David Riazanov and the tragic fate of Isaak Rubin

Re­portedly, the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion­ary and pi­on­eer­ing Marx­o­lo­gist Dav­id Riazan­ov once in­sul­ted Stal­in to his face at a party meet­ing held dur­ing the mid-1920s. At the time, the ma­jor top­ic of de­bate was over the feas­ib­il­ity of so­cial­ism ab­sent a re­volu­tion in the West. In the years that fol­lowed Oc­to­ber 1917 the fledgling So­viet re­gime had sur­vived bru­tal win­ters, food short­ages, and an in­ter­na­tion­al block­ade while fight­ing off a bloody do­mest­ic coun­ter­re­volu­tion staged by dis­par­ate ele­ments of the old re­gime (the Whites) with the sup­port of for­eign powers (the Al­lied In­ter­ven­tion). The civil war was over, but re­volu­tion had else­where stalled out as the USSR’s bor­ders sta­bil­ized: the European pro­let­ari­at failed to over­throw the crisis-rid­den bour­geois gov­ern­ments of France, Ger­many, Eng­land, Aus­tria, and a host of oth­er na­tions. Now the ques­tion on every­one’s mind where the Bolshev­iks should go from there. Could so­cial­ism could be es­tab­lished in one (re­l­at­ively back­wards) na­tion?

Bukhar­in was the chief ar­chi­tect of the pro­gram for those who af­firmed that it could. His days as a left com­mun­ist be­hind him, Nikolai Ivan­ovich had mean­while suc­cumbed to prag­mat­ism and un­ima­gin­at­ive Real­politik. Mar­ket re­forms put in place by Len­in un­der the New Eco­nom­ic Policy after 1921 were to be con­tin­ued, and the trans­ition to “a high­er stage of com­mun­ist so­ci­ety” delayed, but its achieve­ment no longer de­pended on the spread of world re­volu­tion. Eager to make a name for him­self as a lead­ing the­or­eti­cian, Stal­in in­ter­jec­ted with some com­ments of his own. “Stop it, Koba,” Riazan­ov acerbically replied. “You’re mak­ing a fool of your­self. We all know the­ory isn’t ex­actly your strong suit.” Little won­der, then, that Stal­in would later want Riazan­ov’s head on a plat­ter; he’d in­flic­ted a deep nar­ciss­ist­ic wound. For as Trot­sky would later point out, in a two-part art­icle mock­ing “Stal­in as a The­or­eti­cian,” noth­ing was more im­port­ant to the Gen­er­al Sec­ret­ary than to be re­garded as well-versed in the sci­ence of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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Marx and Engels on Karl Kautsky

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That Vladi­mir Len­in and his fel­low re­volu­tion­ar­ies of 1917 con­sidered the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic lead­er Karl Kaut­sky a ped­ant and a phil­istine is well known. Len­in pin­pointed the reas­on for Kaut­sky’s post-1914 reneg­acy in his di­lu­tion of Marxi­an dia­lectics. “How is this mon­strous dis­tor­tion of Marx­ism by the ped­ant Kaut­sky to be ex­plained…??” the Bolshev­ik asked rhet­or­ic­ally in a sec­tion of his 1918 po­lem­ic, The Pro­let­ari­an Re­volu­tion and the Reneg­ade Kaut­sky, “How Kaut­sky Turned Marx in­to a Com­mon Lib­er­al.” “As far as the philo­soph­ic­al roots of this phe­nomen­on are con­cerned,” he answered, “it amounts to the sub­sti­tu­tion of ec­lecticism and soph­istry for dia­lectics.” In an­oth­er chapter, Len­in ac­cused Kaut­sky of “pur­su­ing a char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally petty-bour­geois, phil­istine policy [ти­пич­но ме­щан­скую, фи­лис­тер­скую по­ли­ти­ку]” by back­ing the Men­shev­iks. Need­less to say, Len­in’s im­mense re­spect for the so-called “Pope of Marx­ism” be­fore the war had all but evap­or­ated.

