Revolutionaries in living color

It is often said that it was the painters who invented photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists. For the noeme “That-has-been” was possible only on the day when a scientific circumstance (the discovery that silver halogens were sensitive to light) made it possible to recover and print directly the luminous rays emitted by a variously lighted object. The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star. A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.

It seems that in Latin “photograph” would be said imago lucis opera expressa; which is to say: image revealed, “extracted,” “mounted,” “expressed” (like the juice of a lemon) by the action of light. And if photography belonged to a world with some residual sensitivity to myth, we should exult over the richness of the symbol: the loved body is immortalized by the mediation of a precious metal, silver (monument and luxury); to which we might add the notion that this metal, like all the metals of alchemy, is alive.

Perhaps it is because I am delighted (or depressed) to know that the thing of the past, by its immediate radiations (its luminances), has really touched the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch, that I am not very fond of color. An anonymous daguerreotype of 1843 shows a man and a woman in a medallion subsequently tinted by the miniaturists on the staff of the photographic studio: I always feel (unimportant what actually occurs) that in the same way, color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses). What matters to me is not the photograph’s “life” (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with a superadded light.

— Roland Barthes,
Camera Lucida

Color by klimbims (Olga)Mikhail Bakunin, 1860 Ulyanov family, 1879 Piotr Chaykovsky Kropotkin | Кропоткин Anton Chekhov Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenins wife Continue reading

constitution lenin's face copy 2

Marxism and legal theory

About two months ago, when news broke that Chief Justice Antonin Scalia had died, my friend and esteemed comrade Donald Parkinson of the Communist League of Tampa wrote: “
Scalia isn’t enough; lets see the whole rule of law die.”

Within minutes the thread was flooded with responses, many of them hostile. Incredulous that someone would propose to abolish the rule of law altogether — not just of bourgeois  law, but of law as such — one person objected: “You’re saying socialism won’t be enforced by law? No stop signs?” Donald deftly replied that, during the transition to “a higher phase of communist society,” there will only be the decrees of the proletariat. Perhaps some of these would be temporarily formalized as laws, but with the disappearance of class conflict so too would laws of any sort disappear.

The person angrily commenting was not satisfied with this answer. Insisting that law needn’t be “political” in the sense meant by Marx, as if the function of law could be somehow separated from the repressive role of the state, he continued: “Okay so if a drunk fuck husband beats his wife and the police intervene, what bourgeois interests are being fulfilled?” My initial reaction was a bit captious: “Husbands and wives under communism? Not my communism.” But as to the more fundamental matter the state, I responded that legislation would still fall to some sort of governing authority that would be charged with determining what the laws should be. For Marx, law or right [Recht] would wither away with the shift to communism.

Even among avowed Marxists, this sort of reification of the law is increasingly common. Domenico Losurdo, a Stalinist political philosopher, has abandoned the Marxist doctrine of the progressive dissolution of the state. If scholars like Losurdo feel Lenin was too “leftist” for upholding this principle, others find Lenin’s commentary on the character of the state too conservative or bound to Second International conceptions. My friend Pavel Minorski wondered how “the figure who most clearly exposed Social Democratic opportunism and provided the clearest statement of the need to smash the bourgeois state could then go on to write about how the dictatorship of the proletariat would be ‘the bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie’.”

Nevertheless, I think that Lenin’s line of reasoning was correct regarding “the bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie.” Marx talked about the persistence of bourgeois law or right [Recht] up to the advent of a higher form of communist society. From this conclusion it follows that the state administering legislation would be the Rechtstaat, i.e. the modern class state that emerged gradually out of the wreckage of the ancien régime (the Standestaat, which was based on unique privileges of special estates). Here is Lenin’s gloss on the passage by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program, which in turn appears in State and Revolution:

In its first phase, or first stage, communism cannot as yet be fully mature economically and entirely free from traditions or vestiges of capitalism. Hence the interesting phenomenon that communism in its first phase retains “the narrow horizon of bourgeois law”. Of course, bourgeois law in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law. It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois law, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!

This may sound like a paradox or simply a dialectical conundrum of which Marxism is often accused by people who have not taken the slightest trouble to study its extraordinarily profound content. But in fact, remnants of the old, surviving in the new, confront us in life at every step, both in nature and in society. And Marx did not arbitrarily insert a scrap of “bourgeois” law into communism, but indicated what is economically and politically inevitable in a society emerging out of the womb of capitalism.

Strictly speaking, there is a certain redundancy in the term “bourgeois right,” though it’s helpful to reiterate at times. “Right” itself is bourgeois, something universally possessed by free and equal citizens who have reached a certain age (some positive rights are reserved for adults, like voting or drinking or whatever). Classically, right would be opposed to privilege, explicitly tied to title or rank within a noble or priestly order. This is why those who reduce Marxism to “fighting for equal rights,” or for “human rights,” are so profoundly mistaken. Marxism aims at the transcendence of right altogether.

Marxist legal theorists debated many of these same issues in the first decade following the October Revolution. You can read a few exemplary pieces illustrating this below. What is perhaps most striking about these texts is the incredibly high level of debate, both the theoretical subtlety and practical urgency that saturate them. They are taken from an old book released by Johns Hopkins on Soviet Political Thought. Download the rest of them this link: Michael Jaworskyj, Soviet Political Thought: An Anthology (1967). Not only are they of merely historical interest, either. They have a very contemporary relevance as well, insofar as many seem to believe that Marxism is preoccupied chiefly with social justice, economic inequalities, and redistribution of wealth. Goikhbarg’s piece destroys these misconceptions.

