Bordiga on Sorel

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It is as­ser­ted that in or­der to elim­in­ate so­cial in­justice, all that is re­quired is to re­late every com­mod­ity’s ex­change value to the value of the labor con­tained with­in it. Marx shows — and will show later, pit­ting him­self against Bak­un­in, against Las­salle, against Dühring, against Sorel and against all the oth­er lat­ter-day pyg­mies — that what lies be­neath all this is noth­ing oth­er than the apo­lo­gia, and the pre­ser­va­tion, of bour­geois eco­nomy.

For about ten years or so pri­or to the Oc­to­ber Re­volu­tion, re­volu­tion­ary syn­dic­al­ism had been fight­ing against so­cial-demo­crat­ic re­vi­sion­ism. Georges Sorel was the main the­or­eti­cian and lead­er of this cur­rent, even if earli­er ante­cedents cer­tainly ex­is­ted. It was a move­ment which was par­tic­u­larly strong in the Lat­in coun­tries: to be­gin with they fought in­side the so­cial­ist parties, but later split off, both be­cause of the vi­cis­situdes of the struggle and in or­der to be con­sist­ent with a doc­trine which re­jec­ted the ne­ces­sity of the party as a re­volu­tion­ary class or­gan.

The primary form of pro­let­ari­an or­gan­iz­a­tion for the syn­dic­al­ists was the eco­nom­ic trade uni­on, whose main task was sup­posed to be not only lead­ing the class struggle to de­fend the im­me­di­ate in­terests of the work­ing class, but also pre­par­ing, without be­ing sub­ject to any polit­ic­al party, to lead the fi­nal re­volu­tion­ary war against the cap­it­al­ist sys­tem.

Sore­li­ans and Marx­ism

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A com­plete ana­lys­is of the ori­gins and evol­u­tion of this doc­trine, both as we find it in Sorel’s work, and in the mul­ti­far­i­ous groups which in vari­ous coun­tries sub­scribed to it, would take us too far off our track; at this point we shall there­fore just dis­cuss its his­tor­ic­al bal­ance sheet, and its very ques­tion­able view of a fu­ture non-cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.

Sorel and many of his fol­low­ers, in Italy as well, star­ted off by de­clar­ing that they were the true suc­cessors of Marx in fight­ing against leg­al­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ism in its pa­ci­fist and evol­u­tion­ist guise. Even­tu­ally they were forced to ad­mit that their tend­ency rep­res­en­ted a new re­vi­sion­ism; left rather than right wing in ap­pear­ance but ac­tu­ally is­su­ing from the same source, and con­tain­ing the same dangers.

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Marxism and historical predictions

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Be­cause Marx­ism ad­dresses it­self prin­cip­ally to his­tory, its ad­her­ents of­ten traffic in his­tor­ic­al pre­dic­tions. This was true of Marx and En­gels no less than their fol­low­ers, and more of­ten than not their pre­dic­tions turned out to be in­ac­cur­ate or mis­taken. Pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion — which Marx some­times called “the re­volu­tion of the nine­teenth cen­tury” — did not ul­ti­mately win out or carry the day. Cap­it­al­ism has not yet col­lapsed, and des­pite the peri­od­ic pro­nounce­ments of Marx­ist pro­fess­ors every time the stock mar­ket dips, none of the crises it’s en­dured has proved ter­min­al.

Karl Pop­per, Ray­mond Aron, and oth­er op­pon­ents of Marxi­an the­ory of­ten raise the fail­ure of such fore­casts as proof that its doc­trine is “un­falsifi­able.” Op­pon­ents of Marx­ism are not the only ones who re­joice at Marx­ism’s frus­trated pro­gnost­ic­a­tions; op­por­tun­ist­ic re­vi­sion­ists have also taken com­fort whenev­er things don’t quite pan out. Georg Lukács ob­served al­most a hun­dred years ago that “the op­por­tun­ist in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx­ism im­me­di­ately fastens on to the so-called er­rors of Marx’s in­di­vidu­al pre­dic­tions in or­der to elim­in­ate re­volu­tion root and branch from Marx­ism as a whole.”

