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Remembering revisionism: The reform vs. revolution debate in Second International Marxism

The so-called “revisionism” debate represented the greatest trial of Second International Marxism prior to its crisis in August 1914 and subsequent collapse. Its result was probably the most important theoretical outcome of the period, whatever practical disagreements remained hidden beneath the unified doctrine of Marxian orthodoxy (only to be exposed later on). Eduard Bernstein, the executor of Engels’ estate and a longtime exponent of the theories of Marx, had come to have doubts about the revolutionary predictions made by his recently departed mentors from the 1840s up through the 1860s. From about the middle of the 1890s to the turn of the century, Bernstein would wage a fierce polemic against those aspects of Marxist theory he considered falsified or outdated. Namely, the idea of a violent revolution leading to the seizure of state power, which he felt was founded on the residual idealism inherited by Marx and Engels via the Hegelian dialectic.

Several texts are helpful in understanding the origins, development, and consequences of the revisionist controversy. A great deal of it centered on the famous question: “Reform or revolution?” (I’ve already expressed my opinion of this dichotomy, along with a third term of “resistance,” in the past). But other issues were necessarily drawn into it as well, such as the notion of the progressive immiseration or pauperization of the masses culminating in a breakdown or collapse [Zusammenbruch], as well as problems of Marxist methodology mentioned above. The most comprehensive survey of this struggle within the party, by far, is the collection edited by H. and J.M. Tudor. Preconditions of Socialism by Bernstein, which condensed and systematized his arguments over the two preceding years, is also a crucial work. Last but not least, when it comes to primary documents, there is Rosa Luxemburg’s outstanding Reform or Revolution? (1898). What is to be Done?, Lenin’s well-known diatribe against the economists, can be seen — and indeed was seen by Lenin himself — as an echo of the revisionism debate in the Russian context.

You can download these three primary sources, translated into English, by clicking below:

Secondary sources are always helpful, too, so here are some that might aid readers in their effort to understand the significance of this dispute. Here are some good ones:

Below you will find a remarkable essay by the Italian Marxist Lucio Colletti on “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International.” Frankly, it surprised me, given Colletti’s reputation as a staunch anti-Hegelian. Readers of this blog will know that I am above all sympathetic to the Hegelian Marxist reading that emerged around Lenin right before the war and continued by Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch after the war. In this essay, Colletti is deeply critical of his former master Galvano Della Volpe, and finds himself in agreement with many things Lukács wrote during the 1920s and Korsch wrote during the 1930s (I find Korsch had already declined by this point, but he still had the occasional insight). Colletti also makes use of an Hegelian metaphor in explaining the way labor-time “congeals” in Marx’s account of the commodity. He discusses, moreover, the writings of Luxemburg and Preobrazhenskii — left-wingers within the Second and Third Internationals, respectively. Moishe Postone even considers Colletti’s insights in this essay quite valuable: “Like Isaak Rubin, Colletti maintains that what has rarely been understood is that Marx’s theory of value is identical to his theory of the fetish. What must be explained is why the product of labor assumes the form of the commodity and why, therefore, human labor appears as a value of things…Colletti’s argument parallels some aspects of that developed in this work, [although] his critique remains one of the mode of distribution.” The argument Colletti builds on the basis of abstract labor and its relation to fetishism and the value-form helps to explain the revisionism debate very well.

A couple words about the aftermath of the revisionism debate, specifically with regard to the way many matters were left unsettled. Karl Korsch explained admirably in Marxism and Philosophy how its apparent resolution in favor of revolutionism masked deeper divisions which persisted up to World War I:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the long period of purely evolutionary development of capitalism came to an end, and a new epoch of revolutionary struggle began. Because of this change in the practical conditions of class struggle, there were increasing signs that Marxist theory had entered a critical phase. It became obvious that the extraordinarily banal and rudimentary vulgar Marxism of the epigones had an extremely inadequate awareness of even the totality of its own problems, let alone any definite positions on a whole range of questions outside them. The crisis of Marxist theory showed itself most clearly in the problem of the attitude of social revolution towards the State. This major issue had never been seriously posed in practice since the defeat of the first proletarian revolutionary movement in 1848, and the repression of the revolt of the Commune of 1871. It was put concretely on the agenda once again by the World War, the first and second Russian Revolutions of 1917, and the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918. It now became clear that there was no unanimity whatever within the camp of Marxism on such major issues of transition and goal as the “seizure of State power by the proletariat,” the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the final “withering away of the State” in communist society. On the contrary, no sooner were all these questions posed in a concrete and unavoidable manner, than there emerged at least three different theoretical positions on them, all of which claimed to be Marxist. Yet in the prewar period, the most prominent representatives of these three tendencies — respectively Renner, Kautsky, and Lenin — had not only been regarded as Marxists but as orthodox Marxists. For some decades there had been an apparent crisis in the camp of the Social Democrat parties and trade unions of the Second International; this took the shape of a conflict between orthodox Marxism and revisionism. But with the emergence of different socialist tendencies over these new questions, it became clear that this apparent crisis was only a provisional and illusory version of a much deeper rift that ran through the orthodox Marxist front itself. On one side of this rift, there appeared Marxist neo-reformism which soon more or less amalgamated with the earlier revisionism. On the other side, the theoretical representatives of a new revolutionary proletarian party unleashed a struggle against both the old reformism of the revisionists and the new reformism of the “center,” under the battle-cry of restoring pure or revolutionary Marxism. This crisis erupted within the Marxist camp at the outbreak of the World War.

