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.

Continue reading

Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review 61
November 2013

Originally published in the Platypus Review.

On June 9, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion on “Revolution without Marx? Rousseau and his followers for the Left” for the 2013 Left Forum at Pace University, New York. What follows is the edited version of the first of the prepared opening remarks. A full recording of the event is available online.


Bourgeois society came into full recognition with Rousseau, who in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and On the Social Contract, opened its radical critique. Hegel wrote: “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau.”

Marx quoted Rousseau favorably that “Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature…to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.”

Rousseau posed the question of society, which Adorno wrote is a “concept of the Third Estate.”

Marx recognized the crisis of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution and workers’ call for socialism. But proletarian socialism is no longer the rising force it was in Marx’s time. So what remains of thinking the unrealized radicalism of bourgeois society without Marx? Kant stated that if the potential of bourgeois society was not fully achieved as the “mid-point” of freedom then Rousseau may have been right to prefer savagery against civilization’s “glittering misery.” Nietzsche warned that we might continue to be “living at the expense of the future:” “Perhaps more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely.”[1] How have thinkers of the revolutionary epoch after Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel, Benjamin Constant, and Nietzsche himself, contributed to the possibility of emancipation in a world after Marxism?

Karl Marx, photographed in 1870

Marx and Rousseau

Marx’s favorite quotation of Rousseau, from On the Social Contract, goes as follows:

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.[2]

Marx wrote that this was “well formulated,” but only as “the abstract notion of political man,” concluding that,

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.[3]

What did Marx mean by “social powers” as opposed to the “political power” from which it has been “separated?” Continue reading

Tragedy, relational art

by Bret Schneider

Image: Detail from Gustav
Klimt’s Tragoedie (1911)


Originally posted on Bret Schneider’s website, quaquaqua.

Apperceptive indifference

Some “minor” artworks seem especially indifferent to society. Doubtlessly, it is this affect which exclusively distinguishes them from other artworks, and the idiosyncratic reflection in which this indifference is formed determines their quality. Rather than see indifference as nihilistic, it is a form of apperceptive reflection that is especially insightful, though, towards nothing in particular. This “nothing in particular” is what rubs people the wrong way, but for what reasons? Virginia Woolf’s theory of modern fiction, as well as the essay claimed that there is no detail too insignificant to include in the totality of the work. The philosophy not explicated further in this claim is that we do not know what our values are in the modern age, as everything is free-floating and now yet to be determined. Analogous to film, which Benjamin observed was able to focus on the marginal things which are assumed as materially constitutive of subjectivity, but not recognized as such, literary inclusions of meandering thoughts focus on those things that we know that we know, but don’t know that we know yet. Apperceptive artworks propose that the way to properly perceive the world is no longer dependent on the direct act of standing in front of a painting and straining one’s eyes out the front one’s head, which is a type of muscular reflection obstructed by obsolete moralistic efforts. Rather, apperceptive modes of reflection refine this by an almost peripheral vantage point, postulating that in order to experience something properly, one must not even really look at it. It is a form of indirect experience. Certainly, there is an element of “trying” that is required to train the mind for this type of viewing, but it is a type which doesn’t try to “get it,” or to “experience it,” or “love it,” etc., but a type which is geared towards the development of a second nature of reflection that would render these bourgeois concepts as obsolete as they have truly become, if only in ideal. The development of an adequate apperceptive faculty resides in the self-understanding of one’s perception as not merely watcher, but also watched. That is, reflection imitates the particularly modern condition whereby one is both subject and object, and in which the differentiation from mere objects is in the midst of being processed, so to speak. One grows eyes on the side of one’s head, like a fish, or develops a form of cognition like a fly’s refractive eyesight that takes in ever more distracted objects. The metamorphosis from human to insect is not entirely barbaric — it is a type of second nature. Beckett’s transfiguration of human to static object is not merely a critique of passivity and so forth, but indicates a real perfectability of reflection to a state where it can take in those aspects of nature that are denied to otherwise affirmed humanistic principled. Furthermore, the ability to perceive oneself as an object is a precondition for constituting projected forms of subjectivity.

