The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926)

You can download an illustrated full-tex
t PDF of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism by clicking on the embedded link. What follows is an introduction to it and some thoughts on an all-too-familiar claim that Marxism is merely a form of secular religion.

René Fülöp-Miller’s 1926 book, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in the Soviet Union, offers a unique window into the profound transformations underwent during the first decade of communism in the USSR. Fülöp-Miller sets out to capture the psychology and physiognomy of the October Revolution, and largely succeeds in this task. The picture he paints of the period is unforgettable, covering a great deal of ground without boring his readers. He accomplishes this by including some of the more bizarre phenomena associated with the Bolshevik regime, its most eccentric and utopian elements. Notably, Fülöp-Miller goes over Aleksei Gastev’s Institute for Labor in Moscow, Platon Kerzhentsev’s League of Time, the militant godless movement, God-building [богостроительство], and the Commissariat of Enlightenment. But he also manages to fit in some of his own analysis, which is admittedly hit-or-miss. Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 review from New Masses follows below, is right to say that Fülöp-Miller is better at reading the surface features of Bolshevism’s “face” than he is at discerning the deeper aspects of its “mind.”

It should be stated from the outset that Fülöp-Miller was not a Bolshevik. As Bertrand Russell put it: “Fülöp-Miller is himself a socialist, but of the Western kind.” However, he was not unsympathetic to the Soviet project. Despite serious reservations about the fervor and rapidity with which the Bolsheviks were looking to implement reforms, and revolutionize everyday life, Fülöp-Miller endorsed their efforts insofar as they represented an extension of Enlightenment to the masses. Some tendentiousness can nevertheless be detected in his ham-handed dismissal of Bolshevism as a form of surrogate religion. Many have leveled this criticism, or some version of it, against Marxism as a whole. On this, a few thoughts: An overview of the major proponents of Marxism after Marx’s death in 1883 reveals that they understood themselves in terms of their “faithfulness” to the tradition first established by Marx. The various stances adopted toward this tradition were often couched in explicitly religious language: in terms like heresy, orthodoxy, schism, sectarianism, and dogmatism. Could it be that Marxism’s critics are right to say that it merely secularizes spiritual impulses?

My former mentor, Chris Cutrone, handles this charge in a characteristic manner. Rather than challenge its validity, he seeks to divest the criticism of its power by “owning it” — i.e., consciously admitting that it is in fact true. Supposedly this softens the blow, since it’s true of everyone and at least Cutrone is transparent about it. I would like to resist this gesture, as I consider it empty. He states in his otherwise brilliant critique of Badiou, “The Marxist Hypothesis”:

It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet…Marxism cannot help today (after its failure) but become something like a religion, involving exegesis of “sacred texts,” etc.

Of course, this runs directly counter to some of the statements in the “sacred texts” Cutrone seeks to excavate. For example, Lukács in his article on “Orthodox Marxism”: “Orthodox Marxism…does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book.” A quandary, it would seem, which cannot be done away with simply by pointing to changed historical conditions. Even avowed opponents of Marxism and psychoanalysis such as Michel Foucault will these discourses against charges of crypto-religiosity: “It goes without saying that it would be completely wrong to identify [forms of knowledge like Marxism or psychoanalysis] with religion. This is meaningless and contributes nothing.” Religious analogies only go so far, anyway. Marxists today are forced to reflect on classic texts, to be sure — if they are to educate themselves at all — because there is no living practice worthy of the name that would allow theorists today to build upon the insights of the past. Without such a practice, the best Marxists can do is look back upon works written at a time when communism as a “real movement” had not yet ground to a halt.

Beyond superficial similarities, however, this has nothing in common with patristics. This does not prevent the charge from being periodically recycled. Chris Taylor of the blog Of CLR James has had occasion to mock my “hot combo of flat-materialist anti-clericalism and religiously inflected hermeneutical/exegetical approach to Marxist-Leninist holy writ.” My only reply would be that it is quite all right to disagree with Marx, Lenin, or any other figure from the history of Marxism. In doing so, though, one should be quite clear how and why one is departing from Marx’s (or Lenin’s, or anyone else’s) conclusions. None of them were infallible figures, but as Marxists and followers of Lenin or whoever they ought to be taken seriously. Such was Walter Benjamin’s attitude toward the claim made by Fülöp-Miller in The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, as expressed in a 1927 letter written to Kracauer. He recommended the book but disagreed sharply with its portrayal of Bolshevism as a form of religious sectarianism. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge also rely heavily on the book in their own work on the Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (1972).

