Platyleaks 2.0, Ian Donovan, and the CPGB

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Attached is some more ridiculous, outrageous, and offensive shit that Chris Cutrone wrote to the Platypus e-mail list-serve. I’m sure some of it was selectively quoted and taken out of context, but am not going to pretend that even half of what he says in here is okay. Most readers of this blog are aware that I was once a member of Platypus. Even when I was, though, I was bothered by a lot of the opinions expressed by the group’s “guru” and clashed with him often. While I don’t think any of this is sufficient reason to no-platform the Plats — especially compared to the slew of leftist organizations and publishing houses that have either covered up or sought to downplay instances of rape, sexual abuse, and assault by its various members and authors (the FRSO, Solidarity-US, ISO-US, SWP-Britain, Historical Materialism, etc.) — I would still like to make clear in no uncertain terms how utterly abhorrent I consider these positions to be.

Platypus continues to pose interesting questions and put together worthwhile events. To wit: Democracy and the Left, Anti-Fascism: Its Problematic History and Meaning, Marx and Wertkritik, and Neoliberalism and Its Discontents. For the most part, I continue to get along with and respect most of its members. Many of them do not share Cutrone’s bizarre or shocking beliefs, but unfortunately find themselves often tasked with defending his antics and megalomania. Here is not the place to go over my manifold reasons for leaving Platypus. Contrary to what you may have heard (that I was “pushed out” after becoming “too much of a liability”), I wasn’t expelled from the group. Rather, I resigned of my own volition. And though for a time I sought to rejoin, this was mostly because the New York chapter I’d invested so much time into seemed to be falling apart. A while ago I drafted a list of all my grievances, everything about Platypus that annoyed the living shit out of me, but decided not to post it. It’s all blood under the bridge.

Nevertheless, I do feel some responsibility to distance myself from some opportunistic remarks made by Ian Donovan against the CPGB, a British communist group whose work I greatly admire. Donovan describes Platypus as “the CPGB’s lynch-mob American ally” — a gross mischaracterization, as anyone familiar with the two organizations will recognize immediately. The CPGB is not in any sense Platypus’ “ally.” First of all, because the latter does not officially espouse a political line, notwithstanding the aforementioned opinions of its founder and president. Second of all, because most of the back-and-forth between Cutrone & Macnair, Parker & Turley, as well as others, has so far consisted of frank and open (though sometimes productive) disagreement. Many different Marxist and anarchist organizations have engaged with Platypus, seldom out of the concordance of their views. Whether they will still to do so after this latest batch of Platyleaks is up to them.

At any rate, we would do well to attend to the real motivations behind Donovan’s attack on the CPGB. Just a year or so ago, Peter Manson authored a devastating article exposing antisemitic statements made by Donovan during his stint on Left Unity’s Communist Platform. Manson explained how Donovan’s notion of a “pan-national Jewish bourgeoisie” in Israel, included in his awful Draft Theses on the Jews and Modern Imperialism, is plainly antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. Yassamine Mather of the CPGB also added some cutting criticism, and Manson appended the motion on antisemitism prepared by Jack Conrad and Moshé Machover in response to Donovan. I highly recommend reading it.

So, to summarize: I’m publishing here the leaked “highlights” of Cutrone’s e-mails to the Platypus list-serve. Clearly I’m not singling out Platypus, since I’ve publicized “Internal Bulletins” from the ISO and some (now-redacted) information regarding Solidarity in the past. Nor do I intend to shield Platypus from such publicity out of a misbegotten sense of loyalty to my former organization. That said, Ian Donovan’s attempt to tar the CPGB’s reputation in light of these leaked e-mails is completely illegitimate.

Formaldehyde embalming the corpse: Looking back at The Coming Insurrection

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Right now the insurrectionary ultraleft is abuzz at the release of a new document by the so-called “Invisible Committee,” entitled A Nous Amis [To Our Friends]. For now it’s only available in French, but a translation is expected to appear under the Semiotext(e) brand as early as January 2015. I’ll probably read it once it comes out. Apropos its publication, however, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the enthusiasm and criticism generated by the group’s 2009 title, The Coming Insurrection.