A young Virginia Woolf

A young Virginia Woolf

The grand excavation

The broad field of human life turns into a grand excavation, the means of which are brought about by a particular form of insight that is indifferent to, and a development out of, the obsolete forms of perceptive and logical thought. A vulgar analogy comes out of detective stories: the modern detective is contrasted in his peculiar attention to details that would otherwise be overlooked by traditional methods of investigation. At times, it appears that the detective isn’t even paying attention, or is indifferent to the serious matter at hand. In pop culture, this is chalked up to a merely eccentric personality, whereas in truth their indifference is at the avant-garde of distant criticism. An immersive, immediate form of investigation into the object at hand would be hindered by standard forms of perception that take grip of the one who is critiquing the situation. In an indifferent form of cognition, there is a distance from such immediacy, almost as if the indifferent thinker has never once been privy to the laws and rules which seem to apply to everyone else. This sort of character is sanctioned and developed as an anomaly — the anomaly being a result of social refinement. Continue reading

“Gay errancy”: Hypermoderns (postmoderns)

by Manfredo Tafuri

Image: Manfredo Tafuri

Download the PDF of Manfredo Tafuri’s “‘Gay errancy’: Hypermoderns (postmoderns).”

It is well known that in Italy, Portoghesi launched a style that has been called “postmodern” with his Strada Novissima and a dense series of publications, and thus joined an international circuit that includes analogous “opinion-makers” such as Charles Jencks and Robert Stern. Portoghesi was different, though, in that he had a long theoretical and practical interest in the manipulation of historical signs: as we have seen, his first neobaroque experiments began in the late fifties. His more recent “manifestos” are linear. They contain an appeal for a “liberation from ideas” supposedly imposed upon architects and their beneficiaries by the “modern movement,” for a joyous rediscovery of the entire repertory of the I past, for expressive contaminations of the complexity of historical eras, and for a formal expressiveness linked to the recovery of the concepts of place and continuity. Portoghesi also engaged in a critique of the utopia of the “modern” and of its nihilistic character, which was spiritually grounded in the ideology of progress. “Liberation” is presented as overcoming avant-garde attempts to “reconstruct the universe,” and also as canceling incongruous duties, in order to recover the happiness of “rich languages” that have been lost. Echoes of the philosophical writings of [Martin] Heidegger, [Arnold] Gehlen, [Gilles] Deleuze, and [Emmanuel] Lévinas — listening, simulacrum, post-histoire, angel of history — possibly mediated by Mario Perniola and Gianni Vattimo, punctuate Portoghesi’s writings, as he travels the seas of contemporary thought, a voyage that, as we shall see, has its own particular significance.

A hedonistic urge and a taste for citation, as well as free association and pastiche, counterbalance each other in the proposals of Portoghesi, whose theoretical production has been accompanied by skillful professional and promotional activities. This man and the review Eupalino soon became the focal points of a composite school intent on using design and writing to breathe new life into a stringent critique of the “modern,” thereby hailing the advent of a new era.

Sketch by Paolo Portoghesi

Sketch by Paolo Portoghesi

Portoghesi gathers almost all the motifs that have been floating about in the international architectural and philosophical debate of recent decades. His theoretical system accommodates a broad spectrum of issues: a critique of the linear concept of history, a reflection upon memory, the need for a new nonmetaphysical statute for truth, the emergence of new demands for identity and what can be imagined, the demand for peripheral identities, the cult of roots, and the explosion of ephemeral hedonisms. In fact, his cultural project is to make debate a priority once again, focused upon passwords such as the “end of prohibitionism,” rediscovered architecture, historical roots, and listening to the site and to history. In this way, the factors characterizing Italian architecture at the present — the multiplication of ideas and the slow formation of parameters of comparison — are flattened in a synthetic attempt, launched with the explicit goal of cultural “management.” And that is not all. The reduction of pluralism to a formula includes a study of the true nature of kitsch: there is an answer for everything, and the need for solutions predominates. Continue reading

Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch 1906)

Twilight of the idoloclast?

On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn



[W]hat makes Nietzsche’s influence so un/canny is that there has never been adequate resistance from a real Left.

