Loren Goldner was an angry island of Marxian critique surrounded in the 1980s and 1990s by a sea of poststructuralist and postcolonial hogshit. Even ostensibly Marxist parties like the ISO internalized a lot of the relativist garbage of this period, however much they might claim to reject it.
I think Goldner is a bit unfair in lumping the Frankfurt School in with all the other stuff he discusses in this essay, but in terms of its reception by the Anglophone academy he has a point. One might quibble with Goldner’s characterization of this or that thinker, or some of his generalizations, but this is deliberate and calculated for polemical effect.
This essay was originally published in 2001, and can be read over at his website. I’ve taken the liberty of correcting the various misspellings that appear in it, and added first names of authors who might otherwise seem a bit obscure. You should also check out his essay on “The Universality of Marx” reposted by Comin Situ a few months back, an incisive critique of Edward Said and Samir Amin.
Art without knowledge is nothing.
[Ars sine scientia nihil.]
— Jean Mignot
It was 1971. We were in our early twenties and we were mad. After the seeming prelude to apocalypse we had just lived through, who, at the time, would have believed that we were at the beginning of three decades (and counting) in which, in the U.S. at least, mass movements would all but disappear from the streets? Even today, the evanescence of the world-wide mood of 1968 seems slightly incredible. The funk of 1971 turned Wordsworth on his head: “Terrible in that sunset to be alive, but to be young was hell itself.”
The “sixties,” in their positive impulse, were over. In the U.S., the mass movement in the streets of 1965 to 1969 was quickly turning comatose. The ultra-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party captured SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), but captured only a corpse made up only of its own rapidly-dwindling members. The stock market crashed, Penn Central went bankrupt, and the financial markets seized up in a general liquidity crisis (it would not be the last). Not many people of the 1960s New Left paid much attention to these economic developments at the time, and fewer still understood that they signaled the end of the postwar boom. But a sense of the end of something was in the air. The December 1969 Altamont concert of the Rolling Stones had turned ugly, as the Hell’s Angels guarding the bandstand had beaten a young black man to death with pool cues. The Chicago police murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton in his sleep. Charles Manson’s collective had earlier murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and other partygoers in the Hollywood hills, leaving a fork in Tate’s stomach, and the Weathermen made the fork into a symbol of struggle at their next conference. Some Weathermen, in turn, blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village penthouse, though Bernadine Dohrn and the others would continue to plant more bombs and to put out their demented manifestos for some time afterward. The postal workers struck militantly and the government sent the National Guard — futilely — to deliver the mail before caving to the strike. Nixon and the U.S. military invaded Cambodia; the Teamsters wildcatted in Cleveland and elsewhere; the National Guard unit which had confronted the Teamsters went on to Kent State with little sleep and killed four anti-war students. A national student strike followed, but it was (significantly) taken over in many places, for the first time in years, by left-liberals who tried to turn its energy to liberal Democratic politics for the fall 1970 elections. Huey Newton, head of the Black Panther Party (BPP), was released from jail in summer 1970, announcing at the ensuing press conference his intention to “lead the struggle of the people to a victorious conclusion,” apparently unaware (after serving 2½ years on manslaughter charges for killing an Oakland cop) that the “struggle of the people” in the U.S. was, for the foreseeable future, folding up the tent. The sleaze and rot of the end of the sixties were not a pretty sight: Tim Leary, the former P.T. Barnum of LSD, held prisoner by the breakaway Eldridge Cleaver faction of the BPP in Algiers; the burnt-out meth freaks scrounging spare change; the grim determination, in dour New Left milieus, to “smash” everything bourgeois.
More diffusely but with more of a future, at least in the professional middle classes, the “new social movements” were gathering momentum: women rejected their second-class roles everywhere in society, including in the 1960s New Left; gays rode the momentum of the 1969 Stonewall riots; an important minority of blacks and Latinos moved into the middle class through affirmative action programs, the Club of Rome report on Limits to Growth and the Rockefeller-backed Zero Population Growth gave the ecology and environmental movements (and more diffusely, a good part of society) the Malthusian agenda they have never really shaken off.
The following essays were written over more than two decades, yet they form a continuous whole, even if it is one that only fully emerged over time. They were written “against the grain” of much of the ideology of the past fifty years, above all in its left and far left guises, that might be summarized with the term “middle-class radicalism.” While much of middle-class radicalism may have seemed, over the course of the 20th century, to overlap with the Marxian project of communism, they are as ultimately opposed as Max Stirner and Mikhail Bakunin on one hand and Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg on the other. One might use the Hegelian term “negation of the negation” to describe the former and the Feuerbachian term “self-subsisting positive” to describe the latter. The “fault line” between one and the other is precisely Marx’s relocation of the “creative act of transformation” within man’s relationship to nature, what the “Theses on Feuerbach” call sinnliche umwälzende Tätigkeit or “sensuous transformative activity.” The fault line is moreover between Hegel’s view of nature as the realm of “repetition,” as “boring,” and Marx’s view of human history, and man’s history in the transformation of nature, as the transformation of the laws of nature themselves in his critique of Malthus’ theory of population. In the latter view, nature and natural laws themselves become historical. “An animal only produces its own nature,” Marx wrote in 1844, “but humanity reproduces all of nature.” An animal is a tool; a human being uses tools. Hegel epitomized the “state civil servant” view of history, with his idea that the Prussian monarch and his bureaucrats performed universal labor, whereas Marx precisely transposes the idea of universal labor, i.e. creativity, to man’s sensuous activity within nature, an extension of natural history. This “universal labor” of course exists only fragmentarily and abstractly within capitalism, scattered among the different parts of the (productive) working class, and some parts of the scientific and technical strata. But these fragments, along with others from intellectual and cultural life, are indispensable future parts of a future activity “as all-sided in its production as in its consumption” which Marx, in the Grundrisse, sees as the supersession of the capitalist work/ leisure antinomy in communism.
