Rassenkampf or Klassenkampf?

I hate to say it, but what strikes me more than anything in rereading Houria Bouteldja’s article is just how painfully French her entire mode of thought is. Far from being fundamentally “alien” and indecipherable to white leftists in the West, her arguments are Western through and through. She recycles the worst of Frog poststructuralist brainrot, precisely when she insists upon her «altérité radicale».

The really astounding thing about this is the way that so many self-declared Marxists, predominantly white Anglophone males, are rallying to the side of a thinker who can only talk about “class struggle” in scare quotes. Perhaps Marx and Engels were wrong, after all: the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of Rassenkampf, not Klassenkampf.

Bouteldja’s polemics against Enlightenment universalism actually has some precedent in (reactionary) French political thought, moreover. Marx has a bit on this in his 1863 Theories of Surplus Value, hardly a piece of a juvenilia. Sub out “Linguet” for “Bouteldja” and switch around the pronouns, maybe get rid of specifics like “contemporaries” and “that was then beginning,” the statement might well stand today:

Linguet…is not a socialist. His polemics against the bourgeois-liberal ideals of the Enlighteners, his contemporaries, against the dominion of the bourgeoisie that was then beginning, are given — half-seriously, half-ironically — a reactionary appearance. He defends Asiatic despotism against the civilized European forms of despotism; thus he defends slavery against wage-labor.

Of course, most of the romantic anti-capitalist motifs Bouteldja relies upon can be traced back to some reactionary European precursor. Her rants against “gay universalism” are clearly underwritten by notions of Kultur and Gemeinschaft as somehow organic and distinct that go at least as far back as Herder. You can almost smell the Spengler, however, in the accounts of decline and cultural pollution by the homosexual bacillus.

At the end of the day, though, it is the “white left” that uncritically embraces this anti-Marxist nonsense that bears most of the blame for its opportunistic pandering.

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?

The concept of the Left and the Right

A moderated panel
Platypus Review 68
July 4th, 2014

Chris Cutrone|Nikos Malliaris|Samir Gandesha

We are the 99%!

— Occupy Wall Street
(September 2011)

The Left must define itself on the level of ideas, conceding that in many instances it will find itself in the minority.

— Leszek Kolakowski
“The concept of the Left”
(November 1958)

The distinction of the Left and the Right was never clear. But following the failure of the Old Left, the relevance of these categories has increasingly ceased to be self-evident. In its place there has been a recurring declaration of the “end of ideology”; by 1960s intellectuals like Daniel Bell, 1980s postmodernists, and 1990s post-Left anarchism.

Yet in spite of the recurring death of ideology, the terms “Left” and “Right” seem to persist, albeit in a spectral manner. With the politics that attended the uprisings of 2011 — from the Arab Spring to Occupy — there seemed a sense that the left ideology has simultaneously become irrelevant and inescapable. While the call for democracy by the “99%” has its roots in the historical demands of the Left, these movements were notable to the extent that they were not led by left organizations. To many who participated in these movements, left politics seemed “purely ideological” and not a viable avenue to advance discontents. Now that this moment has passed there is a sense that the Right has prevailed, and even a sense of resignation, a sense that the Left was not really expected to be competitive.

This ambiance seems in contrast to the past. At the height of the New Left’s struggle to overcome the Old Left, the Polish Marxist Leszek Kolakowski declared that the concept of the Left “remained unclear.” In contrast to the ambivalence of the present, the act of clarifying the ambiguity of the Left seemed to have political stakes. The Left, he declared, could not be asserted by sociological divisions in society, but only by defining itself ever more precisely at the level of ideas. He was aware that the ideas generated by the Left, such as “freedom” and “equality,” could readily be appropriated by the Right, but they would only do so if they failed to be ruthlessly clarified. For Kolakowski the Old Communist Left had ceased to be Left and had become the Right precisely on the basis of its ideological inertia.

What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and Right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik — a better tactical response — rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn’t this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?


Preliminary remarks

Chris Cutrone:
 “The Concept of the Left” was published in English translation in 1968. Actually, the essay dates from the late fifties, and it was a response to the crackdown that came with the Khrushchev revelations. Most famously, there was an uprising in Hungary in 1956 after Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, but in fact there were attempts at liberalization in other parts of Eastern Europe, including Poland. Kolakowski participated in that, but also suffered the consequences of the reaction against it, and that’s what prompted him to write the essay. Much later, Kolakowski became a very virulent anti-Marxist. But in the late fifties, he’s still writing within the tradition of Marxism and drawing from the history of its controversies, specifically the revisionist dispute and the split with the Second International into the Third International.

Kolakowski wrote that the Left needs to be defined at the level of ideas rather than at the level of sociological groups. In other words, Left and Right don’t correspond to “workers” and “capitalists.” Rather, the Left is defined by its vision of the future, its utopianism, whereas the Right is defined by the absence of that, by opportunism. Very succinctly, Kolakowski said, “The Right doesn’t need ideas, it only needs tactics.” So what is the status of the ideas that would define the Left?

He says that the Left is characterized by an obscure and mysterious consciousness of history. The Left is concerned with the opening and furthering of possibilities, whereas the Right is about the foreclosure of those possibilities. The consciousness of those possibilities would be the ideology of the Left. Kolakowski’s use of the term “utopia,” when he says the Left is defined by utopia, is a rather peculiar and eccentric use of the term. It’s not a definite image of the future; it’s rather a sense of possibility — a consciousness of change. This might involve certain images of the future, but it’s not defined, for Kolakowski, by those images of the future. Left and Right are relative; there’s a spectrum that goes from a sense of possibility for change and ranges off to the Right with a foreclosure of those possibilities, which is what justifies opportunism and politics of pure tactics.

Another useful category that Kolakowski introduced is “crime.” He says politics cannot be fully extricated from crime, but the Left should be willing to call crime “crime,” whereas the Right needs to pretend that crimes are exigent necessities. In other words, the Left is concerned with distinguishing between true necessities and failures to meet those necessities, which is what political crime amounts to. So Kolakowski says that the Left cannot avoid committing crimes, but it can avoid failure to recognize them as crimes. In this respect, crimes would be compromises that foreclose possibilities — political failure is a crime. This is important, again, because the context in which he was writing was Stalinism, and Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes. In other words, Khrushchev’s concern was, “Okay, Stalin is dead and there’s been a struggle for power in his wake. How are we going to make sense of the past twenty or thirty years of history. What were the crimes that were committed?” The crimes that were committed in this respect were crimes against the revolution — crimes against freedom, crimes against the possibility of opening further possibilities for change. In this respect, the Left is concerned with freedom, and the Right is concerned with the disenchantment of freedom — the foreclosing of possibilities for freedom. Whereas the Left must believe in freedom, the Right does not. Hannah Arendt in the 1960s in On Revolution points out how remarkable it was that the language of freedom had dropped out of the Left already at that point.