What is less well known, however, is that Karl Marx and Friedrich En­gels shared this ap­prais­al of Kaut­sky. But this would only be re­vealed in 1932, sev­er­al years after Len­in’s death, in ex­tracts pub­lished from their cor­res­pond­ence. En­gels con­fided to Eduard Bern­stein in Au­gust 1881 that “Kaut­sky is an ex­cep­tion­ally good chap, but a born ped­ant and hair­split­ter in whose hands com­plex ques­tions are not made simple, but simple ones com­plex.” Marx, for his part, sus­pec­ted that En­gels’ fond­ness of Kaut­sky was due to his ca­pa­city to con­sume al­co­hol, as he re­cor­ded in a note to his daugh­ter Jenny Longuet from April that same year:

[Jo­hann Most, grand­fath­er of le­gendary Bo­ston Celt­ics an­noun­cer Johnny Most,] has found a kindred spir­it in Kaut­sky, on whom he had frowned so grimly; even En­gels takes a much more tol­er­ant view of this joker [Kautz, pun­ning on Kautz-ky] since the lat­ter gave proof of his con­sid­er­able drink­ing abil­ity. When the charm­er — the little joker [Kautz], I mean — first came to see me, the first ques­tion that rose to my lips was: Are you like your moth­er? “Not in the least!” he ex­claimed, and si­lently I con­grat­u­lated his moth­er. He’s a me­diocrity, nar­row in his out­look, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, al­though hard-work­ing after a fash­ion, much con­cerned with stat­ist­ics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature he’s a mem­ber of the phil­istine tribe. For the rest, a de­cent fel­low in his own way; I un­load him onto amigo En­gels as much as I can.

Le­on Trot­sky was caught off-guard by the ca­su­istry Kaut­sky dis­played after 1914, re­mem­ber­ing the praise he had showered on the Rus­si­an work­ers’ move­ment a dec­ade or so earli­er. “Kaut­sky’s re­ac­tion­ary-pedant­ic cri­ti­cism [пе­дант­ски-ре­ак­ци­он­ная кри­ти­ка Ка­ут­ско­го] must have come the more un­ex­pec­tedly to those com­rades who’d gone through the peri­od of the first Rus­si­an re­volu­tion with their eyes open and read Kaut­sky’s art­icles of 1905-1906,” de­clared Trot­sky in his pre­face to the 1919 re­is­sue of Res­ults and Pro­spects (1906). “At that time Kaut­sky (true, not without the be­ne­fi­cial in­flu­ence of Rosa Lux­em­burg) fully un­der­stood and ac­know­ledged that the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion could not ter­min­ate in a bour­geois-demo­crat­ic re­pub­lic but must in­ev­it­ably lead to pro­let­ari­an dic­tat­or­ship, be­cause of the level at­tained by the class struggle in the coun­try it­self and be­cause of the en­tire in­ter­na­tion­al situ­ation of cap­it­al­ism… For dec­ades Kaut­sky de­veloped and up­held the ideas of so­cial re­volu­tion. Now that it has be­come real­ity, Kaut­sky re­treats be­fore it in ter­ror. He is hor­ri­fied at Rus­si­an So­viet power and thus takes up a hos­tile at­ti­tude to­wards the mighty move­ment of the Ger­man com­mun­ist pro­let­ari­at.”

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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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Under the banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»], 1923-1931

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So it seems some glorious madman has taken it upon himself to scan and upload the entire run of the early Soviet theoretical journal, named Under the Banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»]. A stupendous Stakhanovite feat. Needless to say, whoever did this is a bona fide герой труда.

Using a comically outdated online platform, no less. It was posted somewhere in the ultradank universe of Russian Livejournal, which has more or less become a medium for blogging. On one such blog, evidently belonging to a Baconian Bolshevik — entitled Знание власть, or “knowledge is power” — I found it.

Predictably, the quality of the articles began to sharply decline by the end of the 1920s. Wilhelm Reich’s Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis was published on its pages as late as 1929, however. You can download all of them, excepting the post-1931 issues (which can be found here), by clicking below.

Following those links, you can read the open letter Trotsky sent the editors of the first issue. Lenin himself singled out this letter in his own note, which was included in the double issue published next, while expressing the hope this venture would take the shape of a “society of materialist friends of Hegelian dialectics.” Abram Deborin, the stuffy Hegelian Menshevik and prominent critic of Lukács, edited the journal from 1926 through 1930, before being purged later in that decade.

Trotsky himself underscored the importance of the letter in The Stalin School of Falsification (1937), which, in pointing to the difference between the changed conditions of education of the younger members of the party from that of their older comrades, outlined the necessity of a new theoretical approach in order to safeguard the political experience accumulated within the party.