Also see Evgenii Bronislavovich Pashukanis, The General Theory of Law and Marxism and Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer, The Rule of Law under Siege: Selected Essays for more on Marxist theories of law.

the constitution

“Law and right are inherited like an eternal disease”

Pëtr Ivanovich Stuchka
October Upheaval and Proletarian
(Moscow, 1919)

If, in considering the law, we have in mind only its bourgeois meaning, then we cannot speak of a proletarian law, for the goal of the socialist revolution is to abolish law and to replace it with a new socialist order. To a bourgeois legal theorist, the term “law” is indissolubly tied in with the idea of the state as an organ of protection and as an instrument of coercion in the hands of the ruling class. With the fall or rather the dying away of the state, law in the bourgeois meaning of the term also dies away. When we speak of a proletarian law, we have in mind law of the transition period, law in the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or law of a socialist society, law in a completely new meaning of the term. For, with the abolition of the state as an organ of oppression in the hands of one class or another, the relationships between men, the social order, will be regulated not by means of coercion but by means of the conscious good will of the workers, that is, the will of the entire new society.

In this respect the tasks of bourgeois revolutions were considerably easier than the task of a socialist revolution. Voltaire’s revolutionary statement is well known: “If you intend to have good laws, then burn the old and create new ones.” We know that this requirement was not fulfilled by any bourgeois upheaval, not even by the great French Revolution. The latter mercilessly burned feudal castles and the titles to these castles, liquidated privileges and the holders of these privileges, and replaced the feudal system with a bourgeois one. Notwithstanding, the oppression of man by man survived, and some old laws remained unburned and binding. The legal monument of the French Revolution — Napoleon’s Civil Code — came into being only ten years after the Revolution (1804), and only after the victory of the counterrevolution.

In one of his earlier writings (1843), Marx vividly outlined the basic difference between bourgeois and socialist revolutions: “A bourgeois revolution dissolves old feudal forms of organization through the political emancipation of independent persons, without tying and subordinating them to a new economic form… It divides the person into man and citizen, whereby all the socioeconomic relationships of citizens belong to the sphere of their private affairs which are of no interest to the state… Man appears to be leading a double life, a heavenly and an earthly life, in the political community, where he is a citizen, and in a bourgeois society, where he acts as a private person and either looks upon other men as means, or lowers himself to a means or a toy in the hands of others.” Private interests are indifferent, for, regardless of whether a man in bourgeois society is satisfied or hungry, whether he is physically fit or incapacitated, whether he has time to satisfy his spiritual needs, this is his private affair, the egoistic interest of each separate person, with which the state does not interfere. “The state can be turned into a free state without turning man into a free man.”

What the bourgeois revolutions did was merely to put into power a new class in place of the old one, or along with the old, and to change the form of the organization of state power. The mode of oppression was freely changed without changing the text of old laws. The continuity of law seems to be the essence of the stability of human society, which is based on the principle of exploitation of man by man. Thus, the laws of slaveholding Rome survived not only the feudal system but even all phases in the development of capitalism, imperialism included:

Es erben sich, Gesetz und Recht
Wie eine ewige Krankheit fort

Bourgeois revolution did not always adhere to Voltaire’s words; it did not burn old laws as resolutely as it should, and when it burned them it failed to eradicate them from the minds of the people. As pointed out by Renner, “The human mind is a reliable storehouse in which Moses’ stone tables with his commandments are as real as any recent decree issued by the government; in it the ancient historical elements are interwoven with contemporary elements into a single reality.” This is the source of all theories of the divine origin of such institutions as sacred property, the “inborn” character of class privileges, the “natural right” of the master to the services of the worker, etc.

Continue reading

Langston Hughes and German journalist Arthur Koestler on a cotton kolhoy in Soviet Central Asia, 1932

A black man in Turkmenistan: Langston Hughes’ 1932 account of Soviet Central Asia

Below are scans of the communist and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ copy of his own short tract on Soviet Central Asia, from 1932. It was published under the title A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, and includes copious editorial notation and marginalia around the text. Hughes was known as something of a perfectionist, so it’s not surprising at all that he would submit something he wrote to such rigorous scrutiny.

The introductory remark provided by the publisher is slightly misleading, reflecting a political policy adopted by the Stalinist Comintern toward the black population in the Southern United States. Describing Hughes as “the son of an oppressed nationality,” the brief note suggests that he will testify to “the achievements of formerly oppressed nationalities under the banner of the Soviets.” At the time, Moscow’s line on “the Negro question” in the US was that blacks in the South — especially along the so-called “Black Belt,” areas where they held a sizable majority — constituted a separate nation which ought to be granted autonomy, i.e. the right of national self-determination.

Readers can learn more about this disastrous official stance here in Benjamin Blumberg’s excellent essay “Race and the Left in America: An Unmet Challenge.” For now, we turn to the text. What were Hughes’ impressions of life in Soviet Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan?

Langston Hughes, mellon-sellers in the market of Tashkent. Soviet central Asia, U.S.S.R

Many of his attitudes and opinions, it must be said, would likely shock and offend today’s self-proclaimed “Marxists.” Hughes unabashedly celebrated the secularization process then underway in these territories, inaugurated by the Soviet authorities working in tandem with local communists and fellow-travelers. The struggle against religious tradition was not restricted to gender integration and secular education in school reform, but extended to the public sphere and culture in general.  “Illiteracy, not only of children but of adults, has been greatly reduced,” wrote Hughes, enthusiastically. “The cells of the madrases are empty, and the schools of the state are overcrowded. Already to the youth today, Allah is only a legend and the Koran is forgotten. Marx, Lenin, chemistry, economics, mathematics, scientific agriculture, electricity, and hygiene are new realities to millions who once knew only the sleepy teachings of priestcraft” (33).