Today, one of the reasons why Platypus says, “The Left is dead! Long live the Left!” is that the concept of freedom, and therefore the concept of the Left itself, has given way rather to concerns with social justice. Social justice can’t be about freedom because justice is about restoring the status quo ante, not advancing further possibilities. While we might say there can be no freedom without justice, we can say that there can be justice without freedom. When the avowed Left concerns itself not with freedom but with justice, it ceases to be a Left. That’s because pursuing a politics of justice would stand on different justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom — in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be committed. Continue reading

Lukács’ abyss

Jeremy Co­han
Platy­pus Re­view
Au­gust 1, 2011

At the Marx­ist Lit­er­ary Group’s In­sti­tute on Cul­ture and So­ci­ety 2011, held on June 20–24, 2011 at the In­sti­tute for the Hu­man­it­ies, Uni­versity of Illinois at Chica­go, Platy­pus mem­bers Spen­cer Le­onard, Pamela No­gales, and Jeremy Co­han or­gan­ized a pan­el on “Marx­ism and the Bour­geois Re­volu­tion.” The ori­gin­al de­scrip­tion of the event reads: “The ‘bour­geois re­volu­tions’ from the 16th through the 19th cen­tur­ies — ex­tend­ing in­to the 20th — con­formed hu­man­ity to mod­ern city life, end­ing tra­di­tion­al, pas­tor­al, re­li­gious cus­tom in fa­vor of so­cial re­la­tions of the ex­change of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in con­tra­dis­tinc­tion to the cler­ic­al First Es­tate who ‘prayed’ and the ar­is­to­crat­ic Second Es­tate who ‘fought,’ the com­mon­er Third Es­tate ‘worked:’ ‘What has the Third Es­tate been? Noth­ing.’ ‘What is it? Everything.’ Kant warned that uni­ver­sal bour­geois so­ci­ety would be the mere mid­point in hu­man­ity’s achieve­ment of free­dom. After the last bour­geois re­volu­tions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the ‘con­sti­tu­tion of cap­it­al,’ the am­bi­val­ent, in­deed self-con­tra­dict­ory char­ac­ter of ‘free wage labor.’ In the late 20th cen­tury, the ma­jor­ity of hu­man­ity aban­doned ag­ri­cul­ture in fa­vor of urb­an life — however in ‘slum cit­ies.’ How does the bour­geois re­volu­tion ap­pear from a Marxi­an point of view? How did what Marx called the ‘pro­let­ari­an­iz­a­tion’ of so­ci­ety circa 1848 sig­nal not only the crisis and su­per­ses­sion, but the need to ful­fill and ‘com­plete’ the bour­geois re­volu­tion, whose task now fell to the polit­ics of ‘pro­let­ari­an’ so­cial­ism, ex­pressed by the work­ers’ call for ‘so­cial demo­cracy’? How did this ex­press the at­tempt, as Len­in put it, to over­come bour­geois so­ci­ety ‘on the basis of cap­it­al­ism’ it­self? How did sub­sequent Marx­ism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s per­spect­ive on the crisis of the bour­geois re­volu­tion in the 19th cen­tury still res­on­ate today?” An au­dio re­cord­ing of the event is avail­able at the above link. What fol­lows is an ed­ited ver­sion of Jeremy’s Co­han’s open­ing re­marks.



In his “Idea for a Uni­ver­sal His­tory from a Cos­mo­pol­it­an Point of View,” Im­manuel Kant sets forth to tell the story of hu­man­ity as if it were one of pro­gress. This is not easy, says Kant,

Since men in their en­deavors be­have, on the whole, not just in­stinct­ively, like the brutes, nor yet like ra­tion­al cit­izens of the world ac­cord­ing to some agreed-on plan, no his­tory of man con­ceived ac­cord­ing to a plan seems to be pos­sible…One can­not sup­press a cer­tain in­dig­na­tion when one sees men’s ac­tions on the great world-stage and finds, be­side the wis­dom that ap­pears here and there among in­di­vidu­als, everything in the large woven to­geth­er from folly, child­ish van­ity, even from child­ish malice and de­struct­ive­ness.1

For Kant, ra­tion­al­ity in hu­man his­tory de­pends on the fu­ture. By com­plet­ing the seeds of free­dom and de­vel­op­ment im­pli­cit in the present, we might il­lu­min­ate and make mean­ing­ful the sound, fury, and idiocy thus far char­ac­ter­ist­ic of world-his­tory. The stakes are high:

Un­til this last step… is taken, which is the halfway mark in the de­vel­op­ment of man­kind, hu­man nature must suf­fer the cruelest hard­ships un­der the guise of ex­tern­al well-be­ing; and Rousseau was not far wrong in pre­fer­ring the state of sav­ages, so long, that is, as the last stage to which the hu­man race must climb is not at­tained.2

Georg Lukács sought to re­vive a Marx that, like Kant, strove to bring the crisis-char­ac­ter of the present to self-con­scious­ness, but un­der changed con­di­tions. This Marx un­der­stood the prob­lem of his — and our — epoch as the un­fin­ished bour­geois re­volu­tion, whose gains would be mean­ing­ful only from the stand­point of re­demp­tion — what Lukács called the stand­point of the pro­let­ari­at. The “or­tho­dox” Marx Lukács found in the polit­ics of the rad­ic­als of the Second In­ter­na­tion­al, Rosa Lux­em­burg and Vladi­mir Len­in, stood at the edge of an his­tor­ic­al abyss.

As Ni­et­z­sche’s Za­rathus­tra puts it: “Man is a rope tied between beast and over­man — a rope over an abyss. A dan­ger­ous across, a dan­ger­ous on-the-way, a dan­ger­ous look­ing back, a dan­ger­ous shud­der­ing and stop­ping.”3 On the oth­er side of the rope, the com­ple­tion of the hu­man free­dom whose pos­sib­il­ity the “bour­geois epoch” had be­gun. Be­neath, the whor­ing sub­ser­vi­ence of bour­geois thought and so­cial­ism both, to a status quo with ever dwind­ling pos­sib­il­it­ies for hu­man free­dom.

This is a very dif­fer­ent Lukács than the one who has gained some aca­dem­ic re­spect­ab­il­ity of late. A sec­tor of the aca­dem­ic left thinks we ought to take up many of the ana­lyt­ic­al tools Lukács has giv­en us to be­come more “re­flex­ive” crit­ics of cap­it­al­ism, pay­ing at­ten­tion to our “stand­point” of cri­tique to get past ob­ject­ive and sub­ject­ive di­cho­tom­ies that plague de­bate in the so­cial sci­ences, and to talk about ideo­logy as “so­cially ne­ces­sary il­lu­sion” rather than mere will o’ the wisp. Sure, we have to ditch the polit­ics — the crypto-mes­si­an­ic or proto-Sta­lin­ist (whichever you prefer) “pro­let­ari­at as the identic­al sub­ject-ob­ject of his­tory.” But Lukács can help us be­come keen­er, more crit­ic­al aca­dem­ics.

