A revolutionary impulse: Russian avant-garde at the MoMA

Four months back, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art opened an ex­hib­it en­titled A Re­volu­tion­ary Im­pulse: Rise of the Rus­si­an Av­ant-Garde. The show re­ceived mostly fa­vor­able write-ups in lib­er­al out­lets like New York Times and New York­er as well as art/cul­ture mags like Stu­dio In­ter­na­tion­al, Seca Art, and He­don­ist. Marx­ist and left­ish pub­lic­a­tions such as World So­cial­ist Web­site (or­gan of the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party) and Brook­lyn Rail also ran ap­pre­ci­at­ive re­views of the ex­hib­i­tion.

Per­haps my fa­vor­ite crit­ic­al re­flec­tion on the show came from Caesura, an off­shoot from the Platy­pus Af­fil­i­ated So­ci­ety ex­clus­ively fo­cused on art, mu­sic, and lit­er­at­ure. It fea­tured a fairly char­ac­ter­ist­ic but nev­er­the­less poignant ob­ser­va­tion:

Of the stag­ger­ing num­ber of ob­jects on dis­play, most strik­ing was film­maker Dziga Vertov’s 1925 col­lab­or­a­tion with Rod­chen­ko, Kino-Pravda no.21, a pro­pa­ganda film (the title trans­lates to cinema-truth) track­ing the fail­ing health, death and fu­ner­al of Len­in. Black and white graph­ics con­trib­uted by Rod­chen­ko de­pict­ing, without com­ment, the med­ic­al stat­ist­ics of the ail­ing re­volu­tion­ary lead­er cre­ated a palp­able sense of worry as they edge, at an ex­cru­ci­at­ingly slow pace, to­wards the res­ult we all know already: Len­in’s death in 1924. The film showed the massive long-faced pro­ces­sion of mourn­ers at his fu­ner­al, ded­ic­at­ing por­trait shots and name plates to party lead­ers: a hunched over, tear stricken Clara Zetkin, a somber Le­on Trot­sky and Joseph Stal­in stead­fastly look­ing ahead. The lat­ter was ut­terly chilling — a glimpse of a fu­ture yet un­known to the film­makers but known all too well today. Stand­ing, in 2017, in the Amer­ic­an Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in a mo­ment of ut­ter polit­ic­al con­fu­sion, the tragedy of this mo­ment was cut­ting. Could the mourn­ers have pos­sibly known that they had wit­nessed both the be­gin­ning and the end of a mo­ment of tre­mend­ous his­tor­ic­al po­ten­tial? Did Vertov and Rod­chen­ko real­ize that in their mont­age of party lead­ers it would be Stal­in who would take power? Did they know that, after the crip­pling de­feat of the Ger­man Left the year pri­or, 1924 would mark a clos­ing and not an open­ing of his­tory?

Caesura’s re­view­er fur­ther spec­u­lates that “if the art of the Rus­si­an av­ant-garde has a time­less qual­ity, it is be­cause of its unique his­tor­ic­al ori­gin. Nev­er be­fore or since have artists op­er­ated un­der the thrall of three so­ci­et­ies — crum­bling czar­ist Rus­sia, the dy­nam­ic bour­geois west, and the ad­van­cing specter of so­cial­ism — so dif­fer­ent. It ex­presses all three but be­longs to none.” A sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment is cap­tured by a line in the New York­er: “His­tory is not a con­stant march for­ward; it can stand still for dec­ades and then, as it did in Rus­sia a hun­dred years ago, ex­plode in a flash.” This line it­self merely para­phrases a quip at­trib­uted to Len­in, to the ef­fect that “there are dec­ades where noth­ing hap­pens, but then there are weeks where dec­ades hap­pen.”

I my­self at­ten­ded the ex­hib­it, and was im­pressed by what I saw. Some of the same pieces had ap­peared in spe­cial gal­ler­ies across the city over the last few years, but the sheer wealth of ma­ter­i­al con­cen­trated in one space was breath­tak­ing. Fur­ther­more, the way this ma­ter­i­al was or­gan­ized and form­ally ar­ranged was skill­ful. You can see a pic­ture of me stand­ing next to Lis­sitzky’s “new man of com­mun­ism,” taken from his series for Vic­tory over the Sun. Be­low you can read a fine med­it­a­tion on the show writ­ten by Bloom Correo, a young ul­traleft au­thor who vis­ited NYC just to see it.

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Gustav Klutsis, revolutionary propagandist (1895-1938)

Gustavs Klucis — also known as Gustav Klutsis, the Russian spelling of his name — was one of the pioneers of Soviet agitprop graphic design, particularly prominent for his revolutionary use of the medium of photomontage to create political posters, book designs, newspaper and magazine illustrations. He was born in the small village of Ruen in Latvia. He studied art in Riga from 1913 to 1915, and later in Petrograd from 1915 to 1917. He then continued his education at SVOMAS-VKhUTEMAS in Moscow. It was there that he met Valentina Kulagina, his future wife and a prominent poster/book designer herself.

As a student, Klucis worked with Tatlin, Malevich, Lissitzky, and other representatives of the new artistic order in the new state. In his early works he was particularly preoccupied with the problems of representation of three-dimensional space and spatial construction. In 1919 he created his first photocollage Dynamic City, where photography was used as an element of construction and illustration. In 1920 Klucis joined the Communist party; his works around this time sought to transform the logic of political thought and propaganda into Suprematist form, often using documentary images of Lenin, Trotsky, and eventually Stalin in his radical poster designs.

After graduating from VKhUTEMAS, Klucis started teaching and working in a variety of experimental media. He became an active member of INKhUK and a militant champion of Constructivism. Klucis advocated the rejection of painting and was actively involved in making production art [proizvodstvennoe iskusstvo], such as multimedia agitprop kiosks to be installed on the streets of Moscow, integrating radio-orators, film screens, and newsprint displays. Two such structures were constructed for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922 and subsequently enjoyed great popularity as their plans were published and models exhibited. Through these constructions Klucis developed his own individual method of combining slogans and functional structures built around simple geometrical figures — this method would later lie at the core of his works on paper as well.

Klucis’ first photomontage designs for books and magazine covers were published in 1923, around the same time that Rodchenko was experimenting with the medium in the magazine LEF and the publication of Mayakovsky’s poem Pro Eto. Klucis recognized that the “fixed reality” of photography offered endless possibilities for a new form of propaganda art that was accessible and effective. He acquired his own camera in 1924 which enabled him to incorporate his own photographs in the collages. Thanks to Klucis, Rodchenko and Sergei Senkin, by late 1924, the use of photomontage in publication of books and illustrations had been consolidated.

