.2

5 Humans make their own sexuality, but they do not make it as they please. They cannot simply undo what has already happened to them, either by or without their consent, as well as what they have (un)consciously made of these experiences. Psychoanalysis once promised to render these mechanisms visible and thereby enable patients to better handle them. That sounded appealing to a number of gay people looking for a psychoanalytic “cure” in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. With regard to homosexuality, over the decades psychoanalysis developed into a form of heteronormative enforcement therapy, in only partial compliance with its founder. It managed to promote some of the silliest and most contradictory psychological theories about homosexuality being conditioned by the family. Either the mother was too cold, affectionate, dominant, absent, or the father was too cold, affectionate, dominant, absent. Nowadays psychologists will say “multifactorial,” at least putting it on record that they have no idea where homos come from either.

6 Still, this isn’t so bad given that the question itself is somewhat stupid. Usually it’s just a prelude to pathologization or persecution which turns gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people into an anomaly demanding explanation. Rather than, say, putting into question the concept of choosing a partner or fuck buddy based on primary or secondary sexual characteristics, of all things. Even if a certain type of build, one’s hairiness, or the presence of a penis or vagina4 can be more or less sexually attractive:

a) biological sex is, in most cases, simply a matter of chance, since men and women and trans* and intersex are fortunately not as uniform as commonly maintained, and
b) the sexual function of bodily attributes is not independent of the thoughts and emotions people have about it.

Moreover, the commonplace notion is that love somehow naturally coincides with sexual attraction. But that’s not necessarily the way things work. Continue reading

Letter on anti-Zionism

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While I ponder whether or not to jot down some stray thoughts regarding “left antisemitism,” a contentious and theoretically overwrought subject, I figured I’d finally get around to publishing a revised translation of a text posted by the Italian editorial collective Il Lato Cattivo back in July 2014. At the time, the Israeli military was conducting airstrikes on Gaza, on which it would eventually launch a ground invasion. Several months later, the excellent journal Endnotes featured an article by the group on “the Kurdish question” rendered into English by fellow travelers. “Il lato cattivo” is of course taken from Karl Marx’s famous polemic against Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy, in which he maintains that “history advances by the bad side [of the dialectic].”

Generally, I feel this text raises legitimate points against the facile Manichaean narrative on the left which holds Zionism to be the latest embodiment of pure Evil in the world, while all who oppose it valiantly serve the cause of the Good. Moreover, though I am rigorously pessimistic when it comes to the possibility of revolutionary politics in the present, I do not share Il Lato Cattivo’s conviction that programmatic proletarian approach is historically obsolete moving forward, thanks to the post-1968 restructuration of capital. This thesis, which is chiefly inspired by the analysis of Théorie Communiste, seems to me to proceed from a false premise. Here is not the place to hash this out further. Suffice it to say, for now, that on the subject of anti-Zionism, Il Lato Cattivo more or less agrees with authors in the left communist tradition who do still uphold the proletariat as the identical subject-object of revolution. Consider how nicely it squares with some occasional ponderings by the Duponts, chief representatives of nihilistic communism (nihilcomm) in our time. For example, take their quaintly-titled “Knockabout begun in earnest atop Leigh Tor (site reference SX77SW 2; 2.2km NNE of Holne) some time towards the later afternoon on August 6th 2014, and before evening’s rain had closed in,” which appears on their Insipidities blog:

Why is it, of all the states in the world, that the actions of Israel have such exceptional power to enrage distant populations? Nobody, outside of Ukraine and Russia, is particularly concerned about Russian expansionism, and there is little comment on, let alone condemnation of, for example, atrocities committed in South Sudan. In general, faraway wars invite only the uncomprehending sentiment of, a pox on both houses. Why is it then that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so immediately comprehensible? Why does political imagination so imbue Israel with the capacity for autonomous agency? Individuals of the left claim they are directing their hostility towards the policies of Israel and not against Israel’s existence and/or that of the Jews. They argue that they make a political distinction between Jews and Israel. Perhaps that is so but this begs two questions: a. by what process does this act of making a distinction emerge? b. why are the military actions of Israel so significant to the left?