I want to res­ist this as­sim­il­a­tion of Lukács in­to the bar­bar­ism of aca­dem­ic reas­on.

As Lukács put it in his “What is Or­tho­dox Marx­ism?”: “Ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic is a re­volu­tion­ary dia­lectic.”4 Lukács is not the mere “ana­lyst” of re­ific­a­tion, on the mod­el of his cul­tur­al stud­ies epi­gones. He sought to demon­strate that Marx­ism was, from be­gin­ning to end, only pos­sible as a prac­tic­al self-cla­ri­fic­a­tion of the on­go­ing crisis of so­ci­ety triggered by the un­fin­ished bour­geois re­volu­tion. Re­cent at­tempts to res­cue the “aca­dem­ic” Lukács are an ex­er­cise in con­tra­dic­tion. It is pre­cisely when he stoppedbe­ing an aca­dem­ic that he could move for­ward with his philo­soph­ic­al prob­lems, be­cause they were be­ing ad­dressed polit­ic­ally by the re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism of his day.

But the at­tempt to re­cov­er the polit­ic­al Lukács may be just as fu­tile. For Lukács’s mo­ment is not ours; the crisis and pos­sib­il­ity of the early 20th cen­tury is far from what we face. So any “re­cov­ery” of Lukács must op­er­ate on two levels: one, by ask­ing ser­i­ously wheth­er we have over­come the crisis that Lukács at­temp­ted to for­mu­late the­or­et­ic­ally, and two, by re­cog­niz­ing that, if we have not, we can­not simply take up where he left off.


The prob­lem of epi­stem­o­logy, mor­als, aes­thet­ics in the “Re­ific­a­tion” es­say is reas­on at odds with it­self; reas­on that ends in myth­o­logy, suf­fer­ing, and un­free­dom.

We re­turn to Kant, this time of­fer­ing the battle cry of the En­light­en­ment: “Ours is the genu­ine age of cri­ti­cism, to which everything must sub­mit.”5 Not just ideas, but so­cial in­sti­tu­tions and forms of life too, must jus­ti­fy them­selves by ap­peal­ing to reas­on, rather than through claims of tra­di­tion or dogma. The philo­soph­ic­al En­light­en­ment and the polit­ic­al re­volu­tions that fought un­der its ban­ner — the Amer­ic­an, the French, the Haitian, and those of 1848 — looked for­ward to the real­iz­a­tion of reas­on, free­dom, and hu­man self-de­vel­op­ment in the world, in our so­cial in­sti­tu­tions and in ourselves. This would be eman­cip­a­tion — hu­man­ity’s “ma­tur­ity” as Kant puts it.

But bour­geois so­ci­ety has been un­able to ful­fill its prom­ise. We all-too reas­on­able mod­erns seem con­signed to con­tem­plate a ready-made world. Lukács shows this reas­on — a more power­ful and myth­ic­al dom­in­at­ing force than nature ever was — at odds with it­self, and in play in all forms in so­ci­ety: from the fact­ory ma­chine to the bur­eau­crat­ic state, from jur­is­pru­dence to journ­al­ism. He peoples his es­say with char­ac­ters from the great so­cial sci­ent­ists of his day, Max Weber and Georg Sim­mel — the bur­eau­crats, the ab­stract cal­cu­lat­ive in­di­vidu­als — to de­scribe a so­ci­ety whose “reas­on” is a soul­less re­strict­ive ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion shap­ing hu­man­ity in its nar­row im­age. He might, like Weber, have also turned to Ni­et­z­sche’s “last man” — the shrunken, all-too reas­on­able, mod­ern toady. Happy; un­able to give birth to a star.

Nor does aca­demia help us out of this crisis of mod­ern reas­on. Dis­cip­lin­ary frag­ment­a­tion is the rule, wherein the more we seem to know, the more reas­on­able each sci­ence be­comes, the less it has to say about the nature of our so­ci­ety as a whole. Weber puts it like so in his “Sci­ence as a Vo­ca­tion,” “Nat­ur­al sci­ence gives us an an­swer to the ques­tion of what we wish to do to mas­ter life tech­nic­ally. It leaves quite aside…wheth­er we should and do wish to mas­ter life tech­nic­ally and wheth­er it ul­ti­mately makes sense to do so.”6 We once thought we could go to reas­on with our deep ques­tions; we now know bet­ter, says Weber.

And, im­port­antly, Marx­ism has been on the whole no bet­ter — it has been only a more ad­vanced form of this dom­in­a­tion-re­con­sti­t­ut­ing reas­on. The tar­get of most of His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness is, after all, Marx­ism it­self, a “vul­gar” Marx­ism that loses the ca­pa­city to af­fect the course of events. This Marx­ism had signed on to na­tion­al war ef­forts in WWI; this Marx­ism was re­spons­ible for the tight­en­ing and spread of state con­trol over every­day life. We will re­turn to this point: Marx­ism, for Lukács, faced a crisis in which it would either have to trans­form it­self or would be­come one more apo­lo­gia for the status quo.

This be­tray­al of eman­cip­a­tion by reas­on — this form­al­iz­a­tion, frag­ment­a­tion, and tyr­an­nous in­dif­fer­ence to the par­tic­u­lar — is what Lukács calls re­ific­a­tion. None of this, let me em­phas­ize, can be solved by in­ter­dis­cip­lin­ary pro­grams. This is a prob­lem, Lukács as­serts, that arises in our text­books, be­cause it is real, it has a basis in our form of life. Cap­it­al­ist to­tal­ity really does pro­ceed frag­ment­ar­ily, un­con­sciously, re­leg­at­ing hu­mans in­to mere things. Re­ific­a­tion is a Ge­gen­stand­lich­keits­form, a “form of ob­jectiv­ity.” It can­not be over­come ex­cept through con­scious­ness, but it can­not be over­come through con­scious­ness alone.


We might read the en­tirety of the second part of the “Re­ific­a­tion” es­say, “The An­ti­nom­ies of Bour­geois Thought,” as demon­strat­ing, again and again, that re­ific­a­tion can­not be over­come in thought alone. But Lukács is not set­ting up philo­sophy for a fall. In­stead, Lukács gives an ac­count of “Ideal­ist” philo­sophy strug­gling to ex­press the prob­lems and po­ten­tials of free­dom in its mo­ment — that philo­sophy’s am­bi­tion, and the lim­its it reached, are char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the “high” mo­ment of bour­geois polit­ics. Bour­geois philo­sophy, says Lukács, is the self-con­scious­ness of a con­tra­dict­ory age, whose fur­ther trans­form­a­tions and de­vel­op­ments ne­ces­sit­ated its (self-)over­com­ing. This at­tempt to real­ize a free­dom not “im­posed upon” but im­man­ent in so­cial real­ity is passed on to Marx­ism. Marx­ism, in turn, is un­der­go­ing its own deep split, its own crisis, tak­ing up in trans­muted form the earli­er crisis of thought and ac­tion.