Of course, there had been developments in the meantime — especially after 1909 — that should have been recognized internationally and acted upon (at the very least) nationally. Lukács explained in an article I posted previously the rapprochement between Kautsky and Bernstein around 1910. Even Lenin was unaware of the depths to which the German party had sunk. Trotsky recalled: “Rosa Luxemburg did not pose the question of the struggle against centrism with the requisite completeness. Lenin’s position was entirely superior in this respect. But between October 1916, when Lenin wrote about the Junius pamphlet, and 1903, when Bolshevism had its inception, there is a lapse of thirteen years; in the course of the major part of this period Rosa  was to be found in opposition to the Kautsky and Bebel Central Committee, and her fight against the formalistic, pedantic, and rotten-at-the-core ‘radicalism’ of Kautsky took on an ever increasingly sharp character. Up until 1914, Lenin did not participate in this fight and did not support Luxemburg. Passionately absorbed in Russian affairs, he preserved extreme caution in international matters. In Lenin’s eyes Bebel and Kautsky stood immeasurably higher as revolutionists than in the eyes of Luxemburg, who observed them at closer range, in action, and who was much more directly subjected to the atmosphere of German politics.”

Nevertheless, despite the inadequacies of the revisionism controversy in this connection, its official revolutionary policy remains an important legacy. Of course, in the absence of a mass movement, the existence of which Luxemburg, Kautsky, and Bernstein took more or less for granted, the question “reform or revolution?” is purely hypothetical today. Reform is unlikely to come about without at least the plausible threat of revolutionary upheaval. Bourgeois parties like the Democrats in the US can barely tolerate a soft Social Democrat like Sanders running in its primary. My earnest hope is that these questions will become less abstract given time, with the increase of an independent proletarian movement in the core capitalist countries.

Erinnerungskarte mit den Mitgliedern der sozialdemokratischen Reichstagsfraktion, 1890

Bernstein and the Marxism
of the Second International

Lucio Colletti
Ideology and

Engels’ “political testament”

In the introduction he wrote for the first reprinting of The Class Struggles in France, in March 1895 — only a few months before his death — Engels observes that the chief error made by Marx and himself at the time of the 1848 revolution was that they had treated the European situation as ripe for socialist transformation:

History has proved us, and all those who thought like us, wrong. It has made clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not by a long way ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution, which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the continent… and has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank.1

According to Engels, this error of judgment concerning the real level of capitalist development in 1848 was to a considerable extent matched by a mistaken political conception that he and Marx had derived from preceding revolutionary experience, and particularly that of France: the idea of revolution as the action of a minority. “It was… natural and unavoidable that our conceptions of the nature and course of the “social” revolution proclaimed in Paris in February 1848, of the revolution of the proletariat, should be strongly colored by memories of the prototypes of 1789 and 1830.” While “all revolutions up to the present day have resulted in the displacement of one definite class rule by another,” “all ruling classes up to now have been only small minorities in relation to the ruled mass of the people”; hence, “the common form of all these revolutions was that they were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part, it did so — whether wittingly or not — only in the service of the minority; but because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority, this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole people.”

The undue extension of this character of preceding revolutions to “the struggle of the proletariat for its emancipation” had now been sharply contradicted by history. History “has done even more: it has not merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion.”

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Dmitrii Moor, Bolshevik cartoonist and propagandist (1883-1946)

My favorite Bolshevik propaganda artist of all time might be Dmitrii Orlov, better known as “Moor,” who was active in revolutionary struggles from 1905 through the Russian Civil War and World War II. His drawings are just so fucking hardcore. Readers of this blog will have seen some of his illustrations for the militant godless journal Bezbozhnik, as well as other assorted propaganda posters. Trotsky named him as one of the USSR’s finest young cartoonists.

In this post I’m just including some of the ones I like the most. No real rhyme or reason to it. Enjoy!

 tumblr_npzq00jK1g1ta0q7zo1_1280 IN_1134_B_l Плакаты СССР- Ты записался добровольцем? (Моор Д.) 1920 00-unknown-artist-the-golden-idol-of-the-lord-of-world-capitalism-1918-20 Плакаты СССР- Помоги. (Моор Д.) 1921 Continue reading

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Trotsky’s Italian connection: Gramsci or Bordiga?