Such talk would likely get one branded an Orientalist or Islamophobe by Marxists writing in recent years. According to Houria Bouteldja and the indigènes of France, religion is not the opiate of the masses but rather an authentic expression of non-Western ways of life. Worldviews rooted in atheistic materialism are imports of the decadent, liberal, bourgeois West. Downtrodden peoples living along the periphery cannot be expected to live without the comforting illusions of religious ritual. Perhaps Hughes was simply unaware of radical cultural difference, irreducible Otherness, and similar French theoretical nonsense. Now, thank G-d, we know better than those naïve revolutionaries of the past.

But Hughes had a more immediate reason for associating faith and religiosity with oppression. Citing Mencken — i.e.,  “America’s lovable literary buffoon” — he notes that “Across the water, on the mainland, the god worshipers are legion. Mencken…calls the South ‘The Bible Belt’ because there are so many churches, preachers, and prayers there. Yet it is in this same Bible Belt that hundreds of Negroes are lynched, race riots are organized, peonage and chain gangs and forced labor of all forms are found, women are exploited in the cotton mills, and farces of justice like the Scottsboro trial are staged” (27).

Langston Hughes, women in yashmaks in Tashkent (Central Asia), as all were before the Soviet revolution. The majority are now unveiled

Little wonder, then, that Marx’s 1875 program “to liberate conscience from the witchery of religion” would appeal to someone like Hughes. He poetically recalls,

In industrial cities in the Northern Unites States, hundreds of thousands of black and white workers walk the streets hungry and unemployed in the shadows of skyscrapers… And in the churches, the bosses pray, and the ministers are one in denouncing communism — and calling on God — like the mullahs of Bukhara when the Emir ruled. I walk through the streets past crumbling walls of sun-dried brick, beneath empty towers and minarets beside palaces and mosques. I remember how, as a boy in far-away Kansas, I dreamed of seeing this fabulous city… And now here I am, traveling with a Soviet newspaper, seeing for myself all the dusty and wonderful horrors that monarchy and religion created in the dark past, which have now been vanquished by socialism. (28)

What impressed Hughes the most, however, was the liberation of women brought about by the Bolsheviks. And not just Russian ones, either, but partisans hailing from every Soviet republic. Following the Emir’s overthrow, he explains, came “an opening of doors to women and the death of Allah…Now the brass bed of the Emir still stands in the summer palace, but his wives are free from the harem, and the whole estate is shortly to become a rest-home for the workers of the sovkhozes. Peasants will sleep where they could not enter before, and women will stroll unveiled beneath the grape arbors where once they walked only in paranjas guarded by eunuchs” (25). Continue reading


Nikolai Bukharin on the criterion of practice in epistemology

Below appears an excellent chapter from Nikolai Bukharin’s book, unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophical Arabesques (1937-1938). The whole collection is really quite good, but this portion on epistemology is particularly superlative. Lately I’ve been reading up on Marxism and the problem of truth: the way it involves the relation of subject to object, as well as theory to practice. I have to admit, Bukharin’s competence in treating difficult questions of philosophy surprised me a little. Not just because I’d read his short 1921 textbook on Historical Materialism — which, while insightful at times, is on the whole very mediocre — but because of Lenin’s low estimation of Bukharin as a philosopher. Shortly before his death, the Bolshevik leader recorded in his “Testament” that

Bukharin is not only a most valuable and major theorist of the Party; he is also rightly considered the favorite of the whole Party. His theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with great reserve, however, for there is something scholastic about him (he has never made a study of dialectics and, I think, never fully understood it).

Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, whose studies of the philosophical legacy in Marx’s thought remain unparalleled, took Bukharin to task for this theoretical deficit. “For one faction (typified by Bukharin’s book The Theory of Historical Materialism),” wrote the former, “the whole of ‘philosophy’ has fundamentally already reached a point that in reality it was to reach only in the second phase of Communist society after the full victory of the pro­letarian revolution, viz. the transcended standpoint of an unenlightened past.” Lukács wrote that “Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism.”

At first, Bukharin sided with the “mechanist” faction of communist interpreters of Marx. Other notable adherents included Abram Deborin and László Rudas, bêtes noires of both Korsch and Lukács, who admonished them for their Hegelianism. This sensibility was rather in line with Bukharin’s training as an economist and his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. During the 1930s, though, he made a renewed study of German classical philosophy. Following his imprisonment in 1937 at the hand of his onetime ally Stalin, Bukharin finally got around to writing a treatise on philosophy. He was adamant that it be published, whatever his fate:

The most important thing is that the philosophical work not be lost. I worked on it for a long time and put a great deal into it; it is a very mature work in comparison to my earlier writings, and, in contrast to them, dialectical from beginning to end.

Unsurprisingly, his wishes were not honored. These manuscripts only surfaced after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991. You can download the translation by clicking on the link above or read the chapter on practice below the photographs underneath. Additional works by Bukharin are available here as well:

Practice in general and the place of practice in the theory of knowledge

Nikolai Bukharin
Philosophical Arabesques
September 1937

Earlier, we dealt with the naïve claim of the agnostics to be reasoning on the basis of their sense perceptions alone, and thus to be able to demonstrate the unreality or incognizability of the external world.

This claim proved to be baseless and comic. From this we may conclude that any philosophical reasoning, since it operates with concepts, which are a social product, the product of thousands of years of mental work, must because of this very fact operate on the broad basis of all the achievements of science, leaving behind all the fuss and bother of foolish subjectivists.