Upton Sinclair’s review appears below. His points about Bolshevism being a positive outcome of Western civilization and about collective freedom being the key to unlock individual freedom are as relevant today as ever. Enjoy.

Cover of New Masses, November 1927

Review of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller

Upton Sinclair
The New Masses
November 1927

There comes in my mail a large and costly volume from England, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller. Inside I find a card, informing me that the book is sent with the author’s compliments, and giving me his address in Vienna — which I understand to mean that he wishes me to tell him what I think of his book. So I send him what as children we used to call “my private opinion publicly expressed.”

Mr. Fülöp-Miller has visited Soviet Russia for a long time, and collected a mass of information, and presented it accurately, with many illustrations, and not too much prejudice; so he gives us the face of Bolshevism very acceptably. But when he comes to interpret the mind of Bolshevism, his class prejudices inevitably get in the way, and he misses the point completely.

I, who have never been to Soviet Russia, but who have managed to free myself from class prejudices, venture to tell Mr. Fülöp-Miller a few things about the mind of Bolshevism, as follows:

  1. Bolshevism is neither incompatible with nor destructive of Western civilization. It is a product and evolution of Western civilization.
  2. Bolshevism’s setting up and glorifying of the masses is not a denial and destruction of individuality, but an effort to make individuality possible to those persons who have hitherto been denied it. Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s class prejudice is manifested in the fact that the beginnings of individuality in a hundred million peasants and workers mean so little to him, in comparison with the limitations of individuality in the case of a million or so aristocrats and intellectuals. Under Russian Tsarism all individuality was denied to the workers and peasants; and the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books were as a rule quite untroubled by this fact. The same condition prevails now to a great extent in Austria, where Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s book was written, and in England where it is published, and in America, where I am reviewing it; and for the most part the intellectual class remains quite untroubled.
  3. If the masses are to have individuality, they must first gain political and economic power; and to get that, and hold it, they must have solidarity and discipline. That means temporarily a certain amount of surrender of individuality — as when men enlist in an army to fight for a cause. In the late unhappy disagreement among the capitalist masters of the world, some twenty or thirty million men were forced to enter armies and risk agony and death; but this loss of individuality did not as a rule trouble the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books, whether in Russia, Austria, England, or America.
  4. It is quite true that Bolshevism represses its internal enemies. Mr. Fülöp-Miller tells us at some length how it does this, and he is much distressed thereby. But reading his book I found myself desiring to ask him this one simple question: what does he think would happen to Bolshevism if it let its internal enemies alone? What would happen to any state which suddenly declared complete freedom of conspiracy and assassination? Will Mr. Fülöp-Miller tell us in another volume what did happen to Bolshevism in Hungary, where it failed to be stern enough? Will he write a book telling us about the White Terror in Finland, and Poland, and Romania, and Hungary — yes, and Austria, and England, and Boston? Will he give us the best estimate he can make as to the number of lives taken by the “reds” in Finland, and then by the “whites” when they came back into power?
  5. In short, what I want Mr. Fülöp-Miller to do is to write me another volume, equally large and costly, entitled, The Mind and Face of Fascism. Now that I have been told about the “G.P.U.” in Russia, I surely ought to be told about Mannerheim and Petlura, and Denekin and Kolchak and Judenich and Horthy; yes, and about the Hakenkreutzler and their murders in Austria, and about the New Fascist organizations in England, and about the American Legion, and the Centralia massacre, and the “deportations of delirium” and the Sacco-Vanzetti case — If my Austrian confrere will prepare such a book, he won’t have to send it to me free — I will agree to pay the full retail price, and tell him of some other persons who will do the same. But I fear that, in spite of such inducements, the book will never be published by the patriotic Major Putnam!

