Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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Rosa Lux­em­burg and the party

Chris Cutrone
Platy­pus Re­view
May 21, 2016

In one of her earli­est in­ter­ven­tionsin the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic Party of Ger­many (SPD), par­ti­cip­at­ing in the no­tori­ous the­or­et­ic­al “Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute,” in which Eduard Bern­stein in­fam­ously stated that “the move­ment is everything, the goal noth­ing,” the 27 year-old Rosa Lux­em­burg clearly enun­ci­ated her Marx­ism: “It is the fi­nal goal alone which con­sti­tutes the spir­it and the con­tent of our so­cial­ist struggle, which turns it in­to a class struggle.”1

Cri­tique of so­cial­ism

What did it mean to say that so­cial­ist polit­ics was ne­ces­sary to have “class struggle” at all? This goes to the heart of Lux­em­burg’s own Marx­ism, and to her most en­dur­ing con­tri­bu­tion to its his­tory: her Marx­ist ap­proach to the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism — a dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing of class and party, in which Marx­ism it­self was grasped in a crit­ic­al-dia­lect­ic­al way. When Lux­em­burg ac­cused Bern­stein of be­ing “un­dia­lect­ic­al,” this is what she meant: That the work­ing class’ struggle for so­cial­ism was it­self self-con­tra­dict­ory and its polit­ic­al party was the means through which this con­tra­dic­tion was ex­pressed. There was a dia­lectic of means and ends, or of “move­ment” and “goal,” in which the dia­lectic of the­ory and prac­tice took part: Marx­ism de­man­ded its own cri­tique. Lux­em­burg took the con­tro­versy of the Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute as an oc­ca­sion for this cri­tique.

In this, Lux­em­burg fol­lowed the young Karl Marx’s own form­at­ive dia­lect­ic­al cri­tiques of so­cial­ism when he was in his twenties, from the Septem­ber 1843 let­ter to Arnold Ruge call­ing for the “ruth­less cri­tique of everything ex­ist­ing,” to the cri­tique of Pierre-Joseph Proud­hon in the 1844 Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic Manuscripts and The Poverty of Philo­sophy (1847), as well as in The Ger­man Ideo­logy and its fam­ous Theses on Feuerbach (1845). Marx had writ­ten of the so­cial­ist move­ment that:

The in­tern­al dif­fi­culties seem to be al­most great­er than the ex­tern­al obstacles…

[W]e must try to help the dog­mat­ists to cla­ri­fy their pro­pos­i­tions for them­selves. Thus, com­mun­ism, in par­tic­u­lar, is a dog­mat­ic ab­strac­tion; in which con­nec­tion, however, I am not think­ing of some ima­gin­ary and pos­sible com­mun­ism, but ac­tu­ally ex­ist­ing com­mun­ism as taught by Ca­bet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc. This com­mun­ism is it­self only a spe­cial ex­pres­sion of the hu­man­ist­ic prin­ciple, an ex­pres­sion which is still in­fec­ted by its an­ti­thes­is — the private sys­tem. Hence the ab­ol­i­tion of private prop­erty and com­mun­ism are by no means identic­al, and it is not ac­ci­dent­al but in­ev­it­able that com­mun­ism has seen oth­er so­cial­ist doc­trines — such as those of Four­i­er, Proud­hon, etc. — arising to con­front it be­cause it is it­self only a spe­cial, one-sided real­iz­a­tion of the so­cial­ist prin­ciple…

Hence, noth­ing pre­vents us from mak­ing cri­ti­cism of polit­ics, par­ti­cip­a­tion in polit­ics, and there­fore real struggles, the start­ing point of our cri­ti­cism, and from identi­fy­ing our cri­ti­cism with them.… We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are fool­ish; we will give you the true slo­gan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fight­ing for…

The re­form of con­scious­ness con­sists only in mak­ing the world aware of its own con­scious­ness, in awaken­ing it out of its dream about it­self, in ex­plain­ing to it the mean­ing of its own ac­tions.

Such for­mu­la­tions re­curred in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach a couple of years later:

But that the sec­u­lar basis de­taches it­self from it­self and es­tab­lishes it­self as an in­de­pend­ent realm in the clouds can only be ex­plained by the cleav­ages and self-con­tra­dic­tions with­in this sec­u­lar basis. The lat­ter must, there­fore, in it­self be both un­der­stood in its con­tra­dic­tion and re­vo­lu­tion­ized in prac­tice.

For Marx, this meant that so­cial­ism was the ex­pres­sion of the con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism and as such was it­self bound up in that con­tra­dic­tion. A prop­er dia­lect­ic­al re­la­tion of so­cial­ism with cap­it­al­ism re­quired a re­cog­ni­tion of the dia­lectic with­in so­cial­ism it­self. Continue reading

Wilhelm Reich’s synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis

Back in June, in a post fea­tur­ing cri­tiques Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács wrote on Freu­di­an psy­cho­ana­lys­is, I an­nounced that I’d shortly be post­ing a num­ber of works by the Marxi­an psy­cho­ana­lyst Wil­helm Reich. A couple days earli­er, of course, I’d pos­ted an ex­cel­lent piece by Ber­tell Oll­man on Reich from his 1979 es­say col­lec­tion So­cial and Sexu­al Re­volu­tion. Need­less to say, this post is long over­due.

Some brief re­marks are there­fore ap­pro­pri­ate, in passing, to frame Reich’s rel­ev­ance to the present mo­ment.

First of all, Reich is rel­ev­ant to con­tem­por­ary dis­cus­sions of fas­cism. His work on The Mass Psy­cho­logy of Fas­cism re­mains one of the most in­nov­at­ive and pro­found Marx­ist ef­forts to un­der­stand ideo­logy as a ma­ter­i­al force that has ap­peared to date.

Moreover, this forms a pivotal point of de­par­ture for a host of sub­sequent at­tempts to the­or­ize re­volu­tion­ary sub­jectiv­ity — both in terms of con­scious­ness and of de­sire. To­mor­row or the next day I hope to jot down some of my own thoughts on the mat­ter, us­ing Reich for ref­er­ence.

Last but not least, Reich’s thoughts on sexu­al eman­cip­a­tion are con­sid­er­ably ahead of their time. Con­sider, for ex­ample, this ex­cerpt from one of his journ­al entries dated 1939, while in Oslo:

The past few nights I wandered the streets of Oslo alone. At night a cer­tain type of per­son awakes and plies her trade, one who these days must view each bit of love with great fear but who will someday hold sway over life. Today prac­tic­ally a crim­in­al, to­mor­row the proud bear­er of life’s finest fruits. Whores, os­tra­cized in our day, will in fu­ture times be beau­ti­ful wo­men simply giv­ing of their love. They will no longer be whores. Someday sen­su­al pleas­ure will make old maids look so ri­dicu­lous that the power of so­cial mor­al­ity will slip out of their hands. I love love!