Science, however, tells us that in historical terms, the starting point was the active, practical relationship between humanity and nature. Not contemplation, and not theory, but practice; not passive perception, but action. In this sense Goethe’s dictum “In the beginning was the deed,” when counterposed to the evangelical-Platonic-Gnostic dictum “In the beginning was the word” — that is, logos, or reason — furnishes us with a precise expression of historical reality. Marx noted this repeatedly: in his notes on the book by Adolf Wagner, in which he heaps scorn on the closeted professorial view according to which objects are passively “given” to humanity; in his Holy Family; in his Theses on Feuerbach; throughout the whole text of Capital; and together with Engels, in the brilliant pages of The German Ideology.

Contrary to the ravings of idealist philosophy to the effect that thought makes worlds, and that even matter is the creation of spirit (for example, the world-positing “I” of Fichte), it is human practice that creates a new world, actually transforming the “substance of nature” in line with human wishes. Historically, it was social humanity, the social-historical human being, and not an abstraction of the intellectual side of humanity, personified by philosophers as the subject, that above all produced, ate, and drank. It was only later, through the division of labor, that theoretical activity became separated off and isolated as an independent (or relatively independent) function, becoming restricted to particular categories of people, “mental workers,” with the various social and class modifications of this category. Theoretical cognition arose out of practice as well. The active, practical relationship to the external world, the process of material production, which, as Marx put it, conditions the “exchange of substances” between humanity and nature, is the basis for the reproduction of the entire life of social humanity. The chattering of the high priests of the so-called philosophy of life [Lebensphilosophie], including Nietzsche and a series of present-day biological-mystical hysterics, bypasses this fundamental fact, just as numerous representatives of classical idealist philosophy also bypassed it. Of course! After all, from the point of view of Kant the simple acts of sawing wood, smelting iron, or making liquid oxygen constitute a breakthrough into the “transcendental,” that fearful transgression which is “impossible”! What a mess the “practical” bull creates in this china shop full of unknowably subtle statuettes!

In fairness to Hegel, that “colossal old fellow,” as Engels affectionately called him, it should be acknowledged that although Marx and Engels had to wage a desperate, impassioned, and ultimately victorious struggle against the “drunken speculation” of Hegelian idealism, Hegel did have an understanding of practice, of labor and its tools. Moreover, the embryo of historical materialism, in the form of brilliant conceptions, was present in his works. We shall have cause to be convinced of this subsequently… Continue reading

Vesnin-logo-VCHUTEMAS-1920 copy

VKhUTEMAS exhibition in Berlin: Rediscovery of a Russian revolutionary art school

Sibylle Fuchs
Verena Nees

April 5, 2015

“Vkhutemas: A Russian Laboratory of Modernity — Architectural Designs 1920-1930,” at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, December 5, 2014 to April 6, 2015.

A remarkable exhibition, featuring the art and architecture of the early Soviet Union’s VKhUTEMAS [acronym in Russian for Higher Art and Technical Studios] school, is currently at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau museum, until April 6. For the first time, some 250 works — drawings, sketches, paintings, photographs and models, mainly in the field of architecture — created by the students and teachers of the Moscow workshops, which existed from 1920 to 1930, are on display.

Exhibition of student’s work on “Evidence and expression of mass and weight” School year 1927-1928 © The Schusev State Museum of Architecture Moscowia802601.us.archive.org-grerussi00schi_0302 copy 2

The exhibition was organized by the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture in Moscow, based on extensive research into numerous archives, as well as interviews with graduates of the school and the families of former teachers. Researchers were thus able to bring to light long-lost designs, construction plans and models. The exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a neglected school of art that revolutionized modern architecture.

The displayed works of the Vkhutemas students range from designs for residential buildings, theaters, kiosks, swimming pools, sports stadiums, workingmen’s clubs and entire cities to student research projects on theoretical questions such as “mass and weight,” “color and spatial composition,” and “geometric properties of a form.” The sketches of complex urban roofscapes, imaginatively conceived recreation centers in natural settings, seemingly weightless buildings with vibrantly curved features, aesthetic structuring and façades for industrial buildings—all testify to such a wealth of radicalism, experimentation and diversity of ideas that many Bauhaus [German art school, 1919-1933] creations fade in comparison.

All the designs, even the bold and less realistic ones like the floating skyscrapers attached to balloons, also evoke a sense of the seriousness with which architectural commissions assigned by the workers’ state were undertaken after the October Revolution.

M. Korshew- Abstrakte Aufgabe zur Ermittlung von Masse und Gewicht

On December 19, 1920, Lenin announced the Soviet government’s resolve to establish the Higher Artistic and Technical Workshops — VKhUTEMAS. The aim was to use the visual arts in the training of technically, politically and scientifically educated architects and designers in all disciplines. In the ten years of its existence, VKhUTEMAS became a laboratory of modern architecture and art, in which diverse artistic ideas and methods, such as classicism, constructivism, psychoanalytic approaches and even futurism came together.

Time and again, the media refers to VKhUTEMAS as the Russian Bauhaus. Many scholars in the West have insisted on seeing the Bauhaus movement in Weimar and Dessau as a model for the Russian architectural avant-garde. However, the exhibition throws this conception into question. Although VKhUTEMAS had close ties to Bauhaus and the latter held some concepts and ideas in common with the Soviet workshops, the relationship is rather the reverse. In her contribution to the catalog, Barbara Kreis writes that the works of the students and teachers are “unmatched, and later often served architects as templates and sources of inspiration.”

The sheer scope of the training and the vast number of students and teachers make it clear that the Moscow workshops mark a unique stage in the development of modern architecture. Some 2,000 students enrolled in the first year alone, while Bauhaus trained only about 150 in the same time frame.