Let’s start with the enthusiasm. John Cunningham wrote an appreciative piece over at Mute that explains the history and context behind the Invisible Committee’s weirdly anti-social politics — their various perversions and inversions. Cunningham situates them within the emerging “communization” milieu (an appellation that seems to have stuck, given their inclusion in Benjamin Noys’ collection Communization and Its Discontents). Predictably, Geoff Bailey of the International Socialist Review, a Cliffite theory rag, took a much more negative stance in his article “Searching for the New, Resurrecting the Old.”  Bailey sees The Coming Insurrection as tragically out of touch with the return of familiar patterns, conditions conducive to normal soft-Trot recruitment drives: “[T]he authors have overlooked some of the very real changes — the globalization of production, the expansion of access to communication technology, and the onset of new a systemic crisis — that open up new possibilities for rebuilding a revolutionary movement, even as they present new challenges.”

The following article by my friend Ashley Weger takes a different path. Weger, unlike Bailey, readily acknowledges the deep discontinuity of the present with the revolutionary movements of the past. Unlike Cunningham, however, she does not find the Invisible Committee’s reworking of traditional problematics all that promising. Some might dismiss Weger’s simply because it first ran in the Platypus Review, but such prejudices are silly. (I’m not even sure whether Platypus is still publishing; their last issue was the combined August-September issue, appeared late, and only had one mammoth panel transcript. October has no new issue yet, unsurprising considering the pitiful turnout at their inaugural European convention and ongoing boycott of their events).

A couple of Weger’s allusions to pop culture are a bit too clever or cute for my taste, but other lines are devastating. Regardless, this is a great piece.

coming-insurrection

The coming insurrection? A reflection on resistance at the Toronto G20

Ashley Weger
Platypus Review 27
September 1, 2010

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One of the results of these recent movements is the understanding that henceforth a real demonstration has to be “wild,” not declared in advance to the police. Having the choice of terrain, we can, like the Black Bloc of Genoa in 2001, bypass the red zones and avoid direct confrontation. By choosing our own trajectory, we can lead the cops, including unionist and pacifist ones, rather than being herded by them. In Genoa we saw a thousand determined people push back entire buses full of Caribinieri, then set their vehicles on fire. The important thing is not to be better armed but to take the initiative. Courage is nothing, confidence in your own courage is everything.[1]

— The Invisible Committee,
The Coming Insurrection

These few sentences prescribe the Invisible Committee’s advice for today’s budding radical. Concurrently serving as agitator and guidance counselor, their pamphlet’s understanding of the path towards overcoming capitalism is woven through with the demand to abandon the fear and inhibition taming one’s revolutionary, insurrectionary potential. As a theoretical justification for tactics of subversion, violence, and destruction in the name of anti-capitalism, The Coming Insurrection was without a doubt in the minds, hearts, and backpacks of the black-clad protesters who converged on, collided with, and combusted cop cars in protest of the Toronto G20 Summit in June [2010]. Perhaps less apparent is the manner in which the emphasis on the propaganda of the deed, à la the insurrectionists and those participating in Black Bloc actions, is hardly restricted to the usual, sable-appareled suspects. Rather, this lust for radical change rooted in “real struggle” represents the culture of the contemporary anti-capitalist Left en masse, and is reflective of a politics whose fervent affirmation of action expresses a non-critical, reified understanding of society.

Despite seemingly great differences between “mainstream” protest and “extremist” tactics, Black Bloc methods and the theory of the insurrectionists are in reality only more acute expressions of a political outlook shared by the contemporary activist Left as a whole: a naïve, ahistorical asseveration of action, despite the Left’s continued downward descent into the abyss of meaninglessness. Marx once described the predicament of emancipation being fettered by a gulf between thought and action, famously concluding that “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The mantra of the 21st century left seems to have amended this evaluation, posing that the point is to resist it. This fixation on resistance, contrary to popular imagination, does not reveal the Left’s strength, but rather its consensual degradation into pure symbolism. The actions, antics, and aftermath of the G20 protests underscore the current crisis of the Left: not a rain of rubber bullets aimed at it, but the perverse, perennial celebration of its own comatose state.

Global gatherings of the G20 have been celebrated for bringing together all flavors of left activism: religious social justice types pleading for peace, eco-warriors distraught over the destruction of Mother Earth, dozens of infinitesimal sectarian groups ironically endorsing the power of the masses, Fosteresque entryist union organizers championing any cause that gives their local more street cred, anarchists equipped with tear-gas-ready bandanas, hoards of protestors decked out in “Fuck the G20” shirts and marching to chants of equal chutzpah, and enough Tibetan flags to make one think he or she is jamming at a Beastie Boys concert circa 1994. The uncomfortable, odd couple dynamic of this conglomeration is a decades-long tradition, for these unlikely comrades share the streets time and time again, as they did in 1999 while battling in Seattle and in the host of protests against corporate criminals, global hegemony, and world capital that populate the landscape of the Left, post-collapse. Protest, it has been decided, is the least common denominator amongst what constitutes itself as the Left today, the arena in which divides are bridged in the name of unity against the enemy of all.