Since the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks after World War II, there have been a number of attempts to adapt their heavily-coded theoretical content to various political projects. Particularly during the period of the New Left, Gramsci was interpreted and reinterpreted ad nauseam. Gradualists of a social-democratic stripe tried to fit the (allegedly anti-Leninist) “war of position” to their own frameworks. Figures like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe deploy the ubiquitous Gramscian buzzword of “hegemony” for their postmodernist, post-Marxist populism. Finally, theorists such as Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Peter D. Thomas have sought to reconcile Gramsci with a more classically Leninist program in light of critiques by Louis Althusser in France and Perry Anderson in England.

Gramsci = Trotsky?

Trotskyists during the 1960s down to the present have followed suit. Even the Spartacist League, known for their strict orthodoxy, nodded approvingly toward a document by Cliff Slaughter from 1960 in which he relied heavily on Gramsci’s The Modern Prince. Just how compatible are Trotsky’s politics with those of Gramsci, though? Certainly during their political careers, they found themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum within international communism. Not only did Gramsci support Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian party in 1925 and 1926, but he continued to lambaste Bronshtein during the period of his imprisonment. Paolo Casciola, an Italian Trotskyist, explains the continued differences between Gramsci and Trotsky from 1926 up through the 1930s in his rebuttal to the “turncoat” Alfonso Leonetti:

Gramsci or Trotsky?

[I]t would be useful to pause for a while on the fable of the “identity of views” between Trotsky and Gramsci. Such a fable is based on the fact that Gramsci “broke” with Stalinism during his prison years, after the “turn of 1930” — a turn which Leonetti had continuously championed. This is a question with which we shall deal in future. What we want to emphasize here is that Leonetti used such an ostensible “identity” as a voucher to justify politically his adherence to Gramscism and Togliattism. It was a rather dubious historico-political operation which was made easier by the cooperation of a series of “Trotskyist” intellectuals and unscrupulous “historians of the workers’ movement.” As a matter of fact, Gramsci’s “moral break” with Stalinism was only a temporary disagreement with the “Third Period” policy, and he was reabsorbed after the Popular Front counter-turn of 1935. If this be the case, then certain things said in the article which Tresso wrote after Gramsci’s death seem somewhat rash. But whereas Tresso could not know anything about Gramsci’s evolution during the 11 years of his imprisonment, Leonetti was able to read several testimonies on that period. But he used them in his own unfortunate way.

To Leonetti, the “identity of views” of Gramsci and Trotsky lies above all in their ostensibly identical assessment of the “period of transition” from Fascism to Communism, as well as in the fact that they both raised the slogan of a constituent assembly for Italy. But this is a superficial and utterly false equation. As a matter of fact, whereas Trotsky emphasized that the “democratic transition” was only one possible variant of the post-Fascist development — linked to and dependent upon the revolutionary awakening of the working class — Gramsci saw such an event as “the most likely one,” and, on this basis, put forward the slogan of a constituent assembly within the framework of a gradualist, Menshevik, Popular Front perspective. It is not by chance that, a few days before his death, Gramsci let the PCd’I know that “the Popular Front in Italy is the constituent assembly.” The Stalinist continuity between Gramsci and Togliatti was thus re-established, after the interlude of the “Third Period.” On the other hand, the lack of identity between the views of Trotsky and Gramsci is shown by several other bits of evidence. According to the testimony of Bruno Tosin, whilst opposing the “turn of 1930” not only did Gramsci hold that the party had been right to expel the Trotskyist oppositionists, but in his Prison Notebooks he criticizes Trotsky every time he mentions him, ever inclined to legitimize the continuity from Lenin to Stalin.

I don’t irrationally hate Gramsci. For the most part I prefer his “liberal” Marxist phase from 1916-1920, when he was closer to Gobetti, and then his early Leninism in alliance with Bordiga. After 1923, Gramsci basically took his orders from Moscow, following all the zigzags coming out of the Kremlin. Had he not been imprisoned, I suspect he would have eventually become a more theoretically sophisticated version of Togliatti. Some of his historical and philosophical reflections are interesting, but politically he’s the pits.

Personally, it’s my opinion that the effort to sanitize Gramsci’s Dmitrovian popfrontism, in order to render them compatible with Trotsky’s views, owes to the intellectual celebrity of the former after World War II. And this celebrity is in turn largely a product of the PCI’s nonstop promotion of Gramsci since 1945. The definitive study of this historiographical shift is John Chiaradia’s “Amadeo Bordiga and the Myth of Antonio Gramsci.” Chiaradia contends that many of the same tactics that were used to oust Trotsky from the Russian party were used to oust Bordiga from the Italian party.

This seems to be borne out by the documentary evidence. If you read anything written by communists about the Italian party before 1945, Gramsci’s name barely even appears. By contrast, Bordiga’s name appears repeatedly. In Franz Borkenau’s World Communism, Trotsky’s writings, Arthur Rosenberg’s books, Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Ignazio Silone’s section of The God that Failed, Bordiga is mentioned over and over. Like I said, after WWII he was mostly just known as Gramsci’s justly vanquished opponent.