— Geoff Waite, Nietzsche’s Corps/e (1996)

Few thinkers have enjoyed such widespread appeal over the last forty years as Nietzsche.

— Peter Thomas, “Overman and
the Commune”

Opposed to everyone, Nietzsche has met with remarkably little opposition.

— Malcolm Bull, “Where is the

If Nietzsche’s arguments could be said to have gone unchallenged during the second half of the twentieth century, as the above-cited authors suggest, the same cannot be said today. Beginning in the early 1990s, but then with increasing rapidity over the course of the last decade, a distinctly anti-Nietzschean consensus has formed — particularly on the Left. Recent years have witnessed a fresh spate of texts condemning both Nietzsche and his thought as irredeemably reactionary, and hence incompatible with any sort of emancipatory politics. Numerous authors have contributed to this shift in scholarly opinion. To wit: William Altman, Fredrick Appel, Malcolm Bull, Daniel Conway, Bruce Detwiler, Don Dombowsky, Ishay Landa, Domenico Losurdo, Corey Robin, and Geoff Waite. The list goes on. Continue reading

Painting of Trotsky by Henry Schnautz, 1950s

Some hitherto untranslated sections of Trotsky on Nietzsche (1908)


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Image: Henry Schnautz’s Trotsky (1950s)


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Here are a few preliminary, still very rough translations of passages from Trotsky writing on Nietzsche not available in English. There is probably some background required to know the various philosophical and literary (idealist and symbolist, respectively) movements he’s talking about, but I think that Trotsky makes a few essential points that are in line with later interpretations advanced by Adorno.  Which makes me wonder, did Adorno et al. perhaps read this essay? Was it available in German, even if not in English? The essay’s title in English would be “Starved for ‘Culture'” or something like that, from 1908.

Note the succession in the last paragraph: Nietzsche, Kant, the Marquis de Sade! Recall the second chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, where precisely these figures were juxtaposed with respect to the morality of the individual under enlightened bourgeois subjectivity.

Our impoverished “decadence” of the 1890’s was not the first declaration of aristocratic, or even intellectual-bourgeois aestheticism. But from the outset, how gutless (even cowardly) it was! It scarcely dared stammer on about the absolute end-in-itself of the aesthetic (though principally erotic) “tremor” [«трепета»], or of its protest against “tendentiousness” — i.e., in practice, against the grand morality of political obligations, which gravitated toward literature and strove to give the appearance of struggling against moralizing populism. This helped it come under the aegis of the journalistic Marxism of the time, which was of little interest to the Decadents taken on its own terms. They were both still psychologically connected, if you will, by the fact that both proclaimed a “new word” and both were in the minority. The Petersburg journal Life, a combination of third-rate Marxism and kitschy aestheticism printed on good paper for an inexpensive price, was the fruit of this strange coupling. Increasing colossally overnight, the vogue appeal of Gorkii developed in the same period. According to the current definition, the tramp symbolizes the revolt against petit-bourgeois philistinism. Untrue! On the contrary! For broad groups of intellectuals, the tramp turned out to be precisely the symbol of the sudden rise of petit-bourgeois [мещанского, also connotes “philistine”] individualism. Off with one’s burdens! It’s time to straighten one’s back! Society is nothing more than an imperceptible abstraction. I — and this is me! — here came to the aid of Nietzsche. In the West, he appeared as the final, most extreme word in philosophical individualism because he was also the negation and overcoming of petit-bourgeois individualism. But for us Nietzsche was forced to perform a quite different task: we smashed his lyrical philosophy into fragments of paradoxes and threw them into circulation as the hard cash of a petty, pretentious egoism…

