Comradeship, criticism, and collegiality

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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?

Augustine Kofie's "Triangulation of the golden northeast" (2009)

Dossier on the debate between the International Bolshevik Tendency, Communist Party of Great Britain, and Platypus Affiliated Society

by Reid Kane Kotlas

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Image: Augustine Kofie’s Triangulation
of the Golden Northeast
(2009)

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This is reposted from the tumblr page of a contact of the Platypus Affiliated Society, Reid Kane Kotlas. Though I was considering using this space to briefly relate Reid’s intellectual trajectory and how he arrived at the Marxist tradition, as well as our encounter several years back, it’s become clear to me that this would take up too much space. Perhaps this could be the subject of another post. Suffice it to say, at least for now, that our subsequent correspondence was largely the outcome of a debate we had over Lenin’s (in)compatibility with Luxemburg. At the time, he was quite skeptical of the Platypus Affiliated Society and what he then believed was its excessive pessimism with respect to the present. I’d assumed what was probably a haughty and overly dismissive stance toward the actually-existing Left, to which he responded:

I find your defamatory comments about the existing Left (and those of Platypus more generally) to be extremely discouraging. These people are our allies, and while I may disagree with a lot of what they say and do, the way to make that evident is not through condescension, but by expressing critical solidarity, by joining them and trying to steer them in other directions where appropriate, and where there is too great a divide or too much stubbornness, to demonstrate in practice what is wrong with their approach. I agree that its a shame that we are no longer witness to the sort of working class mobilization of the earlier part of the last century, but I don’t count this fact as either a cause or effect of “regression in Leftist consciousness.” The left hasn’t regressed, we’ve been brutally beaten down, silenced, defamed and overwhelmed for a century, and the disorganized and splintered remnants that persist today, however “backward” their thinking may be at times, are not symptoms of the Left’s decadence and degeneration but the first flares of its rekindling.

Later on, I tried to clarify what I’d meant by my remarks and remove some of their needless cynicism, which were unhelpful and probably off-putting. This brought Reid and I into closer accord in our understandings of the present political moment. In an e-mail a little over a year ago, he related to me that “[w]hile before I had reservations about Platypus due to its assessment of the Left, I now basically agree with that assessment.” Recently, it came to my attention that Reid has been quietly and independently dedicating himself to a closer study of some of Platypus’ past engagements. Because of the remarkable lucidity and critical acuity of his observations here, I thought I’d make available his dossier on the debate between the International Bolshevik Tendency, Communist Party of Great Britain, and Platypus. The post also includes a number of helpful links to background readings on the debate. Thanks again to Reid for granting me permission to repost this.
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Ivan Kudriashev's Construction of a rectilinear motion (1925)

Kudriashev’s Construction of a rectilinear motion (1925)

Dossier

The following is a series of documents and recordings relating to an ongoing debate between members of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). 

I believe these deserve to be grouped together because, in the discursive space sustained between these three distinctive organizations, the central problems of the contemporary left are saliently circumscribed. Any pair of the three organizations, as well as the trio, share interesting points of convergence and divergence. The differences between their respective ideologies, programs, historical perspectives, and practical approaches elucidate that absent locus of revolutionary politics. Continue reading

Klutsis, Composition 1921

Hysterical materialism

An historical diagnosis

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Image: Gustav Klutsis,
Composition (1921)

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“Historical materialism,” Franz Mehring once wrote, popularizing the phrase, “approaches every section of history without any preconceptions.”

Hysterical materialism — it might be said, phrasing things quite oppositely — approaches any supposed “sectarian” with every preconception.

In explicating the former, historical materialism, Mehring was simply making public something that his friend and comrade Friedrich Engels had already communicated to him in private. The term, abbreviated “histomat” (after «истмат», a good Soviet portmanteau), referred to a general outlook and a methodology for interpreting social reality. Quite fittingly, Mehring sought to explain historical materialism’s emergence in the second half of the nineteenth century by applying the historical materialist method reflexively to itself. Continue reading

Platypus primary Marxist reading group, Fall 2012–Winter 2013

Fall 2012 – Winter 2013

I. What is the Left? — What is Marxism?

Sundays, 2–5PM EST

Eugene Lang College Building
The New School for Social Research
65 West 11th Street, Room 258
New York, NY 10011

• required / + recommended reading

Marx and Engels readings pp. from Robert C. Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (Norton 2nd ed., 1978)


Week A. Aug. 4–5, 2012

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (1762)