Many famed Russian artists and avant-garde architects were at least temporarily VKhUTEMAS teachers. These included Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, Vladimir Krinsky, Alexander Vesnin and his brothers Viktor and Leonid, Lyubov Popova, Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, Nikolai Ladovsky, Konstantin Melnikov, Moisei Ginzburg, Alexei Shchusev, Wassily Kandinsky, Aleksandra Ekster, and Gustav Klutsis.

BookScanStation-2013-07-11-06-19-45-PM0001alq VKhUTEMAS faculty and professors

The VKhUTEMAS school’s reputation also spread internationally and reached New York, where the works of its students were exhibited. Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, traveled specifically to visit the VKhUTEMAS in Moscow in 1928. The Soviet pavilion designed by Melnikov and Rodchenko’s Workers Club were accorded great recognition at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris.

The designs and sketches now shown in Berlin form eloquent testimony to the tremendous spirit of optimism that the October Revolution unleashed in architecture and other art forms. A documentary film, made by the German WDR broadcaster in 1984 and shown at the exhibition, features the comments of contemporaries, enthusiastically recalling their years of study in the VKhUTEMAS. Describing the atmosphere, one said he “always climbed stairs two steps at a time and, going down, in leaps and bounds.”

Curator Irina Tschepkunowa also writes in the introduction to the catalog that one can scarcely any longer imagine in today’s “pragmatically oriented” Russia the enthusiasm that broke out after the revolution. “Hunger and destruction during war communism, the ongoing civil war in the country’s border areas and the impoverished everyday life provoked in young people — as strange as this may seem today — not dejection, but an unprecedented creative enthusiasm and willingness to work.”

Establishing the VKhUTEMAS

Training in the VKhUTEMAS was focused on the mobilization of all talents for the building of a socialist society. Immediately after the revolution, the academies and art schools, reserved for the privileged social elites, were abolished and artistic training procedures reformed with the introduction of free state art workshops. All who wanted to study art could enroll at such schools. This also initially applied to the VKhUTEMAS, where participation in preparatory courses of the RabFak workers’ university was obligatory in 1921 for workers and young people without qualifications. In 1925, an examination assessing artistic talent was also introduced as an entry requirement.

A. Wesnin- Entwurf zur Gestaltung der Außenfassade der WChUTEMAS zum 10. Jahrestag der OktoberrevolutionLissitzky_Proun-Street_celebration_design_2786-08

The VKhUTEMAS were divided into eight faculties that included three art workshops: painting (panel, monumental and decorative painting), sculpture and architecture, as well as five production workshops: graphics, textiles, ceramics, metal and wood working. Lidia Komarova, an architect and a 1929 graduate of the VKhUTEMAS described the overall orientation of the workshops as follows: “The goal was to unite art with production, science with technology, and the new content of socialist life with the needs of the people.”(1) Continue reading


New York Trotskyism in the 1930s

The Trotskyists

Geoffrey Hellman
The New Yorker
December 16, 1939

The political group familiarly known either as the Trotskyists of the Trotskyites is officially called the Socialist Workers Party. A lot of its members feel this name is confusing, since the Party has just about as little patience with the Socialists as it has with the Stalinists, the Lovestonites, President Roosevelt, and Father Coughlin, all of whom the Trotskyists would like to blow up. It regards itself as the orthodox Marxist Party and it looks upon the regular Communist Party as at best a rather contemptible reformist group. During the eleven years of its existence it has consistently maintained direct contact with Trotsky and an uncompromising policy of world revolution against all existing forms of government, every one of which it considers too far to the right. Despite the amount of noise which its members make and the frequency with which they come up in conversation, there are only some two thousand Trotskyists in the country, of whom around six hundred are in New York.

The Trotskyists, who prefer this term to “Trotskyites,” came into being on October 27, 1928, when three members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in New York — James P. Cannon, Martin Abern, and Max Shachtman — were expelled for spreading Trotsky’s doctrines instead of Stalin’s. Trotsky was advocating worldwide revolution while Stalin was insisting on confining the revolution to Russia for the time being. Trotsky had been banished to Turkestan the year before for holding the views he did and was subsequently expelled from the Party. In July, 1928, when the Sixth World Congress of the Communist Party was held in Moscow, Trotsky, still in Turkestan, prepared a detailed criticism of Stalin’s national political program. Translated into the various languages of the delegates attending the Congress, copies of this were distributed by the Party to the twenty-odd members of the Congress’s Program Commission, one of whom was Cannon. Although his copy was plainly marked “confidential” and was to be returned to the convention officials, Cannon was so impressed by it that he not only failed to give it back, a gross breach of Party etiquette, but smuggled it into this country and showed it to his friends, including Abern and Shachtman. These men also concluded that Trotsky’s plumping for universal revolution was a sounder idea than Stalin’s plan of concentrating on Russia itself, and they sought to bring other American Party members around to their point of view. Expelled, after a trial, by Jay Lovestone, then head of the Communist Party in America, the three rebels formed a Trotskyist group, known first as the Communist League of America. Lovestone himself was expelled from the Party six months later, for objecting to Russia’s domination of Communist policies in other countries, and founded the Independent Labor League of America, which opposes both Trotsky and Stalin. As the Cannon-Abern-Shachtman offshoot grew in size and began to win over many Stalinists, the hostility of the mother Communist Party toward it became increasingly bitter. In 1934, the League, by then an affair of several hundred members, changed its name to the Workers Party of the US. In 1936 and 1937 it enjoyed an extended flirtation with the left wing of Norman Thomas’s Socialists. It joined the Socialist Party, took over the left-wing Socialist magazine, the Appeal, and called itself the Appeal Group of the Socialist Party. At the end of 1937 the Socialists kicked out the group because they considered it too radical. With it went a good many regular Socialists. The group then adopted its present name, the Socialist Workers Party [SWP].