Despite the importance attributed to the letter by Lenin and Trotsky, Leszek Kolakowski, in his Main Currents of Marxism, considered the letter to be unexceptional. So much the worse for him.

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1924
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Birthday > Earth Day: Happy 146th, Lenin!

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It’s that time of year again. As always, the birthday of Lenin is a more momentous occasion than the bourgeois holiday Earth Day. This last year has seen a spirited defense by John Bellamy Foster of his tedious Maoist snoozefests, Marx’s Ecology (2000) and The Ecological Rift (2011). Foster’s latest, on Marx and the Earth (2015), continues this vain attempt to “synthesize” Marxism with contemporary ecological thought, albeit slinging some well-deserved barbs toward environmentalist critics of Marx along the way. Several months ago I criticized the Epimetheanism, or at least the anti-Prometheanism, of Foster & co. But a more thoroughgoing polemic, written from an orthodox Trotskyist perspective, had already been published by the Sparts: “John Bellamy Foster & Co: ‘Ecosocialism’ against Marxism.” More measured and collegial, but no less incisive, was Steven Vogel’s review of the book in 2003 from a more Frankfurt School-inspired perspective.

Regardless, we proceed to the texts. I’ve appended several short texts by Christopher Read, Leon Trotsky, and Ulianov himself below. Plus more Lenin images than you can shake a fist at. Have some Lenin biographies, while you’re at it, too:

  1. Alfred Rosmer, Moscow under Lenin
  2. August H. Nimtz, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets, or Both? (2014)
  3. August H. Nimtz, Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels to 1905: The Ballot, the Streets, or Both? (2014)
  4. Carter Elwood, The Non-Geometric Lenin: Essays on the Development of the Bolshevik Party, 1910-1914
  5. Christopher Hill, Lenin and the Russian Revolution (1947)
  6. Christopher Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (2005)
  7. Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1924)
  8. Kevin Anderson, “Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism”
  9. Klara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin: Dealing with His Views on the Position of Women and Other Questions (1925)
  10. Lars T. Lih, Lenin
  11. Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle (2005)
  12. Craig Nation, War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism
  13. René Fülöp-Miller, Lenin and Gandhi (1927)
  14. Tamás Krausz, Reconstructing Lenin: An Intellectual Biography

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Lenin’s fiftieth birthday

Christopher Read
Lenin: A Revolutionary
Life (Routledge 2005)
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Lenin was the kind of person who would not have enjoyed surprise parties in his honor. On his fiftieth birthday he received many letters and telegrams of congratulation and, at a celebration on the following day, 23 April 1920, he thanked the organizers for sparing him congratulatory speeches. He refused a proposal to open a museum in his honor and confided to a colleague, M.S. Olminsky: “You have no idea how unpleasant I find the constant promotion of my person.” [Weber 169] He also described Kamenev’s proposal to collect and reprint Lenin’s works as “completely superfluous” and only changed his mind when he was asked if he preferred the young to read Menshevik and Economist authors instead.

Lenin Ленин Lenineunder-the-banner-of-lenin-to-the-second-five-year-plan Lenin Ленин Leninetumblr_l5dicuFvtK1qaz1ado1_1280

Vladimir Lenin at fifty

Leon Trotsky
Pravda No. 86
April 23, 1920
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Lenin’s internationalism needs no recommendation. It is best characterized by Lenin’s irreconcilable break, in the first days of the world war, with that counterfeit internationalism which reigned in the Second International. The official leaders of “Socialism” used the parliamentary tribune to reconcile the interests of the fatherland with the interests of mankind by way of abstract arguments in the spirit of the old cosmopolitans. In practice this led, as we know, to the support of the predatory fatherland by the proletarian forces.

Lenin’s internationalism is in no sense a formula for verbally reconciling nationalism with internationalism. It is a formula for international revolutionary action. The world’s territory in the clutches of the so-called civilized section of mankind is regarded as a unified arena where a gigantic struggle occurs, whose component elements are constituted by the individual peoples and their respective classes. No single major issue can be kept restricted within a national framework. Visible and invisible threads connect such an issue with dozens of events in all corners of the world. In the evaluation of international factors and forces Lenin is freer than anyone else from national prejudices.

