The ghost of communism past

Against “conference communism”

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Image: El Lissitzky, PROUN

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A few months ago I attended the “Communist Currents” mini-conference at Cornell University in Ithaca. Douglas La Rocca and I departed from New York near the crack of dawn, around 5:00 AM, driving upstate to Ithaca. There we met up with his buddy Roger Palomeque, an engineer with an interest in Marxian economics and one of Doug’s fellow Linux-nerds. The drive to and from was cool, as was hanging out with Roger, but I was less than impressed with the actual proceedings of the symposium. I suppose the posh digs of the conference setting at Cornell’s White House were pretty fun/funny. The building’s main claim to fame is that former President (and staunch anti-communist) Ike Eisenhower once ate there. Only fitting that a series of talks on “the communist idea” today should be held there, really — though the very fact such a thing is permitted should give some indication of how benign the “idea” has become.

Over the last five years, books and conferences on “the communist idea” have been greeted by some as heralding the rebirth of the radical Left (“the long night of the Left is coming to a close”). Verso has released a string of titles and essay collections in its “pocket communism” series, featuring marquee names like Alain Badiou, Boris Groys, and Slavoj Žižek, as well as a host of “rising stars” — second-tier up-and-comers like Jodi Dean, Bruno Bosteels, and Alberto Toscano. After a few sellout conferences in London, New York, and Berlin, the organizers brought it to Seoul in South Korea, a longstanding stronghold of anti-communist reaction. Surely all this bodes well for the revolution, right?

Nearly a century ago, there were those who hailed the workers’ councils as the units of proletarian organization par excellence, a vehicle for the self-emancipation of the working class. Led by figures like Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick, they were called the “council communists.” Today, it is instead the academics’ conferences that hold the promise of communism (or so it would seem). It is only fitting that they be dubbed, in like fashion, the “conference communists.” Continue reading

All that exists deserves to perish

Against the Proudhonian
popery of Père Naphtha

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Père Naphtha is a delightful contradiction: a self-identified papist with pretensions to Marxism. Specifically, he belongs to the Maoist/Stalinist persuasion. It’s possible that he, like Roland Boer, thinks his religiosity adds some sort of unexpected “twist” or nuance to his otherwise pedestrian “heartthrob for the welfare of humanity,” to quote Hegel. Recently his tempers have been roused by the controversy over Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article and identity politics on the Left, and by the flurry of responses (some okay, most bad) that issued from it. He has thus seen fit to pen his own reply “On Identitarianism: A Defense of a Strawman.”

Though it’s probably poor form to dismiss an entire article and its argument out of hand, in one sweeping gesture, I feel confident in characterizing Naphtha’s “response” as basically an excuse to bang on about Nietzsche‘s pernicious influence on the Left. Obviously, this has been getting a lot of play lately, with Malcolm Bull‘s book Anti-Nietzsche having come out recently, followed by a long and seemingly interminable debate on Doug Henwood’s wall about the (un)salvageability of Nietzsche, which has since been reprised several times in other contexts. Evidently Père Naphtha had a horse in the race here, though the main knight tilting at the Antichrist was Harrison Fluss, an Hegelian and HM groupie. (Fluss is, for the record, a far more worthy opponent than Naphtha in this debate). For Naphtha, the true problem plaguing the Left is not identity politics, as authors such as Fisher, Dean, and Rectenwald believe, but rather the ominous silhouette lurking behind their haughty denunciation of ressentiment: Friedrich Nietzsche.

If for nothing else, however, we should thank Père Naphtha for proffering yet more proof of Nietzsche’s suspicion that most self-proclaimed socialists are in fact Christians in disguise. As if any more proof was needed given the maudlin, moralizing sentimentality of most leftists today. Naphtha’s brand of anti-Nietzscheanism seems to be lifted from the standard Stalinist sources: Georg Lukács and Domenico Losurdo.

Continuing our narrative: In the comment thread below his article, Naphtha took exception to the harsh rhetoric I slung his way, describing his own position as “an egalitarian argument against elitism.” Nietzsche was anti-egalitarian, to be sure, and anti-moralistic. Most pointedly so in his polemics against those famous anti-semites who were for him exemplars of socialism: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (also by extension, the 1848 Proudhonist Richard Wagner), Bakunin, and Eugen Dühring. Continue reading

The North Star to the rest of the Left: Disengage from Platypus, engage with [pseudo-]reformism

by Corey Ansel

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Image: Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-1823)
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NOTE: Just to be clear about my own relationship to Platypus as an organization, I must again remind readers that I am not currently a member, though I am obviously still sympathetic to its cause. Corey’s statement defends Platypus against a number of misperceptions and baseless accusations that are commonly leveled against it. Even if such accusations were true, however, I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone, especially university professors, would refuse to participate in Platypus events on the ground that it supposedly “lends ideological support” to reactionary ideologies like Zionism or imperialism. This is all the more true given the fact that most of them hold positions at universities and routinely speak on campuses subsidized by the U.S. military (and all the foreign military forces it aids), in return for the advanced weapons technologies their research and development departments provide.