The Trotskyists and the Stalinists have been calling each other reptiles, jackals, and general no-goods for so many years in their papers, magazines, and speeches that when the Soviet-Nazi [Molotov-Ribbentrop] pact was signed a couple of months ago I supposed the Socialist Workers, pleased at the discomfiture of the American communists, would be going around with broad grins and a great I-told-you-so air. To check up on this and find out about the party in general, I got in touch with a college classmate of mine who is now a leading Socialist Worker intellectual and a regular contributor to the Socialist Appeal and the New International, respectively the Socialist Workers’ semi-weekly newspaper and monthly magazine. To help me gain the proper perspective, he took me to the party’s headquarters at Thirteenth Street and University Place, the street entrance to which is marked by a discreet sign reading, “Labor bookshop. Books of all publishers. Second floor.” We walked up a rickety flight of wooden stairs and entered a room containing a couple of bare wooden tables, two or three chairs, and seven or eight young men, one of them a Negro, who were arguing violently whether Russia should be regarded as a communist or a fascist country.

My companion disappeared into an adjoining office to arrange for me to meet Mr. Shachtman, and I studied various printed slogans hanging on the walls of the room, among them “The time to apply our action program is now!”, “Every class struggle fighter a two-a-week subscriber!”, “Open the doors to Nazi victims,” and “There is work to be done!” In one corner of the room hung an oil painting showing Trotsky, Lenin, and several other people, with the phrase “Workers of the world, unite!” lettered on the top. While I was looking around, the loud conversation in the room ceased and everyone began to stare at me. A clean-cut young man in a brown tweed suit came up and asked me whom I was looking for, but before I could reply, my guide came out with Shachtman, a shortish, snub-nosed man of thirty-five with a tiny mustache and an air of great jollity. I was struck by his resemblance to one of the figures in the painting, and he informed me that it did indeed represent him and that the picture was the work of Diego Rivera, who had given it to the Party in 1933, when he came here to do the Rockefeller Center mural that was subsequently destroyed. In addition to Trotsky, Lenin, and himself, Shachtman pointed out likenesses of Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, James P. Cannon, and two or three other people whose names I didn’t catch. I gathered that these persons hadn’t posed together and that the picture was a symbolic one.

We went into another room, which was decorated with a second sign saying “There is work to be done!” and a painting by Rivera, depicting Lenin, Trotsky, and six or seven other people. Shachtman pointed to one of them and said, “That’s the man who took the Winter Palace in 1917.” I found out later that Rivera had, in 1933, been considerably more generous to the Lovestonites than to the Trotskyists, having presented them with twenty-one large murals, most of which portray the history of the United States in a way that would never help anyone pass an examination at Groton. These are located at the Lovestonite headquarters on West Fourteenth Street. Rivera must have been above small Leftist differences, for one of his paintings there shows, among others, Stalin, Trotsky, Lovestone, Cannon, and William Z. Foster. Foster, with Earl Browder, assumed the leadership of the American Communist Party after Lovestone was expelled.

Continue reading

Radek 2aa

Karl Radek, Bolshevik revolutionary

Karl Bernardovich Radek (thirty-five years old) could, as we used to say, only speak his own language — the accent he used to express himself in all the others was so incredibly bad. A Galician Jew, he had grown up in the Socialist movements of Galicia, Poland, Germany, and Russia, all at the same time. He was a sparkling writer, with an equal flair for synthesis and for sarcasm. Thin, rather small, nervous, full of anecdotes that often had a savage side to them, realistic to the point of cruelty, he had a beard growing in a fringe around his clean-shaven face, just like an old-time pirate. His features were irregular, and thick tortoiseshell spectacles ringed his myopic eyes. His walk, staccato gestures, prominent lips, and screwed-up face, every part of which was continually expressive, all had something monkey-like and comical about them.

— Victor Serge, Memoirs of a
Revolutionary (1947). Pg. 159.

Radek was of a different mould. He was a pupil not of Lenin but of Rosa Luxemburg, which meant that he was not used to submission and — that he was used to close contact with the Western labour movement. It was his profound knowledge of the latter, especially of German socialism, which gave him prestige. Altogether Radek was a man of political qualities. Together with his wit, which has won him international fame, he had immense powers of application and a real thirst for detail. He was not the sort of man to be satisfied either with theoretical generalizations such as Bukharin loved, or with rhetoric in the vein of Zinoviev. He was clever and thoroughly undogmatic. Already in 1919 he had attempted to establish contacts between the Soviet Union and big German industrialists, a task which, at that time, almost every other member of the party would have regarded as a defilement. He was a cynic. The one thing this brilliant man lacked was character, that deep-rooted moral balance which draws an undefinable line between what is right and what is wrong. Radek was too clever to be either heroic or even consistent.

— Franz Borkenau, World
(1939). Pg. 164.

Karl Radek: The confusion of styles?

Pierre Broué [John Archer] 
The German Revolution,
1917-1923 (1971/2005)

Karl Radek was a unique character in the history of the Communist movement, and is a key figure for anyone wishing to study the first years of the Communist International. Despite being a prolific writer, today he is almost forgotten, but during the years following the Russian Revolution he was one of the most important leaders in the International, and was effectively its Secretary for some months between his release from prison in Germany and the Second Comintern Congress. Moreover, he was the mentor of the KPD until 1923, and was appointed by the ECCI to deal with “German questions” in the same way that Trotsky was assigned “French questions.” Recent studies by H. Schurer and Warren Lerner have perhaps opened the way for works devoted to him, and we must now hope that the numerous ‘Radek’ files in East Germany and the Soviet Union, access to which was refused to us, will be opened.