Marx concluded that the philosophers had sufficiently interpreted the world and that the real task was to change it. But he, the pioneering genius, did not live to see it done. The transformation of the old world is now in full swing and Lenin is the foremost worker on this job. His internationalism is a practical appraisal plus a practical intervention into the march of historical events on a world scale and with worldwide aims. Russia and her fate is only a single element in this titanic historical struggle upon whose outcome hinges the fate of mankind.

Lenin’s internationalism needs no recommendation. But at the same time Lenin himself is profoundly national. His roots are deep in modern Russian history, he draws it up into himself, gives it its highest expression, and precisely in this way attains the highest levels of international action and world influence.

At first glance the characterization of Lenin as a “national” figure may seem surprising, but, in essence, this follows as a matter of course. To be able to lead such a revolution, without parallel in the history of peoples, as Russia is now living through, it is obviously necessary to have an indissoluble, organic bond with the main forces of the people’s life, a bond which springs from the deepest roots.

Lenin personifies the Russian proletariat, a young class, which politically is scarcely older than Lenin himself, but a class which is profoundly national, for recapitulated in it is the entire past development of Russia, in it lies Russia’s entire future, with it the Russian nation rises or falls. Freedom from routine and banality, freedom from imposture and convention, resoluteness of thought, audacity in action — an audacity which never turns into foolhardiness — this is what characterizes the Russian working class, and with it also Lenin.

The nature of the Russian proletariat, which has made it today the most important force of the world revolution, had been prepared beforehand by the entire course of Russian national history: the barbaric cruelty of the tsarist autocracy, the insignificance of the privileged classes, the feverish growth of capitalism fed by the lees of the world stock-market, the escheated character of the Russian bourgeoisie, their decadent ideology, their shoddy politics. Our “Third Estate” knew neither a Reformation nor a great revolution of their own and could never have known them. Therefore the revolutionary tasks of the Russian proletariat assumed a more all-embracing character. Our past history knows no Luther, no Thomas Münzer, no Mirabeau, no Danton, no Robespierre. Exactly for that reason the Russian proletariat has its Lenin. What was lost in way of tradition has been won in the sweep of the revolution.

Lenin mirrors the working class, not only in its proletarian present but also in its peasant past, still so recent. This most indisputable leader of the proletariat, not only outwardly resembles a peasant, but there is something inwardly in him strongly smacking of a peasant. Facing the Smolny stands the statue of the other great figure of the world proletariat: Karl Marx, on a stone pedestal in a black frock coat. Assuredly, this is a trifle, but it is impossible even to imagine Lenin putting on a black frock coat. Some portraits of Marx show him wearing a dress shirt against whose broad expanse something resembling a monocle dangles.

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Trotsky and the Frankfurt School

Helmut Dahmer
Platypus Review
October 1, 2015
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Disrespect for a reality that demands adoration as if it were a god is the religion of those, who in today’s Europe under the ‘Iron Heel’ risk their life in order to prepare a future better one.

— Max Horkheimer, September 19391

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Looking through the register of names in the writings and letters of the circle of friends around Max Horkheimer we find only rare references to Leon Trotsky. Theodor Adorno, for instance, who claims in his Aesthetic Theory (1969) that the ambitious art has been bourgeois art, remarks approvingly that Trotsky also had said in his book Literature and Revolution (1923/24) that (after the revolution) there would be no possibility for the development of any “proletarian” art, and that there would be produced a post-bourgeois art only in the future, after an international socialist society will have been established. Erich Fromm, who belonged to Horkheimer’s Institute of Social Research until 1939, wrote a sympathetic, but unpublished review in 1958, when Trotsky’s Diary in Exile (1935) was translated and published. Horkheimer also mentioned Trotsky (together with Lenin) in conversations with Adorno and other members of his circle concerning the Bolshevik Revolution, remarking that it had changed its character by answering white terror with red terror during the civil war. Horkheimer quoted Rosa Luxemburg’s early criticism of the Bolshevik rule, praising Luxemburg as “one of the most important political figures of the 20th century.” Walter Benjamin is the only member of Horkheimer’s circle of social philosophers of whom we know that he not only read (in 1926) Trotskyʼs essay Where is Britain Going? but later, in 1932-33, Trotsky’s most important books, My Life and The History of the Russian Revolution, with great enthusiasm, “I think it is the most interesting book I have read in many years,” he wrote to Adorno’s wife, Gretel Karplus.2 We can find traces of this reading in Benjamin’s notes on Blanqui (in The Arcades Project) and in his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History” from 1940.