Marx­ism, for Lukács, is the dir­ect in­her­it­or of a bour­geois prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom. This defin­it­ively sep­ar­ates Marx­ism from many oth­er vari­et­ies of anti-mod­ern dis­con­tent (of which post­mod­ern­ism is the most re­cent vari­ety). Philo­sophy seeks to ex­press, and through ex­pres­sion to be­come mid­wife to, the birth of the free­dom im­pli­cit in our so­cial re­la­tions. And while this task is more opaque in Lukács’s mo­ment, Lukács re­fuses to sadly shrug his shoulders at the com­ing bar­bar­ism; he calls us to risk achiev­ing the En­light­en­ment’s prom­ise. Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schiller, and Hegel would not cede the at­tempt to com­bine reas­on, free­dom, and hu­man de­vel­op­ment, even as they con­scien­tiously re­cog­nized that these could not be re­con­ciled in a bour­geois world. They ex­press that bour­geois so­ci­ety has not yet giv­en up on it­self.

Bour­geois philo­sophy stuck with its am­bi­tion: “…the idea that the ob­ject…can be known by us for the reas­on that, and to the de­gree in which, it has been cre­ated by ourselves.”7 But through epi­stem­o­logy, mor­als, aes­thet­ics (the sub­jects of Kant’s three cri­tiques) and even Hegel’s in­voc­a­tion of his­tory, this philo­sophy kept find­ing it­self left with, on the one side, an in­com­plete form­al reas­on, on the oth­er side an in­ert and ir­ra­tion­al ob­ject; on the one side a free, self-de­term­in­ing sub­ject, on the oth­er the brute facts and “laws” of the world. Reas­on simply re­pro­duces a sub­ject de­nuded of its ca­pa­city to shape the world and it­self, re­con­ciled at the ex­pense of un­free­dom.

Clas­sic­al philo­sophy’s hon­est fo­cus on its lim­its was one of the things Lukács ad­mired most about it. But even more im­port­antly, that philo­soph­ic­al lin­eage at­temp­ted to probe and over­come its dif­fi­culties through de­vel­op­ing a cer­tain form of know­ledge: the “identic­al sub­ject-ob­ject,” “its own age com­pre­hen­ded in thought,” or prac­tic­al self-con­scious­ness. Clas­sic­al ideal­ist philo­sophy shows that free­dom is pos­sible only through a trans­form­at­ive self-con­scious­ness, where “know­ing” and “prac­tic­al trans­form­a­tion” are mu­tu­ally con­stitutive — where know­ledge is im­man­ent, rather than ab­stract.

Reas­on is not an ab­stract form to be im­posed on a hos­tile real­ity — it is real­iz­ing something im­pli­cit in an ob­ject, an ob­ject which is ac­tu­ally us. A neur­ot­ic symp­tom ap­pears to be a hor­rible hos­tile en­tity to be conquered, but it is rather a de­vel­op­ment of self to be un­der­stood and prac­tic­ally over­come. By know­ing my­self, I change my­self. I am, but am not, the same self I was. Self-know­ledge al­lows me, as Ni­et­z­sche puts it, to “be­come my­self.”

Marx­ism is the at­tempt to real­ize the form of prac­tic­al self-know­ledge which of­fers the only hope of achiev­ing free­dom, reas­on, and de­vel­op­ment. But Marx­ism has in­her­ited not only the tasks, but also the prob­lems and crises, of the prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom. Neo-Kan­tian, sci­ent­ist­ic Marx­ism, con­nec­ted with vari­et­ies of re­form­ism, be­comes the far­cic­al re­pe­ti­tion of Kant’s achieve­ment: it fails to rad­ic­al­ize the Kant–Hegel–Marx lin­eage. Much like what Freud would call re­gres­sion — the use of out­dated psych­ic tools to cope with new prob­lems and changed con­di­tions — Marx­ism threatened to be­come “stuck,” thus fail­ing to jus­ti­fy the leap the bour­geois re­volu­tions had ini­ti­ated. Marx­ism needed to learn to grow up. Or, more spe­cific­ally, it needed to learn to stop think­ing that it had already grown up.


Lukács in­sists that re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism is able to con­cretely pose the prob­lem of eman­cip­a­tion, be­cause its polit­ics seeks to prac­tic­ally achieve the self-con­scious­ness of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in its crisis. And cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety’s crisis, in its most acute form, is the his­tor­ic­al de­vel­op­ment and con­scious­ness of the pro­let­ari­at. As Lukács puts it, “the pro­let­ari­at is noth­ing but the con­tra­dic­tions of his­tory be­come con­scious” (71). But why?

Firstly, be­cause the rise of the pro­let­ari­at meant, his­tor­ic­ally, the de­cline of bour­geois rad­ic­al­ism. The pro­let­ari­at’s in­cip­i­ent de­mand that they be­come the sub­jects prom­ised by bour­geois so­ci­ety — free, cre­at­ive, and equal — led the bour­geois­ie to be­come “vul­gar,” to give up on the rad­ic­al im­plic­a­tions of the En­light­en­ment and to call for “law and or­der.” Cap­it­al’s tragedy is that it is al­ways also the pro­let­ari­at. The bour­geois­ie’s tragedy is that it must, by ne­ces­sity, be al­ways one step be­hind cap­it­al.

Second, be­cause the pro­let­ari­at is a com­mod­ity, and thus the ul­ti­mate ob­ject, she sells her­self on the mar­ket, is en­slaved by the ma­chine, and is thrown about by eco­nom­ic crises over which she has not a whit of con­trol. But bour­geois so­ci­ety also prom­ises that each hu­man be­ing might be­come a self-de­term­in­ing sub­ject. For Lukács, “the work­er can only be­come con­scious of his ex­ist­ence in so­ci­ety when he be­comes aware of him­self as a com­mod­ity.” Or “[the pro­let­ari­at’s] con­scious­ness is the self-con­scious­ness of the com­mod­ity” (168). The com­mod­ity, this ir­ra­tion­al reas­on, canit­self make de­mands for its eman­cip­a­tion be­cause the typ­ic­al com­mod­ity is the pro­let­ari­at. The in­verse is also true: the pro­let­ari­at is the quint­es­sen­tial “ab­stract” bour­geois sub­ject, whose struggles to ap­pro­pri­ate so­ci­ety for its pur­poses de­mand that the ob­ject — the product of the his­tory of so­cial la­bour — be in­fused with sub­ject­ive pur­pose.