While some of his views on ho­mo­sexu­al­ity might seem an­ti­quated or back­wards today — he saw it as a de­vi­ant be­ha­vi­or, linked to lat­ent au­thor­it­ari­an tend­en­cies — the fact re­mains that Reich favored de­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion and pro­tested adam­antly against its re­crim­in­al­iz­a­tion in the So­viet Uni­on un­der Stal­in.

In­cid­ent­ally, this is why I find it so ab­surd that left­ists look to ex­cuse Castro’s ho­mo­phobic policies pri­or to 1980. Eduard Bern­stein was pro­mot­ing gay rights dur­ing the 1890s, and Au­gust Bebel ad­voc­ated the re­peal of laws against sod­omy as early as 1898.

Re­gard­less, here are the prom­ised PD­Fs, along with some rare im­ages and a trans­lated art­icle by the Itali­an Trot­sky­ist Aless­andro D’Aloia. I have taken the liberty of de­let­ing some need­less asides about the Big Bang, a pe­cu­li­ar hangup the In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ist Tend­ency re­tains with re­spect to the­or­et­ic­al phys­ics des­pite none of its mem­bers be­ing qual­i­fied enough to judge the mat­ter.

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The nihilism of socialism

Robert Rives La Monte
Socialism: Positive and
(NYC: 1908)


For a while now I’ve been contemplating writing an essay on “proletarian nihilism.” By this I don’t mean the nihilisme prolétarien Vercesi wrote about in the Bordigist journal Bilan, a pejorative term he applied to German and Dutch council communists who denied the October Revolution had been anything more than bourgeois. Rather, proletarian nihilism would be the listlessness, apathy, and self-destructive instinct that gave rise to punk rock, or else that odd mixture of fatal resignation and reckless abandon that underlies so much of mass psychology.

Of course this is all a bit too simple, grounding the self-abolition and self-realization [Selbstaufhebung] of the working class in some sort of subjective mentalité. Self-overcoming, a term used by both Hegel and Nietzsche, is a key term for any adequate Marxist theory of the transition to a classless society. Marxism’s truth depends on the self-directed negativity of the proletariat, whose interest it is to do away with class altogether. This is why its particular interest is simultaneously universal, in the best interest of all society, which is central to Marx’s conception of the proletariat as the “universal class”:

Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class. The working class in the course of its development will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society. Meanwhile the antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is a struggle of class against class, a struggle which carried to its highest expression is a total revolution. And indeed, is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal contradiction, the shock of body against body, as its final denouement?

Incidentally, this is also why it’s so misguided to conceive of class as just another identity alongside gender and race. The world-historic significance of the proletariat is not at all its permanent position within capitalist society, but its negation of that society. Negation of identity is not identical to the affirmation of difference. Only on its basis is the dissolution of religion, family, and the state imaginable. Robert Rives La Monte, whose work I mentioned in my last post, formulated this essentially annihilative aim of Marxism as “the nihilism of socialism.”

As La Monte explained, “…‘nihilism’ is not used in strict technical or philosophical sense, but simply as a convenient term by which to designate the aggregate of those aspects of socialism which, viewed from the standpoint of the existing regime, appear as negative and destructive.” Marx famously described this corrosive nihilism as the “rational kernel” of dialectical methodology in the 1871 postface to the second edition of Capital:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

Engels later counterposed the revolutionary method of Hegel’s philosophy with its conservative system, writing in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy that “all that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, is irrational by its very destination, tainted beforehand with irrationality… In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the opposite proposition.” Quoting Goethe, Engels wrote: “All that exists deserves to perish.”

La Monte’s essay, which follows, is concerned above all with three negations: “the atrophy of religion, the metamorphosis of the family, and the suicide of the state.” He locates “the nihilism of socialism” in the materialist conception of history. I would do him one better, and locate it in the historical formation of the proletariat. For as La Monte himself says: “the nihilism of socialism has no deterrent terrors for him, for as Marx said long ago, ‘he has nothing to lose but his chains, and a whole world to gain’.”

Positive ideals


In their negative proposals the socialists and anarchists are fairly agreed. It is in the metaphysical postulates of their protest and in their constructive aims that they part company. Of the two, the socialists are more widely out of touch with the established order. They are also more hopelessly negative and destructive in their ideals, as seen from the standpoint of the established order.

— Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of Business Enterprise. Pg. 338.

To label a truth a truism is too often regarded as equivalent to placing it in the category of the negligible. It is precisely the salient obviousness, which makes a truth a truism, that places it in the direst peril of oblivion in the stress of modern life. Such a truth was well stated by Enrico Ferri, the Italian Marxist criminologist, in a recent lecture before the students of the University of Naples: “Without an ideal, neither an individual nor a collective can live, without it humanity is dead or dying. For it is the fire of an ideal which renders the life of each one of us possible, useful and fertile. And only by its help can each one of us, in the longer or shorter course of his or her existence, leave behind traces for the benefit of fellow beings.”

Platitude though this may be, our greatest poets have not hesitated to use their highest powers to impress it upon us. Robert Browning put this truth into the mouth of Andrea del Sarto in one of the strongest lines in all English verse, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Continue reading

For a Dionysian proletariat

Robert Rives La Monte is today a largely forgotten figure in the history of Marxian socialism. He’s probably best remembered for his epistolary exchange with the fiery journalist H.L. Mencken, published in book form as Men versus the Man in 1909. Like Mencken, La Monte was a Nietzsche aficionado and committed advocate of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Unlike his individualist adversary, however, he did not feel a system of collective ownership was incompatible with modern freedom, stressing the Marxist remark that this future society would be “an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Outside this public back-and-forth, La Monte also translated some works by Karl Marx, as well as by Gabriel Deville (one of Marx’s early French supporters) and the Italian Marxist criminologist Enrico Ferri. To be sure, he was quite critical of Deville’s more conservative turn in the 1890s, to say nothing of his horror at Ferri’s sudden admiration for Mussolini late in life. Along with Jack London, the young Walter Lippmann, and a few others, La Monte was an unabashed Nietzschean Marxist. In a magnificent line, he quipped that “today the world’s workers need not Jesus, but Dionysus.” As he went on to explain in his article “Nietzsche, Iconoclast and Prophet” (1908):

In every sense, the red-blooded socialist proletariat seems to me Dionysian, and I’d find it difficult to define class-consciousness in terms that would not to a Nietzschean suggest the Dionysian spirit. You and I would like to see the Proletariat aware of its own tremendous strength, glorying in it, and resolved to use it to emancipate themselves and humanity; we would like to see them living in the actual world of reality instead of dreaming in the fictitious world of Apollonian or bourgeois art; and our highest and ultimate hope is to see them reveling in the joy of the earthly paradise, undeterred by any preacher or moralist. Only a Dionysian working class can accomplish the social revolution. The rank and file of the Socialist Party today are undoubtedly Dionysians.