Trotsky on Bordiga

In all his published works and correspondence, the only reference Trotsky made to Gramsci came in Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight it, published in 1931. He explained that Italian comrades informed him that “with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party would not even allow for the possibility of the fascists’ seizing power.” Appreciative enough, I suppose. The source of this information, the “Italian comrades” to which Trotsky alluded, can be easily guessed, however. Leonetti, the erstwhile Left Oppositionist who later defected to Stalinism — dealt with above by Casciola — corresponded with Bronshtein about Italian fascism frequently during those years. He remained a loyal Gramscian throughout every phase of his career, and was one of the few prior to 1945 who recalled Gramsci’s name. Deeply resentful toward Bordiga, Leonetti even wrote an article trying to convince Trotsky that the source of Stalin’s Third Period doctrine of “social fascism” was the communist left. From the reply Trotsky sent to Souzo (pen name of Leonetti), it would seem the former was briefly swayed:

February 14, 1932

Dear Comrade Souzo:

I have received your article on the Bordigists, which I find very good and extremely useful, especially the paragraph that shows Bordiga to be the father of the theory of social fascism.

Apart from this, Trotsky was overwhelmingly positive regarding Bordiga’s role within the Italian party. In 1929, he wrote a letter to the editorial board of the journal Prometeo, in which he praised “the living, muscular, and full-blooded revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga.” He underscored his longstanding respect for and personal acquaintance with the man who had inspired their movement: “I have become acquainted with the pamphlet ‘Platform of the Left,’ which you issued back in 1926 but which has only just now reached me. Similarly, I have read the letter you addressed to me in issue number 20 of Prometeo and some of the leading articles in your paper, which enabled me to renew, after a long interruption, my fairly good knowledge of the Italian language. These documents, along with my acquaintance with the articles and speeches of Comrade Bordiga — not to mention my personal acquaintance with him — permit me to judge to a certain extent your basic views as well as the degree of agreement there is between us.” Continue reading


Art into life

Marx once declared, critiquing Hegel, that the historical task confronting humanity was “to make the world philosophical.” Hegel had completed philosophy, effectively brought it to a close. Now all that was left was to make this philosophy real by transforming the world according to its dictates. As he put it:

It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it. (From a philosophical point of view, however, it is important to specify these aspects better, since from the specific manner of this turn we can reason back towards the immanent determination and the universal historic character of a philosophy. We see here, as it were, its curriculum vitae narrowed down to its subjective point.) But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It’s the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea. But this immediate realization of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with con­tradictions, and this its essence takes form in the appearance and imprints its seal upon it.

When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality, that is, it has become one aspect of the world which opposes another one. Its relationship to the world is that of reflection. Inspired by the urge to realize itself, it enters into tension against the other. The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, that its realization is also its loss, that what it struggles against on the outside is its own inner deficiency, that in the very struggle it falls precisely into those defects which it fights as defects in the opposite camp, and that it can only overcome these defects by falling into them. That which opposes it and that which it fights is always the same as itself, only with factors inverted.

Reflecting on these lines nearly a century later, in the aftermath of the stillborn October Revolution, Karl Korsch famously concluded that “[p]hilosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” In other words, it is vital not to cast philosophy unceremoniously aside simply because its time has passed. One must come to terms with it, and critically engage it, before doing away with it completely. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in many ways a sequel to Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,” thus begins with the sobering observation: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who corresponded for decades with Adorno, explained at the outset of his monumental work on Intellectual and Manual Labor, provided a clue as to what this might have meant:

[Work on the present study] began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno, and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter.

Korsch’s insight into this theme from the early thought of Karl Marx, reaffirmed subsequently by Adorno and his best followers, can be extended to encompass art and religion as well. For Hegel, of course, art and religion each provided — in their own, particular way — privileged access to the Absolute. Art reigned supreme in the ancient world, while religion dominated medieval thought (with its “great chain of being”). By the time Hegel was writing, however, these modes of apprehending the Absolute had been surpassed by philosophy, which rationally comprehended the Absolute Idea in its spiritual movement. Intuition and belief had been supplanted by knowledge. Science, or Wissenschaft, had been achieved.

Yet this achievement did not last long. After Hegel’s death, his successors — Left and Right, Young and Old — battled for possession of the master’s system. Only Marx succeeded in carrying it forward, precisely by realizing that philosophy itself must be overcome. The same may perhaps be said for those older forms of life which had the Absolute as their object, art and religion. Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, which read theology as secret anthropology, perhaps found its most revolutionary articulation in the writings of Bogdanov, Gorky, and Lunacharsky, who promoted a project of “God-building” [богостроиетльство]. Lenin rightly scolded them for their excessive, premature exuberance, but they were on the right track. Similarly, the avant-garde project of dissolving art into life, in hopes of bringing about the death of art, can be read as an effort to make the world artistic (“to make the world philosophical”). Or, better, to make the world a work of art.