The best portrait of him is without doubt that from the brush of the German journalist Wilhelm Herzog in 1920:

Karl Radek…has been elected secretary of the Third Communist International. His lively and ever-active mind is feverishly at work. His brain, filled with German romanticism (and a touch of Polish Judaism), is rich in irony and energy. Every day he writes two editorials, one for Pravda and one for Izvestia, and often another text as well, which is transmitted by radio from Christiania. Every day, he is visited by a dozen delegates from other parts of the world. He advises and instructs. He presides at the meetings of the Third International, and takes part in the conferences of the Executive Committee, of the Central Committee of the Party and of numerous other bodies. He lectures at the Workers’ University and to the officers of the Red Army. He speaks at meetings and at congresses of the central and local Soviets. All this without ever being superficial or unreflective, but after solid preparation, as a very competent man, very serious but never lacking wit. He masters his problem, lays hold of it, explains it and analyses it. It is a feast to listen to him. He overflows with ideas and with a rare knowledge of men and things. He knows every date, every leader, and even every individual of any importance in the workers’ movement throughout the world. Hence an immense historical culture and a very clear knowledge of world political relations.

He has a sparkling style. Although, to be sure, he does not command Russian as if it were his native language, we admire his articles for their clarity and their striking imagery. His quicksilver mind reacts to all the concerns of human life, political and intellectual. In short, he is an exceptionally talented man, a born propagandist and an agitator whom nothing can restrain or stop. He knows no compromise when the problem is to influence the hostile or the still-indifferent world, to infect it and to impregnate it with the idea of the world revolution. With Bukharin, Osinsky, and others, he belongs to the younger generation of the Bolsheviks (that is, of the revolutionary Marxists). This extraordinary strategist of the class war, this dreaded terrorist, loves German literature; he knows Goethe, Heine, Kleist, Friedrich von Gentz and the romantics, Büchner and Grabbe, he loves Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and quotes verses from Stefan Georg and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.[1]

This is a flattering portrait, but no doubt a truthful one, though perhaps it should be slightly filled out with a reference to his physical ugliness and his neglect of his dress. Count Kessler describes him as “something between Puck and Wolf, a bit of a street Arab…Mephisto.” “A cross between a professor and a bandit,” wrote the British spy-cum-diplomat, Bruce Lockhart. The man was attractive for his wit, the liveliness of his repartee, the sharp sense of  humor which he never forgot to use at his own expense, the breadth of his culture and intellectual curiosity, and in short, despite the aggressiveness of his manner of speaking, his graciousness, sensitivity and an undeniable vulnerability.

Radek on tour through Germany, caricature in Pravda 1920

First and foremost, Radek was a freelancer. He had his own distinct personality when he appeared in the German Social-Democratic movement. In fact, he had had some revolutionary experience, in a period when the leaders of the German Party had nothing in this field but what they had read about the Paris Commune or the revolutions of 1848. But Radek had hardly emigrated before he returned to Poland at the beginning of the upheavals in 1905, and had replaced Leo Jogiches before he was twenty years old as chief editor of the newspaper of the Polish Social Democrats. He then had experience of prison. He later settled in Germany, and won a reputation as a polemicist and theoretician by his attacks on Kautsky at the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International and in Die Neue Zeit. He specialized in studies of imperialism, and devoted himself to demonstrating that inter-imperialist rivalries would lead to a world war. He based upon this perspective his theory of world revolution — a theme dear to the Bolsheviks, but not familiar to the members of the SPD. His talent won him fame as a journalist, but he remained isolated in Germany, and increased his isolation still more by supporting the opposition in the Warsaw committee of the SDKPiL against Luxemburg and Jogiches. Continue reading

Amadeo Bordiga fat old great

Against activism

In this short article first published in 1952, Amadeo Bordiga addresses “activism” as “an illness of the workers movement” that exaggerates the “possibilities of the subjective factors of the class struggle” and neglects theoretical preparation, which he claims is of paramount importance. Recently a number of texts have emerged to challenge the unquestioned paradigm of “activism” among Marxists and radicals. Here’s a brief list that I’ve compiled:

  1. “Activism,” by Amadeo Bordiga (1952).
  2. “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” by Theodor Adorno (1968). Some notes on the decoupling of theory and practice.
  3. “Resignation,” by Theodor Adorno (1969). Responding to accusations made against the Frankfurt School.
  4. “Militancy: The Highest Stage of Alienation,” by L’Organisation des jeunes travailleurs révolutionnaires (1972). Following the wave of radicalism in 1968.
  5. “Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents,” by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti (2003). From the antiwar years.
  6. “Introduction to The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century: Toward a Theory of Historical Regression,” by Benjamin Blumberg for Platypus (2009).
  7. “Additional Remarks on the End of Activism,” by Theorie Communiste (2011).

As I’ve written elsewhere, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and others — one might add Luxemburg, Pannekoek, or Trotsky — would have found the word “activism” [Aktivismus, активизм] unintelligible, especially with respect to their own politics. Nowhere does it appear in any of their writings. Lenin only mentions “activists” [активисты] after 1918, and mostly then in connection with certain Menshevik factions that were “actively” opposed to Soviet power. Even when he’d use roughly equivalent terms like деятели [often translated as “activists,” though more literally “doers”], Lenin’s usual attitude was derisive. He referred, to give just one example, to “some local ‘activists’ (so called because they are inactive).” 