It was Nietzsche’s misfortune to preach the Gospel of Dionysus to a bourgeoisie close upon senile decay and moral degeneracy and live his life in utter ignorance of the only class which in our day is capable of breeding Dionysians — the proletariat.

La Monte was quite adamant on this point: “We socialists must recognize [Nietzsche] as a brother revolutionary… His chief theme seized upon the violent contradiction between the ruthless self-seeking of capitalism in an age when the cash nexus had become the only tie between man and man. No mercy was shown and no quarter given upon the fields of industrial and commercial warfare, despite the [Christian] religion of love, sympathy, and self-sacrifice professed in all capitalist countries.” For Trotsky, writing around the same time in 1908, Nietzsche’s brazen amorality was a weapon against “moralizing populism.” Davidovich rushed to defend Nietzsche against Narodnik platitudes.

Indeed, many Marxist revolutionaries in Russia — Anatoly Lunacharsky, Stanislav Volski, Aleksandr Bogdanov, and Vitaly Bazarov, to name only those listed by George Kline — also took inspiration from Nietzsche. Maksim Gorky, the great realist author, likewise drank deeply from the well of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Clara Zetkin and Erich Mühsam, prominent Marxists in Germany, along with literary champions of socialism like Karl Henckell and Alfred Klineberg, all cited Nietzsche as a formative influence. Even Franz Mehring eventually came around. Upon first encountering the philosopher’s writings in the 1890s, he’d described Nietzsche as “the philosopher of financial capitalism,” writing:

Absent from Nietzsche’s thinking was an explicit philosophical confrontation with socialism. That was a big mistake for a philosopher at the end of the nineteenth century, because a philosopher who doesn’t know how to confront the most powerful movement of his time is anything but a philosopher. But the real problem was that this gap left open the possibility to whitewash Nietzsche’s philosophy of monopoly capitalism and to aestheticize away the fact that he combated proletarian class struggle from the same elevated circles of thought as did the next best stockbroker or the next best reptile.

By the early 1900s, Mehring had changed his tune. “The Nietzsche cult is useful to socialism,” he wrote. “No doubt, Nietzsche’s writings have their pitfalls for young people growing up within the bourgeois classes, laboring under bourgeois class-prejudices. For such people, however, Nietzsche is often a gateway to socialism.” Victor Serge adopted an opposite approach in a 1917 article, but arrived at the same conclusion about Nietzsche: “He was our enemy. So be it. But he himself said to us: Desire perfect enemies. One can fraternize with ‘perfect’ enemies; our struggle with them makes us more beautiful, more fertile.”

Remarks such as these have not ceased to scandalize Stalinists like Georg Lukács. Or at least the one who wrote The Destruction of Reason in 1952, which Adorno hilariously dubbed “the destruction of Lukács’ own reason.” He read National Socialism back into Nietzsche’s philosophy in such a way that it became simply a straightforward anticipation of the views later promulgated by Alfred Rosenberg. Mazzino Montinari, the Italian Marxist critic who co-edited the critical German edition of Nietzsche’s complete works, observed that “there are cases in which Lukács’ Nietzsche is more of a strict national socialist than [Nazi state philosopher] Alfred Bäumler’s Nietzsche.” Continue reading

Demonology of the working class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culinary materialism


Cook­ing a pot of beans from scratch is a re­volu­tion­ary act that hon­ors both your an­cest­ors and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Un­less your an­cest­ors hap­pen to be Py­thagoreans, of course. De­col­on­ize Your Diet is a new cook­book writ­ten by Luz Calvo, pro­fess­or of eth­nic stud­ies at Cal State East Bay in Hay­ward and Ca­tri­ona R. Esquibel, as­so­ciate pro­fess­or of race and res­ist­ance stud­ies at San Fran­cisco State. They’ve got a web­site (seems to be down right now), main­tain a Face­book page to boot, and gen­er­ally urge their read­ers to “[re­claim] our col­lect­ive an­ces­tral know­ledge of food, herbs, re­cipes, and cul­ture, with an em­phas­is on a plant-based diet us­ing Mesoamer­ic­an in­gredi­ents.”

Either way, I’m skep­tic­al. Re­mem­ber, kids, de­col­on­iz­a­tion is not a meta­phor. By pre­par­ing this dish, you’re lit­er­ally over­throw­ing the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs. You’re bring­ing about “the co­in­cid­ence of the chan­ging of cir­cum­stances and of hu­man activ­ity or self-chan­ging.” Or maybe they just mean that eat­ing this will help you evac­u­ate the con­tents of your colon — de-colon-ize. Maybe it’s just sup­posed to be edi­fy­ing. However, there’s at least one philo­soph­er who might agree with the im­per­at­ive to eat beans, and its re­volu­tion­ary portent: Lud­wig Feuerbach. Sid­ney Hook ex­plains.

625510_669374049740997_1668188857_nFeuerbach’s “degenerate sensationalism”

Sidney Hook
From Hegel to
Marx (1936)

Feuerbach’s por­trait as a philo­soph­er would be in­com­plete if we were to omit a phase of his thought which, it must be con­ceded at once, is more im­port­ant for an un­der­stand­ing of the re­cep­tion of his ideas than for their de­vel­op­ment. For this phase was a short-lived en­thu­si­asm in­duced by the first ex­per­i­ment­al steps of or­gan­ic chem­istry. But it must be treated here, if only to present the con­text in which ap­pears his fam­ous sen­tence “Man is what he eats” [Der Mensch ist Was er isst] — a sen­tence which the philo­soph­ic­al phil­istines have used as a pre­text to con­demn rather than to read Feuerbach’s works.