• epigraphs on modern history and freedom by James Miller (on Jean-Jacques Rousseau), Louis Menand (on Edmund Wilson), Karl Marxon “becoming” (from the Grundrisse, 1857–58), and Peter Preuss (on Nietzsche)
+ Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908)
+ Robert Pippin, “On Critical Theory” (2004)
• Jean-Jacques RousseauDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) PDFs of preferred translation (5 parts):[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]
• Rousseauselection from On the Social Contract (1762)


Week B. Aug. 11–12, 2012

• G.W.F. HegelIntroduction to the Philosophy of History (1831) [HTML] [PDF pp. 14-128]


Week C. Aug. 18–19, 2012

• Friedrich NietzscheOn the Use and Abuse of History for Life (1874) [translator’s introduction by Peter Preuss]


Week D. Aug. 25–26, 2012

Human, All Too Human: Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil (1999)
• Nietzscheselection from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)
• NietzscheOn the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (1887)


Week E. Sep. 1–2, 2012 Labor Day weekend

• Martin Nicolaus“The unknown Marx” (1968)
• Moishe Postone“Necessity, labor, and time” (1978)
• Postone“History and helplessness: Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anticapitalism” (2006)
+ Postone, “Theorizing the contemporary world: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey” (2006)


Week F. Sep. 8–9, 2012

• Juliet Mitchell“Women: The longest revolution” (1966)
• Clara Zetkin and Vladimir Lenin“An interview on the woman question” (1920)
• Theodor W. Adorno“Sexual taboos and the law today” (1963)
• John D’Emilio“Capitalism and gay identity” (1983)


Week G. Sep. 15–16, 2012

• Richard Fraser“Two lectures on the black question in America and revolutionary integrationism” (1953)
• James Robertson and Shirley Stoute“For black Trotskyism” (1963)
+ Spartacist League, “Black and red: Class struggle road to Negro freedom” (1966)
+ Bayard Rustin, “The failure of black separatism” (1970) 
• Adolph Reed“Black particularity reconsidered” (1979)
+ Reed, “Paths to Critical Theory” (1984)


Week H. Sep. 22–23, 2012

• Wilhelm Reich“Ideology as material power” (1933/46)
• Siegfried Kracauer“The mass ornament” (1927)
+ Kracauer, “Photography” (1927)


Week 1. Sep. 29–30, 2012

• epigraphs on modern history and freedom by Louis Menand (on Marx and Engels) and Karl Marxon “becoming” (from the Grundrisse, 1857–58)
• Chris Cutrone“Capital in history” (2008)
• Cutrone“The Marxist hypothesis” (2010)


Week 2. Oct. 6–7, 2012

• Immanuel Kant“Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view” and “What is Enlightenment?”(1784)
• Benjamin Constant“The liberty of the ancients compared with that of the moderns” (1819)
+ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the origin of inequality (1754)
+ Rousseau, selection from On the social contract (1762)


Week 3. Oct. 13–14, 2012

• Max Horkheimerselections from Dämmerung (1926–31)
• Adorno“Imaginative Excesses” (1944–47)


Week 4. Oct. 20–21, 2012

• Leszek Kolakowski“The concept of the Left” (1968)
• MarxTo make the world philosophical (from Marx’s dissertation, 1839–41), pp. 9–11
• MarxFor the ruthless criticism of everything existing (letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843), pp. 12–15


Week 5. Oct. 27–28, 2012

• Marxselections from Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844), pp. 70–101
• Marx and Friedrich Engelsselections from the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), pp. 469-500
• MarxAddress to the Central Committee of the Communist League (1850), pp. 501–511


Week 6. Nov. 3–4, 2012

• Engels, The tactics of social democracy (Engels’s 1895 introduction to Marx, The Class Struggles in France), pp. 556–573
• Marxselections from The Class Struggles in France 1848–50 (1850), pp. 586–593
• Marxselections from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), pp. 594–617


Week 7. Nov. 10–11, 2012

+ Karl Korsch, “The Marxism of the First International” (1924)
• MarxInaugural address to the First International (1864), pp. 512–519
• Marxselections from The Civil War in France (1871, including Engels’s 1891 Introduction), pp. 618–652
+ Korsch, Introduction to Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1922)
• MarxCritique of the Gotha Programme, pp. 525–541
• MarxProgramme of the Parti Ouvrier (1880)


Week 8. Nov. 17–18, 2012

• Marxselections from the Grundrisse (1857–61), pp. 222–226, 236–244, 247–250, 282–294
• MarxCapital Vol. I, Ch. 1 Sec. 4 “The fetishism of commodities” (1867), pp. 319–329


Week 9. Nov. 24–25, 2012 Thanksgiving break


Winter break readings

+ Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate / A&Z, Introducing Lenin and the Russian Revolution / Lenin for Beginners (1977)
+ Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918–19 (1968)
+ Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940), Part II. Ch. (1–4,) 5–10, 12–16; Part III. Ch. 1–6
+ Tariq Ali and Phil Evans, Introducing Trotsky and Marxism / Trotsky for Beginners (1980)
+ James Joll, The Second International 1889–1914 (1966)


