1914 in the history of Marxism

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review
May 6, 2014

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At the Platypus Affiliated Society’s annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago April 4-6, 2014, Chris Cutrone delivered the following President’s Report. An edited transcript of the presentation and subsequent discussion appears below. A full audio recording is available online.

To be clear, I am no longer a member of Platypus, and do not agree with all of its interpretations. Nor the opinions of its individual members necessarily reflect my own. That said, I find Cutrone’s article here excellent.

Lot 3207 TELINGATER, SOLOMON BENEDIKTOVICH & ILYA FEINBERG. 1914-go. [The Year 1914.] Moscow- MTP, 1934.

One hundred years later, what does the crisis and split in Marxism, and the political collapse of the major parties of the 2nd International in 1914, mean for us today?

The Spartacists, for example, are constantly in search of the “August 4” moment, the moment of betrayal of the proletariat’s struggle for socialism by various tendencies in the history of Marxism. The Spartacists went so far as to confess their own “August 4th” when they failed to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake there.

So, what happened, from a Marxist perspective, on August 4, 1914, when the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) members of the Reichstag voted to finance the Prussian Empire’s war budget?

Two things: the parliamentary representatives of the SPD went against past resolutions to vote down the war effort of the German government; and the disorganization of the SPD leadership, what has been called the effective but illegitimate takeover of the party by the parliamentary delegation. No legitimate political authority of the party sanctioned this action. In all respects of principle and practice, the SPD was destroyed as a political organization as it had existed up to that point.

August 4, 1914, has been called — by the Spartacists — the first great internal counterrevolution in the history of Marxism. This is entirely true.

But it was a counterrevolution conducted not merely by the leadership of the SPD, however they may have abetted it, but rather by the Reich’s government against the SPD membership.

What was the specific character of this counterrevolution, and how was it made possible?

There was a famous pair of sayings by the SPD’s chairman, Bebel: “Not one man or one penny for this rotten system!” and “If it’s against Russia, I myself will pick up a gun!”

The German High Command, in preparation for war, took aim precisely at the contradiction between these two statements by Bebel.

The German High Command wielded the specter of counterrevolution through occupation by Tsarist Russian troops against the SPD in order to prompt their preemptive counterrevolution, which they saw as an act of self-preservation, as the lesser evil. Furthermore, they thought that getting behind the war would allow them to (somehow) control it, to make the government dependent on them and so wrest political concessions from it, perhaps even undermining it, in political favor of the proletariat.

This was not an unreasonable judgment. The question is whether their compromise was too much, whether the act of ostensible self-preservation was in fact actually an act of self-destruction. Continue reading

Trotskyism in Greece: An interview with Andros Payiatsos

Nikos Manousakis
Platypus Review 64
March 2, 2014

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On November 22, 2013, Nikos Manousakis, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Thessoliniki, interviewed Andros Payiatsos, Secretary General of Xekinima or “Start,” the Greek chapter of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Nikos Manousakis
: Tell us about the Greek chapter of the CWI. What are its involvements politically, its connection to the wider international organization, its ideological background, and what are Start’s aims in present-day Greece?

Andros Payiastos: Xekinima, which can be translated as Start, has a long history that dates back to the period of the Junta, the military dictatorship from 1967-1974. It was originally a small group that operated illegally under the Dictatorship of the Generals and, in 1974, joined the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Xekinima had evolved in a Trotskyist direction, although not with full clarity at the outset, and was involved in the uprising of the Athens Polytechnic in the autumn of 1973. Start members joined PASOK when the latter was created in 1974. Around the same time Start came into contact with the British counterpart of the CWI, then called Militant, which was working inside British Labour. The group has had an interesting and a complex development since then. In its initial period it was very successful within PASOK, which, in the 1970s, was an entirely different organization from the one we see today — with thousands of working-class fighters and radical left activists. It was also very bureaucratic. But Xekinima was very quickly expelled. From 1975 onwards, Xekinima has worked as a tendency outside PASOK, although it directs itself at the PASOK rank and file.

Then in the late 1980s, a discussion began to develop in Greece and internationally about the character of working-class parties, labor parties, Social Democratic parties, etc., and there was a move in the direction of abandoning them. So Xekinima, too, shifted toward independent work and abandoned any kind of relationship with PASOK. Furthermore, in the 1990s, Xekinima came out openly as an independent organization with a stated aim of rebuilding the forces of the Left, describing PASOK as a bourgeois party, which had abandoned any link to working-class interests.

The 1990s were a very difficult period. The Left, as a whole, was in crisis as a result of the collapse of Stalinism and was confronted by a major ideological offensive by the bourgeoisie globally. It is fair to say that the entire Left was in crisis, even in tatters! Many organizations split and Xekinima also suffered from such clefts.

NM: This in spite of the fact that Xekinima had a different ideological or Trotskyist background?