Наш жалконький «декаданс» 90-х годов — и был этим первым провозглашением не дворянского, а интеллигентско-мещанского эстетизма. Но как он был по первоначалу робок, даже труслив! Он едва смел заикаться об абсолютной самоцельности эстетического (главным образом эротического) «трепета» и своему протесту против «тенденциозности», т.-е. на деле против больших нравственно-политических обязательств, тяготевших на литературе, старался придать вид борьбы против морализующего народничества. Это помогло ему стать под защиту тогдашнего журнального марксизма, который сам по себе декадентов мало интересовал. Их, пожалуй, еще психологически связывало то, что оба провозглашали «новое слово» и оба были в меньшинстве. Петербургский журнал Жизнь, комбинация из дешевого марксизма и дешевого эстетизма, на хорошей бумаге и за недорогую цену, явился плодом этой странной связи. Колоссальная, в 24 часа выросшая, популярность Горького — явление той же эпохи. По ходячему определению, босяк был символом бунта против мещанства. Неправда! Как раз наоборот! Для широких групп интеллигенции босяк оказался именно символом воспрянувшего мещанского индивидуализма. Долой ношу! Пора выпрямить хребет! Общество — лишь неуловимая абстракция. Я — это я! — На помощь пришел Ницше. На Западе он явился, как последнее, самое крайнее слово философского индивидуализма и потому — как отрицание и преодоление индивидуализма мещанского. У нас же Ницше заставили выполнять совсем другую работу: его лирическую философию разбили на осколки парадоксов и пустили их в оборот, как звонкую монету маленького претенциозного эгоизма… Continue reading

Platypus primary Marxist reading group, Fall 2012–Winter 2013

Fall 2012 – Winter 2013

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

Sundays, 2–5PM EST

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

• required / + recommended reading

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

Week A. Aug. 4–5, 2012

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

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

Week B. Aug. 11–12, 2012

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

Week C. Aug. 18–19, 2012

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

Week D. Aug. 25–26, 2012

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

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

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

Week F. Sep. 8–9, 2012

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

Week G. Sep. 15–16, 2012

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

Week H. Sep. 22–23, 2012

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

Week 1. Sep. 29–30, 2012

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

Week 2. Oct. 6–7, 2012

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

Week 3. Oct. 13–14, 2012

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

Week 4. Oct. 20–21, 2012

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

Week 5. Oct. 27–28, 2012

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

Week 6. Nov. 3–4, 2012

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

Week 7. Nov. 10–11, 2012

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

Week 8. Nov. 17–18, 2012

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

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

Winter break readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has the 20th century passed in vain?

Here’s the video of my overly long presentation (practically a monologue) on Trotskii’s excellent 1906 reflection, Results and Prospects. Sadly, James was sick yesterday, and Lisa’s been out of town.  Plus Eugene has been really bogged down with schoolwork, and Sidd and Yoni weren’t around.  So the attendance was a bit light, but whatever:

[vodpod id=Video.16146691&w=425&h=350&fv=vid%3D20692187%26amp%3Bautoplay%3Dfalse]

Basically, the thrust of my interpretation of this text centers around Trotskii’s remark in the third chapter that “The 19th century has not passed in vain,” which I contend can be understood in a twofold sense:

1. First, at a purely objective level, in terms of the social and economic means of production, the 19th century has not passed in vain. Capitalism has developed and expanded in an irreversible manner, both extensively (as an increasingly global system) and intensively (with accelerating technological rapidity). The productive capacities of mankind are greater today than at any prior point in recorded history. Thus, we cannot go back to 1789, 1848, 1871, etc. The world is more prepared than ever to overcome capitalism on the basis of capitalism itself.

2. Moreover, at a subjective level, in terms of the development of an historical and political consciousness in a prospective revolutionary class, the 19th century has not passed in vain. After the great fissure within modern (civil) society burst into the open in June 1848, a radical and international working-class movement has gained more and more momentum, reaching its peak in the 1890s around the Second International and continuing into the first two decades of the twentieth. The potential political agency of a self-conscious social subject has risen to an unprecedented degree. Thus, we are in a better place, politically, than the revolutionary bourgeoisie in 1789, the nascent working-class movement in the Insurrection of 1848, or the communards of 1871.