Week 10. Dec. 1–2, 2012 / Jan. 5–6, 2013

• Georg Lukács“The phenomenon of reification” (Part I of “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,”History and Class Consciousness, 1923)


Week 11. Dec. 8–9, 2012 / Jan. 12–13, 2013

• LukácsOriginal Preface (1922), “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919), “Class Consciousness” (1920),History and Class Consciousness (1923)
+ Marx, Preface to the First German Edition and Afterword to the Second German Edition (1873) of Capital(1867), pp. 294–298, 299–302


Week 12. Dec. 15–16, 2012 / Jan. 19–20, 2013

• Korsch“Marxism and philosophy” (1923)
+ Marx, To make the world philosophical (from Marx’s dissertation, 1839–41), pp. 9–11
+ Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existing (letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843), pp. 12–15
+ Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), pp. 143–145

The spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism

Introduction

To understand the history of architectural modernism and eclecticism as they emerged out of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one must take into account the broader development of architecture over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This development, in turn, must be seen as emerging out of the dynamic of late nineteenth-century capitalism, which had by that point extended to encompass the whole of Europe. For it was the unique spatiotemporal dialectic of the capitalist mode of production — along with the massive social and technological forces it unleashed — that formed the basis for the major architectural ideologies that arose during this period. Before the story of the academicians or the avant-garde can be told, then, some background is necessary to explain both their origin and the eventual trajectory they would take into the early twentieth century.

So while my aim is to eventually account for how a single social formation, capitalism, can give birth to these two opposite tendencies within architectural thought, the space required to give an adequate exposition of the spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism is such that it deserves to function as a standalone essay. Certainly other trends, both cultural and social, could be understood as reflections of this underlying socioeconomic dynamic. It is thus my intention to post this as its own piece, before then proceeding to detail the way in which architectural modernism and eclecticism mirrored these dynamics. Continue reading

The Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1926 “Monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt,” later demolished by Hitler

Measuring the Depths

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Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1926
Monument to Rosa Luxemburg & Karl Liebkneckt,
later demolished by Hitler

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As a continuation of my last post, the focus of which was more to specifically spell out the relationship between the revolutionary thought of Lenin and Luxemburg, the present entry is meant to clarify the relevance of looking at the thought of past revolutionary figures in general.  It will begin with a further examination of some statements made by the Luxemburg that were quoted in the last post.  This will help explain my position on a separate but related issue that I have discussed with Reid Cane of The Luxemburgist.  While originally this was included as part of the last post, I have decided to modify it in order to post it as a standalone entry, both for reasons of length and since its content is fairly distinct from that dealt with in the last one.

Returning to the passage cited toward the end of the last entry (beginning with “[e]verything that happens in Russia…”) from The Russian Revolution, we may take note of the language Luxemburg uses to characterize the European proletariat.  Her stress on the “failure” of the international proletariat and its “betrayal” of the Russian revolutionaries, along with the “bankruptcy” of international socialism, highlights another point of contention that has arisen between Reid and myself.  In the comments section to his recent “Note on Popular Right Ideology”, I stated my belief that the glaring deficiencies of Leftist politics in the present day should be of greater concern to the Left than the perennial opportunism of the Right.  Reid correctly noted in his replies that concern for one should not preclude concern for the other, and explained that his interest in the Tea Party movement was not in order to simply discredit it but understand it as a distorted expression of class consciousness.  His explanation shows that I mistook his preoccupation with the Tea Party movement to be the result of a perception that this movement constitutes a great threat. With regard to his prior point, I accordingly clarified that I certainly did not mean that one had to choose whether to worry about the Right or the Left.  I suggested, rather, that Leftist thought and the political project of the Left in general had undergone an extreme regression in the course of the 20th century (Platypus’ “Decline of the Left” thesis), and that this should be the Left’s foremost concern.  To this, Reid responded:

I have to admit, I find your defamatory comments about the existing Left (and those of Platypus more generally) to be extremely discouraging. These people are our allies, and while I may disagree with a lot of what they say and do, the way to make that evident is not through condescension, but by expressing critical solidarity, by joining them and trying to steer them in other directions where appropriate, and where there is too great a divide or too much stubbornness, to demonstrate in practice what is wrong with their approach. I agree that its a shame that we are no longer witness to the sort of working class mobilization of the earlier part of the last century, but I don’t count this fact as either a cause or effect of “regression in Leftist consciousness”. The left hasn’t regressed, we’ve been brutally beaten down, silenced, defamed and overwhelmed for a century, and the disorganized and splintered remnants that persist today, however “backward” their thinking may be at times, are not symptoms of the Left’s decadence and degeneration but the first flares of its rekindling.