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On Stalin and Stalinism today

Editorial note

Watson Ladd’s recent review of the latest issue of Crisis and Critique, in which a number of authors reflect on Stalin’s contemporary significance, appears below. It’s a huge issue, and the collection itself comes to almost five hundred pages. Some of the articles are probably worth checking out, especially the ones by Lars Lih, Evgeni Pavlov, and Paul LeBlanc. (LeBlanc is easily the most credible political and intellectual historian within the ISO, largely because he comes from a tradition outside Cliffism). You can download and read Crisis and Critique 3.1 further down for free.

On a few points a disagree with Ladd somewhat, though for the most part I agree. For example, here: “The name [Stalin] means nothing. It can be deployed for a hundred different political purposes.” Here, if one ignores his subsequent qualifications of this point, Ladd almost seems to come close to something Doug Enaa Greene wrote in a since-deleted thread on the Kasama Project website a year or so ago:

One of the most useless terms thrown around on the left is “Stalinism” (statist and totalitarianism are two others that rank up there). Stalinism is often utilized as a swear word by leftists against anything they disagree with. And this means that Stalinism is used to refer to such differing figures, ideologies, movements and governments that it loses all coherent meaning. For example, I’ve known leftists who refer to both Mao and Deng as “Stalinists.” Never mind that these two figures had opposite politics (Mao led a socialist revolution and Deng reversed one). Some other examples of “Stalinism” are the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Yet any commonality between these two parties disappears on closer inspection. The CPI (Marxist) is strictly parliamentary party which enforces neoliberalism and massacres workers and peasants, while the CPI (Maoist) is leading a revolutionary people’s war among the most oppressed masses, fighting the Indian state, including clashing with their “fellow Stalinists” in the CPI (Marxist), and establishing liberated zones of popular power. The list goes on and on…

As should be clear, when calling these wildly different figures, movements, and organizations “Stalinist,” deprives the word of all meaning (assuming it has one in the first place). What I am getting at here is that rather than looking at how these differing figures, movements, etc operate based on their own particular contexts, it is assumed that because they don’t fall under the label of the correct political line (whether Trotskyist, anarchist, etc) that they must be Stalinist. It is further assumed that by those using the label Stalinist that if you have the “correct” view on the nature of the inner-party debates of the Soviet Union in the 1920s or the class character of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, often derived from the work of Trotsky, that this can just be mechanically applied to completely different situation (the classic case is Maoism = Chinese Stalinism) without doing any investigation of that particular situation. Effectively this says that you don’t have to learn anything about one of the most important revolutions of the last century, set aside with a simple verdict. And the politics that comes out of this dismissal is bland and lifeless, unable to learn from any other experiences because all the verdicts are already settled.

Certainly, “Stalinism” refers to a group of sectarian traditions and theoretical bloodlines which are often at odds with one another. Sometimes seemingly opposite. But the same could easily be said for Trotskyism. Look at the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in the UK, which verges on Zionist apologetics, and the Socialist Workers’ Party, which waves placards at rallies which declare: “We are all Hezbollah!” Yet both stand within the Trotskyist lineage, even if the former is mediated by the Shachtmanite-Matgamnan moment and the latter by the Cliffite-Callinican moment.

There are a number of common features that immediately stand out with regard to Stalinism: 1. first, and most obviously, the principle of социализм в одной стране [socialism in one country]; 2. second, and no less fundamentally, the elevation of the State to a semi-permanent Lassallean role as the guarantor that capitalism will never reemerge; and 3. the schizophrenic logic that brands parliamentary socialists as “social fascists” in one moment and welcomes alliances with bourgeois parties or outright reactionaries as part of anti-fascist or anti-imperialist popular fronts in the next.

Any Maoists who took issue with Loren Goldner’s perfunctory remark that “Maoism is a variant of Stalinism” can take it up with the following image.


Methodologically, and as a matter of course, Stalinism stood for the perversion of dialectic from an immanent logic used to critically grasp alternating and emergent conditions into an ex post facto rationalization of defeat. “Zigzags,” as Lenin called them:

The great Hegelian dialectics which Marxism made its own, having first been turned right side up, must never be confused with the vulgar trick of justifying the zigzags of politicians who swing over from the revolutionary to the opportunist wing of the Party, the vulgar habit of lumping together particular statements and developmental factors belonging to different stages of a single process. Genuine dialectics does not justify the errors of individuals, but studies the inevitable turns.

At any rate, I don’t think that Marxists can simply disown Stalinism, as if it had nothing to do with the political precepts laid down by Marx. Those who take their inspiration from Lenin and the Bolsheviks can still less absolutely dissociate themselves from Stalin as an historical figure and Stalinism as a world-historic phenomenon. Dzugashvili had been a dedicated cadre and party operative for almost a quarter century, after all, by the time his faction assumed the reigns of power. However vulgar and buffoonish he was as a theorist, it is not as if he was simply an inexperienced interloper.

Obviously, I consider Stalinism monstrous. While Hitler was incomparably worse in terms of his crimes, Stalin murdered more dyed-in-the-wool Marxist revolutionaries than Hitler ever did. In that sense, the Gulag system should disturb us more than Nazi barbarism. Nazism was transparently right-wing, chauvinist, and genocidal in its intent. Communism was meant to herald the liberation of mankind — i.e., not a grim, self-perpetuating authoritarian interlude on the way to capitalist restoration. In a way, it would be a relief if the demise of the USSR wiped Stalin’s legacy clean off the record books.

Stalinism lives on. Just barely, though, eking out a miserable existence in “critical support” for rackets like the FARC, the Naxalites, or the PFLP. (This position the Trots and tankies have in common, but it is more a museum-piece of Cold War natlib than anything having to do with Lenin’s line, or even Zinoviev’s narrow interpretation of it as a prerequisite for entry into the Comintern). Ladd is right, however, that if Stalin’s name stands for nothing today, it’s “not because Stalin stood for nothing, but because what he stood for has been forgotten. As a period of politics on the Left, globally, the history of Stalinism has all but faded from view.”


Seventeen ways of looking at Stalin

Watson Ladd
Platypus Review
№ 90,

Journal Review:

Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, editors
“Stalin: What Does the Name Stand for?”
Crisis and Critique 3, no. 1 (3.29.2016)1

Stalinism’s impact is difficult to see in the world today. North Korea and Cuba limp along, sponsored by a capitalist China and caudillo-ist Venezuela, respectively. The official Stalinist parties in the Western world remain, at least on paper, but tend to throw support behind Hillary Clinton or the local equivalent. In one way or another, any examination of Stalin is thus historical — not a critique of a living political movement, but of a movement situated in a time remote from our own. The object of investigation is a legacy whose practical effect in the present is deeply obscure.