Some of this is rather un­avoid­able. De­bates about wheth­er the cap­it­al­ist break­down is in­ev­it­able, the vagar­ies of Zu­sam­men­bruchs­theo­rie, ne­ces­sar­ily in­volve spec­u­la­tion about the fu­ture res­ults of present dy­nam­ics — wheth­er self-an­ni­hil­a­tion is a built-in fea­ture of cap­it­al­ism, wheth­er the en­tire mode of pro­duc­tion is a tick­ing time-bomb. Yet there have been con­crete in­stances in which the foresight of cer­tain Marx­ists seems al­most proph­et­ic in hind­sight. Not just in broad strokes, either, as for ex­ample the even­tu­al tri­umph of bour­geois eco­nom­ics across the globe.

En­gels’ very de­tailed pre­dic­tion, ori­gin­ally made in 1887, came true al­most to the let­ter:

The only war left for Prus­sia-Ger­many to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an ex­tent and vi­ol­ence hitherto un­ima­gined. Eight to ten mil­lion sol­diers will be at each oth­er’s throats and in the pro­cess they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of lo­custs.

The de­pred­a­tions of the Thirty Years’ War com­pressed in­to three to four years and ex­ten­ded over the en­tire con­tin­ent; fam­ine, dis­ease, the uni­ver­sal lapse in­to bar­bar­ism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; ir­re­triev­able dis­lo­ca­tion of our ar­ti­fi­cial sys­tem of trade, in­dustry, and cred­it, end­ing in uni­ver­sal bank­ruptcy; col­lapse of the old states and their con­ven­tion­al polit­ic­al wis­dom to the point where crowns will roll in­to the gut­ters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the ab­so­lute im­possib­il­ity of fore­see­ing how it will all end and who will emerge as vic­tor from the battle.

Only one con­sequence is ab­so­lutely cer­tain: uni­ver­sal ex­haus­tion and the cre­ation of the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class.

Re­gard­ing this last line, “the con­di­tions for the ul­ti­mate vic­tory of the work­ing class” un­doubtedly were cre­ated by the world war between great cap­it­al­ist powers. Wheth­er these con­di­tions were ac­ted upon is an­oth­er, sad­der story. Coun­ter­fac­tu­als aside, the fact re­mains that things could have been oth­er­wise. His­tor­ic cir­cum­stances con­spired to open up a def­in­ite field of po­ten­tial out­comes, in which in­ter­na­tion­al pro­let­ari­an re­volu­tion seemed not just ab­stractly pos­sible but con­cretely prob­able.

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Society, totality, and history

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Dia­lectics elude straight­for­ward defin­i­tion. No doubt it is easi­er to say what dia­lectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdin­and Las­salle, Marx re­marked in a let­ter to En­gels that “Hegel nev­er de­scribed as dia­lectics the sub­sump­tion of vast num­bers of ‘cases’ un­der a gen­er­al prin­ciple,” and there­fore con­cluded that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od is wrongly ap­plied.”1 Vladi­mir Len­in like­wise poin­ted out that Geor­gii Plekhan­ov, the founder of Rus­si­an Marx­ism, erred in treat­ing dia­lectics as “the sum-total of ex­amples,” a mis­take from which even En­gels was not fully ex­empt.2

Still less is dia­lectics re­du­cible to an ab­stract for­mula or ste­reo­typed pro­ced­ure of thes­is-an­ti­thes­is-syn­thes­is. James re­garded this series as “a ru­in­ous sim­pli­fic­a­tion” in his 1948 Notes on Dia­lectics,3 while Len­in fol­lowed Hegel in con­sid­er­ing “the ‘tripli­city’ of dia­lectics… [as] its ex­tern­al, su­per­fi­cial side.”4 In sim­il­ar fash­ion, the Frank­furt School the­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno re­called that “Hegel ex­pressed the most cut­ting ob­jec­tions to the claptrap tripli­city of thes­is, an­ti­thes­is, and syn­thes­is as a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al schema.”5 Early in his ca­reer, Len­in up­braided the pop­u­list Nikolai Mikhail­ovsky for his fatu­ous por­tray­al of the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic as some sort of par­lor trick which “proves” cap­it­al­ism must col­lapse. “Marx’s dia­lect­ic­al meth­od does not con­sist in tri­ads at all,” ex­plained Len­in in 1894, “but pre­cisely in the re­jec­tion of ideal­ism and sub­ject­iv­ism in so­ci­ology.”6