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Bernstein and Kautsky together in 1910a

Lukács on the rapprochement between Bernstein and Kautsky after World War I

The latest round in the ongoing saga between Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and Chris Cutrone of the Platypus Affiliated Society (PAS) stems from the latter’s review of the former’s book, Revolutionary Strategy, and contains a number of points that might interest readers of this blog. Among other things, they debate the role of the party in Marxist politics, its relation to the state, and the troublesome figure of “democracy” as it exists under capitalism. In critiquing Macnair’s overemphasis on the democratic republic as the form by which proletariat must govern, Cutrone writes:

Capitalism makes the democratic revolution both necessary and impossible, in that the democratic revolution constitutes bourgeois social relations — the relations of the exchange of labor — but capitalism undermines those social relations. The democratic revolution reproduces not “capitalism” as some stable system (which, by Marx’s definition, it cannot be) but rather the crisis of bourgeois society in capitalism, in a political, and hence in a potentially conscious way. The democratic revolution reconstitutes the crisis of capitalism in a manifestly political way, and this is why it can possibly point beyond it, if it is recognized as such: if the struggle for democracy is recognized properly as a manifestation of the crisis of capitalism and hence the need to go beyond bourgeois social relations, to go beyond democracy. Bourgeois forms of politics will be overcome through advancing them to their limits, in crisis.

Unfortunately, the response by Macnair in the pages of the Weekly Worker is one of his weaker ones. He accuses Cutrone of “vacuous circularity,” mistaking the materialist dialectic for some sort of mystical abracadabra. Perhaps in a future post I’ll explain why I think Cutrone’s argument is more or less right, even if Macnair’s motivations are understandable given the decontextualized abuse of Leninist organizational principles on the sectarian left.

Anyway, I’m posting this 1924 article by the Hungarian Marxist revolutionary and critic Georg Lukács because I think it addresses some of the issues at the center of this debate. Furthermore, it’s convenient insofar as it pits the respective avatars of CC and MM against each other in a fairly neat fashion: Kautsky for Macnair, and Lukács for Cutrone. Macnair tends to dismiss Lukács as a “philosopher-king,” and his writings as “theoretical overkill.” Obviously, in this I side with Lenin and Lukács against Bernstein and Kautsky. But you can be the judge.


Bernstein’s triumph: Notes on the essays written in honor of Karl Kautsky’s seventieth birthday

Georg Lukacs
Die Internationale
VII, № 22 (1924)

The main thing, however — as I’ve already told you — is to do something like this, but not to say so.

— Ignaz Auer, Letter to Bernstein

The man who did it without saying so, the man who did not preach but actually practiced the revision of Marxism, the transformation of revolutionary dialectics. into a form of peaceful evolutionism, was none other than Karl Kautsky. It was, therefore, only fitting and logical that the reformists of every country should come together to celebrate his seventieth birthday. The Vorwärts report on the celebration in London was equally true to form in its — correct — emphasis on the real climax of the proceedings.1 “It was only when the aging Eduard Bernstein finally rose from his place to the right of Kautsky, the man who, like Kautsky, has faithfully preserved and administered the enormous intellectual heritage of Marx and Engels throughout his life, that the celebration acquired its peculiar, deeper significance…The words that Bernstein uttered were words of friendship. Adler once quoted, in a different context, the saying that what divides people is insignificant beside the multitude of factors which unite them. For Kautsky and Bernstein, this saying took on a new and special meaning. When Bernstein had finished speaking and the two veterans, already legendary figures in the eyes of a young third generation — embraced and held each other for several seconds, it was impossible not to be deeply moved. Indeed, who would have wished it otherwise?”

Kautsky himself does not dispute such harmony with Bernstein. On his attitude to the World War he writes : “I was very close to Bernstein at that time. It was in the war that we rediscovered each other. Both of us maintained our theoretical individuality, but in our practice we were now almost invariably at one with each other. And so we have remained ever since” (Self-Portraits, pg. 26). These words indicate the spirit in which the Kautsky jubilee took place. While the struggles concerning Marxist “orthodoxy” which occupied Kautsky’s early period and culminated in the Bernstein debate are fading increasingly into the past as an insignificant episode, those disputes which he waged after the first Russian revolution — initially with Rosa Luxemburg, Pannekoek, and others, later with Lenin and Trotsky — are developing into the central concerns of his life’s work.

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Hence it is no coincidence that appreciation of Kautsky should be based chiefly on his latest sizable work, The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, a book in which all his reformist tendencies manifest themselves clearly in the guise of a new “theory of revolution.” Karl Kautsky is acclaimed by all reformists as the great theoretician of revolution. And rightly so. For their sabotaging of revolution, their fear of revolution, their frantic efforts to prevent revolution — all this has found its clearest theoretical expression in the life’s work of Karl Kautsky.