The journal Crisis and Critique has recently published a compilation of such examinations. In the introduction, editors Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza emphasize their desire to examine the politics that led to Stalin and shaped the period during which he lived, neither damning nor defending, and hoping to avoid the reduction of complex questions to the status of a single individual.

As Lars Lih points out in the first contribution, Soviet artists celebrated Stalin as a mythical figure, an ersatz czar who defended the Russian people. Indeed, Stalin invites a series of historical comparisons. By turns he is Robespierre,2 by turns a brute responsible for the failure of a revolution.3 For Domenico Losurdo, he is the Soviet Gandhi, fighting against colonialism with methods no more dictatorial than the global crisis of the 1930s demanded.4 Enver Hoxha’s essay, which closes out the volume, does not need to mention Stalin by name to argue that he enabled the people to “write their own history,” and that we must stay to the course he laid out, if we wish to defend the revolution and achieve the political empowerment of the masses.

Elsewhere Stalin curiously recedes into the background. He becomes the pretext for a discussion about the metaphysics of language,5 or for an analysis of how his early seminarian experiences influenced the creation of the new communist man.6 Or the topic shifts to the philosophical school of dialectical materialism,7 analyzed without really taking stock of Stalin, who hovers quietly in the background. And there is the experience of those who lived under Stalinism,8 and the memory of the political struggles over revisionism and orthodoxy.9


With all these views (and more) of Stalin represented in this volume, one might think that the subject, if not exhausted, had at least been opened up for inquiry. Unfortunately this is not the case, unless we want to understand the long shadow of Stalinism as only the latest in a line of tragedies. However, whatever else we may think of him, Stalin is far more than merely a Tamerlane or an Alexander Nevsky.

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Revisionism revisited: Ernst Nolte and Domenico Losurdo on the age of extremes

“Revisionism” — Revisionismus, révisionnisme, ревизионизм — is a word of relatively recent vintage. Most etymologies date its origin to around 1903, when the revisionist dispute befell German Social Democracy. Its meaning has remained more or less constant since then: the term denotes an effort to revise or otherwise reenvision some prior doctrine or established consensus. Already in its short career, however, revisionism has managed to amass a range of historical referents. Given this polysemic quality, a bit of disentanglement seems in order to sort out the different phenomena it signifies.

Ernst Nolte’s death late last week, at the age of 93, offers a unique opportunity for such reflection. The controversial historian rose to international prominence, or at least achieved a certain notoriety, during the mid-1980s as part of the “historians’ quarrel” [Historikerstreit]. Beginning with an address he delivered in Munich in June 1980, entitled “Between Historical Legend and Revisionism?”, Nolte sought to place the Nazi genocide within the context of a global civil war [Weltbürgerkrieg] that lasted from the October Revolution in 1917 to the fall of Berlin in May 1945. He framed it as an unfortunate (but understandable) response to the horrific violence unleashed by the Bolsheviks in Russia:

Auschwitz was not primarily a result of traditional antisemitism, and not just one more case of “genocide.” It was a fear-borne reaction to acts of annihilation that took place during the Russian Revolution. While the fact that it was more irrational, terrible, and repulsive than its precursor provides a foundation for the notion of singularity, none of this alters that the so-called [!!!] annihilation of the Jews by the Third Reich was a reaction or a distorted copy and not a first act or an original.

Six years later, in the editorial that sparked the controversy, Nolte again posed the question: “Did the National Socialists or Hitler perhaps commit an ‘Asiatic’ deed merely because they considered themselves potential victims of an ‘Asiatic’ deed? Wasn’t the Gulag Archipelago primary to Auschwitz?” For Nolte, “the Bolsheviks’ murder of an entire class was the logical and factual prius of the ‘racial murder’ of National Socialism…” Yet, despite these supposed mitigating circumstances, Germany alone was trapped in “a past that will not pass.” Twisting the knife, he added, “talk about ‘the guilt of the Germans’ blithely overlooks the similarity to the talk about ‘the guilt of the Jews,’ which was a main argument of the National Socialists.” Predictably, Nolte’s provocations led to an uproar, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was flooded with angry letters.

Stalin, Hitler, similar salutes copy 2 U_39_299435507822_paris37.a

Jürgen Habermas was among those who sent a reply the summer of 1986. Immediately, this added a great deal of weight to the debate. At the time, Habermas was at the height of his powers, by far the country’s best-known intellectual. Heir apparent to Theodor Adorno, he represented the “second generation” of Frankfurt School critical theory. Nolte had been a follower of Martin Heidegger, the (in)famous Nazi philosopher against whom Adorno had tirelessly polemicized, so the ghosts of the Doktorväter were close at hand. This was evident from the outset, as Habermas inveighed against the apologetic tendencies at work “in what Nolte, the student of Heidegger, calls his ‘philosophical writing of history’.” Even statements downplaying the relevance of these forebears tacitly invoked their authority, as for example when Habermas declared that “it is not a matter of Popper versus Adorno, nor of scholarly differences of opinion, nor about questions of freedom from value judgments [Wertfreiheit]. Rather, it is about the public use of history.” Driving this point home, a few pages down, he reiterated: “After 1945… we read [Martin] Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, and Hans Freyer, even Ernst Jünger, differently than before 1933.”

Looking back at this exchange now thirty years on, one wonders whether this is not the crux of the matter. Can an event be historicized without diminishing its singularity? Or does the very act of contextualization thereby render it mundane? Is it possible to simultaneously “comprehend and condemn,” as Christian Meier suggested in the title of his contribution to the debate? To compare two distinct objects is to relate them, if not relativize them as such. Hans Mommsen objected to claims made by Nolte and his attack dog, Joachim Fest, on the grounds that they surreptitiously aimed at “relativizing” Nazism through its comparison with Bolshevism. By insisting on their comparability, or “the permissibility of certain comparisons” (as Nolte put it), all talk of singularity swiftly goes out the window. François Furet, revisionist historian of the French Revolution and unabashed admirer of his German counterpart, one of Nolte’s greatest merits was to have “quickly gone beyond the prohibition against putting Bolshevism and Nazism in the same bag.” Paul Ricoeur noted in Memory, History, Forgetting, just a year before his death, “this massive use of comparison settles the fate of singularity or uniqueness, since this alone permits the identification of differences… As soon as the critical debate has been widened in this way, Nolte expects it will allow this past ‘to pass’ like any other and be appropriated.” Continue reading

Anatolii Lunacharskii: Socialism, religion, and enlightenment

Roland Boer has a new article out on Anatolii Lunacharskii’s controversial two-volume treatise, Religion and Socialism (1908, 1911). Lunacharskii was the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, in charge of education initiatives throughout the fledgling socialist republic. His campaigns to fight illiteracy, making secular education available in the most distant reaches of the union, were highly effective. Moreover, Lunacharskii’s tolerant temperament toward independent cultural and artistic groups — i.e., not forcibly unionized or centrally run by the state — during his tenure throughout the 1920s stands in stark contrast to the Stalinist policies established in the mid-1930s, which put an end to such associations and civil society groupings. Also, he was fairly receptive to new literary and aesthetic styles and movements, especially compared to the prescriptions handed down by Zhdanov et al. at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s first book is a study of the Commissariat of Enlightenment under Lunacharskii, and it provides an excellent institutional survey, as well as a portrait of the “Russian Faust” (a title given him by Mikhail Lifshitz).