Feuerbach sin­cerely be­lieved that his cri­tique of re­li­gion and philo­sophy marked the turn­ing point in the his­tory of West­ern thought. And if not all of his dis­ciples made the same claims for his philo­sophy, even the crit­ic­al among them, like Ruge, re­ferred to it as “the third cock’s crow of Ger­man spir­itu­al free­dom.” Feuerbach’s last word in the peri­od of his thought we have just been con­sid­er­ing was a call for philo­sophy to break its mésalliance with re­li­gion and enter in­to a liv­ing uni­on with sci­ence. In his Vorläufigen: Thesen, he main­tained that philo­sophy must ally it­self once more with sci­ence and sci­ence with philo­sophy” (S.W., Bd. 2, p. 267).

Car­ry­ing out his own pro­gram, Feuerbach reached for the nearest sci­ence at hand which would jus­ti­fy his hu­man­ist­ic in­terest. And without stop­ping to an­swer the very dif­fi­culties which he had so co­gently ar­gued against Dor­guth’s ab­so­lute ma­ter­i­al­ism, he pro­ceeded to swal­low bag and bag­gage the nat­ur­al philo­sophy of Moles­chott, com­pared to whom Dor­guth and all the ma­ter­i­al­ists of the eight­eenth cen­tury were mod­els of crit­ic­al re­straint. Feuerbach’s philo­soph­ic­al ex­tra­vag­ance was ap­par­ently an ef­fect of his read­ing Moles­chott’s Lehre der Nahrungs­mit­tel, a work now only of his­tor­ic­al in­terest and even in its own day of du­bi­ous sci­entif­ic im­port­ance. It ap­peared to Feuerbach as if the long sought-for bond of unity between mind and body, spir­it and nature, had at last been dis­covered through the re­volu­tion­ary prin­ciples of food chem­istry. Philo­soph­ers in their quest for truth have been over­look­ing what was, lit­er­ally speak­ing, un­der their noses. Feuerbach runs lightly through all the ma­jor philo­soph­ic cat­egor­ies — Sub­stance, Ex­ist­ence, Be­ing, Es­sence, Thought — and no longer iden­ti­fies them with sens­ib­il­ity, love, and pas­sion but with something more ba­sic still. Only Feuerbach’s own words can al­lay the sus­pi­cion that we are in­vent­ing them:

How the concept of Sub­stance has vexed philo­soph­ers! That is it, Self or Not-Self, Spir­it or Nature or the unity of both? Yes, the unity of both. But what does that mean? Susten­ance [Nahrung] only is sub­stance. Susten­ance is the iden­tity of spir­it and nature. Where there is no fat, there is no flesh, no brain, no spir­it. But fat comes only from Susten­ance. Susten­ance is the… es­sence of es­sence. Everything de­pends upon what we eat and drink. Dif­fer­ence in es­sence is but dif­fer­ence in food (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 82).

One would ima­gine that a thinker of Feuerbach’s caliber would con­tent him­self with the neg­at­ive ob­ser­va­tion that without food there can be no hu­man activ­ity; that cer­tain types of food un­der cer­tain con­di­tions pro­duce cer­tain re­ac­tion, and pass on from these ir­rel­ev­ant com­mon­place truths to more sig­ni­fic­ant state­ments. In­stead he de­liv­ers him­self of a piece of rhet­or­ic which would lend it­self ad­mir­ably to philo­soph­ic ca­ri­ca­ture and which might serve as a num­ber in some un­writ­ten Gil­bert and Sul­li­van light op­era:

Be­ing is one with eat­ing. Be­ing means eat­ing. Whatever is, eats and is eaten. Eat­ing is the sub­ject­ive, act­ive form of be­ing; be­ing eaten, the ob­ject­ive, pass­ive form. But both are in­sep­ar­able. Only in eat­ing does the empty concept of be­ing ac­quire con­tent, thereby re­veal­ing the ab­surdity of the ques­tion wheth­er or not be­ing and not-be­ing are identic­al, i.e., wheth­er eat­ing and starving are the same.

How the philo­soph­ers have tor­tured them­selves with the ques­tion as to where and with what philo­sophy be­gins… Oh, you fools, who open your mouth in sheer won­der over the en­ig­mas of the be­gin­ning and yet fail to see that the open mouth is the en­trance to the heart of nature: who fail to see that your teeth have long ago cracked the nut upon which you are still break­ing your heads. We be­gin to think with that with which we be­gin to ex­ist. The prin­cipi­um es­sendi is also the prin­cipi­um cognoscendi. But the be­gin­ning of ex­ist­ence is nour­ish­ment [Ernährung]; there­fore, food [Nahrung] is the be­gin­ning of wis­dom, The first con­di­tion of put­ting any thing in­to your head and heart, is to put something in­to your stom­ach (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 83).

Feuerbach had a strong sense of hu­mor. And one feels al­most cer­tain that he is in­dul­ging it; that this pas­sage is dir­ec­ted against the pop­u­lar sci­entif­ic evan­gel­ists who were cry­ing up as a new truth, a simple fact, known to every­body, but now clothed in a new tech­nic­al robe, trail­ing clouds of chem­ic­al for­mu­lae be­hind it. In­deed, it con­tains an even more de­li­cious par­ody. Sub­sti­tute “know­ing” for “eat­ing” and you have pure ideal­ist­ic doc­trine with typ­ic­al ar­gu­ment and ex­pres­sion. Feuerbach seems to be mak­ing fun of the ideal­ists, for whom know­ing is like eat­ing, the “ob­ject” be­ing to “food” as the “sub­ject” is to “eat­ing.”

But alas! Feuerbach is in deadly earn­est. His motto is Der Nahrungsstoff ist Gedanken­stoff — a doc­trine which he makes the basis not only of a philo­sophy of per­son­al­ity but of a philo­sophy of his­tory. What hu­man be­ings eat af­fects their feel­ings and tem­pera­ment; the activ­ity of the group de­pends upon the tem­pera­ment of its mem­bers. Con­sequently, con­cludes Feuerbach, the vi­cis­situdes of the struggle between dif­fer­ent groups in his­tory re­flect the char­ac­ter of their di­ets. Food chem­istry be­comes the key to his­tory. Feuerbach does not con­tent him­self with ab­stract gen­er­al­it­ies here. He goes in­to some de­tail. Pota­toes, for ex­ample, are the staple diet of all the work­ers of European coun­tries. But since pota­toes have no great quant­it­ies of the phos­phor­es­cent fat and pro­tein ne­ces­sary for healthy brain and muscle, the fate of the work­ing class is hope­less. “Slug­gish potato blood” [träges Kar­tof­fel­blut] can nev­er sup­ply them with re­volu­tion­ary en­ergy. The struggle between Eng­land and Ire­land, Feuerbach cites as a case in point:

Poor Ire­land, you can­not con­quer in the struggle with your stiff-necked neigh­bor whose lux­uri­ant [üppige] flocks sup­ply its hire­lings with strength. You can­not con­quer, for your susten­ance can only arouse a para­lyz­ing des­pair not a fiery en­thu­si­asm. And only en­thu­si­asm will be able to fight off the gi­ant in whose veins flow the rich, power­ful, deed-pro­du­cing blood [roast beef] (Ibid., p. 90).