How can this meth­od be re­tained in so­ci­ology, however, while at the same time get­ting rid of its ideal­ist residues? Ob­vi­ously, if the dia­lectic is to be any­thing more than a sub­ject­ive ad­di­tion, an ar­bit­rary “way of think­ing” about the world, its lo­gic has to be dis­covered in the ob­ject (i.e., so­ci­ety) it­self. The ma­ter­i­al­ist in­ver­sion of Hegel’s dia­lectic can only be jus­ti­fied if its con­tours ap­pear at the level of so­cial real­ity. “Dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing is noth­ing but the con­cep­tu­al form of a real dia­lect­ic­al fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 mono­graph Len­in: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ con­tem­por­ary, the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion­ary Le­on Trot­sky, main­tained that the meth­od should not be ap­plied to just any sphere of know­ledge “like an ever-ready mas­ter key,” since “dia­lectics can­not be im­posed upon facts, but must be de­duced from their char­ac­ter and de­vel­op­ment.”8 Re­flect­ing on his con­ver­sion to Marx­ism, Trot­sky wrote that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od re­vealed it­self for the first time, not as an ab­stract defin­i­tion, but as a liv­ing spring found in the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess.”9

Trot­sky’s meta­phor of the spring re­curs fre­quently in his art­icles and speeches. “Marx­ism without the dia­lectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later de­clared.10 Wound tightly in­to the shape of a spir­al, the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic simply mir­rors the dy­nam­ic ten­sion of cap­it­al­ism it­self. “Cycles ex­plain a great deal,” Trot­sky main­tained in 1923, “form­ing through auto­mat­ic pulsa­tion an in­dis­pens­able dia­lect­ic­al spring in the mech­an­ism of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”11 Earli­er in the year he stressed that an ad­equate so­ci­olo­gic­al ac­count must be both strong and flex­ible, since “dia­lect­ic­al thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12

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Don’t bother reading Settlers

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Addendum


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So after I pos­ted this a couple days ago it was picked up by Anti-Fas­cist News, which linked to it along with the sole re­mark that it was “in­ter­est­ing.” This led some fans of Set­tlers to then launch a cam­paign against me per­son­ally, re­fer­ring to me as “a sac­ri­fi­cial pig to be made an ex­ample of” (a Mar­rano, per­haps?) and ap­plaud­ing the fact that I’d been doxxed in the past as a “com­mie Jew” by Storm­front neo-Nazis. One per­son even threatened to send people to my door, all be­cause I cri­ti­cized a book she likes. Joshua Mou­fawad-Paul of the blog M-L-M May­hem, whose meta-re­view I linked and whose name I un­for­tu­nately mis­spelled, also re­spon­ded to the post.

Now the per­son who threatened to send people after me is de­mand­ing a re­trac­tion and an apo­logy, fol­lowed by “mon­et­ary re­par­a­tions will be made to the mul­tiple Black and in­di­gen­ous people who have had to de­fend their his­tory from the de­valu­ation of a White per­son for their labor.” You can’t make this shit up; it’s way too elab­or­ate and de­ranged. Rather than en­gage with a small group of ded­ic­ated and ob­vi­ously dis­turbed trolls, however, I’d prefer to sub­stan­ti­ate some of the cri­ti­cisms made in my open­ing tirade. Ad­mit­tedly, most of this con­sisted in me sum­mar­iz­ing en­gage­ments with Set­tlers un­der­taken by oth­er Marx­ists, with very little in the way of ori­gin­al com­ment­ary. Hope­fully this ad­dendum will give some sense of what it is I ob­ject to in the book.

To provide just one ex­ample of Sakai’s shoddy his­tor­ic­al re­search, he writes on page 53 of Set­tlers: “The pro-im­per­i­al­ist labor ar­is­to­cracy — which in 1914 Len­in es­tim­ated at roughly 20% of the Ger­man work­ing class — were the lead­ers of the Ger­man trade-uni­ons, the ‘so­cial­ist’ party, etc.” Un­sur­pris­ingly, no men­tion is made of what text Len­in sup­posedly made this es­tim­a­tion in (much less a cita­tion). I have scoured through all of Len­in’s writ­ings and have yet to find any­where he claims twenty per­cent of the Ger­man work­ing class be­longed to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” Neither in 1914 nor in any oth­er year.

Fur­ther, it’s very frus­trat­ing that Sakai nowhere ex­plains what his cri­ter­ia are for someone be­long­ing to the “labor ar­is­to­cracy.” In­stead he just cites US Labor Bur­eau stat­ist­ics, but then fol­lows it by par­en­thet­ic­ally claim­ing that “60% of this sec­tion is labor ar­is­to­cracy.” As if that were a cat­egory the Labor Bur­eau would ever use. On the fol­low­ing page he just baldly as­serts that “the set­tler labor ar­is­to­cracy is con­sid­er­ably lar­ger than its hard core, per­haps com­pris­ing as much as 50% of all male Euro-Amerik­ans.” Be­cause Sakai provides no in­form­a­tion for how he ar­rives at this fig­ure, there is no way of as­sess­ing its ac­cur­acy.