In Horkheimer and Adorno’s writings on fascism we find, in spite of many similarities of description and analysis, no indication that they had knowledge of Trotsky’s commentaries concerning the agony of the Weimar Republic, the failure of the German communist party and the rise of the fascist movement. Trotsky’s theory of fascism is not even mentioned in Horkheimer’s essay “Lehren aus dem Faschismus” [“What fascism did teach us” 1950].3 The main contributions to a theory of fascism, that were written and published by the scholars around Max Horkheimer were those of Franz Neumann4 and Adorno.5  The pioneer work of Neumann on the political economy of German fascism owes a lot to Trotsky’s analyses but doesn’t mention him. Both authors were analyzing the victory of Hitler’s fascist party in 1933 as the result of the struggle between the three German classes: the bourgeoisie, intermediate strata (petit-bourgeois), and the proletariat. The majority of the electorate and the troops supporting the fascist mass movement were recruited from the expropriated and disorientated old and new middle classes and from the reservoir of six million unemployed. The fascist program combined the conservative, anti-modern ideology with anti-capitalist and nationalist slogans in order to recruit as many followers out of the middle and working class as possible. In the November 1932 election, the fascist NSDAP got 11.7 million votes, the proletarian parties KPD and SPD together 13.2 million votes. The main promoters and beneficiaries of the fascist movement and of the fascist regime were finance capital and large landed property ownership. But millions of fellow travelers also made their profit, when the German and European Jews were expropriated and the countries under German rule were plundered (between 1938 and 1945). Trotsky had demanded the formation of an armed united front of all working-class organizations in order to attract the majority of the middle-classes, to destroy the fascist movement and to complete the social revolution of November 1918. The study of Adorno and the Frankfurt School attempted the first analysis to explain why certain people choose to give up their personal autonomy and to become blind followers of this or that charismatic false messiah.6 The Frankfurt School’s Marxism (or “critical theory”) was an exploration of the social totality from two sides: from the side of the institutionalized politico-economical relationships and from the side of the individuals that are stretched into the frame of these class relations. In a latent rebellion against this Procrustean bed, they often do not know how to realize their own interests. The analysis of the fascist economy and the analysis of the fascist mentality (Behemoth and Authoritarian Personality) were combined in order to gain a realistic picture of the terrible totality, whose reproduction our generation must prevent.7

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Trotsky had denounced Stalin as the “gravedigger of the revolution” as early as 1926. We cannot be sure if Horkheimer knew his fragmentary biography of Stalin published in 1941, the year after Trotsky was killed by the GPU-agent Ramón Mercader; but Horkheimer’s reaction when he learned in early March 1953 that the tyrant of the Kremlin had died sounds like an echo of Trotsky’s damnation of (“Cain”) Stalin. Here is the report of Monika Plessner:

Horkheimer was in high spirits, jubilated, rubbed his hands in glee: “The monster is dead. Call the students together. We have to do something immediately.” (Half an hour later the students were sent into the city of Frankfurt in order to ask passengers what their opinion was concerning the main news of the day).8

Much more important than these direct (or indirect) references to Trotsky and his writings is the political and cultural constellation: On the one side we find the tiny informal group of Marxist philosophers around Horkheimer driven into exile by the German fascists; on the other, the group of international revolutionaries around Trotsky — the so-called “Left Opposition,” later known as the “Fourth International,” organized in the form of a new party, one that the Stalinists hunted down from the Soviet Union to Turkey, then to France, from France to Norway, from Norway to Mexico. Between 1929 and 1942 both the Trotskyists and the Frankfurt School published their own journals, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung [Journal for Social Research] and the Бюллетен оппозиции [Bulletin of the Opposition]. We could say that in different ways both journals met Hegel’s demand to grasp the specific historical situation and to give it a theoretical reconstruction.9 We don’t know if Horkheimer and his friends took note of Trotsky’s Bulletin, whose main articles were published simultaneously in German, French and English, but in July 1939 a review of Horkheimer’s journal and its program was published in Unser Wort, the journal of the German Trotskyist group (IKD) written by Trotskyʼs brilliant secretary Walter Held (Heinz Epe) whom the Stalinists killed three years later. Its title was “Kritische Theorie ohne politische Praxis?” (“Critical Theory without Political Practice?”).