If pota­toes ac­count for the de­feat of the Ir­ish in their struggles against the Eng­lish, it is the use of salad which “did” for the Itali­ans, and the ex­clus­ive ve­get­able diet of the Hindus which bind them to the chari­ot wheel of the Brit­ish Em­pire.

And then comes that clas­sic pas­sage one sen­tence of which, torn from the only con­text which could give it a particle of sense, has gone the rounds of the world:

We see of what im­port­ant eth­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance the doc­trine of food has for the people. What is eaten turns to blood, the blood to heart and brain, to the stuff of thought and tem­pera­ment. Hu­man fare is the found­a­tion of hu­man cul­ture and dis­pos­i­tion. Do you want to im­prove the people? Then in­stead of preach­ing against sin, give them bet­ter food. Man is what he eats (p. 90).

Des­pite its com­ic fea­tures there is one as­pect of this doc­trine which, if prop­erly de­veloped, would have had im­port­ant im­plic­a­tions for a re­ori­ent­a­tion of Feuerbach’s hu­man­ism to­wards the so­cial prob­lem. If man is what he eats, the im­me­di­ate cent­ral prob­lem of man­kind is not polit­ic­al, eth­ic­al, cul­tur­al, but eco­nom­ic. To im­prove man­kind means at least to im­prove its fare. And since it is the fare of the work­ing class which is in greatest need of im­prove­ment, the work­ers can be or­gan­ized as the con­scious lever of so­cial change. Feuerbach, however, brings the re­volu­tion­ary mor­al home in a more lit­er­al fash­ion. If the work­er’s fare is bad, his so­cial fu­ture can­not be made any bet­ter un­less a di­et­ary sub­sti­tute is found for his present spir­it­less fare. The re­volu­tion of 1848, he con­tends, ended with the tri­umph of re­ac­tion be­cause the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion were mar­tyrs to their potato diet. Potato blood can make no re­volu­tion! The fu­ture of the poorer classes looks dark. It is broken by only one ray of light from Moles­chott’s chem­ic­al labor­at­ory.

Shall we there­fore des­pair? Is there no oth­er food­stuff which can re­place pota­toes among the poorer classes and at the same time nur­ture them to manly vig­or and dis­pos­i­tion. Yes, there is such a food­stuff, a food­stuff which is the pledge of a bet­ter fu­ture, which con­tains the seeds of a more thor­ough — even if more gradu­al — re­volu­tion. It is the bean!

Had this be­come the ideo­logy of a mass move­ment, its fun­da­ment­al re­volu­tion­ary prin­ciples would have been drawn from the for­mu­lae of food chem­istry, its strategy and tac­tics dir­ec­ted to work­ing out spe­cif­ic menus rich in deed-pro­du­cing ele­ments, and its cent­ral agit­a­tion­al slo­gan “beans in­stead of pota­toes”! This phase of Feuerbach’s thought, if we call it such, mani­fes­ted it­self in 1850, some years after the in­flu­ence of Feuerbach upon Marx and En­gels had waned. Marx had already com­mit­ted to pa­per his cri­ti­cism of Feuerbach’s doc­trine when Feuerbach made his fant­ast­ic somer­sault back to the most “vul­gar” of “vul­gar ma­ter­i­al­isms.” It is a sign of the homage in which, des­pite their cri­ti­cism, both Marx and En­gels held Feuerbach that they nev­er refer to it in their writ­ings. What in­ter­ested them much more was pre­cisely the ad­vance which Feuerbach made over tra­di­tion­al philo­sophy and the in­com­plete char­ac­ter of that ad­vance.

Early Marxist criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis: Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács

Much has been written over the years about the similarity between and compatibility of Marxian sociology and Freudian psychology. Here is not the place to evaluate those claims. Suffice it to say, for now, that both social critique and psychoanalysis have seen better days. Both doctrines have lost whatever pretense they once had to scientific status and today are relegated mostly to the humanities. One is more likely to hear Marx and Freud mentioned in the halls of the academy than shouted in the streets or whispered in clinical settings.

Tomorrow or the next day I plan to post PDFs of the complete works of Wilhelm Reich in English, German, and possibly Spanish. I will perhaps devote a few lines to the question of Marxism and Freudism, to the way each approaches and interprets irrationality. Whether as social ideology or psychopathology, this is their shared concern and primary motivation. Each aims to render that which is unconscious conscious, to master the forces of nature (external or internal) in a more rationally ordered life. “Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the exploitation of a majority by a minority,” asserted Reich, “so psychoanalysis is the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”

Freudian analysis tends to fall back on biological explanations of irrational behavior, whereas Marxist theory places more emphasis on the historical dimension. Yet both of them ultimately fall under the heading of materialism, even if somewhat “idealistic” strains. Psychoanalysis gives too much priority to sexual factors, important though these doubtless are. Vulgar Marxism is quite often guilty of reducing everything to economic factors. Desires and drives are a major part of psychoanalysis, while needs and motivations are a major part of Marxism.

A word about these texts. Korsch’s article first appeared in the councilist periodical Living Marxism in February 1938. Its main point of reference, besides Freud’s work, is Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were virtually unknown in America at the time. Reuben Osborn’s 1937 book on Marx and Freud: A Dialectical Study is also dealt with, but Reich is the one Korsch for the most part has in mind. He is generally appreciative of both Freud, whose postulates about the unconscious Korsch calls a “genuine discovery,” as well as Reich’s efforts to understand the rise of fascism on its basis. Oddly, Korsch — who by then had long since abandoned Leninism and increasingly considered Marxism a lost cause — had recourse to Lenin’s arguments against the Economists in defending Marxist methodology.