Boer’s article with justice claims to be “first full engagement in English with Anatolii Lunacharskii’s near lost work, Religion and Socialism.” The reason the book is so obscure today is that it gave theoretical expression to the concept of god-building, an unusual tendency within prewar Bolshevism reviled by Lenin. Like many of the heresies that rocked the early Church in Roman Christianity, its contents are primarily known through texts written condemning it. Still, this point is easily exaggerated. It is not quite as rare as Boer makes it out to be. For example, in the gloss provided by his article:

Conditions: Lost and Found

Religion and Socialism is a work that has been lost and found. Its loss was hardly due to any lack of quality. The reason is, rather, its particular history. Lenin launched a spirited attack when it was published, persuading the editorial board of Proletarii to condemn it. Or rather, he lumped God-building in with the Left-Bolshevik interest in empiriocriticism and otzovism, as much for political as for theoretical reasons. Seeing the increasing appeal of these not necessarily connected positions among some younger and very articulate Bolsheviks, Lenin realized the need to quell the leftward push, thereby bringing philosophical questions to the fore. In hindsight, of course, he was probably correct, for a revolutionary push at the time would have generated an even fiercer reaction. But a side effect was the complete sidelining of Religion and Socialism. And given Lenin’s crucial role in the 1917 revolution and the subsequent establishment of communism in Russia, the few copies of the book were left to the dust and bookworms of forgotten archival corners.

The finding of such a work has thereby entailed a little sleuthing, for it has proved exceedingly difficult to find. The editors of the eight-volume Collected Works chose not to include Religion and Socialism in that collection. By contrast, the introduction to a separate volume, called Religion and Enlightenment, offers a statement concerning the waywardness of Religion and Socialism and cites Lunacharskii’s own somewhat halfhearted distancing from the work in his later statements. Religion and Enlightenment includes a wide range of material, including Vvedenie v istoriiu religii [Introduction to the History of Religion], lectures from 1918 which were reworked and published in 1923, and material that goes back to the early 1900s. Given this unfavorable early press and the subsequent Bolshevik victory, Religion and Socialism remained a work out of favor. A Yiddish translation of Religion and Socialism exists, but as far as the original work in Russian is concerned, only a few extant copies remain. The one in the National Library of St. Petersburg turned out to be too fragile to scan. Only after further inquiry (by my colleague, Sergey Kozin) was a copy found in the Lenin Library in Moscow. A high fee for scanning the two volumes resulted in a much-treasured copy being made, which is in our possession and is, to my knowledge, the only PDF version of it in the world. Since then, the text has been screened, converted into modern Cyrillic script (it was published before the 1917 language reform), and proofread. In addition to its republication in Russian, a translation is also planned.

An edifying tale, and evidence of his commitment. I do wish that Professor Boer had maybe approached me before sending his colleague on a wild goose chase to Saint Petersburg or shelling out a bunch of cash to the Lenin Library, however, because he might have saved himself some money. (The Lenin Library probably could use the funds, so it’s not too bad if viewed as a donation). Religion and Socialism has been available online for years now, free of charge, scanned by the University of Minnesota and Indiana University both. One page is missing from the second volume, but otherwise it’s all there. You can download them for free here, OCRed and everything:

Needless to say, I am less impressed by Lunacharskii’s god-building arguments than Boer. Lunacharskii has long been one of Boer’s favorites, alongside Ernst Bloch. His article does provide a very useful overview, though, even if the title is misleading. Misleading because it suggests that he deals with god-builders in the plural, whereas he really just deals with Lunacharskii in the singular (Maksim Gorkii and Vladimir Bazarov [Rudnev] are barely mentioned, if at all). Read it here.

  1. А.В. Луначарский, Религия и социализм, том I (1908)
  2. А.В. Луначарский, Религия и социализм, том II (1911)

Great to hear that a reissue in modern Russian is projected, as well as a translation into English. Boer brought up the 1921 Yiddish translation, published in New York, but forgot to mention the Italian translation prepared in 1973. In my next post, I’ll upload the full OCRed text of the document sans pre-reform orthography so that Russian readers can check it out. Though I should mention that the obsolete characters were removed in the copy/paste by a very crude find-and-replace method on Microsoft Office and not by painstakingly going through all 630 pages of the original in order to spell check.

For those who don’t know, Russian spelling was extensively reformed in 1917-1918 (by none other than Lunacharskii). The most important changes were

  1. the dropping of the hard sign “ъ” at the end of words, where it previously appeared in any word that otherwise would have ended in a consonant;
  2. the global replacement of “і” (the “dotted i” or “decimal i”) with “и” (i);
  3. the global replacement of “ѣ” (iat) with е (ie);
  4. a change in the genitive singular ending of adjectives, -аго becoming -ого, and -яго becoming -его.


ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ (сидит на скамеечке) С РОДИТЕЛЯМИ ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ в рамке ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ Фотография. Таганская тюрьма1 ЛУНАЧАРСКИЙ Фотография. Таганская тюрьма 2 Continue reading

A tribute to Vladimir Mayakovsky

I present to you a Mayakovsky mega-post, for your delectation. Not only was V-Mak kind of a hunk; he was also the consummate poet. All too often he is remembered as a prettyboy, not a serious lyricist. Contemporary critics tended to rank him quite highly, however. Shklovsky called him “a poet’s poet.” Roman Jakobson’s admiration, as will be seen, ran even deeper. Trotsky identified him as “a colossal talent,” even if he criticized some of his poems.

Bengt Jangfeldt wrote a detailed biography of Mayakovsky back in 2007, which was translated last year and published by University of Chicago press. You can download it below, along with a volume he edited of recollections by Jakobson of his youthful involvement with the avant-garde movement in Russia titled My Futurist Years. Jakobson is particularly excellent, but both are great reads.

Moreover, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a number of high-quality images of the great poet, as is my wont. These were scattered across the web, made all the more disparate by the varied ways his name is transliterated into Latin in different European languages. Following the images, Jakobson’s excellent 1931 essay “On a Generation that Squandered Its Poets” appears. Here are the books for download.