Precisely therein lies Bernstein’s triumph. The isolated “differences of opinion” have in any case long since been forgotten. The really crucial question even then was whether, in the period leading up to the decisive power struggles between bourgeoisie and proletariat, social democracy would become the leader of the revolutionary class, or whether it would hurry to help the bourgeoisie to survive this, the severest crisis in its history. Bernstein expressed his preference for the latter course in a premature, overly frank and tactically clumsy fashion. Had his arguments been really discussed and their consequences properly and thoroughly analyzed, the Social Democrats would inevitably have been split. This would have left the bourgeoisie facing a party which, though numerically weakened, took a clear and determined revolutionary line. It was Karl Kautsky’s historic mission in that situation to thwart the clarification of such problems, to prevent the development of any such tension, and to preserve at any price the unity of the SPD (and with it that of the Second International). He has fulfilled this mission faithfully. Instead of calling openly for the liquidation of the revolutionary theory of Marxism, as Bernstein did, Kautsky argued for a “development,” a “concretization” of the Marxist theory of revolution. This new approach, while apparently rejecting Bernsteinian reformism, in fact provided the theoretical underpinning for precisely what is central to Bernstein’s conception of history, namely the notion of peaceful evolutionary progression towards socialism.

L. Boudin has summarized this vocation of Kautsky’s quite clearly: “Not until the smoke of battle [the allusion is to the Bernstein debate. G.L.] had cleared somewhat and this battle had been practically won could Marx’s great successor — Karl Kautsky — write the series of masterpieces which for the first time explained Marxist theory as an evolutionary conception of the coming social revolution” (Die Gesellschaft, pg. 44). ZRonais puts it in similar terms: “In Kautsky’s struggle with reformism, where the theoretician proved to be better at Realpolitik than the shortsighted, merely practical, day-to-day politicians, history has decided in Kautsky’s favor” (Der Kampf, pg. 423). In The Proletarian Revolution and Its Program, which his admirers have consequently and quite rightly hailed as his greatest achievement, Kautsky expresses this equivocal and ambiguous theory with the utmost possible clarity. He claims that he is not intent on liquidating the revolution. Quite the reverse, in fact: he attempts to grasp its essence, the essence of the proletarian revolution, quite clearly, and to protect the proletarian revolution from any possibility of being confused with the bourgeois revolution. But it is precisely this “pure” proletarian revolution which, in Kautsky’s exposition, acquires a form which objectively is such as to make it essentially equivalent to Bernstein’s notion of peaceful progression towards socialism.

For this revolution takes place within democracy. And the significance of democracy is precisely “that it brings the greatness of this power [of the proletariat, G.L.] clearly to light while obviating the need for a confrontation of armed forces” (The Proletarian Revolution and its Program, p. 82). The advantage of this kind of revolution over the bourgeois variety is precisely that a counter-blow, a counter-revolution does not usually follow it (ibid., p. 96) — provided, of course, that the principle of “pushing the revolution forward” (ibid., pgs. 85-94) which Rosa Luxemburg erroneously took over from the bourgeois revolution is not applied. Under such circumstances, clearly, to talk of democracy as being a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is to employ “one of the most ludicrous slogans produced in modern times” (ibid., pg. 112). And so on. Continue reading

The Coming Insurrection

Formaldehyde embalming the corpse: Looking back at The Coming Insurrection

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.


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

Ashley Weger
Platypus Review 27
September 1, 2010


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



J.G. Ballard
New Worlds
August 1960

His trial had been fixed for the next day. Exactly when, of course, neither Newman nor anyone else knew. Probably it would be during the afternoon, when the principals concerned — judge, jury, and prosecutor — managed to converge on the same courtroom at the same time. With luck his defense attorney might also appear at the right moment, though the case was such an open and shut one that Newman hardly expected him to bother — besides, transport to and from the old penal complex was notoriously difficult, involved endless waiting in the grimy depot below the prison walls.

Newman had passed the time usefully. Luckily, his cell faced south and sunlight traversed it for most of the day. He divided its arc into ten equal segments, the effective daylight hours, marking the intervals with a wedge of mortar prized from the window ledge. Each segment he further subdivided into twelve smaller units.

Immediately he had a working timepiece, accurate to within virtually a minute (the final subdivision into fifths he made mentally). The sweep of white notches, curving down one wall, across the floor and metal bedstead, and up the other wall, would have been recognizable to anyone who stood with his back to the window, but no one ever did. Anyway, the guards were too stupid to understand, and the sundial had given Newman a tremendous advantage over them. Most of the time, when he wasn’t recalibrating the dial, he would press against the grille, keeping an eye on the orderly room.

“Brocken!” he would shout at 7:15 as the shadow line hit the first interval. “Morning inspection! On your feet, man!” The sergeant would come stumbling out of his bunk in a sweat, rising the other warders as the reveille bell split the air.