While constantly conceptualized as unprecedented, this form of politics is in reality formulaic, and the storyline of the G20 in Toronto has only reproduced the equation. Thousands gather for state-sanctioned, peaceful demonstrations seeking to inform those in power what democracy looks and sounds like — apparently, like hundreds of people mechanically shouting in unison. As the demonstration unfurls, a small militant population destroys property as a gesture of their “autonomy” and fearlessness to resist the intimidating batons and tear gas of police officers outfitted in riot gear. This is followed by intense retaliation from the police officers, chiefly against persons who committed no crime. Indeed, the G20 resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. To the embarrassment of police officers and the city of Toronto, nearly all these arrests and detainments, whether the result of the frenzy of the moment or an intentional abuse of power, were without merit. Continue reading

Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism

Christoph LichtenbergEva Curry
Alex KhasnabishChris Parsons


This spring, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a series panels on “Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism” in New York, Frankfurt, Halifax, Thessaloniki, and Chicago. The panel description reads: “It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Marxism and anarchism. They emerged out of the same crucible — the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.

There are a few different ways these ideologies have been taken up. Recent worldwide square occupations reflect one pattern: a version of Marxist theory — understood as a political-economic critique of capitalism — is used to comprehend the world, while anarchist practice — understood as an anti-hierarchical principle that insists revolution must begin now — is used to organize, in order to change it. Some resist this combination, claiming that Marxism rejects anti-statist adventurism, and call for a strategic reorganization of the working class to resist austerity, and perhaps push forward a “New New Deal”. This view remains wedded to a supposedly practical welfarist social democracy, which strengthens the state and manages capital. There is a good deal of hand waving in both these orientations with regard to politics, tactics, and the end goal. Finally, there have been attempts to leave the grounds of these theories entirely — but these often seem either to land right back in one of the camps or to remain marginal.

To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these ideas must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. In what ways does the return of these ideologies represent an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost? Where have the battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?”

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-Halifax hosted on February 1, 2014, at University of King’s College. The speakers participating in Halifax included Christoph Lichtenberg, Alex Khasnabish, Chris Parsons, and Eva Curry. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found online.

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Christoph Lichtenberg: When I think of Marxism and anarchism, I think of two tendencies within the workers’ movement, both of which see themselves as revolutionary, as opposed to the tendency that is known as Social Democracy, which would work through reforms. I think of Marxism as interchangeable with Leninism or Trotsykism. I do not associate it with Maoism or Stalinism. I think of anarchism in its best representation as exemplified by people like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or anacho-syndicalism. There are some commonalities between the two tendencies. I just want to highlight three of them: I think Marxism and anarchism agree on the need for the liberation of humanity through the destruction of capitalism. I also think that we agree on the fact that there is a class struggle going on between the exploiters and the exploited. And finally, I think we agree on the need to destroy the existing, oppressive, capitalist state structure. What happens after that is where we diverge.

The conflict really began with the creation of the alliance with Social Democracy by Bakunin and his followers, and what it meant is that they maintained a somewhat secret organization within the First International and started to publish articles that were critical of Marx. There was a lot of going back and forth over organizational matters, but, as with every organizational dispute, at the heart of it is really politics. The difference in politics between Marxists and anarchists really came to the fore at the 1872 Congress of the First International in The Hague, when there was a big debate between the Bakunin faction and the Marx followers about the role of the state in the transformation towards socialism. The Marxists argued that there was a role of the state in the transformation towards of socialism while followers of Bakunin insisted that the state should immediately be replaced by self-governing workplaces and communes. The Bakunin faction lost that debate and were expelled from the First International for maintaining their secret organization.

Bakunin

Around 1880, Kropotkin and other Russian revolutionaries announced the need for a permanent revolt through word, gun, and dynamite. This set the anarchists, particularly in Russia, on the course of anarchist terrorism, which removed them from the masses and isolated them.

The October Revolution in 1917 is the key event to understanding revolution. The Second International collapsed in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War because the different sections of the International ended up supporting their own governments’ war efforts. So rather than being internationalists, they sided with their own national governments, which Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who led the Bolsheviks, identified as a complete betrayal of the spirit of socialism. The main thing he learned from the collapse of the Second International was the need for revolutionaries to set up a separate organization from the reformists — the need for a vanguard party.