The Marxists of Horkheimer’s circle were (like Freud) critics of the Hegelian idealism in succession of Ludwig Feuerbach. But they knew — like Marx himself — that the concepts of their sociological theory originally had been developed by Hegel. So we can say that they were Hegelian (or“Western”) Marxists like Antonio Labriola, the Italian philosopher whose “non-orthodox” interpretation was decisive for Trotsky’s understanding of Marxʼs critical theory.10

They were convinced that, in order to understand and to criticize the actual form and functioning of society, it was not only necessary to analyze the economic development but to understand and to criticize the philosophical and artistic productions that were typical for the actual stage of societal evolution and that determined the consciousness of their contemporaries. In order to change society it was necessary to understand it in its totality. This orientation enabled the social philosophers around Horkheimer as well as Trotsky (and in contrast to the majority of the Marxists, who didn’t understand that Marx had developed a criticism of society, not a Weltanschauung) to welcome Freud’s new (therapeutic) psychology of the unconscious. They realized that the Viennese physician had developed a new criticism of psychological and cultural institutions, one that complemented their own sociological criticism. Horkheimer and Benjamin were Marxist historians (of philosophy or literature). Adorno updated and radicalized the criticism of idealistic philosophy (not only that of Hegel but also that of Edmund Husserl) and became classic and modern music and literature’s most important Marxist interpreter. Trotsky the revolutionary was also a man of letters, and his very original interpretations of the literature of the 19th and the early 20th century written between 1900 and 1940 will be published soon in German in two large volumes.

Thüringen, 1923. Hintere Reihe- Zweiter von links- Friedrich Pollock, Mitte- Georg Lukács, Zweiter von rechts- Felix Weil. Vordere Reihe- Erster von links- Karl August Wittfogel, Mitte- Karl Korsch, rechts vor ihm Käthe Weiltrotskyeternalre00volk_0377 copy

The conception of “political practice” as we find it in the letters and essays of Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Adorno during the thirties was (more implicitly than explicitly) the same as that of the revolutionary Marxists Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg. Yet, they were anxious to omit any public mention of Trotsky. After the Second World War, Adorno and Horkheimer saw no possibility of any revolutionary practice, for they saw no revolutionary subject (class). With the notable exception of Marcuse, they didn’t think that the German (and international) protest movement of the students had any chance to change capitalist society. Continue reading

Tatlin’s tower

Nico Israel has a book out that looks fairly interesting, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth Century Art and Literature. In it he discusses Wyndham Lewis’ vorticism, Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, land Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (among other things). He also relates a few famous lines by Lenin about the spiraling course of the dialectic in history, from his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx:

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.

Marx and Engels were not the the first to put dialectical development in the shape of a spiral. As Lenin indicates, Hegel before him visualized it as such. There’s another source of the “whirled image” in Marx’s theory: Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi. Fredric Jameson pointed out in his recent book, Representing Capital, that “repetition — the selling of labor power week after week, its productive consumption by the capitalist in a cycle Sismondi rightly recharacterized as a spiral — never knew a first time in the first place.”

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For Marx, the spiral motion first appears as circulating capital:

Exchange-value posited as the unity of commodity and money is capital, and this positing itself appears as the circulation of capital. (Which is, however, a spiral, an expanding curve, not a simple circle)…As the subject predominant [übergreifend] over the different phases of this movement, as value sustaining and multiplying itself in it, as the subject of these metamorphoses proceeding in a circular course — as a spiral, as an expanding circle — capital is circulating capital. Circulating capital is therefore initially not a particular form of capital, but is rather capital itself, in a further developed aspect, as subject of the movement just described, which it, itself, is as its own realization process.

In Capital, Marx explicitly acknowledged his debt to Sismondi in this respect: “Looked at concretely, accumulation can be resolved into the production of capital on a progressively increasing scale. The cycle of simple reproduction alters its form and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Put another way, capital comes to ground this expansive outward movement, in which all sorts of violent jolts, fits, and spasms take place. Capital in history establishes a sort of treadmill pattern of transformation and reconstitution, as the sociologist Moishe Postone put it. Yet without its integral antithesis, class conscious wage-laborers mobilized in opposition to it, capital’s inherent dynamism is itself diminished. Adorno thus astutely observed in his 1965 lectures on History and Freedom: “Without wasting time on the overworked notion of a spiral development in history, it can be said that a direct progress towards freedom cannot be discerned.” (Rodney Livingstone suspected Adorno might have had Toynbee in mind, but I think he was commenting on the old Leninist dictum).