Later, Newman sang out the other events on the daily roster: roll call, cell fatigues, breakfast, exercise, and so on around to the evening roll just before dusk. Brocken regularly won the block merit for the best-run cell deck and he relied on Newman to program the day for him, anticipate the next item on the roster, and warn him if anything went on for too long-in some of the other blocks fatigues were usually over in three minutes while breakfast or exercise could go on for hours, none of the warders knowing when to stop, the prisoners insisting that they had only just begun.

Brocken never inquired how Newman organized everything so exactly; once or twice a week, when it rained or was overcast, Newman would be strangely silent, and the resulting confusion reminded the sergeant forcefully of the merits of cooperation. Newman was kept in cell privileges and all the cigarettes he needed. It was a shame that a date for the trial had finally been named. Newman, too, was sorry. Most of his research so far had been inconclusive. Primarily his problem was that, given a northward-facing cell for the bulk of his sentence, the task of estimating the time might become impossible. The inclination of the shadows in the exercise yards or across the towers and walls provided too blunt a reading. Calibration would have to be visual; an optical instrument would soon be discovered.

What he needed was an internal timepiece, an unconsciously operating psychic mechanism regulated, say, by his pulse or respiratory rhythms. He had tried to train his time sense, running an elaborate series of tests to estimate its minimum in-built error, and this had been disappointingly large. The chances of conditioning an accurate reflex seemed slim.

However, unless he could tell the exact time at any given moment, he knew he would go mad.


His obsession, which now faced him with a charge of murder, had revealed itself innocently enough.

As a child, like all children, he had noticed the occasional ancient clock tower, bearing the same white circle with its twelve intervals. In the seedier areas of the city the round characteristic dials often hung over cheap jewelry stores, rusting and derelict.

“Just signs,” his mother explained. “They don’t mean anything, like stars or rings. “

Pointless embellishment, he had thought.

Once, in an old furniture shop, they ha d seen a clock with hands, upside down in a box full of fire irons and miscellaneous rubbish. Continue reading

2Rubble lying in the streets after Arab looting of Jewish homes. Jerusalem. June 1948.

Catastrophe, historical memory, and the Left: 60 years of Israel-Palestine

Historians Group
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

Some readers will doubtless find my decision to republish this 2008 article by the Platypus “Historians Group” (which no longer seems to exist in any meaningful way) questionable in light of Chris Cutrone’s unfortunate remarks, made in private, regarding the so-called “rational kernel of racism.” Like many of his formulations, this was clearly intended as a provocation against the received wisdom of the Left — however extravagant and misguided it may have been in this instance.

In any case, he has since explained himself in a manner that I consider satisfactory. Therefore, I see no problem posting this older piece, written on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. Given the recent ground invasion into Gaza, the latest round of violence in this decades-old territorial dispute, it is perhaps worth remembering how this whole wretched situation came to pass.

The contours of the present day Middle East have been shaped by a mid-twentieth century triptych of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The first panel in this triptych is the “Holocaust” [the “Shoah” in Hebrew, or “Khurbn” in Yiddish], the systematic murder of approximately two-thirds of European Jewry by the Nazis in 1941-1945. The second panel is the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the Zionists in 1947-1949, the “Nakba.” The third panel, which does not have a commonly accepted name, is the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries. Most of these ended up in Israel, where they strengthened the Zionist state in crucial ways despite frequently encountering racial discrimination there at the hands of Ashkenazi Jews.

Each of these catastrophes was both a product of the failure of the Left and paved the way for further defeats.

Before the Holocaust, Zionism — despite persistent and rising anti-Semitism throughout most of Europe — was distinctly a minority movement among European Jews, who for the most part trusted to liberalism and varieties of socialism and communism to beat back the rising tide of barbarism. On a per capita basis, more than any other Europeans, European Jews played central roles in the European Left. The triumph of Zionism is centrally and tragically predicated on the failure of the European Left to stop Hitler. Palestinians have become the secondary victims of this failure.


Secondly, the failure within Mandate Palestine to develop an anti-Zionist politics on a progressive basis meant that Palestinians’ just and necessary struggle against Zionism and British imperialism took on a communalist character — which, in the face of military defeat by the Yishuv in 1947-1949, led to the Nakba.

Thirdly, the retaliatory expulsions and persecution of Mizrahi Jews strengthened Zionism both materially and ideologically: materially, by greatly fortifying Israel’s demographic base; ideologically, by appearing to confirm that Jews could not live in peace as minorities in the Arab world. If the Palestinians are the secondary victims of the disaster that overtook European Jews, Mizrahi Jews were in a sense the tertiary victims. Continue reading

Iakov Chernikhov, architectural fantasy circa 1931

Iakov Chernikhov, Cycle of architectural landscapes and other fantasies (1930)


Architectural fantasy stimulates the architect’s activity, it arouses creative thought not only for the artist but it also educates and arouses all those who come in contact with him; it produces new directions, new quests, and opens new horizons.