Continue reading


Balázs and Eisenstein, an exchange on the future of cinema (1926)

What follows is a translation of three articles. One is by the Hungarian critic, screenwriter, and film theorist Béla Balázs, while the other two were written by the legendary director and master of Soviet cinema, Sergei Eisenstein. Both men considered themselves Marxists. The former, Balázs, was of a slightly more heterodox cast, comparable perhaps to the position of the young Georg Lukács, his fellow countryman and longtime friend. Eisenstein, by contrast, drifted from the harsh engineering aesthetic associated with constructivism early in his career to the monumental Stalinist style toward the end of his life. At the time of his first exchange with Balázs, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) was making waves in Western Europe and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) was about to be released. He explained in 1928 to the visiting curator Alfred Barr, future founder of the MoMA, that

I am a civil Engineer and mathematician by training. I approach the making of a film in much the same way as I would the equipment of a poultry farm or the installation of a water system. My point of view is thoroughly materialist…

Despite their respectful disagreement in the proceeding debate, Balázs and Eisenstein would go on to collaborate quite closely in subsequent years. Balázs wrote the screenplay to The Old and the New, alternately titled The General Line. This film, which featured buildings and set designs by the constructivist architect Andrei Burov (in consultation with Le Corbusier), was shot mostly in 1928 but shelved until 1930 for ideological reasons. In the interim, much had changed: the avant-garde emphasis of the 1920s on collectivism, technology, and the masses had receded somewhat, making way for the pompous heroism of the 1930s. Not long thereafter, Balázs fled Vienna in 1933 to escape Austrofascist persecution — he was a communist, a foreigner, and a Jew — settling in Moscow, where he taught film aesthetics until the close of World War II. Just as Lukács had been harshly criticized by Party dogmatists in the 1920s, so too was Balázs in the 1930s. Such was the changed climate of Soviet discourse during this period.

Eisenstein died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1948; Balázs died the next year in Budapest. You can download a selection of their translated works below. If anyone has retail PDFs of the Richard Taylor translations, please e-mail them to me.

Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein


The future of film

Béla Balázs
July 6, 1926

Film can become a work of art only when photography itself ceases to be mere reproduction and becomes the work itself. When the work, the decisive creative expression of the emotions and the spirit, is realized not in staging and acting but through the mediation of the photograph in actual shots.

When the cameraman who does in fact make the picture also becomes its author, the poet of the work, the real film artist for whom acting and staging are the mere “occasion” to which he relates, like a painter to a landscape (preferably the most beautiful one!), to a life only through his brush in a work of art, in the expression of his spirit. As long as the cameraman is last in line, cinema will remain the last of the arts. But the reverse is also true!

In insisting on the artistic integrity of the photograph itself I by no means have in mind the decorative beauty of the shot which, incidentally, you encounter very often and which is not infrequently accorded much greater significance than it deserves. The decorative charm of individual shots gives them something that is statically pictorial, immobile and wrapped up in itself: their “beauty,” as if petrified, is killed by a headlong rush of events in the form of a series of “living pictures” through which the film as a whole staggers staccato fashion from one pictorial shot to another. Whereas the whole essence of cinema lies in the scope of the general rhythm of the passing events of real life.

No! I have in mind the hidden symbolic expressiveness, the poetic significance of the shot that has nothing to do with “decorativeness” or “beauty,” that is not produced either by play or by the object (subject) of the photograph but is created exclusively by the methods and possibilities of photography.

I want to explain this through two recent examples, two wonderful shots from Battleship Potemkin.

The enthusiasm of the population of Odessa is shown by the increasing rhythm of the groupings of the enthusiastic masses and you begin to wonder: where do we go now? How can they possibly show more enthusiasm, joy, or ecstasy?

Suddenly you see a sumptuous picture. Like a hymn of ecstasy that resoundingly interrupts what has gone before you see the skiffs sailing to meet the battleship. According to the plot they are carrying foodstuffs to the mutinous sailors. In the film it seems as if they are hurrying towards them with millions of hearts.

