Henri Lefebvre and Marxism: A view from the Frankfurt School

Le­fe­b­vre and con­tem­por­ary
in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx

Al­fred Schmidt
Frankfurt, 1968

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Roland Barthes 0001

The Marxism of Roland Barthes

Here are a number of books I’ve found across the web by the French semiologist and literary critic Roland Barthes, all of them downloadable as PDFs:

  1. Writing Degree Zero (1953)
  2. Michelet (1954)
  3. Mythologies (1957)
  4. “Seven Photo Models of Mother Courage” (1958)
  5. Elements of Semiology (1964)
  6. Critical Essays (1964)
  7. Criticism and Truth (1966)
  8. “An Introduction to the Structuralist Analysis of Narrative” (1966)
  9. The Fashion System (1967)
  10. Semiology and Urbanism (1967)
  11. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962-1980 (1980)
  12. Empire of Signs (1970)
  13. Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971)
  14. S/Z (1973)
  15. Roland Barthes (1974)
  16. Image Music Text (1977)
  17. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977)
  18. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980)
  19. The Rustle of Language (posthumously published in 1984)
  20. The Language of Fashion (compiled posthumously from Œuvres complètes 1993, 1994, 1995)

Below I have composed a brief sketch of Barthes’ early political leanings, broken into three parts and interspersed with snippets from his biography and articles he wrote.

Part 1

Roland Barthes’ Marxism tends to get downplayed, especially in light of his post-1968 “turn” toward deconstruction. When he was still a structuralist, however, this dimension of his thinking could scarcely be ignored. Barthes’ structuralism was of a different sort than that of Louis Althusser, or even Claude Lévi-Strauss, who declined to oversee his thesis in the 1950s. His version was sensitive to historical change, despite Saussure’s methodological synchrony. As he put it in “The Structuralist Activity”:

Structuralism does not withdraw history from the world: it seeks to link to history not only certain contents (this has been done a thousand times) but also certain forms, not only the material but also the intelligible, not only the ideological but also the aesthetic. And precisely because all thought about the historically intelligible is also a participation in that intelligibility, structural man is scarcely concerned to last; he knows that structuralism, too, is a certain form of the world, which will change with the world.

It is significant that Barthes’ entry into Marxist political discourse came through his contact with a young Trotskyist named Georges Fournié. French Marxism since the 1920s had been dominated by the Stalinist PCF, with all competing tendencies deemed “dissident.” All this occurred while the two roomed together at a Swiss sanatorium, recovering from tuberculosis.

Thus the literary theorist Martin McQuillan remarks: “Like Lenin, [Barthes] learned his future Marxism in the quiet cantons of Switzerland” (Roland Barthes, Or the Profession of Cultural Studies, pg. 24). McQuillan’s a bit inaccurate here, as Lenin was already a convinced Marxist before ever staying in Switzerland. But he certainly honed his Marxism there, and so the error is a slight one.

Louis-Jean Calvet, Barthes’ biographer, relates the story of Barthes and Fournié’s friendship below.


Switzerland and Marxism

Louis-Jean Calvet
Roland Barthes: A

[Georges Fournié] was three years younger than Barthes, and his social background and subsequent life had been completely different from his. An orphan, Fournié had to earn his own living from the age of twelve or thirteen. He had also taken evening classes and eventually become a proofreader. At the age of seventeen, with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, he joined the republicans and had fought with the POUM on the Aragonese front, where he had been injured. He had then returned to Paris, where he met his future wife Jacqueline and worked with militant anti-fascist groups. Through such groups he had met David Rousset and Maurice Nadeau.

Fournié had been a Trotskyist, an anti-fascist, and a member of the Resistance. His code name in the Resistance had been “Philippe” and his friends continued to call him this after the war. On 19 December 1943 he had been arrested by the Gestapo along with Rousset and other comrades and imprisoned at Fresnes and Campiègne before being deported to Buchenwald. Finally, he had been transferred to Porta Westfalica, a concentration camp near Hanover. For a year and a half his wife had no news of him and it was only in the spring of 1945 that he returned, on a stretcher, exhausted and suffering from tuberculosis. At Bichat hospital he was given a pneumothorax and sent to Leysin. His wife tried to make arrangements to rejoin him there. In October he met Roland Barthes.

However different their backgrounds and temperaments, both men had in common their aloofness from the general atmosphere of the place. Roland, at thirty, was a somewhat distant intellectual, while Georges had survived both the Spanish civil war and deportation. Both men were more mature than the average patient at Leysin. Neither of them liked the adolescent antics and barrack-room humor, which were supposed to take one’s mind off the illness and constant threat of death. In the canteen, where the atmosphere was rather childish (glasses of water and spoonfuls of mashed potato were frequently thrown across the room), both men kept very much to themselves.

After several attempts, Jacqueline Fournié had finally found work in a luxury sanatorium for rich tuberculosis patients, The Belvédère, which is now a Club Méditerranée hotel. She visited her husband every evening and ate with him in the canteen every Sunday. She remembers Barthes as being extremely reserved in the expression of his thoughts and feelings. The only indication of how he felt was the expression in his eyes or the movement of his lips, and his somewhat mocking sense of irony. He never really laughed out loud, totally uninhibitedly, as if it would be indecent to let himself go. He seemed to be someone without strong passions, always self-controlled, completely a creature of nuance. In this he was the complete opposite of Fournié, who was about to initiate him into the previously unknown universe of Marxist theory and the reality of class struggle.