AP: The Trotskyist current, although it was the only one that had predicted Stalinism was a temporary historical phenomenon and that it would collapse in one way or another, nevertheless paid the cost of the collapse of the Stalinist left. Because the collapse had an adverse, negative effect on the struggles of the working class, on the consciousness of the working class, on leftist working-class organizations, and on the leadership of the trade unions, etc.

NM: So you understand 1989 to have been a turning point for the Left in Greece and globally?

AP: Without any doubt! And Xekinima paid a cost for 1989. Actually, it is fair to say that Xekinima was able to restart, to rebuild its forces, having contracted to a small group by the late-1990s, when leftist movements found new life as the repercussions of the financial-economic crisis in southeast Asia were felt internationally, by the effects of the anti-globalization movement, and then the anti-war movement. It was this rebirth that followed the collapse of the Left in 1989 that also allowed Xekinima to rebuild its forces and become one of the significant forces on the Left today.

NM: How would you define the present goals of Xekinima?

AP: The general goal, of course, is the transformation of society. Capitalism is a deadly system leading to the barbarism that we experience today. How we get to transform society is the main question and a difficult one because the entire Left claims, in one way or another, that they are struggling for a socialist society, but historically the Left has proved incapable of achieving that aim. We have two goals given the present state of things in Greece: The first is to develop a transitional program that reflects the needs of today, define the aims for the working class to fight for, launch proposals about how that fight should develop, in other words a plan of struggle for the working class in order to be able to face this barbaric attack by the troika and the Greek bourgeoisie. The second is to try to bring together the forces which agree on the fundamental tasks of our epoch, I mean forces from the rest of the Left with an orientation toward revolutionary Marxism.

The Greek left is in turmoil — reflecting the depth of the current crisis on the one hand and the deficiencies of the (international) Left on the other. What is very important, however, is that there are significant forces inside all of the major left formations which are in opposition to the ideas or political lines of the central leaderships of those left formations. Such forces exist inside SYRIZA, but also inside the ANTARSYA coalition, and the KKE, the Greek Communist Party. These forces understand the necessity of a transitional program as I have described above and, also, the vital importance of the United Front. Continue reading

The American War of Independence as bourgeois revolution

1776 in world history
James M. Vaughn
Platypus Review 61

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I. Introduction: The bourgeois revolution(s) and the American Revolution

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In the period stretching from the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War to the coup d’état that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power in revolutionary France, the old order in Europe and North America gave up the ghost and passed away from the face of the earth. For the years between 1760 and 1800 were, as the liberal historian R.R. Palmer masterfully argued, the Age of the Democratic Revolution.[1] By the middle decades of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment had eroded many of the intellectual and cultural foundations of the Ancien Régime. New patterns of commercialization and urbanization, and new forms of sociability and venues of public discussion, had transformed and bourgeoisified the kingdoms of Western Europe. The fiscal and military capacities of the leading powers nearly came to ruin during the worldwide Seven Years’ War (c. 1754–1763), and this led many states to undertake wide-ranging reforms in the conflict’s wake. This upheaval and instability did not only affect the absolute monarchies of the continent, such as Bourbon France and Habsburg Austria, but also what many considered to be the freest society in the West, if not the world: the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The island kingdom’s institutions were seen by many as increasingly inadequate to the changed social and intellectual landscape of the mid- to late-eighteenth century. With the growth of colonial American resistance to post-war imperial reforms and the birth of the Wilkesite movement in 1763, the British Crown and Parliament faced riotous subjects making more assertive, and often new, demands on both sides of the ocean. By the 1760s, many societies in the Atlantic world were experiencing tremors that shook their political, economic, cultural, and intellectual foundations.

Such crises and upheavals had taken place before, and the Ancien Régime had survived largely intact, although not without adjustments and changes. Thus, the fact that this post-1760 period of instability eventually led to the wholesale creation of radically new political foundations for society — above all, to the birth of the modern democratic republic, a republic fit not for Greek and Roman antiquity but for the era of commercial and manufacturing capitalism — cannot be explained by the crises and upheavals themselves. Why did the Ancien Régime collapse this time? Why did the old world experience sickness unto death? And why was a new world born from it?

The key turning points in these ongoing crises and upheavals leading to fundamentally new political and social forms were of course the American Revolution of 1776 and the Great French Revolution of 1789. While the Enlightenment was the cauldron in which these transformations brewed, it was the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 that not only considerably altered existing institutions and practices, as was the case with England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689, but also uprooted long-standing political foundations and laid down fundamentally new ones, those of the constitutional republic. The American and French revolutions transformed the post-1760 period of crisis and upheaval into the beginning of an Age of Revolution throughout the Atlantic world that lasted from the last quarter of the eighteenth century into the middle decades of the nineteenth, until the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 ended in failure and defeat.