Continue reading

Unredacted: Rape controversy and internal strife within the International Socialist Organization (USA)

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My decision to publish the leaked internal documents from the International Socialist Organization was primarily motivated by the extreme contents they contained. One document in particular, involving a “Comrade Daniel” who had been unofficially accused of rape. Whatever my other reasons may have been for publishing them, I did so at the behest of a number of different ISO members (former and current) who got in touch with me independent of one another. They were deeply disturbed by what they saw going on, and felt that these matters should be made public. Upon reviewing them, especially Document 19, I agreed to honor their request. They’d approached others about it too, apparently, who also circulated the documents, uploaded them to The Pirate Bay, and so on. Not that this absolves me of responsibility for publishing the documents, but they would have been widely published whether or not I chose to publish them myself. Documents 13, 15, 19, and now also 21 and 23, all contain information pertinent to the ISO’s internal “investigation” of the affair.

Besides, not only did Lenin never advocate an “internal bulletin” — he even felt that conference proceedings should be published (i.e., made public) in full. At the risk of seeming a dogmatist, one member of the ISO who approached me about these bulletins reminded me of a 1901 text by Lenin regarding the publication of internal documents and proceedings:

We have decided to publish the proceedings of the “Unity” Conference, so that all…may independently draw their own conclusions as to the reasons for the failure of the attempt at unity made by the organizations abroad. Unfortunately, the secretary of the Conference, elected by the Union Abroad, refused to assist drawing up the minutes of the proceedings. This refusal is all the more strange for the reason that the Union Abroad has published its own account of the “Unity” Conference.

On the other hand, the publication of all the documents and declarations presented to the bureau is all the more necessary at the present time, since the Union Abroad has crowned its strange refusal to participate in drawing up the minutes of the Conference with a still stranger method of drawing up the Conference report. Thus, the Union Abroad has not reproduced in full the interpellations submitted to the bureau of the Conference.

Though this might seem an attempt to rationalize my decision through an appeal to past precedent or an authority, I find Lenin’s remarks here relevant to the ongoing debate on organizational transparency — a debate that continues to rage today.

Problems with the ISO Steering Committee’s official story

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Furthermore, even beyond the information these documents explicitly contain — which is embarrassing enough on its own — there was an almost unanimous distrust of the official version of events that they present, which to their minds simultaneously sought to minimize apparent wrongdoing by the local branch committee. Moreover, the account given by the ISO’s Steering Committee misleadingly pins the mishandling exclusively on members of the local branch. This is how one particularly disillusioned member of the ISO related it to me recently. She explained:

I have come to not trust anything that the Steering Committee claims. So if they claim that something was dealt with, I naturally don’t believe it to be so. It’s hardly surprising that a document written from the perspective of the branch’s leadership would give the impression that the situation couldn’t have been helped. Especially since it’s looking to exonerate itself. The document would have clearly been much more damning had they not been treading so carefully. Not only to avoid taking any of the blame themselves, but also to deflect blame from the Steering Committee.

Still more troubling were revelations brought to light by an activist from the region where the alleged incident occurred, who happened to know the woman accusing “Comrade Daniel” of attempted rape. This was the person described by the Steering Committee in Document 19 as “a member of a different socialist organization…extremely hostile to the ISO.” His testimony gives a sense of the frustration and dismay he felt in trying to work with the ISO’s ordinary organizational channels:

Just wanted to remind everyone that the guy [“Comrade Daniel,” the one accused of attempted rape] was only finally expelled on Feburary 6, 2014 (i.e., the same day the “Daniel” case was published in Preconvention Bulletin #19). Either way, it’s clear that the majority of the San Diego branch — and maybe some national leadership — doesn’t think that forcing yourself onto someone and only getting off when they knee you in the groin, is attempted rape.

It’s all well and good to talk about “politically inexperienced comrades,” but we tried to get this handled internally in 2012 when we told someone in the branch’s leadership (the woman who later recused herself) what happened. She, along with a number of the other long-term branch members, were the people who were informed, but chose to do nothing. Don’t know how long you have to be a member of a group before you are no longer considered inexperienced, but I would hope it’s a period shorter than three years. The ISO’s handling of this has been a disgrace.

Over and above what’s contained in the leaked documents themselves, then — fairly damning even by itself — there’s good reason to believe that the situation is worse than they let on. Several others who knew about the what happened, the sequence of events, etc., challenged the interpretation offered in the leaked documents. Continue reading

Adam Smith, revolutionary

Spencer A. Leonard
Platypus Review 61
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By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole.