The two would talk together for hours. Barthes discussed theater, literature, and of course Michelet. Fournié talked about Marx, Trotsky, and Spain. They had mutual admiration for each other, and each taught the other things which had previously been foreign to them. Barthes was extremely lucky that at a time when initiation into Marxism usually came through the Communist party — and more often than not required unconditional support for the political positions of the Soviet Union — Fournié’s Marxism was Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist, and non-dogmatic. [Roland Barthes: A Biography, pgs. 62-64]

Part 2

Later, when Barthes moved to Paris and began engaging the intellectual scene there, he reaffirmed his Marxian convictions, this time with reference to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. “Barthes was bound to find such an atmosphere exciting, since he considered himself both a Sartrean and a Marxist. He decided then that his project was to combine these two philosophies in his approach to literature: to develop a ‘committed’ literature, and to justify Sartre in Marxist terms” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 74).

Apart from Sartre, the other major literary figure bridging the gap between Barthes’ object of critique and Marxism was Bertolt Brecht. “Near the end of May 1954, [Barthes and his friend Bernard Dort] saw the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage at the Paris international festival. It was a revelation to Barthes, who with astonishing speed came up with the following phrase to describe its impact: ‘Brecht is a Marxist who has thought about the sign,’ a phrase he was to use many times. As far as the two friends were concerned, Brecht provided Marxism with the aesthetics it lacked” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 111). Continue reading

1280px-Lenin_addresses_the_troops,_May_5,_1920_with_Trotsky_in_foreground. (1)a

Tamás Krausz on the life and thought of Vladimir Lenin

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

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

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


Lenin’s legacy today

Tamás Krausz
Platypus Review 39
September 2011

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

Concept and systemization

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

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

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

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

The origins of Lenin’s Marxism

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

Self-Portrait - Man with Pipe by Gustave Courbet, 1848-1849a

The antinomy of art and politics

A critique of art as cultural resistance

Image: Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait:
Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1848-1849)



This article first appeared in September 2011, the same month that Occupy Wall Street officially began its reclamation of public space. It was written by Chris Mansour, a good friend and member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization to which I formerly belonged. My reasons for republishing it here are several: the two-year anniversary of the movement recently came and went to little fanfare, my ongoing interrogation of the relationship between architecture and politics, and my reposting yesterday of an article by the German-French Marxist and architecture critic Claude Schnaidt on “Architecture and Political Commitment.” In that reposting, I recommended Adorno’s essay on “Commitment” as supplementary reading. Chris draws upon this article in the course of his own exposition. A good piece that is worthy of reflection.

Platypus Review № 39, editorial introduction: At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of “aesthetics in protests.” Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found online. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.

The antinomy of art and politics

by Chris Mansour

The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.

— George Orwell

There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,

In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.[1]

Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernity, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was later a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, counterintuitive though it is, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[they contain] no political content.”[2] The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes — which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune — are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be.[3] Writing these statements in 1972 — four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968 — it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" × 28 1/4" (59 × 72 cm)

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit (c. 1871). Oil on canvas, 59 × 72 cm.

The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot — and should not — act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims. [4]  Continue reading


Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels

IMAGE: Cover to Bruno Bosteels’
The Actuality of Communism (2011)

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe


On October 14, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe interviewed Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Alec Niedenthal:
 It is well known that 1968 was a critical moment for the Left in France, but the simultaneous events in Mexico are not so well-known. What was at stake for you in making this connection more explicit?

Bruno Bosteels: The events of 1968 were definitely pivotal globally for the Left. The reason why 1968 in France was a key moment was because the so-called theories, what people now call “French theory” and the philosophical elaborations and politics stemming from it, all share this interest in “the event.” Whereas Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Deleuze were once read as philosophers of “difference,” now it is common to read them as philosophers of the event — that is, 1968. So, we might ask, “Why is it an important moment or event in the history of France or Mexico or other places where, in the same year, there were riots, uprisings, popular movements, rebellions, and so on?” But also, “What does it mean to think about ‘the event’ philosophically?” The theoretical traditions that led to this pivotal moment have a longer history in France than in other places where one must search obscure sources to get to the same theoretical problem. Within the French context, for institutional, historical, and genealogical reasons we have a well-defined debate that can be summed up, as what Badiou himself called “The last great philosophical battle”: the battle between Althusser and Sartre, between structuralism and humanism, or between structure and subject. One can place these in different contexts, but they are extreme versions of the debate on the transparency of the subject versus the opacity of the structure. What I thought was interesting was that the most intriguing theoretical (but also experimental, literary-essayistic, or autobiographical) writings to emerge from 1968 are situated somewhere at the crossover between those two traditions, breaking down both and making caricature impossible. A similar debate also took place in Mexico with José Revueltas, typically considered a kind of Sartrean humanist-existentialist writer and theorist, versus a very strong tendency of Althusserianism on the Mexican left. Continue reading