During the revolutions of 1776 and 1789, and throughout the revolutionary epoch they inaugurated, members of the traditional elite played an important role, but political and social change was powerfully driven by plebeian radicalism and popular mobilization. The hallmark of this revolutionary epoch was not merely that it “began the world anew,” for there has been far-reaching change in social and political life throughout recorded history, but also that this new world was built by “the people,” ranging from radical aristocrats and priests to middling lawyers and merchants to humble artisans and the laboring poor, with a level of self-consciousness, expressed in pamphlets and parliamentary debates as well as in military mobilizations and street demonstrations, not seen before in world history. Moreover, it was built by their own hands and with a level of consciousness, expressed in pamphlets and parliamentary debate as well as in military mobilizations and street demonstrations, to a degree not seen before in world history. During the Age of Revolution, people were not merely subjected to historical change, but rather they became the genuine subjects — that is, self-conscious agents — of historical change.

The American and French revolutions were part of an ongoing process of bourgeois revolution inaugurated by the Dutch Revolt (c. 1568-1648) and deepened with the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century and the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. Taken together, these revolutions constituted an ongoing process of bourgeois revolution because they were all moments when men and women, with increasing self-consciousness, attempted to realize the potential for human emancipation contained within the crisis and breakdown of traditional agrarian civilization, a crisis that began on the far western periphery of the Eurasian landmass but which eventually spread across the globe.

The crises and upheavals that afflicted Western Europe in the late medieval and early modern period loosened the Great Chain of Being, a chain in which the orders of rank and privilege that determined one’s life trajectory at birth were understood as merely one element in a divinely-ordained hierarchy linking the world of the living with the worlds of the dead and the unborn. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the revolt of the Third Estate rushed through the cracks and fissures created in the Great Chain of Being and brought traditional agrarian civilization crashing down around it. The classic bourgeois revolutions were one great revolt of the Third Estate, of those who work, against the world that consigned them to labor and toil off the stage of history. Radical aristocrats and clergymen played vital and essential roles in the revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth century — one need only think of the 2nd Earl of Warwick in the English Civil Wars, Bishop Gilbert Burnet in the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath, the Marquis de Lafayette in the American and French revolutions, and the Abbé Sieyès throughout the French Revolution. These figures were not beholden to the bourgeoisie or future capitalist class, but rather acted on behalf of the Third Estate of those who work, which included wealthy merchants in Amsterdam, prosperous planters in Virginia, middling shopkeepers in London, thrifty artisans in Brussels, plebeian laborers in Paris, and slaves in Saint Domingue. This great revolt of the Third Estate brought the workers of the world onto the stage of history, and they used their newfound political power to emancipate labor and to unshackle the exchange of its products.

The emergence and advance of the bourgeoisie was bound up with, and expressive of, humanity’s struggle for self-emancipation and self-determination in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This struggle propelled elements of the bourgeoisie to the forefront of the epoch-making politics of the Dutch Revolt, the English Commonwealth, and the French Revolution. As Karl Marx argued in the midst of the revolutionary upheavals of 1848,

The revolution of 1789 was (at least in Europe) only prefigured by the revolution of 1648, which in turn was only prefigured by the rising of the Netherlands against Spain. Both revolutions were approximately a century in advance of their predecessors, not only in time but also in content…. The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions; they were revolutions of a European pattern. They were not the victory of a particular class of society over the old political order; they were the proclamation of the political order for the new European society. In these revolutions the bourgeoisie gained the victory; but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois property over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, or the partition of estates over primogeniture, of the owner’s mastery of the land over the land’s mastery of its owner, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic laziness, of civil law over privileges of medieval origin. The revolution of 1648 was the victory of the seventeenth century over the sixteenth century, the revolution of 1789 was the victory of the eighteenth century over the seventeenth century. Still more than expressing the needs of the parts of the world in which they took place, England and France, these revolutions expressed the needs of the whole world, as it existed then.[2]

Indeed, the “rise of the bourgeoisie” and the expansion of the capitalist economy were symptoms of the social transformation of humanity from the bottom up. The bourgeois revolutions were the moments of conflict and crisis during which the potentials for collective and individual emancipation, made possible by the breakdown of traditional agrarian civilization and the rise of the commodity form of labor, were politically realized. Continue reading

The tragic failure of Adorno’s emancipatory modernism

Bret Schneider
Platypus Review 21
March 1, 2010

Book review:
Theodor Adorno
Philosophy of New Music (1947)

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Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor.

University of Minnesota Press.
Minneapolis, MN: 2006..

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The new translation and republication of Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music is a further clarification of modernism, necessitated by the latest discontents with postmodernism’s vulgarization, which keeps it at a fictitious distance. Perhaps as his remedy for the most fragmented part of the whole of the arts, namely music, translator Robert Hullot-Kentor has in recent years been steadily reintroducing Adorno’s aesthetic philosophy to English readers.[1] Philosophy of New Music continues this process, further introducing readers to Adorno’s complex aesthetic theory, also elaborated recently in Current of Music, which embodies Adorno’s aesthetic hopes for the early emergence of radio transmission. Republishing Philosophy of New Music serves the purpose of clarifying a nexus of art history where the relationship between aesthetics and theory could have been drastically reformulated.

Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), whose works Adorno considers at length in Philosophy of New Music.

Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), whose
works Adorno considers at length in Philosophy of New Music

Philosophy of New Music is one of Adorno’s more obscure, niche analyses. Split into two sections comprising intricate dissections of Schönberg and Stravinsky, it is tighter and less ambitious than Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with Max Horkheimer around the same time. However, New Music can be understood as Dialectic’s complement, its object being entangled with that of the culture industry critiqued generally in the more famous volume from the same period. Operating in an inverse way, Philosophy of New Music seeks to exacerbate and expose the same symptoms from within modernist music itself. American readers may have a difficult entry into the text, not only because the writing styles itself on Schönberg’s esoteric manner of composition, but also because of Adorno’s object of critique, the historical complications provoking the European modernist avant-garde. The text pays strict attention to Schönberg’s music technique, while delving into historical comparisons to previous composers like Richard Wagner and the regressive, constrictive trajectory implied by their music styles. The volume also incorporates some of Adorno’s most sustained ruminations on the changed significance of the musical “material,” one of Adorno’s most pivotal and least understood concepts for approaching new music as a response to rapidly changing social conditions. As a concept, it seeks to articulate possibilities emanating from the split in idealization and materialization in art — possibilities we now identify as reaching a climax with the music of the mid-century avant-garde that Adorno anticipated. Continue reading

Cap on debt

Peter Bierl

Book review: David Graeber,
Debt: The First 5000 Years.
New York: Melville House, 2012.

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Like many critics of globalization, David Graeber does not seem to understand what capitalism is. Otherwise he would not emphasize time and again that a market economy is something fundamentally different, as he does in his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. Graeber’s distinction fits with a lot of left-wing currents, from old-fashioned anarchists in the tradition of Proudhon to young militants of Attac. All too many people assume that capitalism simply means financial speculation, intransparent bank dealings, monopolies, or interest as a way to garner income without work, all of which place a burden on the middle class. A market economy, on the other hand, is associated with “honest” labor and fair exchange.

Sociologically, this has been the ideology of a petit-bourgeois middle class — of small artisans, merchants, peasants, self-employed doctors, attorneys, engineers, public officials, high-salaried workers, and skilled laborers — since Proudhon coined the famous phrase, “property is theft.” Of course, his fans often willingly overlook that Proudhon aimed at people who exploit others by lending money for interest, and that he blamed the Jews especially for doing so.

In Debt, which has drawn praise from bourgeois reviewers and parts of the Left, Graeber begins by stating that we do not know what debt really means (5). He distinguishes debt and credit: Debts are abstract and quantifiable, establish “simple, cold, and impersonal” relationships between human beings, are connected with coined money, and based on violence, whereas credits imply personal, emotional relationships and moral foundations, as if they were some sort of mutual aid or charity (13, 21). In the beginning of human history, Graeber claims, people made gifts reciprocally or gave things away on simple and non-quantifiable credit. Throughout the book, Graeber describes long cycles of history in which societies based on credit alternate with those based on money and debt.

Graeber skips around between ages and continents as he sees fit. When he wants to prove that adscript peasants were indeed well off since they did not have to supply their produce to townspeople, he points to sparsely populated Europe. When he wants to make us believe that the Middle Ages were an absolutely peaceful era, he declares Europe, with its eternal feuds among its noblemen, as irrelevant, and points to Asia (297). Of course, the ruling powers in the Islamic world as well as in India and China waged endless war against each other and against their subjects too. Continue reading

Marx’s liberalism? An interview with Jonathan Sperber


Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

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Platypus Review 58 | July 2013

On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.

Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask: Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings — stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations — we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy. Continue reading

Marx and Wertkritik

Elmar Flatschart
Alan Milchman
Jamie Merchant

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Originally published in the Platypus Review. On Saturday, April 6, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel, “Marx and Wertkritik,” at its Fifth Annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. The panel featured Elmar Flatschart of the German theoretical journal EXIT!, Alan Milchman of Internationalist Perspective, and Jamie Merchant of Permanent Crisis. It was moderated by Gregor Baszak, of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion. A full recording of the event can be found online. 

Event Description

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Perhaps one of the most influential developments in Marxist thought coming from Germany in the last decades has been the emergence of value critique. Building on Marx’s later economic works, value critics stress the importance of abolishing value (the abstract side of the commodity), pointing out problems in traditional Marxism’s emphasis on the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The German value-critical journal Krisis has famously attacked what they believed was a social democratic fetishization of labor in their 1999 Manifesto Against Labor. Such notions have drawn criticism from more “orthodox” Marxists who miss the role of the political in value critique and the possibility of immanent transformation through engaging the realities of capitalist societies.