When Tatlin built his monument to the Third Revolution, progress did not seem such an impossibility. Though Europe lay in ruins, a new world seemed to open up. A hundred years on, this possibility seems by now closed. In our present moment, the key to the future resides in the past. Below are a few period pieces reflecting on Tatlin’s tower that express this bygone sensibility. Enjoy.

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The monument to the Third International

Nikolai Punin
Iskusstvo kommuny
September 1920

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In 1919 the Department of Fine Arts within the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment commissioned the artist V. E. Tatlin to develop a design for a monument to the Third International. The artist Tatlin immediately set to work and produced a design. The artists I.A. Meerzon, M.P. Vinogradov, and T.M. Shapiro formed a “Creative Collective,” then developed the design in detail and constructed a model.

The main idea of the monument is based on an organic synthesis of the principles of architecture, sculpture and painting and was intended to produce a new type of monumental structure, uniting in itself a purely creative form with a utilitarian form. In accordance with this idea, the design of the monument consists of three large glass structures, erected by means of a complex system of vertical struts and spirals. These structures are arranged one above the other and are contained within different, harmoniously related forms. A special type of mechanism would enable them to move at different speeds. The lower structure (A), in the form of a cube, moves on its axis at the speed of one revolution a year and is intended for legislative purposes. Here may be held conferences of the International, meetings of international congresses and other broadly legislative meetings… The next structure (B), in the form of a pyramid, rotates on its axis at the speed of one full revolution a month and is intended for executive functions (the Executive Committee of the International, the secretariat and other administrative and executive  bodies). Finally, the upper cylinder (C), rotating at a speed of one revolution a day, is intended to be a resource center for the following facilities: an information office; a newspaper; the publication of proclamations, brochures and manifestos — in a word, all the various means of broadly informing the international proletariat, and in particular a telegraph, projectors for a large screen located on the axes of a spherical segment (a1-b3), and a radio station, the masts of which rise above the monument. There is no need to point out the enormous possibilities for equipping and organizing these structures. The details of the design have not yet been specified, they can be discussed and worked out (luring subsequent elaboration of the monument’s interior.

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It is necessary to explain that according to the artist Tatlin”s conception, the glass structures should have vacuum walls (a thermos) which will make it easy to maintain a constant temperature within the edifice. The separate parts of the monument will be connected to one another and to the ground by means exclusively of complexly structured electrical elevators, adjusted to the differing rotation speeds of the structures. Such are the technical bases of the project. Continue reading

Art into life

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Marx once declared, critiquing Hegel, that the historical task confronting humanity was “to make the world philosophical.” Hegel had completed philosophy, effectively brought it to a close. Now all that was left was to make this philosophy real by transforming the world according to its dictates. As he put it:

It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it. (From a philosophical point of view, however, it is important to specify these aspects better, since from the specific manner of this turn we can reason back towards the immanent determination and the universal historic character of a philosophy. We see here, as it were, its curriculum vitae narrowed down to its subjective point.) But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It’s the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea. But this immediate realization of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with con­tradictions, and this its essence takes form in the appearance and imprints its seal upon it.

When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality, that is, it has become one aspect of the world which opposes another one. Its relationship to the world is that of reflection. Inspired by the urge to realize itself, it enters into tension against the other. The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, that its realization is also its loss, that what it struggles against on the outside is its own inner deficiency, that in the very struggle it falls precisely into those defects which it fights as defects in the opposite camp, and that it can only overcome these defects by falling into them. That which opposes it and that which it fights is always the same as itself, only with factors inverted.

Reflecting on these lines nearly a century later, in the aftermath of the stillborn October Revolution, Karl Korsch famously concluded that “[p]hilosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” In other words, it is vital not to cast philosophy unceremoniously aside simply because its time has passed. One must come to terms with it, and critically engage it, before doing away with it completely. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in many ways a sequel to Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,” thus begins with the sobering observation: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who corresponded for decades with Adorno, explained at the outset of his monumental work on Intellectual and Manual Labor, provided a clue as to what this might have meant:

[Work on the present study] began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno, and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter.