We are used to think­ing of the nat­ur­al con­stitu­ency of the Left as those who are “mar­gin­al” to so­ci­ety. Lukács de­vel­ops the dar­ing claim of re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism that cap­it­al­ism must over­come it­self, not through the in­ter­ven­tion of those out­side, but by the ac­tion of those at its very cen­ter. “[The pro­let­ari­at’s] fate is typ­ic­al of the so­ci­ety as a whole,” says Lukács (92). The only ad­vant­age the work­er might have is that her re­ific­a­tion is of­ten ex­per­i­enced as a form of power­less­ness and there­fore might be me­di­ated polit­ic­ally in­to a trans­form­at­ive prac­tice. Marx­ism is not the res­ist­ance to cap­it­al­ism or re­ific­a­tion or bour­geois sub­jectiv­ity — it is their self-con­scious real­iz­a­tion and self-over­com­ing.

As pro­let­ari­ans seek to really be­come “bour­geois sub­jects,” their de­mands for sub­jectiv­ity be­gin to strain against the lim­its of what is pos­sible in bour­geois so­ci­ety. But the pro­let­ari­at’s so­cial po­s­i­tion does not at all guar­an­tee that it will rad­ic­ally push for­ward the de­mands of eman­cip­a­tion, only that it might. Polit­ics is the at­tempt to real­ize this po­ten­tial.

Lukács saw in the crisis of Marx­ism pre­cip­it­ated by World War I, but already pres­aged in the “re­vi­sion­ist de­bate,” a re-en­act­ment at a new level of the crisis of bour­geois philo­sophy. Here self-con­scious­ness could ad­vance the new tasks posed, or think­ing would be­come little more than an apo­lo­gia for dom­in­a­tion. In the rad­ic­als of Second In­ter­na­tion­al Marx­ism, es­pe­cially Lux­em­burg and Len­in, Lukács saw the at­tempt to meet the tasks of the present, to for­mu­late the polit­ics that could real­ize bour­geois so­ci­ety’s — and Marx­ism’s — po­ten­tial self-over­com­ing.

The es­sence of Len­in and Lux­em­burg’s Marx­ist polit­ics was that so­cial­ism, in or­der to achieve eman­cip­a­tion, would have to be a con­scious hu­man act, im­man­ent in present real­it­ies; it could not be de­duced from so­cial be­ing nor a fer­vent wish from bey­ond. If one could “stumble in­to so­cial­ism,” as if so­cial­ism were fated from time im­me­mori­al by in­ex­or­able laws, then it would be one more form of un­free­dom, of fake sub­jectiv­ity. Hu­man con­scious­ness would be an in­teg­ral part of “ob­ject­ive” de­vel­op­ment, or noth­ing at all.

This was ex­em­pli­fied in their fo­cus on the “non-auto­mat­ic” char­ac­ter of the trans­ition to so­cial­ism. They cri­ti­cized both in­ev­it­ab­il­ism and the re­duc­tion of the pro­let­ari­at as just an­oth­er sec­tion­al in­terest, seek­ing its “cut of the pie.” This was not Marx­ism, the polit­ics of free­dom, at all. Pas­sages like the fol­low­ing from Rosa Lux­em­burg’s Re­form or Re­volu­tion, were key for Lukács:

So that if we do not con­sider mo­ment­ar­ily the im­me­di­ate ameli­or­a­tion of the work­ers’ con­di­tion – an ob­ject­ive com­mon to our party pro­gram as well as to re­vi­sion­ism – the dif­fer­ence between the two out­looks is…[a]ccord­ing to the present con­cep­tion of the party [Lux­em­burg’s po­s­i­tion], trade-uni­on and par­lia­ment­ary activ­ity are im­port­ant for the so­cial­ist move­ment be­cause such activ­ity pre­pares the pro­let­ari­at, that is to say, cre­ates the sub­ject­ive factor of the so­cial­ist trans­form­a­tion, for the task of real­ising so­cial­ism…we say that as a res­ult of its trade uni­on and par­lia­ment­ary struggles, the pro­let­ari­at be­comes con­vinced, of the im­possib­il­ity of ac­com­plish­ing a fun­da­ment­al so­cial change through such activ­ity and ar­rives at the un­der­stand­ing that the con­quest of power is un­avoid­able.8

Lux­em­burg sought, then, to struggle with the pro­let­ari­at in its halt­ing at­tempts to achieve bour­geois sub­jectiv­ity in or­der to con­stantly push against the lim­its of how much sub­jectiv­ity cap­it­al­ism could grant the work­ers — all so that the pro­let­ari­at might someday de­mand the end of their be­ing an ob­ject tout court. Fur­ther­more polit­ic­al edu­ca­tion and ac­tion around these lim­its would be de­signed to call work­ers to learn­ing about how they came to be what they are — i.e. to un­der­stand his­tor­ic­ally their be­ing as an ex­pres­sion of the crisis of cap­it­al — and thus be faced with the grav­ity of the task ahead for achiev­ing free­dom.

The re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism of Lux­em­burg and Len­in, then, was for Lukács the at­tempt to real­ize the prom­ises and pos­sib­il­it­ies of bour­geois so­ci­ety by con­sist­ently press­ing for­ward the de­mand for sub­jectiv­ity con­tained in the com­mod­ity it­self: the pro­let­ari­at. This polit­ics, in ex­tremely tele­scoped form, in­sists on:

  • the lead­ing role of the pro­let­ari­at as the most typ­ic­al ele­ment and crisis-point of cap­it­al­ism
  • an em­phas­is on the sub­ject­ive de­vel­op­ment of the pro­let­ari­at in any struggles it un­der­goes
  • a fight against the re­duc­tion of Marx­ism in­to sec­tion­al in­terest, seek­ing its “cut of the pie”
  • the im­port­ance of em­phas­iz­ing not vic­tor­ies, but lim­its in any giv­en in­terest-pur­sued ac­tion by the pro­let­ari­at
  • the con­com­it­ant value of self-cri­ti­cism and self-trans­form­a­tion
  • the cent­ral­ity of self-trans­form­at­ive polit­ic­al prac­tice
  • an or­gan­iz­a­tion — or party — ded­ic­ated (as Lukács quotes Marx in the Com­mun­ist Mani­festo) to cla­ri­fy­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al and his­tor­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance of any giv­en ac­tion.

This self-con­scious cap­it­al­ist polit­ics elu­cid­ated, for Lukács, what the prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom would have to look like in or­der to over­come the present and to real­ize the en­dangered, fra­gile past, soon to be­come only the miser­able pre­curs­or to an even more miser­able se­quel.