The “labor ar­is­to­cracy” thes­is first ad­vanced by En­gels dur­ing the 1890s and then ex­pan­ded upon by Len­in between 1905 and 1922 has already been chal­lenged con­vin­cingly by writers such as Charles Post and or­gan­iz­a­tions like the In­ter­na­tion­al Com­mun­ist Cur­rent as first “a myth” and then “a so­ci­olo­gic­al the­ory to di­vide the work­ing class.” Even grant­ing some an­ec­dot­al valid­ity to the ob­ser­va­tion that there’s an elite strat­um of skilled laborers — who, to use Len­in’s meta­phor, “fight for the scraps that fall off the im­per­i­al­ist ta­ble” — there’s no em­pir­ic­al ground­ing of the thes­is. Mostly it’s just a post-hoc ra­tion­al­iz­a­tion of work­ing class re­form­ism and de­feat.

Char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally, moreover, Sakai neg­lects to men­tion that op­pressed pop­u­la­tions in the New World have just as of­ten been at each oth­er’s throats — e.g., the “Buf­falo Sol­diers,” all-black vo­lun­teer cav­alry units which served with dis­tinc­tion in mas­sac­ring Plains In­di­ans for nearly a quarter-cen­tury. Sev­er­al cen­tur­ies earli­er in what today is Mex­ico, the ma­nu­mit­ted Afric­an slave Juan Gar­rido be­came a highly suc­cess­ful Span­ish con­quista­dor. He also helped con­quer Pu­erto Rico, Cuba, Guada­lupe, Domin­ica, and Flor­ida. Or the Cher­o­kee lead­er Stand Watie, a slave-driv­ing plant­a­tion own­er who fought on the side of the Con­fed­er­acy dur­ing the Civil War and rose to the rank of bri­gadier gen­er­al. Watie was the last South­ern gen­er­al to stop fight­ing. Jews owned some of the ships in the Dutch and Eng­lish transat­lantic slave trade. Treach­er­ous at­ti­tudes and be­ha­vi­ors to­ward oth­er ex­ploited and op­pressed groups was hardly lim­ited to the white work­ing class.

Need­less to say, as a side note, I do not in any way deny the hor­rors en­dured by black and in­di­gen­ous people in Canada, the US, and else­where throughout the world. For a far bet­ter ac­count of ra­cism and white su­prem­acy check out Theodore W. Al­len’s The In­ven­tion of the White Race (1994), Bar­bara and Kar­en Fields’ Race­craft: The Soul of In­equal­ity in Amer­ic­an Life (2012), or Loren Gold­ner’s ma­gis­teri­al es­say on “Race and the En­light­en­ment” from Race Trait­or (1997).

Spanish inquisition, Marrano Jews 1

Open­ing tirade

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J. Sakai’s 1983 screed Set­tlers: The Myth­o­logy of the White Pro­let­ari­at has been mak­ing the rounds again lately. Pre­sum­ably be­cause it of­fers a readymade ex­plan­a­tion for why the so-called “white work­ing class” voted for Trump en bloc, a premise which is it­self de­bat­able. Rhizzo­ne.net, an on­line mes­sage board where shit-tier Maoist Third Worldists and oth­er ran­dom nerds can meet and mingle, spear­headed the ini­ti­at­ive to re­launch Read­Set­tlers.org amidst the 2016 US Pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. You can fol­low the #read­set­tlers hasht­ag on Twit­ter, and there’s even been a tumblr ded­ic­ated to the in­junc­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the “ana­lys­is” offered in Set­tlers is tenden­tious garbage. Few Marx­ists have had the pa­tience, however, to read through the book in or­der to of­fer a point-by-point re­but­tal. This isn’t so much due to its style, which fam­ously flouts aca­dem­ic con­ven­tions and es­chews ac­cep­ted dis­curs­ive norms. I’m all for shit­ting on MLA writ­ing stand­ards, to say noth­ing of the stil­ted jar­gon of ad­juncts and pro­fess­ors. But if you’re go­ing to make de­tailed stat­ist­ic­al claims about the per­cent­age of white col­on­ists in­volved in vari­ous lines of work dur­ing the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, I ex­pect a foot­note ex­plain­ing the meth­od­o­logy used (how data was col­lec­ted and sor­ted, what “class” means in this con­text, etc.). Continue reading

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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Mihály Biró, 1886-1948

Bud­apest nat­ive Mihály Biró (1886-1948) joined the So­cial Demo­crat­ic cause early in life. He spent the peri­od between 1910 and 1914, design­ing strik­ing and widely noted posters and il­lus­tra­tions for the SZDP [Hun­gari­an So­cial Demo­crat­ic Party].