Korsch’s insight into this theme from the early thought of Karl Marx, reaffirmed subsequently by Adorno and his best followers, can be extended to encompass art and religion as well. For Hegel, of course, art and religion each provided — in their own, particular way — privileged access to the Absolute. Art reigned supreme in the ancient world, while religion dominated medieval thought (with its “great chain of being”). By the time Hegel was writing, however, these modes of apprehending the Absolute had been surpassed by philosophy, which rationally comprehended the Absolute Idea in its spiritual movement. Intuition and belief had been supplanted by knowledge. Science, or Wissenschaft, had been achieved.

Yet this achievement did not last long. After Hegel’s death, his successors — Left and Right, Young and Old — battled for possession of the master’s system. Only Marx succeeded in carrying it forward, precisely by realizing that philosophy itself must be overcome. The same may perhaps be said for those older forms of life which had the Absolute as their object, art and religion. Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, which read theology as secret anthropology, perhaps found its most revolutionary articulation in the writings of Bogdanov, Gorky, and Lunacharsky, who promoted a project of “God-building” [богостроиетльство]. Lenin rightly scolded them for their excessive, premature exuberance, but they were on the right track. Similarly, the avant-garde project of dissolving art into life, in hopes of bringing about the death of art, can be read as an effort to make the world artistic (“to make the world philosophical”). Or, better, to make the world a work of art.

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The life and works of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro

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The following series of interviews from the early 1990s gives a good sense of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro’s life and work. You can download a selection of his writings by clicking on the links immediately below.

Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

Memories of John Dewey, confrontation with Jacques Derrida, visits with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Claude Lévi-Strauss

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David Craven: It has been suggested by some people that you were involved behind the scenes in the Erwin Panofsky/Barnett Newman debate that took place in the pages of Art News in 1961. Could you confirm or refute this claim?

Meyer Schapiro: Yes, I was in Israel in the Spring of 1961 when I read Panofsky’s letter in Art News. I sent Barnie one letter, with the understanding that my counsel be kept confidential, in which I pointed out that Panofsky was wrong. I told him to check a large Latin Dictionary and he would see that both sublimis and sublimus are acceptable, as demonstrated by their appearance together in Cicero’s citation of a passage from Accius. Both bits of advice appear in the first letter. Everything else in those two letters was contributed by Barnie himself.

DC: What type of relationship did you have with the philosopher John Dewey?

MS: I was a student of John Dewey, whose classes I very much enjoyed. Dewey asked me to do a critical reading of Art as Experience in manuscript form. The book is important, of course, but it is marked by a tendency to treat humanity and art as extensions of nature, as products of nature, without dealing with how humanity reshapes and remakes nature, hence also itself. This lack of emphasis on mediating nature, on humanity using craft and art to redefine itself, is a problem of the book.

DC: Did you ever meet the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch when he was in the U.S.?

MS: I admire his work very much, but I only met him once or twice. His critique of the Stalinist misuse of Marx’s thought is of fundamental importance.

DC: How often did you see Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo when they were in New York City in the early 1930s?

MS: We met with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo several times. Diego was very entertaining and on one occasion he railed with great emphasis against color reproductions of artworks.

Lillian Milgram: Frida was quite taken with Meyer. She gave him gifts a few times, including a pre-Columbian figurine that we still have.

DC: On October 6, 1977, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a presentation at Columbia University, in which he responded to your refutation of Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1886 oil painting of shoes that is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This presentation by Derrida would later appear in a longer version as “Restitutions” in his book La Vérité en Peinture (1978). Derrida’s paper is surprising because of how the whole tenor of the piece becomes so shrilly ad hominem.

Yet on the one occasion when I had a chance to talk with Derrida up close, in April of 1983 when he was speaking at Cornell University, I found him to be quite approachable and unpretentious, even though I was taking issue with some things that he had said in his public talk about Western Marxism.6 He welcomed this exchange and was much more put off by the sycophantic behavior of some other people in attendance. This is why I find Derrida’s reaction to you so surprising and perhaps uncharacteristic.

MS: He was challenged strongly by many people in the audience. I was abrupt with him, because he neither understood nor cared to understand the nature of my criticism. Furthermore, I discovered later that Heidegger changed his interpretation of the Van Gogh painting when he did an annotated commentary of his own essay and that he ended up admitting that he was uncertain about whose shoes they were. This material will appear in volume 4 of my selected writings.

One of Derrida’s obvious shortcomings is that he entirely disregards artistic intention in his analysis. Continue reading