— Theodor W. Adorno[1]

Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau or even Friedrich Nietzsche, Adam Smith is a thinker few on the contemporary Left will have much time for. This tells us more about the impoverishment of the currently prevailing intellectual environment than about the persistent, if ever more obscure, influence of bourgeois radicalism on the Left. Today, of course, it is fashionable to have “a critique of the enlightenment” or, alternatively, to defend it against an array of enemies, including postmodernism, religious conservatism, and academic obscurantism. Those currents of the contemporary Left that still seek to lay claim to the Enlightenment must fend off Smith, because, like Rousseau, his is an Enlightenment that cannot be upheld simply as an affirmation of “reason” or the demand for “human rights.” Smith’s Enlightenment demands to be advanced. His 1776 treatise, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is not a product of the Scottish Enlightenment but of the cosmopolitan radical Enlightenment, stretching from the coffeehouses of Rotterdam to the meeting rooms of Calcutta. If that cosmopolitan Enlightenment project remains “unfinished,” it is because the course of history since the publication of Smith’s magnum opus failed to fulfill and indeed undermined the radical potentials of the eighteenth century.

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers sang the British Revolutionary song “The World Turned Upside Down”

Cornwallis’ 1781 surrender at Yorktown, where American soldiers
sang the British Revolutionary song “World Turned Upside Down”

Smith’s powerful influence upon French revolutionaries such as the Abbé Sieyes and the Marquis de Condorcet, and through them upon Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, and G.W.F. Hegel, are not as well known as they should be, but that need not detain us from coming to terms with the profound radicalism of his thought. Less well known still is the respect that Smith and his close friend, David Hume, held for Rousseau’s works. Hume, refusing to allow his famous public quarrel with Rousseau to cloud his judgment, contended in a letter to Smith that the Genevan’s writings were “efforts of genius.”[2] This was an estimate Hume doubtless knew would find favor with his friend, since as early as 1756 Smith had written an article that is perhaps the earliest discussion in English of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, singling that work out as the act whereby the Francophone world re-established its supremacy in philosophy for the first time since Descartes, displacing the preeminence of English political and social thought that had lasted for almost a century with the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Mandeville, Shaftesbury, and others.[3] Continue reading

Nietzsche’s untimeliness

Sunit Singh

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The following article first appeared in the Platypus Review. It covers some of the same terrain that I explored around a year ago in my reflections on the recent “anti-Nietzschean turn” that has taken place on the Left. Sunit’s piece ranges a bit more widely than my own, and incorporates important insights from the early Marxist Franz Mehring and the later critical theorists of the Frankfurt School elucidating Nietzsche’s fraught relationship to his own time, bourgeois liberal democracy, and the rise of the socialist workers’ movement.

I’d also recommend Mazzino Montinari’s excellent overview, Reading Nietzsche. Montinari was an Italian Marxist dissident who left the PCI during the early 1970s, and helped edit the collected works of Nietzsche in German.

Introduction
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Eros and Civilization: the title expressed an optimistic, euphemistic, even positive thought, namely, that the achievements of advanced industrial society would enable man to reverse the direction of progress, to break the fatal union of productivity and destruction, liberty and repression — in other words to learn [Nietzsche’s] gay science.

— Herbert Marcuse

In [ancient] philosophy the duties of human life were treated as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life. But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come…[But even] in [what came to be called] the modern philosophy [perfecting virtue] was frequently represented as generally, or rather as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life; and heaven was to be earned only by penance and mortification, by austerities and abasement of a monk; not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of man.

— Adam Smith

Nietzsche believed that gaining even a modicum of reason and freedom had to be a hard won, blood-soaked, and world-historical affair, but was nevertheless inclined to be as uncharitable in the extreme toward Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the seducer” behind the idealist and rabble in the French Revolution, as toward the socialists who claimed to be the inheritors of the Jacobin tradition. He identified Of the Social Contract — a meditation on the conditions of possibility for the radical self-determination of modern civilization — as putting forward the first image of modern man to inspire mortals to a “transfiguration” of their own circumstances. However, modern man turned out to be a creature afflicted with a fevered historical self-consciousness that periodically flared up in revolutions, “like Typhon under Etna.”[1] It was a symptom of this curious sickness, Nietzsche held, that had led the philosophizing son of a watchmaker to characterize man as a creature full of pity or empathy and as capable of perfectibility, while positing an unwarranted faith in nature as an idyll of freedom. Nietzsche saw modern civilization as a chimera, characterized by what Kant had referred to as “glittering misery” and by the creation invidious interdependencies, but had reached the opposite conclusion as the “Citizen of Geneva.” For Nietzsche, plunging further into the civilization that the latter abhorred “is precisely that which speaks in favor of civilization.”[2] For moderns, who were proving themselves unable to squarely take on the task of Enlightenment, it was as “reasonable” to consider a return to nature as it was for them to revive Greek tragedy; we moderns had no chance of ever going back to the state of nature — the state of nature was itself a myth that the dialectic of Enlightenment had necessitated.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée, and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Photograph of Nietzsche, Paul Rée,
and Lou Salome, circa 1882.