Did the later Marx abandon his political convictions that he expressed in the Manifesto? What about his later political writings, such as his “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in which he outlines the different phases of early communism? Is Marxism a scientific project, as claims from value critics seem to indicate? Was Marx trying to develop of a “science of value” in his later works? What can value critique teach us after the defeat of the Left in 20th century? Did traditional Marxism necessarily lead to the defeat of the Left?
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Elmar Flatschart: Value critique, or, following the theorem developed by Roswitha Scholz, a critique of value-diremption [Wertabspaltungskritik], seeks to understand and critique the fundamental mechanisms that govern modern society. This critique is not as interested in the political Marx of class struggle and the workers’ movement, but more in the philosophical aspects of his work that focus on the abstract and fetishized character of modern domination. This approach tries to keep the abstract critical theory of society strictly separate from the contradictory practical attempts to overcome capitalism. Marxism shouldn’t be understood as an identity-giving, wholesome position, which history proved to be erroneous, but should be reduced to a theoretical core that can help us to understand society, via a negative critique, even if it does not necessarily provide us with a way out. The call for the abolition of labor does not have immediate ramifications for Marxist politics.

There is no new program or a master plan for emancipation that can be developed out of the abolition of value. Rather, it can be seen as a condition of emancipation from value and the abstract system of oppression it represents. How emancipation will be achieved is a more complex story. We know what will not work: much of what the Old Left proposed as Marxist politics. A lot of that should be abandoned because, essentially, abstract domination cannot be abolished through the imposition of some other kind of direct, personal domination. If we are to critique the abstractions of the economic forms, we similarly have to target the political form itself. While Marx and Engels suggested as much by their formulation of the state eventually “withering away,” I think we need to be a lot more radical. Emancipation ultimately has to mean the abolishment of the political as well. This is contradictory in the present political situation, but we should not try to postpone this task until after the revolution. We should see the constraints and the fetishizations immanent to the political form as something we want to get rid of now. Continue reading

Book Review: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks

Sunit Singh

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Image: Cover to the new Philcox translation of
Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (2008)

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Originally published in the Platypus Review.
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New York: Grove Press, 2008

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It is no coincidence that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks [Peau Noire, Masques Blancs (1952), hereafter BSWM], since in this first book, Frantz Fanon himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth [Les Damnés de la Terre (1961), hereafter W of E], fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM.[1] The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM).[2] The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology,[3] reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.

The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM.[4] Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of — or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about — Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.”[5] The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works — a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization” — as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation.[6] The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update — although by no means always — these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else.[7] The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM. Continue reading

The anti-political party: Tony Cliff and the Socialist Workers Party

by James Heartfield

Untitled.
Image: SWP founder and chief
theoretician Tony Cliff (1967)

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Reposted from Platypus Review.

Book Review:
Ian Birchall. Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. London: Bookmarks, 2011.

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The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is the largest political party left of the Labour Party, and has been active on the far left since 1977 and before that as the International Socialists since the 1960s. The party was led by Tony Cliff until his death thirteen years ago, and Ian Birchall, who has written this diligently researched memoir, is still a member since joining in the 1960s. Birchall’s “warts-and-all” examination is motivated by a marked unhappiness about A World To Win, the autobiography which Cliff apparently wrote based on recollection, without access to the relevant documentation. Cliff, Birchall remarks, was sometimes abrasive and “often underestimated the contributions of other comrades” (ix, 543). However, whatever its deficiencies, A World to Win narrates the story of the SWP pretty much as it appeared to Cliff, as one that was inseparable from his own life story. And as Cliff made clear, “there was no time in which militant workers were so open to us as in 1970–74,” under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, “not before and not since.”[1] Yet if we take this claim seriously, no organization better embodies the failure of the British workers to take power than the Socialist Workers Party, which has endured for more than half a century, though not for the reasons that its leaders think.[2] Indeed, it might be argued that Cliff’s real achievement was to found a movement that rode a wave of disaffection from mainstream politics, unburdened by too many dogmatic ideas.

Birchall recounts that Tony Cliff joined the small Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League in Palestine before coming to Britain after the Second World War. The movement he joined faced some big problems. First, like all far left groups, it was guilty by its association with the repressive dictatorship that Stalin had built in the USSR. Second, the Trotskyists were saddled with an analysis that the economic crisis would get much worse after the Second World War (the destruction of the war had laid the basis for a revival). Third, globally, the working classes were divided between the peoples of the developing world, who were denied their freedom by military imperialism, and those of the developed world, who tended to support reforms offered by the state.