Lukács’ review of Group Psychology by Sigmund Freud appeared even earlier, in the German communist paper Die rote Fahne [The Red Flag] in 1922. For whatever reason, Lukács never struck me as someone interested in Freud. Victor Serge had described him as “a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud” in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, so maybe I just forgot. Either way, Lukács makes very clear that he considers Freud “a researcher of integrity,” and even after criticizing psychoanalytic interpretations of military psychology insists: “We did not quote this example in order to expose an otherwise meritorious researcher to deserved ridicule.” Interesting stuff.
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Capital as civilization


Few words arouse such controversy as “civilization,” which calls to mind the self-appointed mission civilisatrice undertaken by great colonial empires of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Etymologically the word derives from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and politesse. It is thus historically tied to the sporadic growth of cities, population centers separate from the countryside which often doubled as the seat of political power. Amadeo Bordiga had this in mind when he briefly sketched the meaning of civilization in his polemical letter to the post-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou Barbarie, “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil” (1951), initially defining civilization by way of contrast. “Barbarism is the opposite of civilization and also of bureaucracy,” wrote Bordiga. “Our barbarian ancestors, lucky them, did not have organizational apparatuses based (old Engels!) on two elements: a defined ruling class as well as a defined territory. Under barbaric conditions there were clans and tribes but not the civitas, meaning city as well as state. Civilization is the opposite of barbarism and means state organization, therefore necessarily bureaucracy; this is what Marxism says.” Henri Lefebvre, a French dissident Marxist, located “the political city at the point of origin on the space-time axis of total urbanization, populated primarily by priests, warriors, princes, ‘nobles,’ and military leaders, but also administrators and scribes.” (The Urban Revolution, pg. 8). Later the political city was supplanted by the mercantile city in Lefebvre’s schema, and this in turn was supplanted by the industrial city.

All this squared neatly with the Marxist classics, as Bordiga alluded to above. Friedrich Engels claimed in his work on Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that “the fixation of the antithesis between town and country as the basis of the entire social division of labor [is one of the] marks of civilization” (MECW 26, pg. 275). Karl Marx jotted down in one of many barely-legible polyglot scribblings that “about 850 BC civilization began unter the Asiatic Greeks.” Commenting on John Lubbock’s 1870 The Origin of Civilization and Lewis Morgan’s 1877 Ancient Society: Research in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, Marx noted the historic passage from gentility to civility: “Griechische society first comes under notice around time of… legislation of Cleisthenes, vorgehend Übergang von gentile in political (or civil) Organisation… Er hätte sagen sollen dass political hier Sinn des Aristoteles hat = städtisch und politisches animal = Stadtbürger, ζῷον πολιτικόν. Der Township, mit der fixed property it contained und people who inhabited for the time being, was to become the unit of organization; gentilis transformed into civis” (Ethnographic Notebooks, pgs. 196-197). Vere Gordon Childe, like Lefebvre, considered civilization the result of an urban revolution, calling the very notion of prebourgeois “civilization” a contradictio in adjecto. “There was never such a thing as neolithic civilization,” argued Childe (Man Makes Himself, pg. 65). Lefebvre, for his part, maintained that “cities have always been a place of civilization.” In another text, he continued: “By excluding the urban from groups, classes, and individuals, one also excludes them from civilization, if not society itself” (Writings on Cities, pg. 195).

While the word is rooted in these ancient Latin words, “civilization” as a neologism dates only from around the age of Enlightenment. The timing of its coinage is no mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. Like “society,” it is a concept of the Third Estate, as Adorno liked to point out. Émile Benveniste, a French semiotician, discovered the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau. In its post-1765 usage, Benveniste observed that “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as a state of civilized society.” From there the concept was imported to Britain by Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith, likely through their contact with the physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot in France. Anticipating Sigmund Freud’s later conceit that the civilization of society resembles the maturation of the individual, Ferguson in his Essay on the History of Civil Society postulated: “Not only does the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.” See Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents: “The development of civilization is a special process comparable to the normal growth of individuals.” Millar and Smith each felt civilization was marked by a complex division of labor, wherein “the human mind can be fully cultivated and expanded; man thereby rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.” Once again, this lined up with the earlier gloss on the word provided by Victor Riqueti, alias Mirabeau. “If I was to ask most people of what civilization consists,’ he began, ‘they would reply, “the civilization of a people is a softening of its manners, an urbanity, politeness and a spreading of knowledge so that the observation of decencies takes the place of laws of detail.”

Following the European discovery and conquest of the New World, maritime commerce expanded as cities again came to dominate the countryside. Seigneurial virtues like courage, magnanimity, and noblesse oblige gave way to entrepreneurial virtues such as cunning, austerity, and philanthropy. Contracts took the place of oaths. Norbert Elias has forcefully argued that certain conventions from prebourgeois European court life (manners, etiquette, dress codes, behavioral norms) were carried into bourgeois society out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although moral philosophers like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic selflessness with bourgeois self-love, these courtly vestiges in civic life account for the high premium placed on “courtesy” [courtoisie, cortesia] as well as “civility” [civilité, civiltà, Zivilität] among representatives of the rising middle class. Yet this legacy passed down from medieval court society was only part of what Elias called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, the process entailed a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this new regime of self-restraint. Some have suspected a similarity between Elias’ notion of civilized “restraint” and Michel Foucault’s concept of “discipline” through correct training, but this similarity is only apparent. Elias’ concept of self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression. Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias was quick to acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms or expectations associated with the workplace, rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis. The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Jean Starobinski, the Swiss philologist and literary critic, definitively showed that “the word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.” Denis Diderot, Marx’s favorite political author, was already using the term in exactly this sense around 1775, declaring that “civilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.” Lucien Febvre of the Annales school of historiography wrote in his 1930 essay “Civilization: Evolution of a Word and a Group of Ideas” François Guizot,

“The idea of progress, of development, appears to me the fundamental idea contained in the word, civilization. What is this progress? what this development? Herein is the greatest difficulty of all. The etymology of the word would seem to answer in a clear and satisfactory manner: it says that it is the perfecting of civil life, the development of society, properly so called, of the relations of men among themselves.”

Freud, Future of an Illusion: “Human civilization [Kultur], by which I mean all those respects in which human life has raised itself above its animal status and differs from the life of beasts — and I scorn to distinguish between civilization and culture — presents, as we know, two aspects to the observer.” Pg. 2.