  1. Bengt Jangfeldt, Mayakovsky: A Biography (2007)
  2. Roman Jakobson, My Futurist Years
  3. Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature

On a generation that squandered its poets

Roman Jakobson
Mayakovsky’s Death
Berlin, Germany: 1931

Killed; —
Little matter
Whether I or he
Killed them.

Mayakovsky’s poetry — his imagery, his lyrical composition — I have written about these things and published some of my remarks. The idea of writing a monograph has never left me. Mayakovsky’s poetry is qualitatively different from everything in Russian verse before him, however intent one may be on establishing genetic links. This is what makes the subject particularly intriguing. The structure of his poetry is profoundly original and revolutionary. But how it is possible to write about Mayakovsky’s poetry now, when the paramount subject is not the rhythm but the death of the poet, when (if I may resort to Mayakovsky’s own poetic phrase) “sudden grief” is not yet ready to give in to “a clearly realized pain”?

During one of our meetings, Mayakovsky, as was his custom, read me his latest poems. Considering his creative potential I could not help comparing them with what he might have produced. “Very good,” I said, “but not as good as Mayakovsky.” Yet now the creative powers are canceled out, the inimitable stanzas can no longer be compared to anything else, the words “Mayakovsky’s last poems” have suddenly taken on a tragic meaning. Sheer grief at his absence has overshadowed the absent one. Now it is more painful, but still easier, to write not about the one we have lost but rather about our own loss and those of us who have suffered it.

It is our generation that has suffered the loss. Roughly, those of us who are now between thirty and forty-five years old. Those who, already fully matured, entered into the years of the Revolution not as unmolded clay but still not hardened, still capable of adapting to experience and change, still capable of taking a dynamic rather than a static view of our lives.

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The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926)

You can download an illustrated full-tex
t PDF of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism by clicking on the embedded link. What follows is an introduction to it and some thoughts on an all-too-familiar claim that Marxism is merely a form of secular religion.

René Fülöp-Miller’s 1926 book, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism: An Examination of Cultural Life in the Soviet Union, offers a unique window into the profound transformations underwent during the first decade of communism in the USSR. Fülöp-Miller sets out to capture the psychology and physiognomy of the October Revolution, and largely succeeds in this task. The picture he paints of the period is unforgettable, covering a great deal of ground without boring his readers. He accomplishes this by including some of the more bizarre phenomena associated with the Bolshevik regime, its most eccentric and utopian elements. Notably, Fülöp-Miller goes over Aleksei Gastev’s Institute for Labor in Moscow, Platon Kerzhentsev’s League of Time, the militant godless movement, God-building [богостроительство], and the Commissariat of Enlightenment. But he also manages to fit in some of his own analysis, which is admittedly hit-or-miss. Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 review from New Masses follows below, is right to say that Fülöp-Miller is better at reading the surface features of Bolshevism’s “face” than he is at discerning the deeper aspects of its “mind.”

It should be stated from the outset that Fülöp-Miller was not a Bolshevik. As Bertrand Russell put it: “Fülöp-Miller is himself a socialist, but of the Western kind.” However, he was not unsympathetic to the Soviet project. Despite serious reservations about the fervor and rapidity with which the Bolsheviks were looking to implement reforms, and revolutionize everyday life, Fülöp-Miller endorsed their efforts insofar as they represented an extension of Enlightenment to the masses. Some tendentiousness can nevertheless be detected in his ham-handed dismissal of Bolshevism as a form of surrogate religion. Many have leveled this criticism, or some version of it, against Marxism as a whole. On this, a few thoughts: An overview of the major proponents of Marxism after Marx’s death in 1883 reveals that they understood themselves in terms of their “faithfulness” to the tradition first established by Marx. The various stances adopted toward this tradition were often couched in explicitly religious language: in terms like heresy, orthodoxy, schism, sectarianism, and dogmatism. Could it be that Marxism’s critics are right to say that it merely secularizes spiritual impulses?

My former mentor, Chris Cutrone, handles this charge in a characteristic manner. Rather than challenge its validity, he seeks to divest the criticism of its power by “owning it” — i.e., consciously admitting that it is in fact true. Supposedly this softens the blow, since it’s true of everyone and at least Cutrone is transparent about it. I would like to resist this gesture, as I consider it empty. He states in his otherwise brilliant critique of Badiou, “The Marxist Hypothesis”:

It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms — and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were — and are still, potentially — the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?

Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet…Marxism cannot help today (after its failure) but become something like a religion, involving exegesis of “sacred texts,” etc.

Of course, this runs directly counter to some of the statements in the “sacred texts” Cutrone seeks to excavate. For example, Lukács in his article on “Orthodox Marxism”: “Orthodox Marxism…does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book.” A quandary, it would seem, which cannot be done away with simply by pointing to changed historical conditions. Even avowed opponents of Marxism and psychoanalysis such as Michel Foucault will these discourses against charges of crypto-religiosity: “It goes without saying that it would be completely wrong to identify [forms of knowledge like Marxism or psychoanalysis] with religion. This is meaningless and contributes nothing.” Religious analogies only go so far, anyway. Marxists today are forced to reflect on classic texts, to be sure — if they are to educate themselves at all — because there is no living practice worthy of the name that would allow theorists today to build upon the insights of the past. Without such a practice, the best Marxists can do is look back upon works written at a time when communism as a “real movement” had not yet ground to a halt.

Beyond superficial similarities, however, this has nothing in common with patristics. This does not prevent the charge from being periodically recycled. Chris Taylor of the blog Of CLR James has had occasion to mock my “hot combo of flat-materialist anti-clericalism and religiously inflected hermeneutical/exegetical approach to Marxist-Leninist holy writ.” My only reply would be that it is quite all right to disagree with Marx, Lenin, or any other figure from the history of Marxism. In doing so, though, one should be quite clear how and why one is departing from Marx’s (or Lenin’s, or anyone else’s) conclusions. None of them were infallible figures, but as Marxists and followers of Lenin or whoever they ought to be taken seriously. Such was Walter Benjamin’s attitude toward the claim made by Fülöp-Miller in The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, as expressed in a 1927 letter written to Kracauer. He recommended the book but disagreed sharply with its portrayal of Bolshevism as a form of religious sectarianism. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge also rely heavily on the book in their own work on the Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (1972).

Upton Sinclair’s review appears below. His points about Bolshevism being a positive outcome of Western civilization and about collective freedom being the key to unlock individual freedom are as relevant today as ever. Enjoy.