For the sake of brevity, it is to be taken here as a given that the answer to both of these can only be grasped in terms of there being at work in leftist discourse an irrational but historically structured anti-Semitism that is of the same type as what I described as the “meant metaphor” of nationalism. There is within the arrangement of leftist awareness, a preconscious responsiveness to the subjective agency of Jews which is correlative with the tendency to anthropomorphize institutional power as the outcome of the conspiracy of the powerful. That is to say, even though individuals of the left are personally opposed to anti-Semitism, the inherited arrangement of their argumentation, the procedures, the propositions, the inferences, the deductions, is structured to find archetypical moral personifications at the heart of what it opposes, and one of these figures, perhaps the most discernible and significant, is the Jew.

Or their more substantive “Islands in a Sea of Land”:

Proletarian internationalism (no war but class war) discloses the rallying cry for a “Free Palestine” as a retreat from the possibility of human community. Leftist support for reactionary nationalism on the grounds of siding with the underdog is both preposterous and repugnant. It is a wanton irrationality. Whomsoever brandishes the Palestinian flag sustains the general category of nationhood. And yet this left sentimentalism is also intelligible. Of greater interest than ostensible popular frontist rationalizations around my enemy’s enemy, is the how of leftism’s pro-nationalism. It appears in protest form against the historical process of demolition and bulldozing of that which has been defeated. The Left perpetually seeks another means for returning to the historically obsolete modes of religion, nation-state, and sentimentalized cultural particularity. Indeed, this seeking out of ways back, is the Left’s political function.

Historically, it has been the task of communists to simply refute this backward drifting of the Left, hitherto understood as mere opportunism or blatant racketeering. The refutation has always taken the same form: there can be no dialogue (and still less common cause) with the nation, with religion, with class. In their approach to leftism, it has been conventional for communists to fall into line with the progressive historical lockout of obsolete forms in the name of proliferating past potentialities. Evidently, this policy is inadequate and implicitly assumes the absolute unworthiness of all of that which is no longer supported by the present productive apparatus. While it is true that all past social forms institutionalized themselves as a specific mode of inhuman violence, repression, and denial, they also recorded something of an eternally renewed “passion and will” for the human community. The Left has imperfectly sought out connection to that which is good but buried in the past. This is not to suggest that a “return” to that which is otherwise lost forever is a plausible or even desirable option. National liberation is untenable and in all cases incompatible with human community. The no state, no religion, and no class demands, which communism makes upon society, remain invariant. There can not be and must never be a “free Palestine.”

Jacob Blumenfeld’s “Negation of the Diaspora,” from which the cover image above is taken, is also worth reading. Blumenfeld is a contributor to the Communists in Situ project in Germany, influenced by the anti-national Marxism that cropped up in that country following reunification in 1991. Pay no attention to the idiotic spectacle going on in Britain right now. Enjoy the translated Il Lato Cattivo text below.

A seldom-remembered historical fact: Stalin's USSR backed the foundation of Israel as a Jewish state, precisely under the rationale of national liberation

The perils of national liberation

Letter on anti-Zionism

R.F. (pseudonym)
Il Lato Cattivo
July 19, 2014
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Dear comrades,

Let me give you my opinion about what happened around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and forgive me if I am forced to dwell on this question. So-called anti-Zionism — with the alibi of staying in the concrete — changes more and more the present events into a metaphysical question. On the one hand, this is normal: it is characteristic of the “anti” to have an absolute enemy, compared to which the other enemies become relative enemies. At the moment it is Israel’s turn to be the target, and in my opinion it is necessary to distinguish oneself from that. It’s not the assault on the synagogues during the demonstrations of Saturday July 19th in Paris that ought determine this necessity, even if it makes it stronger in some measure. It is not necessary to exaggerate the importance of the uncontrolled behaviors that occurred; it is certain however that they are symptomatic of something — of a drift — whose possibility is consubstantial to anti-Zionism. The confusion between Jews, Zionism and Israel, the fluidity with which these different terms become interchangeable, if they do not appear in the public speeches and in the programmatic slogans, can nevertheless be noticed in the informal conversations that can be heard here and there in the demonstrations, and are on the other hand obvious enough. It is absolutely not the point to operate the slightest defense of the state of Israel — which would be merely absurd — but merely to replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history, as the transformation of the enemy into absolute enemy sustains itself on myth and reproduces it. Similarly, the point is to escape from two equally unsustainable positions for a communist: on one side, the “solidarity with Palestinian resistance,” on the other side the proletarian internationalism as abstract principle. On this last point, I first want to say that what the ant-Zionists misunderstand is that — if some margins of pressure on the Israeli government exist — they lie on the side of those who live in Israel. The demonstrations that occurred in Israel against the slaughter in Gaza are encouraging, and forcefully more significant than those which occurred elsewhere; but they are in any case only few things, especially if we think that they rather spring from an impulse of moral indignation or from the affirmation of principles than from anything else, as it generally happens for the present pacifist movements; they are the most fertile field for the petty bourgeoisie with leftist sympathies and a cultural level, with all their generous feelings (some can remember the great demonstrations in Italy against war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the flags for peace hanged from the windows… and how it all ended). Concretely, a general strike striking the Israeli economy would be necessary (or at least the menace of this) to provisionally make Israeli government draw back. On the other hand, it is not surprising that this does not happen. It’s useless to launch general appeals to class struggle and solidarity among exploited peoples. The Israeli working class and the Palestinian working class can with difficulty unite in any common struggle, simply because they do not live in the same conditions. It is not a question of “class consciousness,” rather an objective situation: we can be the best comrades in the world, but this changes nothing if your situation is objectively in your advantage. I quote a passage from the book by Théorie Communiste on Middle East that seems to me particularly appropriate to this subject:

It is an illusion to hope within a predictable future in any junction between the struggles of Israeli proletariat and the struggles of the Palestinian proletariat. The major changes of Israeli capital have aggravated the situation of Israeli proletariat and this worsening is deeply linked to the transformations of the management of the territories and to the use of the Palestinian workforce. The disappearance of historical Zionism in those transformations is equivalent to the weakening of all the enterprises of the public sector and of the sector in the hand of the Histadrut [General Organization of Workers in the Land of Israel, Israel’s organization of trade unions]. Above all, the use of Palestinian workforce exposes the Israeli working class to the competition of the low wages of this workforce and of the still lower ones practiced beyond the frontier in the surrounding Arab countries. A great deal of Jewish workers of the public sector today are employed under a fixed-term contract, mostly the young people, the women and the new immigrants. The rallying of precarious workers or the new “radical” little unions that appeared during strikes, like the ones in the railway (2000) have the greatest difficulties to get recognized by the Histadrut (Aufheben, “Behind the Twenty-First Century Intifada” No. 10, 2002). The worsening of the situation of the Israeli proletariat and the reduction of the Palestinian proletariat to a “fourth-world” condition belong in fact to the same mutations of Israeli capitalism, but this nevertheless does not provide in any way the conditions of the slightest “solidarity” between both proletariats, quite the reverse. For the Israeli proletarian, the Palestinian with low wage is a social danger, and more and more a physical one, for the Palestinian proletarian the advantages the Israeli can retain rest on his own exploitation, his increased relegation and the seize of the territories. (Théo Cosme, Le Moyen-Orient, 1945-2002, Senonevero, Marseille 2002, p. 259)