Fol­low­ing the First World War, Biró be­came the graph­ic mouth­piece of the new Red Army of the Hun­gari­an So­viet Re­pub­lic. The ad­vent of the right-wing dic­tat­or­ship of Miklós Hort­hy soon forced him to flee to Vi­enna, however, where he cre­ated the Hort­hy Port­fo­lio (1920), con­sist­ing of col­or litho­graphs doc­u­ment­ing the at­ro­cit­ies of the Hort­hy re­gime.

Along­side the polit­ic­al posters — Biró’s true call­ing — he also cre­ated posters for in­di­vidu­al busi­nesses and the boom­ing film in­dustry. Biró fi­nally fled from Aus­tro­fas­cism in 1934 and settled in Czechoslov­akia, where he be­came ill and deeply de­pressed. In 1938, he suc­ceeded in flee­ing on to Par­is, where he was to stay un­til 1947.

It was only in 1947 that he was able to re­turn to Bud­apest, where he died in 1948.

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Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

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Race and the Enlightenment

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I wrote a preamble to this piece relating it to a recent debate over postmodernism and Enlightenment. Since it got a bit overlong, I decided to repost as a standalone entry. But you can still read Goldner’s excellent essay on “Race and the Enlightenment” below.
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Race and the Enlightenment

Loren Goldner
Race Traitor
August 1997
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Part one
Pre-En­light­en­ment phase: Spain, Jews, and In­di­ans1
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It is not of­ten re­cog­nized that, pri­or to the sev­en­teenth and eight­eenth cen­tur­ies, the peri­od which West­ern his­tory calls the En­light­en­ment, the concept of race did not ex­ist.

It is still less of­ten re­cog­nized that the ori­gin of the concept of race, in the last quarter of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, in very spe­cif­ic so­cial cir­cum­stances, was pre­ceded by cen­tur­ies of a very dif­fer­ent vis­ion of Afric­ans2 and New World In­di­ans, which had to be erad­ic­ated be­fore the concept of race could be in­ven­ted, ex­press­ing a new so­cial prac­tice in new so­cial re­la­tions.

In the cur­rent cli­mate, in which the En­light­en­ment is un­der at­tack from many spe­cious view­points, it is im­port­ant to make it clear from the out­set that the thes­is of this art­icle is em­phat­ic­ally not that the En­light­en­ment was “ra­cist,” still less that it has valid­ity only for “white European males.” It is rather that the concept of race was not ac­ci­dent­ally born sim­ul­tan­eously with the En­light­en­ment, and that the En­light­en­ment’s “on­to­logy,” rooted in the new sci­ence of the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, cre­ated a vis­ion of hu­man be­ings in nature which in­ad­vert­ently provided weapons to a new race-based ideo­logy which would have been im­possible without the En­light­en­ment. Pri­or to the En­light­en­ment, Europeans gen­er­ally di­vided the known world between Chris­ti­ans, Jews, Muslims, and “hea­thens”;3 be­gin­ning around the 1670s, they began to speak of race, and col­or-coded hier­arch­ies of races.

What was this al­tern­at­ive “epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al grid” through which, pri­or to the 1670s, the West en­countered the “Oth­er”?

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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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Rosa Lux­em­burg and the party

Chris Cutrone
Platy­pus Re­view
May 21, 2016
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In one of her earli­est in­ter­ven­tionsin the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic Party of Ger­many (SPD), par­ti­cip­at­ing in the no­tori­ous the­or­et­ic­al “Re­vi­sion­ist Dis­pute,” in which Eduard Bern­stein in­fam­ously stated that “the move­ment is everything, the goal noth­ing,” the 27 year-old Rosa Lux­em­burg clearly enun­ci­ated her Marx­ism: “It is the fi­nal goal alone which con­sti­tutes the spir­it and the con­tent of our so­cial­ist struggle, which turns it in­to a class struggle.”1

Cri­tique of so­cial­ism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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