Cover of New Masses, November 1927

Review of The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller

Upton Sinclair
The New Masses
November 1927

There comes in my mail a large and costly volume from England, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller. Inside I find a card, informing me that the book is sent with the author’s compliments, and giving me his address in Vienna — which I understand to mean that he wishes me to tell him what I think of his book. So I send him what as children we used to call “my private opinion publicly expressed.”

Mr. Fülöp-Miller has visited Soviet Russia for a long time, and collected a mass of information, and presented it accurately, with many illustrations, and not too much prejudice; so he gives us the face of Bolshevism very acceptably. But when he comes to interpret the mind of Bolshevism, his class prejudices inevitably get in the way, and he misses the point completely.

I, who have never been to Soviet Russia, but who have managed to free myself from class prejudices, venture to tell Mr. Fülöp-Miller a few things about the mind of Bolshevism, as follows:

  1. Bolshevism is neither incompatible with nor destructive of Western civilization. It is a product and evolution of Western civilization.
  2. Bolshevism’s setting up and glorifying of the masses is not a denial and destruction of individuality, but an effort to make individuality possible to those persons who have hitherto been denied it. Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s class prejudice is manifested in the fact that the beginnings of individuality in a hundred million peasants and workers mean so little to him, in comparison with the limitations of individuality in the case of a million or so aristocrats and intellectuals. Under Russian Tsarism all individuality was denied to the workers and peasants; and the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books were as a rule quite untroubled by this fact. The same condition prevails now to a great extent in Austria, where Mr. Fülöp-Miller’s book was written, and in England where it is published, and in America, where I am reviewing it; and for the most part the intellectual class remains quite untroubled.
  3. If the masses are to have individuality, they must first gain political and economic power; and to get that, and hold it, they must have solidarity and discipline. That means temporarily a certain amount of surrender of individuality — as when men enlist in an army to fight for a cause. In the late unhappy disagreement among the capitalist masters of the world, some twenty or thirty million men were forced to enter armies and risk agony and death; but this loss of individuality did not as a rule trouble the gentlemen who wrote large and costly books, whether in Russia, Austria, England, or America.
  4. It is quite true that Bolshevism represses its internal enemies. Mr. Fülöp-Miller tells us at some length how it does this, and he is much distressed thereby. But reading his book I found myself desiring to ask him this one simple question: what does he think would happen to Bolshevism if it let its internal enemies alone? What would happen to any state which suddenly declared complete freedom of conspiracy and assassination? Will Mr. Fülöp-Miller tell us in another volume what did happen to Bolshevism in Hungary, where it failed to be stern enough? Will he write a book telling us about the White Terror in Finland, and Poland, and Romania, and Hungary — yes, and Austria, and England, and Boston? Will he give us the best estimate he can make as to the number of lives taken by the “reds” in Finland, and then by the “whites” when they came back into power?
  5. In short, what I want Mr. Fülöp-Miller to do is to write me another volume, equally large and costly, entitled, The Mind and Face of Fascism. Now that I have been told about the “G.P.U.” in Russia, I surely ought to be told about Mannerheim and Petlura, and Denekin and Kolchak and Judenich and Horthy; yes, and about the Hakenkreutzler and their murders in Austria, and about the New Fascist organizations in England, and about the American Legion, and the Centralia massacre, and the “deportations of delirium” and the Sacco-Vanzetti case — If my Austrian confrere will prepare such a book, he won’t have to send it to me free — I will agree to pay the full retail price, and tell him of some other persons who will do the same. But I fear that, in spite of such inducements, the book will never be published by the patriotic Major Putnam!

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Adorno’s Leninism

Lenin and Adorno are not often placed side by side, conceptually or historically. More often than not they are counterposed — the former was a revolutionary man of action, while the latter ruminated most of his life on a revolution that never came to pass. It therefore came as a surprise to many when it came to light that Adorno insisted on “a strictly Leninist manifesto” in 1956, during his recorded conversation with Horkheimer. Even Martin Jay, who long sought to distance Frankfurt School critical theory from Leninism, was forced to acknowledge this passing remark, though it was immediately downplayed as an uncharacteristic bit of exuberance (“a brief paroxysm of enthusiasm”). Other critics, such as Todd Cronan, held that Adorno regressed behind Marx in following Lenin, since being determines consciousness and not the other way around. Chris Cutrone, my old mentor/nemesis of Platypus fame, has already criticized this view, so I won’t reprise his comments here.

The majority of Adorno’s public pronouncements regarding Lenin were deprecatory, if appreciative, playing coy with his authority on questions of materialist epistemology. Brecht had wondered why Adorno would bother reexamining philosophers like Mach or Husserl, especially since Lenin had dealt with them so roughly in Materialism and Empiricriticism (1908). Adorno objected that Lenin’s critique of empiriocriticism remained purely transcendental — i.e. rejecting it on the basis of false premises rather than provisionally accepting these false premises and immanently working through them. “When Lenin, rather than go in for epistemology, opposed it in compulsively reiterated avowals of the noumenality of cognitive objects, he meant to demonstrate that subjective positivism is conspiring with the powers that be,” wrote Adorno. “His political requirements turned him against the goal of theoretical cognition. A transcendent argumentation disposes of things on the basis of its claim to power, and with disastrous results: the unpenetrated target of criticism remains undisturbed as it is, and not being hit at all, it can be resurrected at will in changed constellations of power.”

“[D]ialectics as critique implies the criticism of any hypostasization of the mind as the primary thing, the thing that underpins everything else,” he recalled in his 1966 Lectures on Negative Dialectics. “I remember how I once explained all this to Brecht when we were together in exile. Brecht reacted by saying that these matters had all been settled long since — and what he had in mind was the materialist dialectic — and that there was no point in harking back to a controversy that had been superseded by the unreal course of history. I am unable to agree with this. On the one hand, it seems to me that the book whose authority he relied on, Lenin’s book on empiriocriticism, in no way succeeds in delivering what it undertakes to perform, namely a philosophical critique of the hypostasization of the mind or of idealism. It remains a thoroughly dogmatic work which simply presents a specific thesis with a torrent of abuse and in endless variations, without at all attempting a fundamental explanation.”

Just going on these statements, Adorno would seem to be lukewarm toward Lenin at best. Yet Adorno’s references to Lenin made in private, repeatedly in his letters from the 1930s and then again in his taped conversation two decades later, paint a different picture. There are several likely reasons for this. Lars Quadfasel speculates that public mention of Lenin during the 1930s, particularly after the Nazi seizure of power, would have been extremely unwise unless one was heaping scorn upon the Bolshevik leader’s memory. Similarly, after World War II, it was illegal for anyone living in West Germany to belong to the communist party. Moreover, since Lenin’s successors had transformed his teachings, along with those of Marx, into an unmoving set of dogmas collectively referred to as “DiaMat,” it is understandable that Adorno would hesitate to invoke the great revolutionary.