Not to mention that the historical “Lenin,” unlike Richard Seymour’s epigonal pseudonym, didn’t hesitate for a moment to meet cordially and grant an interview to the Fabian socialist (and apologist for British imperialism!) H.G. Wells during the middle of a bloody civil war. 

Originally posted at the Chair Leg of Truth. My one editorial gripe would be that The North Star does not even insist that one engage reformists, since this would seem to suggest that a genuine reformism today exists. What exists today is rather a pseudo-reformism of sorts, which calls for “realistic” programs of reform to reinstate the welfare state or government-funded social programs, even when such programs are no longer viable. The reformists of yesteryear — Bernstein, Schmidt, and the lot — actually deserved to be taken seriously by the likes of Luxemburg. Anyway, for more on The North Star, a shitty webzine owned and chiefly inspired by the living fossil Louis Proyect, and two of its “leading lights,” please see:

1. Dario Cankovic’s report on the Platypus International Convention 2013 in Chicago
2. Ben Campbell’s Sidney Hook moment

For some responses to this hysteria written by Platypus’ president, Chris Cutrone, see:

1. On the so-called “rational kernel of racism”
2. Platypus’ “position” on “imperialism”

Apparently I was not the only person to learn a lesson or two from Homer Simpson in my childhood. It appears that The North Star is at it again, primarily its editor Ben Campbell, having taken to Homer’s immortal quotes to nourish a newly drafted letter calling for total and unconditional disengagement with the public fora and publications of the Platypus Affiliated Society: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

In my article “Dissecting the Platypus,”1 published in issue #963 of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker, I raised many political points about Platypus as a project that Ben Campbell and Chris Cutrone, the President of the Platypus Affiliated Society, were gracious enough to engage with in the letters’ page of the CPGB’s paper. Thus, I will waste no time attempting to continue my assessment of Platypus in the interest of leaving that dead horse be.

When it comes to a revolutionary regroupment of forces on the left, The North Star’s project is content to ‘try and try again’ in breathing air into the dead horse (or the “stinking corpse”, as Rosa Luxemburg put it) of the Second International. As of the time of this article, Ben Campbell’s letter calling for a disengagement with Platypus as a project due to its stated goalto make war on the existing (“dead,” fake/pseudo) “Left” and to overcome it” has been posted on Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb blog and been signed by just over a dozen well-known figures amongst the Marxian left.2 Not surprisingly, the list of signatories includes numerous pseudo-Marxists such as Sherry Wolf, a leader of the US-based International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Richard Seymour, a former oppositionist within the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who after breaking with the group, has recently decided to add another sect, titled the International Socialist Network (ISN), to the sectarian embarrassment that has become the ostensibly revolutionary left. Ironically, I have attempted to engage both politically and polemically to no avail. Continue reading

special issue on communism

Platypus Review № 54: Special issue on “communism”

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Special Issue on “Communism”

The Platypus Review, № 54 [PDF]

1305823769_www.nevsepic.com.ua_doloy-kuhonnoe-rabstvo-1931-shegalVerso’s Pocket Communism series seeks to reorient leftist discourse by taking the idea of “communism” as a shared point of departure.  In this series of articles and interviews, the Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to host a critical dialogue on this subject in order to clarify the various positions and oppositions that are at work, situate them within the broader history of the Left, and evaluate their salience for the present.

‘Communism’ is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects. It is a name that can not only express the Idea which guides radical activity, but can also help expose the catastrophes of the twentieth century, including those of the Left.

— Slavoj Žižek and Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism (2010), pgs. viii-ix.

I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner.  On the contrary, we must help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.  Thus communism in particular is a dogmatic abstraction.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” (September 1843)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself.  We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)

Contents

Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis (2010) The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis
by Chris Cutrone
And yet a very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a very different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the society of capital.

bosteels1

Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels
by Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe
On October 14th, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe both interviewed Bruno Bosteels, a 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). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jodi Dean's Communist Horizon (2012)

What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left? An interview with Jodi Dean
by Ross Wolfe
On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of Žižek’s Politics (2006) and The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Boris Groys' Communist Postscript (2009)

A remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys
by Ross Wolfe
On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, the Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), and The Communist Postscript (2009). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Further reading:

Editorial statement of purpose

Taking stock of the universe of positions and goals that constitutes leftist politics today, we are left with the disquieting suspicion that a deep commonality underlies the apparent variety: What exists today is built upon the desiccated remains of what once was possible.