Bordiga’s article thus provides a vindication of sorts, coming from one of the old-timers who was involved in revolutionary agitation and organizing after 1917. Victor Serge described Bordiga as “exuberant and energetic, features blunt, hair thick, black, and bristly, a man quivering under his encumbrance of ideas, experiences, and dark forecasts.” Davidovich, for his part, praised “the living, muscular and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” Anyway, most of the others from this period didn’t live long enough to see “activism” become the modus operandi of the Left. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, the classical Marxist pairing of theory and practice gave way to the hazier binary of “thought” and “action.”

Here I think Bordiga is nicely complemented by some lines by Theodor Adorno, writing in a more scholarly vein:

Thought, enlightenment conscious of itself, threatens to disenchant the pseudo-reality within which actionism moves…[A]ctionism is tolerated only because it is considered pseudo-reality. Pseudo-reality is conjoined with, as its subjective attitude, pseudo-activity: action that overdoes and aggravates itself for the sake of its own publicity, without admitting to itself to what extent it serves as a substitute satisfaction, elevated into an end in itself. (“Resignation” in Critical Models, pg. 291)

The only thing I disagree with in the following article is Bordiga’s characterization of the USSR as “state capitalist,” by which he means something quite different than Tony Cliff (but which seems inadequate nonetheless). I like that he repeatedly invokes Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: A Infantile Disorder (1922), which is especially remarkable given that Ilyich aimed many of his sternest criticisms in that book at Bordiga. Translation modified here and there for readability’s sake.



Amadeo Bordiga
Battaglia Comunista
November 7, 1952

It is necessary to insist on the word. Just like certain infections of the blood, which cause a wide range of illnesses, not excepting those which can be cured in the madhouse, activism is an illness of the workers movement that requires continuous treatment.

Activism always claims to possess the correct understanding of the circumstances of political struggle, that it is “equal to the situation.” Yet it is unable to engage in a realistic assessment of the relations of force, enormously exaggerating the possibilities based on subjective factors of the class struggle.

It is therefore natural that those affected by activism react to this criticism by accusing their adversaries of underestimating the subjective factors of the class struggle and of reducing historical determinism to that automatic mechanism which is also the target of the usual bourgeois critique of Marxism. That is why we said, in Point 2 of Part IV of our “Fundamental Theses of the Party”:

…[t]he capitalist mode of production expands and prevails in all countries, under its technical and social aspects, in a more or less continuous way. The alternatives of the clashing class forces are instead connected to the events of the general historical struggle, to the contrast that already existed when bourgeoisie [began to] rule [over] the feudal and precapitalist classes, and to the evolutionary political process of the two historical rival classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat; being such a process marked by victories and defeats, by errors of tactical and strategical method.

This amounts to saying that we maintain that the stage of the resumption of the revolutionary workers movement does not coincide only with the impulses from the contradictions of the material, economic and social development of bourgeois society, which can experience periods of extremely serious crises, of violent conflicts, of political collapse, without the workers movement as a result being radicalized and adopting extreme revolutionary positions. That is, there is no automatic mechanism in the field of the relations between the capitalist economy and the revolutionary proletarian party.

It could be the case, as in our current situation, that the economic and social world of the bourgeoisie is riddled with serious tremors that produce violent conflicts, but without the revolutionary party obtaining as a result any possibilities of expanding its activity, without the masses subjected to the most atrocious exploitation and fratricidal massacres being capable of unmasking the opportunist agents, who implicate their fate with the disputes of imperialism, without the counterrevolution loosening its iron grip on the ruled class, on the masses of the dispossessed.

To say that an objectively revolutionary situation exists, but that the subjective element of class struggle (i.e., the class party) is deficient, is wrong at every moment of the historical process. A blatantly meaningless assertion, a patent absurdity. Continue reading


Comradeship, criticism, and collegiality

When did “comradely” come to mean “collegial”?

Part of the academicization of Marxism, I’d contend, has involved the gradual replacement of frank, unsparing polemic with chummy, backscratching collegiality. This can be seen in all the gentle nudges and polite asides, with authors practically tripping over themselves in order to point out how “thought-provoking” and “insightful” their critics are. Flattery of one’s peers is now almost as institutionalized as the periodic paradigm shift — the cynical, cyclical revolt against the old guard.

Academics’ egos bruise easily, you see, and they’re all chasing tenure and book deals in an increasingly dried-up market. So they need to be mollified from time to time, reassured of how much they’re enriching the “discourse,” lest they become demoralized and drop out. “Keep at it, son. You’re doing good work. Just a few more asses to kiss and gushing reviews to write; then you’ll have it made.” Ball-washing cajolery has been elevated into a principle, becoming for all intents and purposes de rigueur.

I miss the days when Marx would inveigh against the Young Hegelians (Saint Max, Saint Bruno, the Rabbi Moses Hess) for their “theoretical bubble-blowing,” accusing Malthus of plagiarizing James Steuart and calling Herr Vogt a fat bastard. Or Engels declaring that Herr Dühring’s contributions to theory “haven’t even the weight of a fart.” Radicals had thicker skin and more bile in their bellies back then.

Nor it end with the founders, Marx and Engels. Luxemburg wasn’t mollycoddled at all in the Second International; she was simply more bloodthirsty than the boys, calling for Bernstein’s head and ruling the Polish section with an iron fist. Even Feliks Dzherzhinskii — founder of the Cheka, certainly no shrinking violet — was terrified of her. And he worshipped the ground she walked on.

Don’t you think it’d be great to go to an academic conference where a panelist says she supports her critics “in the same way a rope supports a hanged man,” as Lenin did?