Poster commemorating the 1905 sailors’ mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin, an important symbolic event in the Russian Revolution of 1905

In light of Trotskii’s assertion in 1906 that “History does not repeat itself…The 19th century has not passed in vain,” I thus asked an analogous question with respect to our present moment, wondering

Has the 20th century passed in vain? Continue reading

Radical Bourgeois Philosophy Summer Reading Group

I am eagerly looking forward to the Platypus Affiliated Society’s New York chapter reading group for the summer, which will focus on “Radical Bourgeois Philosophy.”  Having already completed the main readings that lay the theoretical foundation for the group’s political outlook, I feel it will be profitable to better acquaint myself with the texts of classical liberalism and political economy.  Marxists, in their rejection of liberal democracy and bourgeois ideology, all-too-often forget the genuinely progressive legacy of liberalism and the revolutionary role played by the bourgeoisie in history.  This legacy is nowhere better illustrated than in the texts of some of their foremost thinkers — Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel, Ricardo, and Nietzsche.  Marx’s own deep, if critical, respect for these thinkers (minus Nietzsche, who came later) cannot be ignored.

The following is the reading list and schedule for film screenings related to the subject:

Reading group and History of Humanity Film Screenings & Lectures

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789–1848 [PDF]

June 26 – August 21
New York University Puck Building
295 Lafayette St. 4th floor

We will address the greater context for Marx and Marxism through the issue of bourgeois radicalism in philosophy in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Discussion will emerge by working through the development from Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche, but also by reference to the Rousseauian aftermath, and the emergence of the modern society of capital, as registered by liberals such as Adam Smith and Benjamin Constant.

“The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility,” . . . suggest that the possi- bilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared. . . . As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.”

– James Miller (author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, 2000), Introduction to Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett, 1992)


June 26 | 1PM

Chris Cutrone, “Capital in History”
Robert Pippin, “On Critical Theory” [HTML Critical Inquiry 2003]
Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Film screening | 4:30PM

Marie Antoinette (2006)

June 30 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity pre-1750”

July 3 | 1pm

Rousseau, selection from The Social Contract

Film screening | 4:30PM

Jefferson in Paris (1995)

July 10 | 1pm

Adam Smith, selections from The Wealth of Nations
Volume I
Introduction and Plan of the Work
Book I: Of the Causes of Improvement…
I.1. Of the Division of Labor
I.2. Of the Principle which gives Occasion to the Division of Labour
I.3. That the Division of Labour is Limited by the Extent of the Market
I.4. Of the Origin and Use of Money
I.6. Of the Component Parts of the Price of Commodities
I.7. Of the Natural and Market Price of Commodities
I.8. Of the Wages of Labour
I.9. Of the Profits of Stock
Book III: Of the different Progress of Opulence in different Nations
 Of the Natural Progress of Opulence
III.2. Of the Discouragement of Agriculture in the Ancient State of Europe after the Fall of the Roman Empire
III.3. Of the Rise and Progress of Cities and Towns, after the Fall of the Roman Empire
III.4. How the Commerce of the Towns Contributed to the Improvement of the Country
Volume II
IV.7. Of Colonies
Book V: Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth
V.1. Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth

Film screening | 4:30PM

Danton (1983)

July 14 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity 1750–1815”

July 17 | 1pm

Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns
Kant, “What is Enlightenment? ,” and “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

Film screening | 4:30PM

Amistad (1997)

July 24 | 1pm

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
Kant, “On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory, But it is of No Use in Practice” [HTML part 2]

July 31 | 1pm

Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History [HTML] [PDF pp. 14-128]

Film screening | 4:30PM

selected scene from Gettysburg (1993) “No Divine Spark” Glory (1989)

August 4 | 6:30PM

Thursday evening lecture

“History of humanity 1815–48”

August 7 | 1pm

Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History for Life [translator’s introduction by Peter Preuss]
Nietzsche, selection from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense

Film screening | 4:30PM

Nietzsche: Human, All Too Human (1999)

August 14 | 1pm

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic

Film screening | 4:30PM

Reds (1981)

August 21: Coda | 1pm

Marx, To make the world philosophical, Robert Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (Norton 2nd ed., 1978) pp. 9–11
Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existingMarx-Engels Reader pp. 12–15
Marx, Theses on FeuerbachMarx-Engels Reader pp. 143–145
Marx, On [Bruno Bauer’s] The Jewish QuestionMarx-Engels Reader pp. 26–52
Marx, The coming upheaval [see bottom of section, beginning with “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass”] (from The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847), Marx-Engels Reader pp. 218–219
Marx and Engels, Communist ManifestoMarx-Engels Reader pp. 469–500