In order to make sense of the present, we find it necessary to disentangle the vast accumulation of positions on the Left and to evaluate their saliency for the possible reconstitution of emancipatory politics in the present. Doing this implies a reconsideration of what is meant by the Left.

Our task begins from what we see as the general disenchantment with the present state of progressive politics. We feel that this disenchantment cannot be cast off by sheer will, by simply “carrying on the fight,” but must be addressed and itself made an object of critique. Thus we begin with what immediately confronts us.

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring model Sputnik, Rome 1958

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring a model of Sputnik, Rome 1958

The Platypus Review is motivated by its sense that the Left is disoriented. We seek to be a forum among a variety of tendencies and approaches on the Left — not out of a concern with inclusion for its own sake, but rather to provoke disagreement and to open shared goals as sites of contestation. In this way, the recriminations and accusations arising from political disputes of the past may be harnessed to the project of clarifying the object of leftist critique.

The Platypus Review hopes to create and sustain a space for interrogating and clarifying positions and orientations currently represented on the Left, a space in which questions may be raised and discussions pursued that would not otherwise take place. As long as submissions exhibit a genuine commitment to this project, all kinds of content will be considered for publication.

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What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist left? An interview with Jodi Dean

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IMAGE: Cover to Jodi Dean’s
The Communist Horizon (2012)

Platypus Review № 54 | 2013

Ross Wolfe

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On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Ross Wolfe:
 Your new book, The Communist Horizon, builds upon a body of literature that has accumulated around the concept of “communism” over the last decade. What is the significance of this renewed emphasis on communism?

Jodi Dean: The shift towards communism puts leftist thought into a distinct political horizon. It is no longer a sort of touchy-feely, identity issue-based, and fragmented emphasis on each person’s unique specificity. It is no longer a generic, attitudinal lifestyle, preoccupation with “awareness” or the spontaneous, and momentary reduction of politics to the minuteness of the everyday. Communism returns politics to grand, revolutionary possibilities — to projects of political power. And that change is absolutely, crucially enormous, even if forty years out of date. Continue reading

An open letter to Jodi Dean on leftist melancholia

On “leftist melancholia”

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Image: Albrecht Dürer’s “Melancholia” (1514).

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Dear Dr. Dean,

I noticed that you recently appeared on my friend Douglas Lain’s “Diet Soap” podcast.  As I’d heard of you before this, I thought I’d look up some of your writings and papers on OWS (as well as on other topics).

One of the results that came up almost immediately was the transcript to your recent talk on “Communist Desire,” which you presented on October 11 alongside Žižek at The Idea of Communism conference.  I found this piece to be especially interesting.  The diagnosis that you develop through your reading of Freud and Benjamin, as well as the subsequent critique you level at some of the more problematic and transhistorical statements made by Rancière, Badiou, and Negri, are valuable.

As a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society and an advocate of its political/critical project, I felt a particular affinity with the following lines from your talk:

If this left is rightly described as melancholic, and I agree with Brown that it is, then its melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history, its accommodations with reality, whether of nationalist war, capitalist encirclement, or so-called market demands.  Lacan teaches that, like Kant’s categorical imperative, super-ego refuses to accept reality as an explanation for failure.  Impossible is no excuse — desire is always impossible to satisfy.  So it’s not surprising that a wide spectrum of the contemporary left have either accommodated themselves, in one way or another, to an inevitable capitalism or taken the practical failures of Marxism-Leninism to require a certain abandonment of antagonism, class, and revolutionary commitment to overturning capitalist arrangements of property and production.  Melancholic fantasy — the communist Master, authoritarian and obscene — as well as sublimated, melancholic practices — there was no alternative — shield them, us, from confrontation with guilt over this betrayal as they capture us in activities that feel productive, important, radical.

I would even go so far as to say that the Left’s compulsive engagement in seemingly “productive, important, radical” (pseudo-)activities and (pseudo-)practices — the pious gestures of a Left wracked with feelings of helplessness and melancholic self-hatred — is almost the exact inverse of what Herbert Marcuse described as “repressive desublimation.”  Though it the phrase might almost seem redundant, the recourse to naïve actionism (as Adorno termed it) or “activistism” (Henwood’s word for it) is symptomatic of a sort of repressive sublimation that has taken place on the Left.  What I mean by this is that the redirection of unsatisfied desire in apparently productive activities comes to serve as a way to repress the overwhelming sense of futility that has come to surround the Left’s hopes for radical social transformation. Continue reading