Thus, if we look closely, the way the thing are is that the movement against war that was the basis of the demonstrations in Israel has been in any case the most dignified thing, as far as it has been something in the frame of the present hodgepodge. Vice versa the anti-Zionists — if it were not for the troubles they to generate — seem almost tender for their blessed ignorance of the things of this world. Particularly the “anticapitalists” ones: moreover their problem — as collectors of anti-isms — is that having an absolute enemy means forcefully that one can have only one at a time …. and have to choose between capitalism and Israel, they usually choose Israel. They usually do so also for convenience, as it is easier to be simply against individuals than against the social relation that determines their social function and position. I said before that we must in any case replace the Israeli-Palestinian question in history. Then let us start from a banal fact. Let us consider the geographic map of the area and the different evolutions of the territories from the end of the Second World War until today: starting from a few settlements — mainly situated on the coast and in the north — out of which was constituted its proto-state in 1946, Israel has appropriated in 60 years almost the totality of historical Palestine. To the Palestinians, very few is left from what Gaza and the West Bank still represented in 1967 (these frontiers are claimed today by the Hamas). In this sense, the problem of determining the frontiers that would delimit a “legitimate” Israeli state is irrelevant, so trivially impossible it is to solve: the logic of the seizing of the territories has revealed itself inseparable from its existence as national state. From this undeniable fact, the anti-Zionists deduce the illegitimate character of Israeli state, defined by them as “Zionist” — as if this adjective already said everything per se. This implicitly means that some states have a right to exist, and other not. But to ask the question of the legitimacy of Israeli state compared to other states simply means to ignore how the nation-states constitute themselves as homogeneous areas. It would be enough to look at the history of the Italian state: internal colonization promoted by the previous reign of Savoy, persecution of the “brigandage” in the South, Italianization of Trentino-South Tyrol and Istria under fascism, centrifugal surges and “national liberation” movements in Sicily and Sardinia, etc.. What is then a legitimate state? And what is an illegitimate state? We will say the same about the so-called “right to the land.” Who has a “right” to the land? According to what may one argue that a given geographic area “belongs” to a given population? According to passed history? And first, who had settled there, who was living there? It is the accomplished fact that establishes the “right,” and that’s all… at least in the world as it exists today. It is absolutely vain to participate (or sustain) the controversy over “who came first.” In facts, any reasoning over this point must resort to juridical formalism. In the fact that somebody may drive me out of my home, the real problem lies in the fundamental question, in the fact that there is something mine and something not mine…. And in the fact that what is mine may arouse the lust of somebody else, insofar as to be ready to resort to the abuse of his power to seize it. With some luck and adequate economic and military means, I will perhaps to seize back my home. If I am less lucky, I will not succeed to do that. In any case, the essential of the whole thing is that it doesn’t contain a dynamic that would go beyond itself — beyond the resentments and reciprocal accusations of suffered wrongs. The “reason” may be on my side or not, it is a conflict of typically military nature: action calls for reaction, and thus until the weakest is worn out . To come back to it and try to find in it something more, it is necessary that the concerned usurper represents the interests of the absolute enemy (the USA, pressure groups, or “Jewish finance”: we’ll come back to that). What’s more, it is simply stupid to contest — as the ridiculous [Roger] Garaudy does, following the ultra-orthodox Jews, in The Founding Myths of Modern Israel — the character of nation of Judaism, arguing that it is merely a religion: this only consists in opposing the idea to history, or to get lost in useless investigations that look back into the past since the dawn of time in order to affirm the authenticity, true or presumed, of one or other nationality. Similarly, to reproach to Israel — as, conversely, the Marxish professor Bertell Ollman does in his Letter of Resignation from the Jewish People — to have betrayed the universalist tradition of the Judaism of the diaspora, leads to make of this Judaism an essence which would be at safe from historical becoming. It is enough for us to know that everybody lives and relives his own past according to his own present. The experience of the present continuously selects and reworks the existing historical material. No national identity is produced ex nihilo; but the internal coherence and the times of incubation required are less important than one may think. As far as a given “feeling of national belonging” — for reasons we could consider as more or less good — appears in history and succeeds in consolidating itself, it becomes effective in reality. No nation is “legitimate” in itself, its legitimacy simply depends on its ability to unite, maintain and transform itself in history without disappearing. Exactly the way it happens for certain social movements that always have minority origins and a completely unpredictable future trajectory. The PKK — official embodiment of the Kurdish nationalist movement, previously “Stalinist” and today advocating a “democratic confederalism” — was constituted at the moment of its creation in the beginning of the seventies by a handful of students living in Ankara. To insist on the exceptional character of the denominational nature of the Israeli state, then, it is merely taking at face value what the Likud likes to tell about Israel. Continue reading

It is better to be feared than loved

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A question arises: is it better to be loved than feared, or to be feared than loved? The answer is that a prince would like to be both. Yet, since it is difficult to reconcile these two, it is much safer to be feared than loved — if the one must cede to the other.

It may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, hypocritical, cowardly, and greedy. So long as you treat them well, they are all yours. When the need is far off, they will offer you their blood, their property, their lives, and their children. But when the need is at hand, they change their minds. Any prince who relies on their word alone, without any other precaution, is ruined. For friendships acquired through money rather than through greatness and nobility of character may be bought, but they are not owned: they cannot be drawn upon in times of need.

Men are less reluctant to cause trouble for someone who makes himself loved than for someone who makes himself feared. Love is supported by a bond of obligation which, since men are evil, they break on any occasion when it is useful for them to do so; but fear is supported by a dread of retribution which can always be counted on. Nevertheless a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, if he does not gain love, he does avoid hatred: being feared and not being hated are sentiments that readily go together.