This struggle with the pro­let­ari­at to achieve its own pos­sib­il­ity was for Lukács the oth­er side of the struggle of bour­geois so­ci­ety to achieve its po­ten­tial, an his­tor­ic­al open ques­tion that would be de­cided only by self-con­scious self-ac­tion. The crisis of mod­ern so­ci­ety is the crisis of the bour­geois re­volu­tion — which at a new, more deadly level, is the crisis of Marx­ism.

If this polit­ics is un­suc­cess­ful, there will cer­tainly be plenty of move­ments and res­ist­ance. But un­less cap­it­al, the dy­namo of mod­ern­ity, is over­come from with­in, rather than by a deus ex mach­ina from without, you won’t get the self-over­com­ing of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety at its highest point and the real­iz­a­tion of the po­ten­tial free­dom im­pli­cit in mod­ern­ity. In­stead res­ist­ance be­comes the cry ac­com­pa­ny­ing a resigned ac­cept­ance to the un­free­dom of the whole.


Lukács’s His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness might be summed up in Freud’s de­scrip­tion of the goal of psy­cho­ana­lys­is: Wo Es war, soll Ich wer­den; where it was, I shall be. Self-con­scious­ness changes us, but we are still some­how “us”; we have real­ized something about ourselves. Nor is self-con­scious­ness merely in the brain. To be really self-con­scious we need to change our whole way of be­ing. Lukács’s Marx­ism is try­ing to re­cog­nize that Marx­ism poses the ques­tion to bour­geois so­ci­ety and to mod­ern­ity as a whole wheth­er or not it can achieve this kind of trans­form­at­ive self-con­scious­ness. The pro­spects do not look bright.

But why re­turn to Lukács? Es­pe­cially if I in­sist that he was at­tempt­ing to make sense of his prac­tic­al mo­ment, to raise the mo­ment of world-his­tor­ic­al danger and pos­sib­il­ity of roughly 1917-1923 to self-con­scious­ness, what rel­ev­ance does he have in a mo­ment whose prac­tic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies are so dif­fer­ent, and so di­min­ished? Psy­cho­ana­lys­is again, per­haps, provides a use­ful meta­phor. We do not re­vis­it our child­hoods to re­live them — only to re­cog­nize how we have yet to in­teg­rate them by over­com­ing them. Lukács helps us see that we haven’t grown up.

This means that per­haps Lukács’s “identic­al sub­ject-ob­ject” seems so “mes­si­an­ic” to us not be­cause we have sur­passed Lukács and his silly meta­phys­ic­al spec­u­la­tions, but be­cause we find ourselves no longer able to ima­gine this kind of free­dom. We no longer be­lieve that we can over­come cap­it­al­ism for the bet­ter, real­iz­ing the reas­on, free­dom, and hu­man de­vel­op­ment it prom­ises. Cap­it­al­ism is a brute, in­ert, for­eign en­tity, dom­in­at­ing us and our ca­pa­cit­ies. All we can do is look to the mar­gin­al, the suf­fer­ing, and the pained, and of­fer sym­pathy and solid­ar­ity with their struggles: struggles that are part of the nat­ur­al laws of his­tory. There will be power, there will be res­ist­ance. Our polit­ics take something like the form of Niez­sche’s etern­al re­turn. As “crit­ic­al” as we are, we can only ima­gine free­dom swoop­ing in from bey­ond and bring­ing its lib­er­a­tion in­to our miser­able lives. And we are right — for we are surely in the age of second child­hood, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Was Lukács a fool for wager­ing on the pos­sib­il­ity of free­dom by be­com­ing, polit­ic­ally, a Marx­ist? Lukács would in­sist on Lux­em­burg’s call — so­cial­ism or bar­bar­ism. Either the im­man­ent over­com­ing of cap­it­al­ism and its ir­ra­tion­al ra­tion­al­ity, or resig­na­tion to ever-new, ever-hor­ri­fy­ing, forms of “reas­on­able” bar­bar­ism.

To end, I of­fer two quotes. The first from Lukács:

When the mo­ment of trans­ition to the ‘realm of free­dom’ ar­rives this will be­come ap­par­ent just be­cause the blind forces really will hurtle blindly to­wards the abyss, and only the con­scious will of the pro­let­ari­at will be able to save man­kind from the im­pend­ing cata­strophe. In oth­er words, when the fi­nal eco­nom­ic crisis of cap­it­al­ism de­vel­ops, the fate of the re­volu­tion (and with it the fate of man­kind) will de­pend on the ideo­lo­gic­al ma­tur­ity of the pro­let­ari­at, i.e. on its class con­scious­ness (69).

The second from Rilke in the first of his Du­ino Ele­gies:

Yes — the spring­times needed you. Of­ten a star
was wait­ing for you to no­tice it. A wave rolled to­ward you
out of the dis­tant past, or as you walked
un­der an open win­dow, a vi­ol­in
yiel­ded it­self to your hear­ing. All this was mis­sion.
But could you ac­com­plish it?9

Without Lukács’s Pas­cali­an wager on free­dom, it is not clear to me that Lukács is worth much of any­thing at all. The de­mon that drove him from philo­sophy to the polit­ics of re­volu­tion­ary Marx­ism is what should call out to us today, not the ana­lyt­ic­al tools we can dig up from the grave of his prac­tic­al philo­sophy of free­dom. Or maybe he is just a dead dog. |P


1 Im­manuel Kant, “Idea for a Uni­ver­sal His­tory from a Cos­mo­pol­it­an Point of View,” in Kant on His­tory, trans. Lewis White Beck (In­di­ana­pol­is: Bobbs-Mer­rill, 1963[1784]), 12.
2 Ibid., 21.
3 Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, Thus Spoke Za­rathus­tra, trans. Wal­ter Kaufmann (New York: Pen­guin Books, 1978 [1891]), 126.
4 Georg Lukács, “What is Or­tho­dox Marx­ism,” in His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness: Stud­ies in Marx­ist Dia­lectics, trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 2.
5 Im­manuel Kant, Cri­tique of Pure Reas­on, trans. Paul Guy­er and Al­len W. Wood (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­versity Press, 1998 [1787]), 100-101.
6 Max Weber. “Sci­ence as a Vo­ca­tion” in From Max Weber: Es­says in So­ci­ology, eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Ox­ford Uni­versity Press, 1958 [1918]), 144.
7 Georg Lukács, “Re­ific­a­tion and the Con­scious­ness of the Pro­let­ari­at,” in His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness: Stud­ies in Marx­ist Dia­lectics, trans. Rod­ney Liv­ing­stone (Cam­bridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 112. Here­after re­ferred to par­en­thet­ic­ally with the ap­pro­pri­ate page num­ber(s).
8 Rosa Lux­em­burg, So­cial Re­form or Re­volu­tion, in Rosa Lux­em­burg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Wa­ters (New York: Pathfind­er Press, 1979[1900]), 84-5.
9 Rain­er Maria Rilke. Du­ino Ele­gies in The Se­lec­ted Po­etry of Rain­er Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Steph­en Mitchell (NY: Ran­dom House, 1982[1922]), 151.