It was in this context that Cliff started to develop new theories to explain the new conditions in which the Left found itself, along with his early collaborators Mike Kidron and later Nigel Harris. He broke with orthodox Trotskyism to argue that the Soviet Union was not socialist, but actually capitalist, “state capitalist,” only masquerading as socialist (anti-Stalinists like Max Schachtman and Raya Dunayevskaya drew similar conclusions, and later some Maoists argued the point). He also countered the prevailing claims of the Marxist left that the 1960s would be years of crisis, arguing that government spending on arms would boost the economy, what Cliff referred to as the “permanent arms economy.” Lastly, against British comrades who believed in the importance of Lenin’s argument about imperialism, Cliff held that it was not the highest stage beyond which capitalism could develop, but the “highest stage but one.” Together, Cliff thought of the theories of “state capitalism,” the “permanent arms economy,” and the end of imperialism as a “troika” of intellectual achievements.

Tony Cliff during the 1950s

Tony Cliff during the 1950s

Although Birchall does not acknowledge it, these were not really theories so much as an intellectual spinning of the facts, worked up to avoid specific problems. It was wise to say that the International Socialists did not want to make Britain into the Soviet Union, but bizarre to say that what was wrong with Stalinism was that it was capitalist, as if “capitalist” were a word that you applied to anything that you did not like. For as Kidron went on admit, the “state capitalist” “analysis was never a general theory,” and the “permanent arms economy” was a piece of Keynesian thinking.[3] These “theories” saddled the group with false prognoses that had to be reversed later on. The spending on arms, which was credited with preserving capitalism, was later credited with precipitating a new crisis. And while the International Socialists thought that Lenin’s theory of imperialism was superseded in the 1960s (just as the conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa and elsewhere were mounting) the SWP later embraced the struggle against imperialism in 2003 when it rallied to support for what the party called “the resistance” in Iraq and Afghanistan.[4] Continue reading

Remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys

 Ross Wolfe
Platypus Review
March 2013
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On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), The Communist Postscript (2009), and Going Public (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Ross Wolfe:
 In the introduction to your 2006 book, The Communist Postscript, you provocatively assert: “The communist revolution is the transcription of society from the medium of money to the medium of language. It is a linguistic turn at the level of social praxis.”[1] What do you make of the “communist turn” in contemporary left discourse, that is, the return to the idea of communism in Badiou, Žižek, Bosteels, Dean, et al.?

Boris Groys: It doesn’t seem to me that any return has actually taken place. If you are speaking now of the West, not of the East, then you have always had communist parties: the French Communist Party, the Italian Communist Party, every European nation had a communist party during and after the Cold War. So I would rather speak about a migration of discourse away from the framework of mass parties. These became inefficient, partially dissolved, and lost their influence and power within European societies. And now we have groups of intellectuals who are asserting their hegemony over the discourse of the “communist hypothesis.”

French leftist intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972. Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

French leftistsJean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972.
Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the influence or the intellectual and institutional power of the mass party. The communist party apparatus and communist press were very influential in France and Italy throughout the Cold War. And then, if we look at the intellectual trajectories of different figures, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida and so on, all of them in one way or another defined his position in the first place vis-à-vis the Communist Party, much more so than in relation to capitalism. So if you look at the career of Badiou, for example, he began with a kind of Sartrean connection, but then developed a Maoist infatuation very early on, in the 1960s. His project since then was one of constant revolt against the domination of the French Communist Party. The Maoist movement, like many others from that time, was actually directed against the leading role of the Communist Party. Everything that we read now from Badiou and others comes out of this very early experience of French Maoism in the 1960s. They experienced the “betrayal” of the 1960s movements by the Communist Party, even though these movements had been partially directed against the communist parties to begin with. We can argue what happened in different ways, but my impression is that right now we have the continuation of an immanent contestation of the communist party that started much, much earlier — in the 1960s.

On the other hand, I was and still am very interested in the institutional and official traditions of communism. As with the early Protestants who saw the Catholic Church as the church of Satan, communists today claim, “All these decades and centuries of communist movements — that was not real communism. Communism will begin with us.” It is a claim that one can understand, but it seems to me historically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically problematic. All of the theorists of communism today say: “We start anew. We reject everything that came before. We don’t interpret or correct it — we just reject it as a fundamental failure.”

RW: Just as the theorists of communism at present would say that all past forms of communism were the work of Stalin?

BG: They reject Stalin in favor of the idea of communism. But how is one to access this “idea” of communism? To stress the immediate idea of communism is idealistic and neglects the necessity of dealing with the materialist side of communism. Communism is not God. One cannot be a Saint Paul of communism. Sartrean existentialism, Maoist event, or Deleuzean direct contact with energies, desires, affects — these all claim to provide an unmediated understanding of what communism is beyond any tradition, institution, or party. They’re direct, individual, ultimately involving only one person. That is a very Romantic, almost mystical-religious approach. Because, of course, traditionally Marxism has something to do with mediation and a disbelief in the possibility of directly grasping something like “the idea of communism,” or of experiencing communism as an event.

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

RW: You also argue that the emphasis on the “idea” of communism leads to “a modern form of Platonism in practice.”[2] What is specifically “modern” about communism?