Detlev Claussen’s 2003 biography of Adorno, One Last Genius, perhaps provides the richest picture of Lenin’s enduring influence on Adorno. Claussen writes:

It was [Adorno’s] collaboration with Horkheimer [during the 1930s] that enabled him to shed these intellectual infantile disorders. His letters are full of bizarre references to Lenin, as if he wanted to outdo the “orthodox Marxism” advocated in Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness. Adorno’s original politicization took place when he was still very young, evidently in the course of his readings with Kracauer. This supplied him with key terms that expanded his horizon beyond his artistic and aesthetic concerns. This habit of thinking in keywords recurs in the taped records of the 1950s, when he would refer to Lenin, in the middle of the cold war, at a time when the Communist Party was banned and even party members scarcely dared to mention his name. It was at this time that he proposed to Horkheimer that they should produce a reworked Communist Manifesto that would be “strictly Leninist.” Behind the closed doors of the Institute, Adorno’s aim in 1956 was not to go back to Marx, but to go beyond him. He told Horkheimer that “I always wanted to try to produce a theory that would be faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while not lagging behind the achievements of the most advanced culture.” Paradoxically, summing up the course of his life to that point in 1956, Adorno mentions his road toward politicization. He had arrived at Lenin, he claimed, via music. Using one of his key ideas, the idea that all knowledge is socially mediated, Adorno once again confirmed the importance of Lenin: “Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as a milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.”

In reality it was only Lenin’s contemporary Freud who noticed people’s subjectivity. Horkheimer and Adorno’s original idea of writing something jointly, the original seed of Dialectic of Enlightenment, was concerned with a critique of the individual. It was the attitude toward psychoanalysis that revealed the split in the material which produced critical theory, on the one hand, and revisionist psychoanalysis, as pioneered by Erich Fromm, on the other. The directness of the political vocabulary that was retained until well into the fifties becomes clear from a letter of Adorno’s to Horkheimer dated 21 March 1936. Adorno complains that Fromm has placed him in the “paradoxical situation of having to defend Freud. He is both sentimental and false, a combination of social democracy and anarchism; above all, there is a painful absence of dialectical thinking. He takes far too simple a view of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s vanguard nor his dictatorship is conceivable. I would urgently advise him to read Lenin.”

Below are two long articles, each titled “Adorno’s Leninism.” The first, by Cutrone, presents a number of parallels between Lenin, Trotsky, and Adorno, some passages being virtual paraphrases. It’s a bit quote-heavy, in that almost Benjaminian style that presents long blocks of quoted texts followed by brief commentary, but it’s quite good. After that, there’s an article by Quadfasel in German (“Adornos Leninismus”) where he touches on several of the matters discussed in this introduction, as well as ongoing textual controversies about the compatibility or incompatibility of Adornian theory with Leninist practice — again, mostly in German. Quadfasel’s article includes a rather long fragment by Adorno from 1935 titled “The Fulcrum,” which I’ve attempted to translate below. Claudia Dallek assisted in the translation:

To learn from Lenin: Shouldn’t that really mean more than taking over methods of illegal work that were appropriate for the police state of Prussia? Such methods are not appropriate for a dictatorship whose power to rule [Herrschgewalt] strikes with even greater precision (insofar as it is able to con people, not based on democracy, but on a population of willing servants, informants, and pimps). Instead of sacrificing our best workers in the distribution of flyers — which publish about revolutionary developments that are simultaneously hindered by the arrest of these very same agitators — it is preferable to study Lenin’s attitude toward the revolution of Kerensky [in February 1917]: his ability to discover and use the fulcrum [Hebelpunkt, leverage point] of society to lift the measureless weight of the state with minimal energy. The proletariat was too weak to take on tsarist state authority; only the bourgeoisie could do that, by hastily bringing in the harvest of its revolutionary century. But this late bourgeoisie was like the bourgeoisie of other countries, sworn to war and therefore unable to keep its mass basis [Massenbasis] in a subordinate state. It was numerically spread too thin to fill the sphere of power and too ideologically divided to shape it, so it had to yield to the push that was made in the name of peace. To deliberately intervene in the concatenation of all these was necessary on Lenin’s part. He could have never defeated the autocracy, but certainly [could defeat] the democracy of the Brusilov offensive [the government that took over following the disastrous “June advance” of 1916]. He was able to recognize this beforehand and managed to master this blind violence by planning for it, the way cunning defeats the monster in fairy tales. That’s what made the immortal dialectical moment of his act the starting point and the prototype of every genuine communist state and revolution. The fate of the German working class, maybe that of humankind, depends on finding such a point, if it’s still indeed possible to find. There is no other hope to avoid war than this. Those who prophesy communism as the certain end of war, and therefore let things take their course, should remember that nobody knows (let alone the generals) what productive forces and means of production will be left to begin establishing the world.

Another friend, Sebastian Vetter, tells me that Adorno’s student Helmut Dahmer is preparing an essay on the influence of Leon Trotsky on Walter Benjamin. Dahmer is a specialist in psychoanalysis and critical theory, who hasn’t had much of his work translated into English since the 1970s, so I’m hoping it comes out soon and is good enough to merit a wider, Anglophone readership.

Adorno in 1935

Adorno’s Leninism

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review
April 21, 2010

Adorno’s political relevance

Theodor W. Adorno, who was born in 1903 and lived until 1969, has a continuing purchase on problems of politics on the Left by virtue of his critical engagement with two crucial periods in the history of the Left: the 1930s “Old” Left and the 1960s “New Left.” Adorno’s critical theory, spanning this historical interval of the mid-20th century, can help make sense of the problems of the combined and ramified legacy of both periods.

Adorno is the key thinker for understanding 20th century Marxism and its discontents. As T.J. Clark has put it (in “Should Benjamin Have Read Marx?,” 2003), Adorno “[spent a lifetime] building ever more elaborate conceptual trenches to outflank the Third International.” The period of Adorno’s life, coming of age in the 1920s, in the wake of the failed international anticapitalist revolution that had opened in Russia in 1917 and continued but was defeated in Germany, Hungary and Italy in 1919, and living through the darkest periods of fascism and war in the mid-20th century to the end of the 1960s, profoundly informed his critical theory. As he put it in the introduction to the last collection of his essays he edited for publication before he died, he sought to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience.” Adorno reflected on his “drastic” historical experience through the immanent critique, the critique from within, of Marxism. Adorno thought Marxism had failed as an emancipatory politics but still demanded redemption, and that this could be achieved only on the basis of Marxism itself. Adorno’s critical theory was a Marxist critique of Marxism, and as such reveals key aspects of Marxism that had otherwise become buried, as a function of the degenerations Marxism suffered from the 1930s through the 1960s. Several of Adorno’s writings, from the 1930s-1940s and the 1960s, illustrate the abiding concerns of his critical theory throughout this period. Continue reading

Tatlin’s tower

Nico Israel has a book out that looks fairly interesting, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth Century Art and Literature. In it he discusses Wyndham Lewis’ vorticism, Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, land Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (among other things). He also relates a few famous lines by Lenin about the spiraling course of the dialectic in history, from his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx:

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.