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By analogy with capitalism itself

Spencer Leonard
Marx & Philosophy
January 1, 2013


Jairus Banaji Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2011. 408pp., $28 / £20 pb ISBN 9781608461431


Prosecuting a sustained critique of Stalinism as conceptual “formalism” or “metaphysics,” Jairus Banaji’s writings merit a place among the more substantial works to issue out of the terminal phase of the left’s decline in the 1970s. However, as the recently published Theory as History testifies, resisting the intellectual disintegration of our post-leftist moment proves well-nigh impossible even when the attempt maintains a high level of conceptual rigor. Indeed, that rigor itself can serve as a means of fending off recognition of present circumstances. Whereas others have retreated into academic Marxology, activist tailism, or sectarian sub-culturalism, Banaji’s refuge is the retooling of Marxism as a historical sociology. Historical materialism is presented in Theory as an approach to the study of history that promises greater explanatory power than do the existing alternatives. As Banaji writes in his Introduction,

The essays published in this collection span a period of just over thirty years and set out first to map a general conception of modes of production as historical characterizations of whole epochs, in other words, to restore a sense of historical complexity to them, and then to illustrate/explore some of that complexity in detailed studies based as far as possible on primary source material. 1

For Banaji Marxism makes for a more rigorous, more systematic approach to the past, including the remote, precapitalist past. But if this is true it is not because Marxism has a specific method or superior sociological insight, but simply that Marxism was the last form of bourgeois thought. But as a work chiefly preoccupied with reconceiving pre-capitalist modes of production, the book rejects its own true interest as a record of a decades-long and partial attempt to resist Marxism’s demise. Consequently, Banaji threatens to diminish his own most interesting essays from the 1970s, whether by exclusion or by shoehorning them into the largely alien preoccupations of more recent work.

When Banaji began to write, he and his generation faced the collapse of both the Old Left and of the ’60s New Left’s initial response to it. An echo of his early ambitions as a Trotskyist in the 1970s remains faintly audible in the hopes he expresses for the project of the book. As he writes,

The renewal of historical materialism and of theory more generally will…require a transformation of attitudes in the first instance, a vigorous iconoclasm that can prise Marxists away from their obsessions with orthodoxy, so that a left that was never attached to Stalinism…can finally break with the residues of…conservatism. (xiii)

Banaji sought in the 1970s to renew the New Left project, the attempt was explicitly to bring the legacies of Marx and Lenin (and also of Trotsky) to bear upon a palpably inadequate left politics. Though emerging largely out of Naxalite tendencies with which Banaji has little sympathy, the Subalternists share with him a similar moment and a similar orientation toward a New Left canon — Althusser, Colletti, Gramsci, Sartre, etc. But it was Banaji’s Trostkyism that prompted him to try to develop tools to gauge the scale of the historical defeats and political regression that his generation inherited. His concerns were, therefore, deeply historical even when he was not writing as a historian. In this sense the historical aspect of Banaji’s critique of the semi-feudal thesis was of greater significance than its immediate programmatic implications (implying as it did, for instance, a critique of both the Naxalites and the CPI(M) on both the general “revolutionary situation” and the strategy that flowed from that estimation). It is unsurprising, then, that what one reviewer terms Banaji’s “breakthrough … for Marxist theory” in the Mode of Production Debate was conceived both more and less modestly at the time by Banaji himself. He thought he was recovering the original positions of Marx and Lenin. This is what falls away in the more recent essays with which the 1970s essays are here combined. Continue reading

Capitalism, Facebook, and the accommodation of difference

A cultural milestone has been reached. Or so it would seem.

Earlier this week Facebook introduced a new option that allows users to customize their gender identity. Up to this point, only two categories had been available — the traditional binary of male and female. Now there’s a total of 56 different gender identities to choose from. (Just to be clear, it’s not a free-for-all. While the total number of options has increased more than twentyfold, one can’t enter in just anything. More options may yet be added, but for the moment that’s all there is. For a full list, see the Denver Post’s article on the subject).

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am on the whole fairly unimpressed by intersectionality and identity politics, their dubious claims to “subversiveness” and radicalism, and so on. In my view, it’s nothing more than a form of postmodern theory combined with left-liberal micropolitics, mostly focused on social justice issues and matters of media representation. Overtures are occasionally made in the direction of a vague, deracinated “idea” of communism, and there is an assumed anticapitalist ethos amongst its adherents. The notion that intersectionality or identity politics necessarily leads one to adopt a revolutionary political position has never struck me as convincing, as most of its concrete demands (for recognition, formal equality, inclusion) seem to me perfectly compatible with bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

Setting aside my flippant, sometimes overly dismissive attitude toward these tendencies, I’m honestly curious: How do people feel about the new Facebook gender options? Especially those for whom gender serves to orient their politics. Does this wider range of available categories constitute an important cultural victory? What does Facebook’s apparent willingness to embrace gender diversity say about capitalism’s ongoing ability to adapt to and accommodate difference?

Initial responses have varied — from outrage to indifference, all the way up to exuberance. Aoife Emily Hart, a comp. lit. adjunct and scholar of trans* feminism and interculturality, is positively ecstatic. She writes:

I’m thrilled. Hooray. I’m willing to declare this a Battle of Endor sized victory.

My highest props to FB for introducing a more comprehensive — and, for the most part, culturally aware — set of gender referents besides and beyond the static binary. We move from subjugation to intersubjective multiplicities of self-empowerment.

Do we? I’m not so sure.

Gender bender

These questions are prompted by an astute observation made by a commenter who happened across one of my old posts. Nilofar Ansher — a writer, editor, and researcher from India who blogs over at Trail of Papercuts — wryly noted “Facebook’s recent ‘inclusive’ view of gender and sexual orientation categorization.” Fifty-six categories? Really? How did they arrive at this precise number? Why not fifty-seven? (It should be mentioned, though, before proceeding any further, that these newfangled categories have not yet been implemented across the board. My comrade, Angela Nagle from Ireland, reported a case of combined/uneven development. Lagging behind as usual, Europe is still trapped in the dark ages, with only two gender options to choose from as of yesterday night. Similarly my friend Pablo, a gay Argentinian immigrant to the US, told me that the Spanish-language version of Facebook hasn’t yet been updated along these lines). Continue reading

Much luv 2 Willie Osterweil

Above: Scene from a recent
New Inquiry reading night

It’s quite an honor to have finally been made the object of a smear campaign. They say that’s when you know you’ve really made it — when you’ve got h8rs chomping at the bit, looking for any opportunity to tear you down. At long last, it seems my moment has arrived. Willie Osterweil, a self-decribed “aspiring novelist” (though currently a film critic for the milquetoast lefty Kulturzeitschrift, New Inquiry), has dedicated a whole blog post to my denunciation: the delightfully-titled “Ross Wolfe, piece of shit.”