— Iakov Chernikhov, 1927

Chernikhov is a pioneer, a trail-blazer of new themes in graphic art, and also, in part, of new modes of graphic design.

— Erikh Gollerbakh, 1930

Regular readers of The Charnel-House will know that I’ve already written on the brilliant architect and designer Iakov Chernikhov (1889-1951). Or rather, I’ve posted the excellent introduction Erikh Gollerbakh wrote in 1930 introducing Chernikhov’s The Construction of Architectural and Machine Forms, as well as a broader overview of his significance and career by the more recent scholar Dmitrii Khmel’nitskii. Some of my own thoughts about his work as it can be found in a sketch I made relating it  to that of the American Hugh Ferriss, his contemporary. Moreover, Chernikhov receives a brief mention in my broader outline of Russian and Soviet architecture from 1900 to 1953.

I won’t reprise the same summary treatment here. For now, just enjoy these images from Chernikhov’s Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, as well as other assorted fantasies. Anyone who’s into these will likely also want to take a look at Theo van Doesburg’s themes for the Aubette Café in Strasbourg, Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröderhuis in Utrecht, JJP Oud’s Café de Unie in Rotterdam, and Frederick Kiesler’s “City of Space” model, Lazar Khidekel’s cosmist suprematism, Ivan Kudriashev’s dynamic abstractions, László Moholy-Nagy’s paintings and photographs, Charlotte Perriand’s purist furniture designs, and Il’ia Chashnik’s revolutionary suprematism.

Click on any of the pictures to see them in higher resolution, and check out any of the links above if you’re interested in learning more.

Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 3, 1930 Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 4 in 10.2 × 10.2 cm Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 1, circa. 1930 Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 5 1:2 in 10.2 × 14 cm Iakov Chernikhov, Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 2, circa. 1930 Gouache, pen and ink on paper 4 × 4 in 10.2 × 10.2 cm Study for the Cycle of Architectural Landscapes, 1, circa. 1930image (1)Chernikhov architecture of industrial forms 1934aimage (3)image (5)image (11)image (23)image (25)image (2)image (14) Continue reading


Democracy and the Left

Alan AkrivosDick Howard 
Alan MilchmanJoseph Schwartz

On February 5, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation titled ‘Democracy and the Left’ at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The participants were Alan Akrivos (Socialist Alternative), Dick Howard (Stony Brook University), Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective), and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America). The description of the event reads as follows:

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again. The elections in the U.S. and Germany seem, by comparison, to be non-events, despite having potentially far-reaching consequences. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections but was instead split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary. Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both emancipatory social demands as well as their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte.” What history informs demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution as understood by the Left?

What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full recording can be found online. Once again, I’m not in Platypus. Indeed, I’m apparently not even welcome at their events, despite it having been over a year since I quit. Still, I think this is a worthwhile exchange and am reposting it here in the hope that someone might actually read it.

Opening remarks

Dick Howard:
 There is a fundamental difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, which leads to a vision of democracy that is radically different in the two contexts.

The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution against the state that wanted to get the British off of the backs of Americans and leave society to go on in its own way. There’s an anti-statist tradition in the United States. The American Revolution went through three distinct phases: declaring independence, winning the war, and then the problem that Ukrainians are going have to face, namely, how do you give society a political framework such that it can hold together? That’s the period of the failure of that kind of direct democracy found in the Articles of Confederation. Finally, a nation-state was created.

America became a nation-state and a democratic state insofar as you had the “Revolution of 1803.” That was not only when the Jeffersonians (the opposition) won the presidency, but also when the decision in Marbury v. Madison recognized that the society was one, held together by its constitution despite the diversity of the society that was framed by the constitution. That gave America a republican democracy: the constitution which frames the republic holds priority and gives the unity within which a diversity can flourish.

During the French Revolution, insofar as the society was based on status rather than equality of opportunity, the power of the state was used in order to transform society. That process of using the state power to transform society went through phases, and you can list the canonical dates: the high point of the Jacobin period in 1793, the reaction against it, the empire, the return of the monarchy, then 1830, 1848, 1870, and finally — even Platypus puts it into its name — 1917, which, apparently, is the realization of that dream that begins with the French Revolution. That dream is that the gap between society and the state be overcome, but it is overcome by the action of the state. Instead of a republican democracy in the American sense, you had a democratic republic — the idea is that democracy and the state come together, and this is the elimination of the state.

I came to realize the importance of this distinction in 1990 or 1991 when I was giving a lecture in Greifswald, in the former German Democratic Republic, about the American Revolution and how the Americans created a “democratic republic.” The audience was not particularly happy because they had just gotten out of a democratic republic! What is that democratic republic? What is that republican democracy? There was awareness of this distinction well before a left-wing critique of totalitarianism developed.

Continue reading