BG: For me, Platonism does not refer to the possibility of immediately grasping the Idea, but rather to a demonstration of the impossibility of any such insight. What the Socratic dialogues demonstrate is the impossibility of the notion of a human being grasping the Idea because every course of argumentation collapses on itself. And this place of collapse is actually a site of power. If you look at the Platonic state, the philosopher-king is someone who actually manages and administers this space of collapse, the defeat of the desire for truth. Historically this site was the Soviet Union. What makes this a modern experience is the extreme scale on which it takes place.

We are living in a society that is split in such an obvious way that we no longer believe in the possibility of democracy, at least from a liberal perspective, because there seems to be no hope for consensus, which is the traditional basis of democracy. If you look at contemporary American society, or really any contemporary society, it is so fundamentally fragmented it seems incapable of reaching consensus. Such societies can only be administered, but cannot be brought to any kind of democratic politics. In the West, this kind of administration — in these societies beyond consensus — occurs through the market. But in the East, the market was ultimately abolished by the Bolsheviks. And so instead of being governed by economics, there was an emergence of certain kinds of administrative power practicing a language beyond consensus. The phenomenon of a language where no agreement can be reached is precisely what one can find in a very refined form in the Platonic dialogues. And the philosopher here is someone who manages language beyond consensus. What makes the Platonic problem modern is that it has became urgent and political, a problem of society as a whole, rather than of a small group of Greek intellectuals in the agora.

In Plato, the state is administered by the philosophers through an occasional application of violence, not determined by any consensus, because Plato understands that such consensus is impossible. So both capitalism and communism, especially in their Eastern European form, constituted answers to the insight that the French Revolution’s bourgeois dream of reaching a sort of basic consensus had collapsed. The dream had collapsed already by the time of Marx, and then even further with Nietzsche. As long as you speak about commonalities or “the common,” you remain at the level of reflection, which is fundamentally pre-Marxist. If you want to speak of politics after Marx, after Nietzsche, after Freud, you have to consider societies that have nothing in the way of common ground. Because if you look at the intellectual landscape before the French Revolution, and even slightly afterward, you find this kind of hope for a consensual politics or ideology. There’s a belief in a natural truth, a divine truth, a common truth, a truth that’s reached at the end of history. But a new, modern period of political thinking commences from a dissatisfaction with such truths. When the class struggle asserts itself the possibility of reaching consensus or a common truth disappears. How does society manage that? There are two models: the state and the market. They manage the problem in two different ways.

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii's funeral

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii’s funeral, 1930

RW: With management by the state being socialism and management by the market being capitalism?

BG: A socialist state exists only where the state has been liberated from the market — in which the market has been either subordinated or eliminated entirely. In a capitalist state, say, in the West, the state is subordinated to the market. So what was the Stalinist state? It was a machine for the frustration of everybody, in which the possibility of achieving the truth was excluded. And what is the Western market? The same. It’s a machine for the frustration of everybody, since everyone knows that whatever a politician says, nothing will come out of it.

RW: As an author of one of the books on communism for Verso: How central was Marx’s thought to the formulation of communism? Obviously there were pre-Marxist communists such as Saint-Simon or Fourier or Proudhon. And later there were non-Marxist (anarchist, post-Marxist) developments or articulations of the idea of communism. But with respect to your own work the question is different, I think, in that more than the irreducibility of Marx, it asserts the irreducibility of Stalin.

BG: I would argue for irreducibility of both, and that of Marx, I have summarized already. All these thinkers you mention — Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on — proposed improvements that were based on the possibility of consensus, on the hope of reaching a common understanding, the insight that life as it is presently is bad, but can be changed from bad to good. Marx believes that such a common understanding is impossible, because of the difference of class interests. He was, basically, anti-utopian.

RW: But didn’t Marx believe in the possibility of a classless society?

BG: Yes, but only after all the classes are suppressed as classes, and this is potentially an infinite process. The traditional utopian communist ideal was based on a perception that one could take all classes, the whole population as it is, and proceed toward a new social truth. Marx argued that this wasn’t possible. For him, one has to start a war inside society, which involved class struggle. A classless society cannot include a huge part of society as it is and that must be therefore destroyed. Stalin’s insight was that a classless society is not something that emerges immediately, spontaneously, or even necessarily, after the abolition of the existing class system. The society that comes after the revolution is also a society that should be managed, which creates its own classes. Now the question is how one deals with that.

Marx starts his discourse with the impossibility of common interest. Everything else comes out of this. Insofar as you believe that there’s something — a “desire,” an “energy,” “absolute spirit,” whatever — that unites society as it is, you’re thinking along pre-Marxist lines. To adopt a post-Marxist lens, you have to see society as something irreparably and irreversibly divided. For this kind of outlook, the question becomes how one manages this division. How does one operate under the assumption (or actually the reality) of this irreparable divide? That is the post-Marxist problem.