This delicate winged flight of hundreds of billowing sails evokes an image of the collective display of enthusiasm, joy, love, and hope that no single face, even that of the greatest artiste, could express. It is not the plot motif but the photograph, the photograph itself taken beyond the bounds of the greatest lyricism and of such powerful figurative and poetic force that you can scarcely compare poetry itself with it!

It is in this hidden figurative quality of the shot, that has nothing in common with “decorative” beauty, that the creative poetic opportunities for the cameraman lie concealed.

Then we see the sailing-vessels filmed from the deck. As if by some command they all lower their sails at once. The logical “content” is that the boats have stopped near the battleship. The action of the picture suggests that a hundred sails, a hundred banners have been lowered before the hero. It is this figurative quality of the pictures that contains their original poetry, something that can occur only in a film, only through photography.

For two photographs on the same subject would be deprived of any symbolic or poetic expressiveness if they were merely part of a vast landscape. Then they would not define the expression or physiognomy of the shot.

It is only through an undoubtedly conscious design that crams the whole shot full to its very edges with sails that these photographs acquire the unity of mimic expression and the significance of gesture that become the depth of experience and the sense of the film. There is not even any room for argument here: the poetic expressiveness of the scene is created not by the motif but by the photography.

But this is the only way that can help cinema to stop being a servant of art and become an independent art.

People say to me: both the camera positions in Potemkin that you have described were determined by the director and were not the original and independent ideas of the cameraman.

So be it. It does not matter in this context who is in charge of the photography. It makes no difference whether the director or the cameraman is the creator of such a work of art. The decisive factor is that cinema art of this kind emerges only through the lens; it can only be produced through photography.


On the position of Béla Balázs

Sergei Eisenstein
July 20, 1926

Balázs’ article will surprise some people. Without its concluding stipulation: “The cameraman is the alpha and omega of film.”

We have such respect for foreigners that we might consider this a “blessing.” The idiots on the Moscow evening paper who accorded recognition to the exercises by young Frenchmen that Ehrenburg brought from Paris have declared it to be a “revelation.” These are sheer enfantillages — “children’s playthings” — based on the photographic possibilities of the photographic apparatus. I am not exaggerating when I say that: if we have these “children’s playthings” today, tomorrow they will be used to refurbish the formal methods of a whole branch of art (for instance, the “absolute’: the plotless film of Picabia, Léger, or Chomette).

Continue reading


“Art is dead! Long live art!” — Mikhail Lifshitz on Karl Marx’s Philosophy of Art

Excerpted from Evgeni Pavlov’s excellent review of Lifshitz’s letters to Lukács, published in Russian. Back when he was less busy translating Bogdanov and Lifshitz, Evgeni used to comment on this blog extensively:

The fate of Mikhail Lifshitz is unusual: relatively obscure in the West and mentioned mostly in the context of his collaboration with György Lukács in the 1930s, his body of published literature is both large and well-known in the former Soviet Union, even if one factors in the decline of interest in all things Marxist after the 1990s. Partially as an attempt to salvage some modicum of genuine philosophical thought from the imposing amount of mindless official Marxism, partially due to its genuinely enduring originality and profundity, the works of Mikhail Lifshitz have continued to be published and, in the case of the already mentioned unpublished archives, have continued to be brought to the educated public’s attention. Lifshitz wrote in a variety of genres; his essays appeared in the Soviet Union’s most read and popular periodicals while his scholarly books were deemed valuable contributions to philosophy, history, literary theory, and aesthetics.

Mikhail Lifschitz was born in 1905 in Crimea, then part of Russia. As an enthusiastic editor of Lifschitz’s first translated monograph, Angel Flores, put it: ‘At the time of the October Revolution Mikhail Lifshitz was a homeless waif roaming the streets of Czarist Russian. Today this young man is one of the finest Marxist critics.” In the 1920s he moved to Moscow to pursue his studies as an artist but later, having become disaffected with the theoretical positions of his teachers at Vkhutemas [Higher Art-Technical Studios], he joined David Riazanov’s Marx-Engels Institute.