Despite identifying “the labor question” as an intractable issue of the industrial age, Nietzsche never offered a clear resolution to the “the physiological self-contradiction” that defines capitalism. One can admit as much without either attempting to shape Nietzsche on a Marxist lathe — the accusation once leveled at Adorno — or giving in to the idea that Nietzsche was an elitist, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal conservative.[3] The efforts to “let workers be themselves” had failed, Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols, as a result of “the most irresponsible negligence.” Nietzsche was apportioning fault for this “negligence” directly on the socialists, who were confounded as to why, in spite of the fact that workers had made enormous strides toward sociopolitical equality since the industrial revolution, and justifiably wanted more and felt “their existence to be desperate… an injustice,” their demands for “a social democracy” could not be met by the vote and contractual rights. Europe had to answer the workers, while the workers tried to articulate their own demands and to answer, “What do they will?”[4] But the socialists — those “superficial, envious, and three-quarter actors” infected with “nihilism” — had turned freedom into an ethic and so crab-walked backward into “a will to negate life.”[5] Further, their values were little more than refashioned Christian ideals rather than peculiarly modern aspirations; their certitude that a socialist revolution was inevitable was motivated by the same animalistic instincts that had led Christians to see the Last Judgment as “the sweet consolation of revenge.”[6] Such vituperations also masked the actual task of emancipation and left the socialists with the muddle-headed belief that, “[as] time marches forward…Everything that is in it also marches forward — that the development is one that moves forward.” Although, even “the most level-headed are led astray by this illusion,” Nietzsche claimed, “the nineteenth century does not represent progress per the sixteenth…’Mankind’ does not advance, it does not even exist…Man represents no progress over the animal: the civilized tenderfoot is an abortion.”[7] Despite the touted “progress” of the nineteenth over the eighteenth century, the socialists had overlooked or were unable to recover what earlier revolutionaries, inspired by the notion of the infallible sovereignty of the General Will, had understood — that rather than “dance in our ‘chains’” we had to break them.[8]

The case of anti-Nietzsche

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The aristocratic antipathy in which Nietzsche held the Left is presumably one reason behind the leftist “anti-Nietzsche” stance. Others chafe at the fact that Nietzsche was a staunch individualist who clubbed the Marxist social-democrats together with the anarchists as well as with the Christian socialists; Nietzsche was satisfied to say that anarchism held “the same ideal [as socialism], but in a more brutal fashion,” while the dogmatic social-democrat who hypostatized class relations was in as bad faith as the Protestant minister who reconciled men to their wretched fate.[9] Malcolm Bull is the latest leftist to argue for an anti-Nietzsche stance. But with the critical difference that Bull’s criticism of Nietzsche is rooted in a conservatism that obfuscates the established tradition of left criticism of Nietzsche, which dates back to the revisionist debate. Bull compares Nietzsche to Durkheim, as both were diagnosticians who theorized that the incompleteness of our transition to modernity had manifested itself pathologically in what Nietzsche referred to as “decadence” or “nihilism,” and in what Durkheim called “anomie.” Continue reading

The antinomy of art and politics

A critique of art as cultural resistance

Untitled.
Image: Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait:
Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1848-1849)

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Introduction

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This article first appeared in September 2011, the same month that Occupy Wall Street officially began its reclamation of public space. It was written by Chris Mansour, a good friend and member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, the organization to which I formerly belonged. My reasons for republishing it here are several: the two-year anniversary of the movement recently came and went to little fanfare, my ongoing interrogation of the relationship between architecture and politics, and my reposting yesterday of an article by the German-French Marxist and architecture critic Claude Schnaidt on “Architecture and Political Commitment.” In that reposting, I recommended Adorno’s essay on “Commitment” as supplementary reading. Chris draws upon this article in the course of his own exposition. A good piece that is worthy of reflection.