Stalin and Roosevelt fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

Soviet premier Stalin and American president Roosevelt
fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

RW: To rephrase things slightly: Would you say that Marx’s thought is the necessary presupposition or the condition of possibility for communism? And then, conversely, would you say that Stalin is the necessary outcome of communism?

BG: No, I wouldn’t say all of that, for there isn’t any single answer to this question. Stalin is an answer. Is it a plausible answer? Yes. Is it a likeable answer? Well, no, it’s not. But it’s not an answer that can be ignored. The market doesn’t provide an adequate answer. Stalin doesn’t provide an adequate answer either, at least, not the answer I would prefer. But at the same time, I don’t believe that any answer can be sufficient if it ignores the question, and all its radical implications.

RW: Toward the beginning of your book, Going Public, you refer to “the period of modernity” as “the period in which we still live.”[3] You roughly date it, at least theoretically and philosophically, as coinciding with Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). The obvious political correlate to this would be 1789 and the French Revolution. Are we still — or were we ever — postmodern? If so, how does this relate to modernity, “the period in which we still live”? Might postmodernity perhaps be reaching an end?

BG: Well, when I speak about postmodernity in my writings, it’s because other people use this word and believe themselves to have a certain understanding about what it means. Personally, I don’t think any such transition from modernity to postmodernity ever happened. Postmodernity has never really had any meaning as a concept.

Postmodernism was associated with disbelief in progress. But nobody in the nineteenth century who was intelligent believed in progress. Baudelaire didn’t believe in progress and neither did Flaubert, nor Nietzsche, or Wölfflin. “Postmodernity” was a way by which people came to understand what people already understood in the nineteenth century.

But perhaps it was only known at first by avant-garde intellectuals, elite circles of artists in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. When people speak of postmodernity, they’re really talking about something that was known before but now was becoming clear to everybody. From the perspective of artistic, intellectual, and cultural modernity, however, nothing has changed. And we still don’t know how to deal with it. Modern problems, as they were formulated in relation to art, culture, and writing, during the nineteenth century, remain very relevant and unsolved. The real change came toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It occurred with the collapse of Hegelianism, the collapse of European idealism amidst the industrial revolution, and with it, the beginning of intellectual and cultural modernity.

But almost as early as the disjunction between Romanesque and Gothic churches, if you will, you’ll always see these “waves” in the succession of European styles. So beginning with the Renaissance, you have clear-cut forms, geometrical models, and a certain kind of clarity or intellectual transparency. But then it’s followed by the Baroque period: by complexity, obscurity, and contradiction. Then you have something similar between Classicism and Romanticism. And then at the start of the twentieth century, there is the avant-garde, which lasted until 1926 or 1927. After that, though, there is this huge wave of embryonic postmodernity — historicism, Socialist Realism, Nazi art, the “return to order,” and the Novecento in Italy. But all of that was suppressed after World War II. Following the war, there’s a new wave of modernism — a neo-avant-garde that goes from the 1950s and 1960s, lasting through the early 1970s. Starting in 1971 or 1972, you get a kind of neo-baroque. There’s Of Grammatology by Derrida, a baroque gesture. So there are these waves in the cultural history of Europe, shifting from clarity, intellectual responsibility, mathematico-scientific influences, and transparency to opacity, obscurity, absence, infinity. What is the Deleuzean or Derridean moment? It’s the moment where they took the structuralist models, defined as a system of finite rules and moves, and made it infinite. It is precisely what Romanticism did with the Enlightenment, what the Baroque did with the Renaissance, and so on. Even in terms of Marxism, you get these waves. There is the classical period of clarity. Then there is a period of obscurity — Benjamin, Adorno, and the like.

RW: A related question: How would you say the Soviet project relates to the modern period? Do you think there’s any sort of link between what’s understood in the West — perhaps wrongly — as “postmodernity” and the collapse of historical Marxism in the 1970s and, after 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Is there any correlation between the post-Soviet moment and the general onset of postmodernity?

BG: Just as I don’t believe in “postmodernity,” I don’t believe in the “post-Soviet” situation either; rather, we are experiencing an intermediate moment between two periods of wars and revolutions. Today we live under the illusion of peace and free markets, just like people did during the nineteenth century, before the First World War. Our current mode of existence is very similar to the second half of the nineteenth century: there is mass culture, entertainment instead of high culture, terrorism, an interest in sexuality, the cult of celebrity, open markets, etc.

Before the rise of Imperial Germany, everybody in the West believed it was interested in capitalism, although in Germany everyone understood it was about war. That is what will happen again in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is already beginning to happen, in that we are actually witnessing a return to a state and military infrastructure. Just as after the French Revolution, there is the reversion to antiquity, and then a new medievalism with Romanticism, the infrastructure of our epoch will be contested, and this will start a new period of war and revolutions. At that point, we’ll remember the Soviet Union, and many other phenomena. |P

Notes


1. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript (London: Verso, 2009), xv.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Boris Groys, Going Public (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 10.

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