Though there is great poetry expressed in this last line, I’m afraid I can’t agree with Reid’s optimism.  Reid is most certainly right to note that the Left has for well over a century often “been brutally beaten down, silenced, defamed and overwhelmed.”  But the failure of the Left is not explainable solely by the strength of its enemies.  In large part, its failure must be traced to its inadequate theorization of historical reality, its misrecognition of objective possibilities, its celebration and support of seemingly progressive political movements that are in fact reactionary, down to its outright betrayal of its own interests.  Repression surely exists, but at some point the Left must hold itself accountable for its failures and work through the history of its defeats.  The refusal to do so means that these mistakes go on unresolved — that their pernicious ramifications remain unexamined.  Revisiting these defeats does not mean that the Left must simply eulogize the great movements of the past or lament the opportunities that they missed.  Rather, a working through of the troubled legacy of the Left is necessary for its reconstitution.

Continue reading

El Lissitzky,Proposal for a monument to Rosa Luxemburg (1919)

A response to Reid Cane’s “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”

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IMAGE: El Lissitzky, Monument
to Rosa Luxemburg (1919)

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The following is a response to some critical remarks made by Reid Kane on his blog, The Luxemburgist, in an entry entitled “Leninism or Luxemburgism?”.  Reid was responding in this post to some comments I’d made on a different entry, in which I objected to his opposition of Vladimir Lenin’s articulation of a Marxist politics to that of Rosa Luxemburg.  These are, after all, two organizational models that have frequently been held up as antithetical.  I asserted that their split had been grossly exaggerated by both Stalinists seeking to discredit Luxemburg’s former colleagues and anti-authoritarian/anti-Bolshevik tendencies in the New Left, who exalt Luxemburg as an heroic “alternative” to Lenin.  Reid provides a thoroughgoing, reasoned critique of my objection, maintaining that it is not enough to ignore their differences merely because their disagreements have been blown out of proportion.  In this I cannot but agree.  The differences between Luxemburg and Lenin cannot simply be glossed over.  And so, though this topic has been dealt with countless times by writers on the Left, I feel it is not too much to add my own thoughts on the matter here, in response to Reid’s excellent post.

Continue reading

Lenin’s critique of the politics of spontaneity in What is to be Done?

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IMAGE: Agitprop poster, 1920s:
“Without revolutionary theory,
there can be no revolutionary movement.”

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In preparing my presentation on Lenin’s What is to be Done? this week for the UChicago Platypus reading group, I found myself returning again and again to his description of the so-called “spontaneity” of the masses.  It was on this supposed spontaneity, of course, that the Economists pinned their hopes of social revolution (should there be one at all).  I noticed that in his critique of the notion of the working class’ spontaneity, Lenin employed a number of categories borrowed from classical German philosophy.  All of these categories pertain to consciousness, and constitute an epistemology of sorts.  I found, moreover, that this seemed to provide a theoretical link to Lukács’ later account of reification.  Though this began as little more than a meditation, I brought it up at the reading group and found that it was well received.  Afterward, Sunit encouraged me to elaborate on this notion and submit my thoughts online. Continue reading

Ivan Leonidov's City of the Sun (1940s-1950s)

The transformation of utopia under capitalist modernity

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IMAGE: Ivan Leonidov’s
City of the Sun (1940s)

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Utopianism has always involved the imagination of a better world, a perfected society set against the imperfect society of the present. Whether as an object of speculative philosophical reflection, a practical program for social transformation, or an idle daydream, utopia has always evinced the hope that reality might be made ideal.

Underneath this general rubric, however, “utopia” can be seen to signify several related but distinct things. The term is commonly used to refer to that literary genre, deriving its name from Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, which depicts various “ideal commonwealths.” Beyond this meaning, many commentators have identified these literary utopias as belonging to a broader impulse that exists within the very structure of human experience, of which they are but one expression.[1] Karl Mannheim, for example, described utopianism as a mentalité, writing that “[a] state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs…and at the same breaks the bond of the existing order.”[2] Others have linked the idea of utopia to more metaphysical foundations, explaining how the condition for the possibility of utopia is carried by the category of possibility itself. Understood in this way, a utopia could be an alternate social configuration that is imaginable either as a pure fantasy wholly apart from existing conditions, or as one that is potentially viable, somehow implied by those same conditions.[3] The former of these constitutes an abstract or merely logical possibility, whereas the latter represents a concrete or real possibility.

Continue reading