Platypus Review № 39, editorial introduction: At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on the theme of “aesthetics in protests.” Panelists Stephen Duncombe (Reclaim the Streets), Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), Laurel Whitney (The Yes Men), were asked to consider: “What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice?” The same theme was the subject of another event held at the New School in NYC on May 23, which featured Marc Herbst (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest), Chris Mansour (Platypus), A.K. Burns (W.A.G.E.), and Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative). A full recording of the discussion at the Left Forum can be found online. The article that follows is a modified version of the opening remarks made by Chris Mansour of Platypus at both events.

The antinomy of art and politics

by Chris Mansour

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The very notion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political position.

— George Orwell

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There is an interesting passage in Herbert Marcuse’s short book, Counterrevolution and Revolt, which aims to flesh out how art relates to politics. In reflecting on art’s role in revolutionary struggle, Marcuse writes,

In its practice, art does not abandon its own exigencies and does not quit its own dimension: it remains non-operational. In art, the political goal appears only in the transfiguration which is the aesthetic form. The revolution may well be absent from the oeuvre even while the artist himself is “engaged,” is a revolutionary.[1]

Marcuse cites the example of Courbet, whose paintings signal the birth of modernity, and who founded a socialist club in 1848 and was later a member of the governing council of the Paris Commune in 1871. Yet, counterintuitive though it is, Marcuse remarks that “[there is] no direct testimony of the revolution in his paintings…[they contain] no political content.”[2] The “weight and sensuality” of Courbet’s still lifes — which were painted shortly after the collapse of the Commune — are far more “powerful” than any “political painting” could ever be.[3] Writing these statements in 1972 — four years after the failed “revolutions” of 1968 — it was becoming clearer to Marcuse that the politics of the New Left were losing their grip and its revolutionary energy was deflating. Likewise, the situation that Courbet found himself in after 1848 or 1871 was probably similar to, if not more tragic than, 1968.

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit, c.1871-1872. Oil on canvas, 23 1/8" × 28 1/4" (59 × 72 cm)

Gustave Courbet, Still Life: Fruit (c. 1871). Oil on canvas, 59 × 72 cm.

The separation between art and political activity that Marcuse was pointing to in Courbet may appear a bit strange to self-proclaimed cultural radicals or art-activists today. From Marcuse’s point of view, art remains autonomous from any exterior motives other than itself, and art cannot — and should not — act merely as a functional device for putting forth political aims. [4]  Continue reading

What is imperialism? (What now?)

Larry Everest (RCP-USA), Joseph
Green (CV), James Turley (CPGB)

Untitled.
Image: Soldiers in Petrograd hold up a
banner reading “Death to imperialism!
Victory to the Red Army” (1920)
untitled2

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013

On April 6, 2013, a panel on “What is Imperialism? (What Now?)” took place during the Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The panel was motivated by the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and aimed to discuss whether we are any closer to understanding what imperialism is and the relationship between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. This panel brought together Larry Everest from the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), Joseph Green from Communist Voice, and James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and was moderated by Lucy Parker of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Video is available here.

James Turley: Imperialism poses a series of problems for us as Marxists and they can broadly be divided into theoretical problems and political problems. The theoretical problems are characterized by the sharp inequalities between states, and this is as much a feature of the global order as the very obvious inequality and exploitative relations between classes. This arrangement has serious effects on how the class struggle plays out in different countries. Imperialism also poses a problem of the historical periodization of capitalism. This is the problem of imperialism as a particular stage of capitalism. Even if imperialism is not a particular stage, it is still in this historical sense a kind of carbon dating mechanism. With regard to political problems, it is clear that imperialism, as a system of unequal relations between states, is a way in which state power is organized globally. In this sense, the paramount political problem facing us as Marxists and revolutionaries, if we want to overthrow capitalism globally, is that the highest level of state power requires a serious political challenge.

British_empire_Color

Imperial map of the world showing British colonial might, 1886

Another issue which has come up, particularly in the last ten years, but which really has existed since at least the early days of the Comintern, is the attitude that we take to forces that are not strictly speaking of the Left but that nevertheless confront and oppose imperialist powers in military conflicts or in other ways. This issue, of course, has caused a serious division on the Left. The guidebook for how we have traditionally dealt with this as a movement is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), which is a sort of brief and very empirical analysis of the nature of imperialism. The background for Lenin’s work was the much larger debate over colonial policy and imperialism in the Second International that began in 1896. Karl Kautsky, who was the foremost theorist of the Second International, wrote a series of articles called Socialism and Colonial Policy arguing that early empires — such as those of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch — were effectively pre-capitalist in nature. They did not export capitalist relations of production, but rather were coercive, absolutist exploitation operations. According to Kautsky, these empires gave way, with the ascent of England as an imperial power, to what he called “Manchesterism.” This was free-trade imperialism. Instead of having coercive and brutal operations — this is Kautsky’s view by the way, it is obviously not true — what you had was the elimination of trade barriers and the expansion of capitalism as a system. Kautsky was writing in 1896 and 1897, by which point it was clear that the mechanisms which led to the First World War were accelerating, and the German state was attempting to acquire colonies. Kautsky’s argument is that the Scramble for Africa and similar forms of late-nineteenth-century imperial expansion are an expression of pre-capitalist forces in Germany and other states, and that this imperialism is actually reactionary with regard to “Manchesterism.” Continue reading