In 1975, describing Lifshitz’s ideas as “intelligent materialism,” Evald Ilyenkov wrote:

If one scans the entirety of everything written, or more precisely, created by Mikhail Alexandrovich Lifshitz throughout his life, it becomes obvious that what one sees are the consequently presented chapters of one large book, one large study that can be properly identified using the title of one of his books — Art and the Modern World. This large book does not fall into fragments, each work here —even if it comes out decades later — turns out to be the development, the supplement, the concretization of the earlier chapters: they are all united by one logic, connected by the unity of position, by unity of the general principles, that are shown in more concrete ways with each step. And it could not have been otherwise, it should not have been otherwise, if it was a scientific study conducted with the use of Marx’s method of the development of concepts from the abstract to the concrete, from the clear understanding of the general conditions of emergence and development of phenomena to the clear understanding of those results to which this development lead and still leads.

This characterization is especially invaluable coming from Ilyenkov whose own project in philosophy resembled that of Lifshitz in one important (and now almost forgotten) realm: the relationship between philosophy, culture (art, literature, music and so on) and the ‘communist ideal’ of a new human being, formed as a result of the political-economic changes to come, i.e. as a result of the abolition of the capitalist mode of production and the accompanying abolition of the division of labour. In short, both Lifshitz and then Ilyenkov argued that genuine Marxism concerns itself not only (or even not so much) with political and economic changes, but also (or perhaps primarily) with the cultural and societal changes that are inevitably connected to the development of the truly communist society of the future. While Ilyenkov spoke of the communist ideal in terms of the ‘problem of the ideal’ in philosophy, Lifshitz set the tone for this conversation in his many essays and books on specific works of art and culture, articulating a genuinely Marxist critique of their form and content: how do they promote or inhibit the development of the new type of human being, a human being of the future?

Here are Lifshitz’s two major works that’ve been published so far:

  1. Mikhail Lifshitz, Literature and Marxism: A Controversy
  2. Mikhail Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1931)


Creativity and individual freedom under communism

Mikhail Lifshitz
The Philosophy of Art
of Karl Marx

The historical role of the capitalist mode of production is to bring into the sharpest possible focus the contradictions of social progress; at the same time it prepares the ground for the annihilation of all these inequalities and antagonisms. The very division of labor gives rise to contradictions between the three “elements”: “productive forces,” “social relations,” and “consciousness.” The social division of labor is not, however, an eternal cate­gory. As a class stratification of society it disappears, and as a professional hierarchy it withers away in the transition to communist society.

But what does this transition mean with regard to aesthetic creation? Does it not mean the destruction of all distinctions between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic in art, just as in life the contradiction between the artist and the ordinary mortal is removed? Does not collectivism, generally speaking, suppress all individual originality and talent? Such are some of the bourgeois objections to communism. These objections Marx and Engels dealt with in criticizing Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own. Stirner, one of the founders of anarchism, distinguished between “human” work, which can be organized collectively, and “individual” work, which cannot be socialized in any manner. For who can take the place of a Mozart or a Raphael?

Marx and Engels wrote:

Here again, as always, Sancho [i.e. Stirner] is out of luck in his choice of practical examples. He thinks that “no one can compose your music in your stead, or execute your designs for a painting. Raphael’s works can be done by no other.” But Sancho should have known that not Mozart himself, but someone else, largely composed and completely finished Mozart’s Requiem, and that Raphael “executed” only a small portion of his frescoes.

Stirner imagines that the so-called organizers of labor wish to organize the whole activity of every individual, whereas it is precisely they who make a distinction between directly productive labor, which must be organized, and labor which is not directly productive. As far as the latter kind of labor is concerned, they do not think, as Sancho imagines, that everybody can work in Raphael’s place, but rather that everybody who has a Raphael in him should be able to develop unhindered. Sancho imagines that Raphael created his paintings independent of the division of labor then existing in Rome. If he will compare Raphael with Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, he will see to what extent the works of art of the first were conditioned by the flourishing of Rome, then under the influence of Florence; how the works of Leonardo were conditioned by the social milieu of Florence, and later those of Titian by the altogether different development of Venice. Raphael, like any other artist, was conditioned by the technical advances made in art before him, by the organization of society and the division of labor in his locality, and finally, by the division of labor in all the countries with which his locality maintained relations. Whether an individual like Raphael is able to develop his talent depends entirely upon demand, which in turn depends upon the division of labor and the consequent educational conditions of men.