Marx, Grundrisse: “all the progress of civilization, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production [gesellschaftische Produktivkräfte], if you like, in the productive powers of labor itself — such as results from science, inventions, division, and combination of labor, improved means of com­munication, creation of the world market, machinery etc. — en­riches not the worker but rather capital; hence it only magnifies again the power dominating over labor; increases only the pro­ductive power of capital.” (Pg. 308)

Spengler, Decline of the West: “the period of Civilization is that of the victory of city over country, whereby it frees itself from the grip of the ground, but to its own ultimate ruin” (Volume 2, Pg. 107)

“The word ‘Capital’ signifies the center of this thought — not the aggregate of values, but that which keeps them in movement as such. Capitalism comes into existence only with the world-city existence of a Civilization.” (Volume 2, pg. 493)

Humboldt: “In every survey of world history there is a progress… With the rise of man, the seed of civilization is also planted, and grows as his existence evolves. This humanization we can perceive in advancing stages.” On Language (1835)

Gilles Dauvé, “Crisis of Civilization”

Capitalism is driven on by a social and productive dynamism, and by an unheard-of regenerative ability, but it has this weakness: by its very strength, by the human energy and the technical power it sets into motion, it wears out what it exploits, and its productive intensity is only paralleled by its destructive potential, as proved by the first civilization crisis it went through in the twentieth century.

No value judgement is implied here. We do not oppose civilized people to savages (even noble ones) or barbarians. We do not celebrate “great civilizations” which would have been witness to the progress of mankind. On the other hand, we do not use the word in the derogatory sense it has with writers like Charles Fourier, who called “civilization” a modern society plagued by poverty, trade, competition and the factory system. Neither do we refer to those huge geohistorical sociocultural constructs known as Western, Judeo-Christian, Chinese, or Islamic civilizations.

The civilization we speak of does not replace the notion of mode of production. It merely emphasizes the scope and depth of a world system that tends to be universal, and is also capable of disrupting and then reshaping all kinds of societies and ways of life. The hold of wage-labor and commodity over our life gives them a reality and dynamics that were unknown in the past. Capitalism today is the only all-encompassing network of social relationships able to expand geographically and, with the respective differences being considered, to impact on Jakarta as well as Vilnius. The spread of a world capitalist way of life is visible in similar consumer habits (McDonald’s) and architecture (skyscrapers), but has its deep cause in the dominance of value-production, of productivity, of the capital-wage labor couple.

The identity of capital and civilization

“Capital is only another name for civilization.” Marx quoted this dictum by John Wade repeatedly in the economic manuscripts, and with approval each time. Another quotation was usually situated nearby, this one by the Swiss Sismondian Antoine-Elisée Cherbuliez, whose writings on political economy Marx generally held in high esteem: “The capitalist is the social man par excellence; he represents civilization.” His reason for citing these remarks is opaque. Often they just hang there, like epigraphs awaiting excogitation. Reminders are attached: “Wade’s explanation of capital. Labor mere agency of capital… Civilization, together with my remarks about it” (Grundrisse, pg. 584). A clue is contained in another section of the Grundrisse, with suggestive allusions to free time: “Since all free time is time for free development, the capitalist usurps free time created by the workers for society, i.e. civili­zation, and Wade is again correct in this sense, insofar as he posits capital = civilization” (Grundrisse, pg. 34). Echoing this in his notebooks from 1861-1863, Marx later wrote that “surplus labor is on the one hand the basis of society’s free time, and on the other hand, by virtue of this, the material basis of its whole development and of civilization in general. Insofar as it is capital’s compulsion which enforces on the great mass of society this labor over and above its immediate needs, capital creates civilization, and performs a sociohistoric function.” Lenin similarly stressed the “luxury” generated by labor under capitalism: “The proletariat showed by deeds that modern civilization owes its existence to it and to it alone, that its labor creates wealth and luxury.”

Despite its uniform pattern, capitalism maps unevenly onto preexisting cultures, producing multiform results. While this does entail peripheral variations on the central theme of capitalist production — which is, as always, the antagonism between labor and capital in the constitution of value — this surface heterogeneity belies a fundamental homogeneity. Marx called this “the great civilizing influence of capital, its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.” “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility,” he continued. “Capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, constantly revolutionizes it, tearing down the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, …and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.” (Grundrisse, pgs. 409-410). All parochial relations brought into its fold are either swiftly dissolved or irrevocably modified. “It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, “introducing what it calls civilization into their midst — in a word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Elsewhere, in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dealt with this twin tendency of capital to both create and destroy, or create new conditions by destroying old ones. Later, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed this double-edged property of capitalist production “creative destruction.” Polemicizing against Proudhon, who wanted to simply get rid of the bad byproducts of bourgeois society while retaining the good ones, Marx assigned priority to the negative or destructive moment of the value-relation. Famously, he argued that “history progresses according to the bad side” (the left communist group Il Lato Cattivo takes its name from the Italian translation of this passage). Destructiveness, negativity is what drives progress. Read now the following line from Marx’s Grundrisse in light of this: “It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labor which is an essential civilizing moment, and on which the historic justification, but also the contemporary power of capital rests” (Grundrisse, pg. 287). Marx returns to this motif once more toward the end of volume three of Capital, in chapter on the trinity formula. Just before passing on to his discussion of socialism as the “realm of freedom,” he explained that “one of the civilizing aspects of capital is that it extorts surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” (Capital, Volume 3, pg. 958).

On this last point, Marx announced in an 1867 speech to Polish delegates of the First International in London that “Russia, by the emancipation of the serfs, has entered the family of civilized nations” (MECW 20, pgs. 199-200). Rosa Luxemburg almost five decades later welcomed the 1905 revolution in Russia with similar sentiments: “All lovers of civilization and freedom, that is, the international working class, can rejoice from the bottom of their hearts… For on this day the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilization in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action.” Her comrade August Bebel affirmed that same year that “it is not our object to destroy civilization… We do not wish to throw humanity back into barbarism; on the contrary, we desire to lift the whole of humanity to the highest thinkable plane of civilization.” This simply restated what Wilhelm Liebknecht stated thirteen years prior: “Socialism presupposes modern civilization. It does not run counter in any way — far from being the enemy of civilization, socialism wishes to extend it to all humanity.” Bebel died in 1913 and Liebknecht in 1900, before the wholesale relapse of capitalist society into barbarism, but Karl Liebknecht carried their message forward in an address to workers for May Day 1916. “Let us fight for everything that means the future triumph of the working classes, the future of humanity and civilization,” declared Liebknecht before he was arrested for agitation.