Following in the same vein, one might just as succinctly counterpose middle-class radicalism and Marxian socialism as follows: middle-class radicalism conceives of freedom as “transgression,” as the breaking of laws, the “refusal of all constraints,” as the Situationist International put it more than thirty years ago, whereas the Marxian project of communism conceives of freedom as the practical solution of a problematic which evolved theoretically from Spinoza and Leibniz to Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach as the transformation of laws, up to and including the physical laws of the universe, man’s unique “Promethean” capacity. More than 150 years ago, Marx, in his critique of the middle-class radicalism of the Young Hegelians, said that for Bauer, Hess, and Stirner the science, technology, and human history of practical activity in nature was only “mass, mere mass,” to use the jargon of the day. For most of the Western left, far left, and ultraleft which emerged from the 1960s, these phenomena are shown the door with the updated (and essentially Weberian) Frankfurt School mantra “domination, mere domination.” For the middle-class radical, “negation of the negation” view, the problems are “hierarchy,” “authority,” “domination,” and “power”; for the Marxian communist view, the problems are the project of the abolition of value, commodity production, wage labor, and the proletariat (the latter being the commodity form of labor power within capitalism). From these latter the “negation of the negation” problematic is entirely recast, reformed and superseded, and its heavy overlay of bourgeois ideology — freedom conceived without the transformation of necessity — discarded.
What is truly appalling today in large swaths of the left and far-left in the West is the willful illiteracy in the critique of political economy. Perhaps even more appalling, and closely related, is the willful illiteracy, boredom and hostility where science and nature are concerned. It is certainly true that the “critique of political economy” can sometimes be almost as boring as political economy itself, better known today under its still more ideologically contemporary name of “economics.” We recall Marx writing to Engels (in 1857!) saying that he hoped to have done with the “economic shit” within a year or two. I myself have studied “economic questions” for years, and have also spent years in recovery from the novocained, ashes-in-the mouth feeling brought on by excessive exposure to the “dismal science” — or even to its critique.
But this is something rather different than a certain mood of the past thirty-five years, a mood whose culmination to date is the postmodern, “cultural studies” scene that has filled up bookstores with its nihilist punning, its “white males never did anything but rape, pillage, and loot” theory of history, and its ignorant “everything and everyone is tainted” projections onto everything and everyone in some potted notion of the Western “tradition.” This is the world view of demoralized upper middle-class people ensconced in fashionable universities, largely ignorant of the real history of the failure (to date) of the communist project for a higher organization of society, assuming that the historical and intellectual backwater engulfing them is the final product of human history.
All this can be critiqued and rejected on its own terms. It goes hand-in-hand with an ever-lingering “mood” which asserts that there was never anything historically progressive about capitalism, a mood so pervasive that it does not even bother to argue the case, since it rejects out of hand the idea of progress — linear, non-linear, or otherwise — and therefore the question is foreclosed before it even comes up. Once the idea of an organization of society superior to capitalism is repudiated, capitalism itself appears to the postmodernists as unproblematic, just as it is to the rest of bourgeois ideology. While some postmodernists might stop short (though God knows why) of one French Heideggerian’s call to “bring the inhuman into the commons” [donner droit de cit(c) a l’inhumain], their underlying world outlook easily moves toward the same repudiation of the tired word “humanism.” This counterposition surfaced in the 1987-1988 Heidegger and De Man controversies in such formulations as “Is Nazism a Humanism?” [Le Nazisme est-il un Humanisme?] The argument was as follows. Humanism was the Western metaphysic of the “subject,” culminating in Hegel and reshaped by Marx. Trapped in and constituted by the metaphysics of “presence,” the reduction of everything to a “representation” (image), humanism was the ideology of the subjection — the PoMos would of course write (subject)ion — of the entire earth to “representation,” in what Heidegger called the worldwide domination of “technological nihilism.” Nietzsche had already arrived at important anticipations of this analysis. For a certain, “post-1945” (!) Heidegger, Nazism had culminated this drive to “technological nihilism.” (When he was a Nazi, up to 1945, Heidegger had gamely argued that liberal capitalism was the culmination of “technological nihilism.”) The French Heideggerians thus argued that Nazism was a humanism in its drive to complete Western “technological nihilism,” and that the apparently Nazi Heidegger, by attempting to “deconstruct” humanism, was thereby “subverting” Nazism. Meanwhile, of course, the opponents of Nazism, of whatever political stripe, were trapped in “humanism” and therefore trapped on Nazism’s terrain, similarly facilitating the worldwide victory of “technological nihilism.” One could presumably count an old humanist such as Luxemburg (had she not been murdered in 1919 by proto-Nazis, abetted by Social Democrats) as someone else confusedly trapped in “technological nihilism,” having died a bit too early to appreciate Heidegger as the real opponent of Nazism. Continue reading