In proclaiming the individual character of scientific and artistic work, Stirner places himself far below the bourgeoisie. Already in our time it has been found necessary to organize this “individual” activity. Horace Vernet would not have had the time to produce one-tenth of his paintings if he had considered them works which “only this individual can accomplish.” In Paris the tremendous demand for vaudeville and novels has given rise to an organization of labor for the production of these wares. which are at least better, at any rate, than their “individual” competitors in Germany.”[1]

Thus bourgeois society itself makes attempts to organize the higher forms of spiritual labor. “Needless to say, however, all these organizations based upon the modern division of labor achieve results which are still very inadequate, and represent an advance only by comparison with the short-sighted self-sufficiency existing until now.”[2] But we should not confuse this so-called “organization of labor” with communism. In communist society those confounded questions concerning the disparity between highly gifted persons and the masses, disappear. “The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in certain individuals. and its consequent suppression in the broad masses of the people. is an effect of the division of labor. Even if in certain social relations everyone could become an excellent painter. that would not prevent everyone from being also an original painter. so that here too the difference between “human” work and “individual” work becomes a mere absurdity. With a communist organization of society, the artist is not confined by the local and national seclusion which ensues solely from the division of labor, nor is the individual confined to one specific art, so that he becomes exclusively a painter, a sculptor, etc.; these very names express sufficiently the narrowness of his professional development and his dependence on the division of labor. In a communist society there are no painters, but at most men who, among other things, also paint.”[3] Continue reading


Marxism, selfishness, and competition

Evan Burger has written up a short piece for Jacobin entitled “Toward a selfish Left.” He summarizes his argument as follows: “The Left doesn’t need a renewed emphasis on morality; instead, we must reclaim the concept of self-interest.” While the rest of the article is rather glib — going so far as to naturalize self-interest at one point (the author urges us to be mindful of “humanity’s inherently self-interested nature”) — its basic point regarding the subpolitical character of most ethical injunctions is sound.

To be sure, “Marxists” and leftists of all stripes have resorted to the most maudlin moralizations in recent decades, hoping to stir the masses from their inertia by appealing to their guilty conscience. Attentive readers of Marx will remember, however, that this has nothing to do with the critical position he advocated for communists:

Communism is quite incomprehensible to [the anarchist and individualist Max Stirner] because the communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The communists do not preach morality at all, as Stirner does so extensively. They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much as selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals. Hence, the communists by no means want…to do away with the ‘private individual’ for the sake of the ‘general,’ selfless man.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)

So much for that “hive mind” collectivism libertarians always erroneously ascribe to Marxism and Marx. The freedom of each is a prerequisite for the freedom of all. Bourgeois subjectivity, though it for the first time expresses a widespread sense of individuality (mirroring the shift away from the family toward the individual as the basic productive unit of society), is eventually constrained by the onset of the capitalist mode of production. Continue reading

Peace of Westphalia

The case for smashing borders

IMAGE: Triumphus pacis Osnabruggensis et
; Tubingen, Brunnius (1649)

J.A. Myerson has an article up over at Jacobin making “The Case for Open Borders.”  As an historical overview, it’s not terrible, even if the way it retains the language of “consecration” for the modern period is a bit tendentious.  Borders and rights are not “consecrated” as divine rights but “legitimated” as civil rights.  There’s some acknowledgement of this fact, at least initially, but the author goes on to undermine this distinction in advocating “universal human rights, consecrated in struggle, enforced by solidarity.”