For this, I must thank him. My only regret is that it didn’t come from someone bigger. Osterweil’s a small fish in a smaller pond, a real knave’s knave, puny even by Lilliputian standards. Sure, he might enjoy private evenings on the Upper East Side — attending ultra-exclusive, invite-only weekly readings at “an unmarked clandestine bookshop,” Brazenhead Books — but otherwise he’s something of a pissant.

He’s sort of like the token “white knight” character commonly parodied online, heroically leaping to the defense of helpless maidens, rescuing them from persecution by wicked whitebros like himself. Really, though, it’d probably be more accurate to call him a “white-guilt knight,” because he feels his actual duty (as a privileged white-able-cis-Ivy-League-straight-blah-blech-male) is to protect any discursive formation or enunciative modality — theories, for those unschooled in Foucault-fu — that supposedly “empower” women. And the wretched of the Earth more generally.

Nevertheless, it is still very flattering that a respected member of Manhattan’s chicest literary club would take time out of his day, away from his fellow salonistes, to pen such an adorable diatribe. I’m touched, truly. Continue reading

Class and identity crisis

Mike Naylor has written a succinct response to Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article. Though I’ve already more or less said my piece on the matter, Naylor’s narrow focus on the issue of class in Fisher provides a convenient excuse for me to flesh out some ideas about its social, political, and cultural dimensions. I’ve been meaning to write something up on it for a while now. But before we embark on that divagation, let’s first attend a few things Naylor writes in critiquing Fisher. Toward the end, he avers:

We should reject Fisher’s call to ignore oppression, as if our lack of thinking about them makes them go away.

Certainly, ignoring oppression won’t make it go away. But compulsively talking about and splitting hairs about oppression isn’t necessarily a way of thinking about them. More often than not it’s an unthinking procedure ritualistically invoked, which gives the false appearance of probity and depth while in fact it remaining at an extremely superficial level of abstraction. If anything, the obsessive focus on all the particular ways one is oppressed obscures more than it clarifies the universal unfreedom of modern society: namely, that which is entailed by capital’s continued dominance over the process of production. Though intersectionality claims to finally address the actual complexity of life under the capitalist social formation in all its empirical messiness — casting light on the manifold, multiform imbalances and power dynamics — in truth it only further confounds the situation. Even the language used in trying to grasp these different aspects of oppression bespeaks an abiding confusion over how they all fit together. All the talk of “intersecting,” “overlapping,” and “interlocking” “networks,” “systems,” and “modalities” of “discrimination,” “subjugation,” and “interpellation” (concepts pilfered from the coffers of the Theory Industry these last thirty years) is simply a safeguard that ensures identity politicians won’t be surprised by new forms of oppression that await discovery or invention.

(On this note, some perceptively quipped: “Isn’t ‘intersectionality’ just another name for what we used to call [the Freudian and Althusserian concept of] ‘overdetermination’?” They’re right, you know.)

By relying so heavily on flimsy neologisms like these, identity politics is thereby allowed to neglect and even studiously avoid confrontation with the overarching totality of social relations under capitalism. Apparent heterogeneity here masks underlying homogeneity. Seemingly centrifugal tendencies toward dispersal and diffusion veil capital’s propensity toward concentration and centralization. Rather than reveal the true magnitude of this historic impasse, the ongoing crisis of bourgeois society, identity politics seizes upon the accidence and minutiae of everyday experience and anoints these as crucial sites of “struggle.” Every perceived slight, asymmetry, or indiscretion, no matter how minor, is exaggerated and thereby elevated to a matter of life and death. The fear is that without scrupulous attention to detail, revolutionary politics will end up reproducing the very forms of oppression they ostensibly seek to overcome. However convincing this oft-repeated argument might seem at first blush, it should be remembered that means and ends are not always identical when it comes to politics. Far from taking problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia seriously, moreover, the Left seems to subscribe to the naïve belief that structural forms of social oppression can be corrected simply by codifying and bureaucratizing the way that people talk about them.

The points Naylor makes in criticizing of Fisher’s idea of class are well taken. Cultural markers such as accent or inflection, habits of dress or behavior associated with a given social stratum can hardly be considered constitutive features of class. These vary too much over time and space to have any enduring value as indicators of one’s socioeconomic standing or origin. At most, they can be considered a loose set of criteria or ensemble of expectations that stereotype different groups of individuals throughout society. It would make no sense to either exalt or abase someone on the basis of such qualities. Members of the working class should do not deserve to be demonized as “chavs,” but neither should they be condescendingly valorized as somehow more “authentic” on account of their unpretentious, slangy speech or charmingly direct mannerisms. Continue reading

Deleuzeans of grandeur

Image: Pieter Brueghel
“The Flatterers” (1592)

Earlier today, I tried to make my way through this rather long, theory-heavy Facebook thread. It popped up on my feed and some of the first few comments seemed pretty interesting. You know: it concerned concepts and authors like totality, status quo ante, the proletariat, Jameson. Figured I could maybe dig some of the Deleuze and communization stuff, even if I agreed with it less. Then all of a sudden all these theoretical accretions and academic encrustations began to glom onto the original topics under discussion at this crazy, exponential rate — sometimes as backstory or context, but more often as just syncretistic add-ons and meaningless whirligigs, an intellectually promiscuous process of addition, lunatical topsy-turvydom, etc.

Maybe I just didn’t know enough of these theories or theorists, but I don’t think that’s it. Really, I’m not anti-theory at all; I’m good at it. I have a lot more patience for dense theoretical discourse than many people I know. (That much should be obvious to anyone who reads or even glances passingly through this blog). But there’s some massive leveling our generation needs to do. Most of what’s been written recently or being written right now needs to be mercilessly torn down, without remorse or concern about hurt feelings. The elbow-rubbing and chummy collegiality needs to go. We must separate the wheat from the chaff, the Hearts—Stars—Clovers—Blue-Moons from the ordinary cereal. Honestly, we’re far too easily impressed with ourselves and each other. Most of what we produce is total garbage, and we should have no problem owning up to that. No more compliments or gentle “critiques” that just mildly “complicate” or “problematize” whatever bullshit we’re on about lately. Could be way off but who knows.

Anyway, I communicated these sentiments more or less exactly as I just presented them here to the posters in this thread. It was probably ill-advised decision to do so, bound to piss off everyone involved. People tend to get really touchy and insecure whenever their intellectual credentials are challenged. Of course, I wasn’t looking to call anyone out or target anybody in particular, though I could have, but leave things at this fairly generalized level. Still, most in the thread had enough of a sense of humor about themselves to move on quickly and not take it very personally. Except for one person: Louis-Georges Schwartz. Continue reading