Comment moderation policy

Because of some recent rude ad hominem attacks on various individuals and unfounded rumors about various organizations in comments on this blog, I’m instituting a policy for moderating all future threads. Now, I’d like it to be known that I will still allow any and all comments, even those that are sharply critical or polemical, so long as they are relevant to the topic at hand. You don’t even have to be polite or feel like you’re walking on eggshells in writing in. The aim here is not to censor voices of disagreement, but rather ensure those comments that do go through meet basic discursive criteria that make them conducive to meaningful debate.

Of course, since no such policy existed before, it would be unfair for me to go back and retroactively enforce a screening process that I’ve only established after the fact. Just as with the blog controversy several months back, when some of my own personal views were conflated with those of Platypus as an organization, I issued a disclaimer but decided against going back and sanitizing various opinions I expressed at one time so as to avoid criticism. This did not mean that I still held these views; it merely meant that I was not looking to exempt myself from critiques ex post facto. Likewise, all past comments on this blog, whether authored by myself or others, will be left intact.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have, at times, made remarks that fall well beneath the threshold of the kind of commentary I’m advocating here. This has led some to point out the hypocrisy of my request not to baselessly attack certain individuals or organizations. Such an observation is, of course, warranted, but it in no way weakens my resolve to enact this moderation policy henceforth. In a similar fashion, I will make every effort to refrain from writing posts or comments that violate this norm. Self-regulation is not always the best way to go about this, though, so feel free to write in if you feel this standard is not being met. Continue reading

The many deaths of art

Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz,
Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee

Untitled.
Image: The “tombstone” of Kazimir Malevich,
buried beneath The Black Square (1935)

untitled2

Originally posted over at the Platypus Review. Last spring, in response to Paul Mason’s article “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?,” the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted an event on the “death of art.”[1] Speakers included Julieta Aranda who was represented by Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz, Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee. The discussion was moderated by Chris Mansour and was held at the New School in New York on February 23, 2013. Complete video of the event can be found online by clicking here. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Opening remarks

Anton Vidokle: These are Julieta Aranda’s opening remarks: It was with a strange sense of déjà vu that I accepted the invitation to attend yet another funeral for art. Of course I have heard about all the previous ones, but this is the first time I have been invited to attend one. As an artist it is hard to understand the compulsion to establish our sense of art history through the recurrent announcements of “the death or art.” Art seems to be constantly dying, but we never talk much about its birth. It must have been stubbornly reborn on countless occasions, since we are here again, trying to measure its vital signs. I tried to do a bit of a research into the many deaths of art — but I was quickly overwhelmed: In one way or another, we have been trying to put art in a coffin and nail it shut for the past 2,000 years.

In the 1980s — during the art market boom — there were plenty of death calls: the death of painting, the death of modernism, and also the death of postmodernism. Meanwhile, the New York art market was very much alive, fueled by the usual suspects: speculators, investors, real estate developers, social climbers, and so forth. Of course as with everything that is artificially inflated, there was an eventual market crash, and this crash had many casualties. Many galleries disappeared, and many artists’ careers dried out. But this wasn’t understood to be the death of art as it had been previously announced.

I am skeptical about the Peter and the Wolf announcements of an imminent death of art — this time in its “contemporary” incarnation. For me, it is more interesting to question the favorable disposition — almost a wish — that we have towards the demise of art. The death sentence on contemporary art comes not only because the current operative model for contemporary art is deficient. (Under the current model, meaning is often quickly emptied out from objects and images, and market artists are a renewable resource.) But this wish also comes partly because we want a new big thing, we want the new thing to come now, and we want to be the new thing while the market is booming. As Hito Steyerl, a German video artist and writer, points out in her Kracauer Lecture, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” “To declare something over or dead is a form of production, that purposefully kills off something in order to launch new commodities or attract attention.”[2] Continue reading