On a related note — why does “solidarity” always seem to enter in as this kind of quasi-mystical force by which we can simply express our sympathy with various remote causes and thereby consider our political obligations fulfilled? This, far more than any kind of legal procedure defining and establishing borders, strikes me as almost religious.  It’s akin to the sentiment expressed by those of various religious persuasions who’ll reassure you that they’re praying for you, etc. Continue reading

Painting of Trotsky by Henry Schnautz, 1950s

Some hitherto untranslated sections of Trotsky on Nietzsche (1908)

Image: Henry Schnautz’s Trotsky (1950s)

Here are a few preliminary, still very rough translations of passages from Trotsky writing on Nietzsche not available in English. There is probably some background required to know the various philosophical and literary (idealist and symbolist, respectively) movements he’s talking about, but I think that Trotsky makes a few essential points that are in line with later interpretations advanced by Adorno.  Which makes me wonder, did Adorno et al. perhaps read this essay? Was it available in German, even if not in English? The essay’s title in English would be “Starved for ‘Culture'” or something like that, from 1908.

Note the succession in the last paragraph: Nietzsche, Kant, the Marquis de Sade! Recall the second chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, where precisely these figures were juxtaposed with respect to the morality of the individual under enlightened bourgeois subjectivity.

Our impoverished “decadence” of the 1890’s was not the first declaration of aristocratic, or even intellectual-bourgeois aestheticism. But from the outset, how gutless (even cowardly) it was! It scarcely dared stammer on about the absolute end-in-itself of the aesthetic (though principally erotic) “tremor” [«трепета»], or of its protest against “tendentiousness” — i.e., in practice, against the grand morality of political obligations, which gravitated toward literature and strove to give the appearance of struggling against moralizing populism. This helped it come under the aegis of the journalistic Marxism of the time, which was of little interest to the Decadents taken on its own terms. They were both still psychologically connected, if you will, by the fact that both proclaimed a “new word” and both were in the minority. The Petersburg journal Life, a combination of third-rate Marxism and kitschy aestheticism printed on good paper for an inexpensive price, was the fruit of this strange coupling. Increasing colossally overnight, the vogue appeal of Gorkii developed in the same period. According to the current definition, the tramp symbolizes the revolt against petit-bourgeois philistinism. Untrue! On the contrary! For broad groups of intellectuals, the tramp turned out to be precisely the symbol of the sudden rise of petit-bourgeois [мещанского, also connotes “philistine”] individualism. Off with one’s burdens! It’s time to straighten one’s back! Society is nothing more than an imperceptible abstraction. I — and this is me! — here came to the aid of Nietzsche. In the West, he appeared as the final, most extreme word in philosophical individualism because he was also the negation and overcoming of petit-bourgeois individualism. But for us Nietzsche was forced to perform a quite different task: we smashed his lyrical philosophy into fragments of paradoxes and threw them into circulation as the hard cash of a petty, pretentious egoism…

Наш жалконький «декаданс» 90-х годов — и был этим первым провозглашением не дворянского, а интеллигентско-мещанского эстетизма. Но как он был по первоначалу робок, даже труслив! Он едва смел заикаться об абсолютной самоцельности эстетического (главным образом эротического) «трепета» и своему протесту против «тенденциозности», т.-е. на деле против больших нравственно-политических обязательств, тяготевших на литературе, старался придать вид борьбы против морализующего народничества. Это помогло ему стать под защиту тогдашнего журнального марксизма, который сам по себе декадентов мало интересовал. Их, пожалуй, еще психологически связывало то, что оба провозглашали «новое слово» и оба были в меньшинстве. Петербургский журнал Жизнь, комбинация из дешевого марксизма и дешевого эстетизма, на хорошей бумаге и за недорогую цену, явился плодом этой странной связи. Колоссальная, в 24 часа выросшая, популярность Горького — явление той же эпохи. По ходячему определению, босяк был символом бунта против мещанства. Неправда! Как раз наоборот! Для широких групп интеллигенции босяк оказался именно символом воспрянувшего мещанского индивидуализма. Долой ношу! Пора выпрямить хребет! Общество — лишь неуловимая абстракция. Я — это я! — На помощь пришел Ницше. На Западе он явился, как последнее, самое крайнее слово философского индивидуализма и потому — как отрицание и преодоление индивидуализма мещанского. У нас же Ницше заставили выполнять совсем другую работу: его лирическую философию разбили на осколки парадоксов и пустили их в оборот, как звонкую монету маленького претенциозного эгоизма… Continue reading