Postcolonial critiques

Marx’s identification of capital with civilization, so often overlooked, has given rise to many misunderstandings. Postcolonial theorists such as Edward Said, for example, have taken exception to some of Marx’s journalistic writings on India from the 1850s. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India,” Marx wrote for the New York Tribune, “one destructive, the other regenerative — the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia. The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindu civilization” (MECW 12, pgs. 217-218). On this passage, Said disparagingly remarked that “Marx’s economic analyses are perfectly fitted thus to a standard Orientalist undertaking” (Orientalism, pg. 154). “In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution,” added Said (ibid., pg. 153). Aijaz Ahmad has already highlighted Said’s “anti-Marxism,” as well as his attempt to define “a postmodern kind of anti-colonialism” (In Theory, pg. 222) — in other words, a relativist anti-colonialism. However, it is enough to turn to Marx’s follow-up article on “The Future Results of British Rule in India” to understand the sweeping scope and grandiose scale of the history he sought to articulate. Note his implicit association of civilization with urban centers:

The centralization of capital is essential to the existence of capital as an independent power. The destructive influence of that centralization upon the markets of the world does but reveal, in the most gigantic dimensions, the inherent organic laws of political economy now at work in every civilized town. The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world: on the one hand universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind, and the means of that intercourse; on the other hand the development of the productive powers of man and the transformation of material production into a scientific domination of natural agencies. Bourgeois industry and commerce create these material conditions of a new world in the same way as geological revolutions have created the surface of the earth. When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch — the market of the world and the modern powers of production — and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain. (MECW 12, pg. 222)

Sadik Jalal al-’Azm perhaps came closest to grasping this underlying “civilizational” theme in Marx’s theory of capital, even if he did not explicitly name it as such. Capital’s civilizing effect consists precisely in its “development of the productive powers of man” and so forth. In his 1981 review of Said for the Marxist journal Khamsin, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” al-’Azm unequivocally upheld the superiority of British civilization at this historical juncture: “That nineteenth century Europe was superior to Asia and much of the rest of the world in terms of productive capacities, social organization, historical ascendency, military might and scientific and technological development is indisputable as a contingent historical fact,” he asserted. “Orientalism, with its ahistorical bourgeois bent of mind, did its best to eternalize this mutable fact, to turn it into a permanent reality — past, present, and future. Hence Orientalism’s essentialistic ontology of East and West. Marx, like anyone else, knew of the superiority of modern Europe over the Orient. But to accuse a radically historicist thinker such as Marx of turning this contingent fact into a necessary reality for all time is simply absurd.” Al-’Azm went further than this, even, claiming that “the fact that he utilized terms related to or derived from the Orientalist tradition does not turn him into a partisan of the essentialistic ontology of East and West any more than his constant use of pejorative epithets like ‘nigger’ and ‘Jew’ (to describe foes, class enemies, despised persons, and so on) could turn him into a systematic racist and antisemite.”

Kevin Anderson, whose 2010 book Marx at the Margins grapples with postcolonial criticisms leveled at Marx, concedes too much to Said on this matter. “Marx repeatedly extols the beneficial impact of Britain’s ‘higher’ civilization on India’s ‘lower’ one,” Anderson laments. “This problem needs to be acknowledged” (Marx at the Margins, pg. 20). Anderson is far too keen a scholar not to have noticed Marx’s equation of capital and civilization in his mature economic texts, and the greater nuance implied. He thus reluctantly granted the point raised by Spencer Leonard in their 2012 interview, regarding the relationship of these two terms. Leonard contended:

When Marx says England represents a higher civilization [than India], he is not really talking about the “Englishness” of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in such a way that the past can only be said to be so by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the battering down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.

Though civilization is certainly a loaded term, selections from Engels lend credence to this interpretation of Marx’s view: “Civilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.” Marx in his 1863 economic manuscripts chided the prerevolutionary French author Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who had criticized Voltaire, Rousseau, and the phisolophes, preferring Oriental tributary states to European absolutism. “Linguet is not a socialist,” wrote Marx. “His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie then beginning, are thus given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance, defending Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.”

Relapse into barbarism

After the revolutionary cycle of 1917-1923 drew to a close without spreading westward, the USSR was surrounded, encircled, and besieged. The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 attempted to transform the world war between nations into an international civil war, the idea being that relatively backward countries like Russia represented the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Everything depended on successful revolution in the advanced capitalist core, however, especially in Germany. Uprisings broke out across Europe, but all of them save the Russian Revolution were eventually crushed. Lenin recognized the desperate situation in which the fledgling Soviet Union now found itself, and framed the possibility of socialism’s victory as resting on civilization. “To ensure our existence until the next military conflict between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, compromise the majority, this majority must become civilized,” wrote Lenin in 1923. “We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requisites for it [Нам тоже не хватает цивилизации для того, чтобы перейти непосредственно к социализму, хотя мы и имеем для этого политические предпосылки].” Here again civilization signifies a certain level of economic development brought about by capital, which constitutes an objective conditio sine qua non for socialist transition.

Nevertheless, Marx and his followers were never blind to the violence of capitalist accumulation, particularly along its periphery. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” he declared in 1853, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked” (MECW 12, pg. 221). Barbarism is in no sense extrinsic to civilization, qua capital. It is an ever-present possibility intrinsic to its development from the start, and exists in dialectical tension with capital’s civilizing qualities. Lenin conceptualized this dialectical tension as “civilized barbarism” in a 1913 article. Discussing the proposal to connect England and France via an underwater tunnel, amidst fears of invasion, he remarked that “the civilized nations have driven themselves into the position of barbarians. Capitalism has brought about a situation in which the bourgeoisie, in order to hoodwink the workers, is compelled to frighten the British people with idiotic tales about ‘invasion,’ …in which a whole group of capitalists who stand to lose ‘good business’ from the tunnel are doing their utmost to wreck this plan and to hold up technical progress. On all sides, at every step one comes across problems which man is quite capable of solving immediately, but capitalism is in the way; capitalist barbarism is stronger than civilization.” As Marx and Engels had before him, Lenin recognized in 1913 that capitalism had actually become an impediment to further progress.

Following Lenin’s lead, Adorno would also write of “civilized barbarism” in his 1951 essay on Kulturkritik: “Were mankind to possess the wealth of goods [produced by capitalism], it would shake off the chains of that civilized barbarism which cultural critics ascribe to the advanced state of the human spirit, rather than to the retarded state of society.” Along with Horkheimer, he endeavored to “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. xvi). Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.

this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights. After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as  Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery.

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.” Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”

August Bebel

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From James Joyce to Howdy Doody: Deconstruction and deindustrialization after 1968

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.

Foucault Deleuze SartreDeconstruction and deindustrialization
Ontological “difference” and the neoliberal war
on the social

Loren Goldner
Queequeg Press
January 2001

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