Marx and Engels were not the the first to put dialectical development in the shape of a spiral. As Lenin indicates, Hegel before him visualized it as such. There’s another source of the “whirled image” in Marx’s theory: Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi. Fredric Jameson pointed out in his recent book, Representing Capital, that “repetition — the selling of labor power week after week, its productive consumption by the capitalist in a cycle Sismondi rightly recharacterized as a spiral — never knew a first time in the first place.”


For Marx, the spiral motion first appears as circulating capital:

Exchange-value posited as the unity of commodity and money is capital, and this positing itself appears as the circulation of capital. (Which is, however, a spiral, an expanding curve, not a simple circle)…As the subject predominant [übergreifend] over the different phases of this movement, as value sustaining and multiplying itself in it, as the subject of these metamorphoses proceeding in a circular course — as a spiral, as an expanding circle — capital is circulating capital. Circulating capital is therefore initially not a particular form of capital, but is rather capital itself, in a further developed aspect, as subject of the movement just described, which it, itself, is as its own realization process.

In Capital, Marx explicitly acknowledged his debt to Sismondi in this respect: “Looked at concretely, accumulation can be resolved into the production of capital on a progressively increasing scale. The cycle of simple reproduction alters its form and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Put another way, capital comes to ground this expansive outward movement, in which all sorts of violent jolts, fits, and spasms take place. Capital in history establishes a sort of treadmill pattern of transformation and reconstitution, as the sociologist Moishe Postone put it. Yet without its integral antithesis, class conscious wage-laborers mobilized in opposition to it, capital’s inherent dynamism is itself diminished. Adorno thus astutely observed in his 1965 lectures on History and Freedom: “Without wasting time on the overworked notion of a spiral development in history, it can be said that a direct progress towards freedom cannot be discerned.” (Rodney Livingstone suspected Adorno might have had Toynbee in mind, but I think he was commenting on the old Leninist dictum).

When Tatlin built his monument to the Third Revolution, progress did not seem such an impossibility. Though Europe lay in ruins, a new world seemed to open up. A hundred years on, this possibility seems by now closed. In our present moment, the key to the future resides in the past. Below are a few period pieces reflecting on Tatlin’s tower that express this bygone sensibility. Enjoy.


The monument to the Third International

Nikolai Punin
Iskusstvo kommuny
September 1920

In 1919 the Department of Fine Arts within the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment commissioned the artist V. E. Tatlin to develop a design for a monument to the Third International. The artist Tatlin immediately set to work and produced a design. The artists I.A. Meerzon, M.P. Vinogradov, and T.M. Shapiro formed a “Creative Collective,” then developed the design in detail and constructed a model.

The main idea of the monument is based on an organic synthesis of the principles of architecture, sculpture and painting and was intended to produce a new type of monumental structure, uniting in itself a purely creative form with a utilitarian form. In accordance with this idea, the design of the monument consists of three large glass structures, erected by means of a complex system of vertical struts and spirals. These structures are arranged one above the other and are contained within different, harmoniously related forms. A special type of mechanism would enable them to move at different speeds. The lower structure (A), in the form of a cube, moves on its axis at the speed of one revolution a year and is intended for legislative purposes. Here may be held conferences of the International, meetings of international congresses and other broadly legislative meetings… The next structure (B), in the form of a pyramid, rotates on its axis at the speed of one full revolution a month and is intended for executive functions (the Executive Committee of the International, the secretariat and other administrative and executive  bodies). Finally, the upper cylinder (C), rotating at a speed of one revolution a day, is intended to be a resource center for the following facilities: an information office; a newspaper; the publication of proclamations, brochures and manifestos — in a word, all the various means of broadly informing the international proletariat, and in particular a telegraph, projectors for a large screen located on the axes of a spherical segment (a1-b3), and a radio station, the masts of which rise above the monument. There is no need to point out the enormous possibilities for equipping and organizing these structures. The details of the design have not yet been specified, they can be discussed and worked out (luring subsequent elaboration of the monument’s interior.


It is necessary to explain that according to the artist Tatlin”s conception, the glass structures should have vacuum walls (a thermos) which will make it easy to maintain a constant temperature within the edifice. The separate parts of the monument will be connected to one another and to the ground by means exclusively of complexly structured electrical elevators, adjusted to the differing rotation speeds of the structures. Such are the technical bases of the project. Continue reading

Isaak Babel, writer and revolutionary (1894–1940)

Isaak Babel

Jorge Luis Borges
El Hogar [Home]
December 1938

He was born in the jumbled catacombs of the stair-stepped port of Odessa, late in 1894. Irreparably Semitic, Isaak was the son of a rag merchant from Kiev and a Moldavian Jewess. Catastrophe has been the normal climate of his life. In the uneasy intervals between pogroms he learned not only to read and write but to appreciate literature and enjoy the work of Maupassant, Flaubert, and Rabelais. In 1914, he was certified a lawyer by the Faculty of Law in Saratov; in 1916, he risked a journey to Petrograd. In that capital city “traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews” were banned: the category was somewhat arbitrary, but — implacably — it included Babel. He had to rely on the friendship of a waiter who took him home and hid him, on a Lithuanian accent acquired in Sevastopol, and on an apocryphal passport.

His first writings date from that period: two or three satires of the Czarist bureaucracy, published in Annals, [Maksim] Gorky’s famous newspaper. (What must he think, and not say, about Soviet Russia, that indecipherable labyrinth of state offices?). Those two or three satires attracted the dangerous attention of the government. He was accused of pornography and incitement of class hatred. From this catastrophe he was saved by another catastrophe: the Russian Revolution.

In early 1921, Babel joined a Cossack regiment. Those blustering and useless warriors (no one in the history of the universe has been defeated more often than the Cossacks) were, of course, anti-Semitic. The mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite. A couple of well-timed and flashy exploits enabled Babel to make them leave him in peace. By reputation, though not according to the bibliographies, Isaak Babel is still a homo unius libri.

His unmatched book is titled Red Cavalry.

The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes.

One of the stories — “Salt” — enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems, and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart.

Isaak Babel was Leon Trotsky’s favorite Soviet author. He was purged by Stalin in the late 1930s. To  download a PDF of his complete works, click here.