A mindless martyrology — Allende and left amnesia

Just a reminder to the pseudo-leftists who are gleefully getting off by trolling right-wing patriotic conservatives, urging them to remember “the real 9/11” (the 1973 Pinochet coup against the Salavador Allende government in Chile). Please don’t let the dearth of revolutionary figures in recent memory lead you to claim false martyrs for your canon:

The UP [Unidad Popular, the coalition that helped bring Allende into office] was a classic popular front, an alliance of reformist workers parties, chiefly the SP and Communist Party (CP), with bourgeois forces — the small Radical Party as well as some Christian Democrats. The Allende government was not, as maintained by reformists around the world, a ‘people’s government’ gradually introducing socialism. It was a government committed to the maintenance of capitalism. The presence of bourgeois parties in the UP coalition was a guarantee to the capitalists that the workers parties would not take any steps to threaten the profit system.

Even before assuming office, Allende signed an agreement pledging not to permit the formation of ‘private’ armed forces — i.e., workers militias. The Allende government disarmed the workers by seizing their weapons and by sowing illusions in a ‘peaceful road to socialism.’ This cleared the way for the bourgeoisie to crush the working class.

By pointing this out, I do not in any way intend to diminish the historical significance of Pinochet’s US-backed military coup, which as an event was a massacre and led to more than three decades of institutionalized reaction. The Pinochet government was a Bonapartist throwback, almost textbook. My intention is not to ridicule the memory of a murdered man, populist pygmy though Allende was, so much as it is to draw attention to the selective amnesia of hero-mongering leftists. Continue reading

Marxism, selfishness, and competition

Evan Burger has written up a short piece for Jacobin entitled “Toward a selfish Left.” He summarizes his argument as follows: “The Left doesn’t need a renewed emphasis on morality; instead, we must reclaim the concept of self-interest.” While the rest of the article is rather glib — going so far as to naturalize self-interest at one point (the author urges us to be mindful of “humanity’s inherently self-interested nature”) — its basic point regarding the subpolitical character of most ethical injunctions is sound.

To be sure, “Marxists” and leftists of all stripes have resorted to the most maudlin moralizations in recent decades, hoping to stir the masses from their inertia by appealing to their guilty conscience. Attentive readers of Marx will remember, however, that this has nothing to do with the critical position he advocated for communists:

Communism is quite incomprehensible to [the anarchist and individualist Max Stirner] because the communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The communists do not preach morality at all, as Stirner does so extensively. They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much as selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals. Hence, the communists by no means want…to do away with the ‘private individual’ for the sake of the ‘general,’ selfless man.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)

So much for that “hive mind” collectivism libertarians always erroneously ascribe to Marxism and Marx. The freedom of each is a prerequisite for the freedom of all. Bourgeois subjectivity, though it for the first time expresses a widespread sense of individuality (mirroring the shift away from the family toward the individual as the basic productive unit of society), is eventually constrained by the onset of the capitalist mode of production. Continue reading

Program and utopia

Roger Rashi, Sam Gindin, Richard Rubin,
Aaron Benanav, and Stephen Eric Bronner

This year’s Platypus International Convention concluded with the plenary “Program and Utopia,” held on June 6 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This closing plenary brought together Roger Rashi, founding member of Québec Solidaire; Aaron Benanav, of the Endnotes collective; Stephen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University, scholar of modernism and the history of socialism, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA); Sam Gindin, author, and director of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly; and Richard Rubin, of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that night. A full video of the plenary can be found online.

Opening remarks

Roger Rashi:
Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. I am honored to be on a panel with such distinguished guests. Can utopia and program be merged in a new, formal relation in the 21st century? It will not be easy, but I think we can follow the example of Marx, who, as the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre has pointed out, synthesized the utopian and the political trends within French Socialism and thereby politicized utopia. Marx hypothesized that, by seizing power, we could eventually, through a series of stages, arrive at a classless society. This synthesis was put to the test in the 20th century and has not come out unscathed. Can we undertake this synthesis again in the 21st century? I believe we can. However, it will be a difficult process that requires our involvement in mass struggles and in the anti-neoliberal movements, which are starting to merge into one.

Today, the Left is in crisis. But there remain many social movements. The first decade of the 21st century saw a rise of mass movements challenging neoliberalism. This has taken two major forms. In Latin America there is the “pink tide” — Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador — representing attempts to use state power to move gradually towards a form of socialism, although it is not socialism yet. Then, there is the new active struggle in the Middle East and southern Europe: the tremendous movement of the Arab Spring and the ongoing fight against austerity, respectively. Out of these movements, how can we craft a new political expression for the Left that will synthesize utopia — the goal of a classless society — and program, the practical movement towards formulating this kind of plan?

One approach is to come back to a vision of communism that Marx had in the middle of the 19th century. Here we should remember that Communism is not just a program or a utopia, but the actual movement attempting to abolish the existing state of affairs. It is the practical movement struggling against the status quo. From this perspective we can understand the emergent Left parties in different parts of the world, including Québec City, where I live. In the movement there, we have tried to develop from a united front against neoliberalism into a political party that can engage in elections as well as mass struggles — what we call combining the street and the ballot. We hope to move towards an understanding of what it means to overcome neoliberalism as well as the basis of neoliberalism: capitalism.

Continue reading

Conversations on the Left: What is to be done?

Bhaskar Sunkara, James Turley, & Ben Blumberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On April 18th, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a conversation at New York University between Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Ben Blumberg of Platypus, to discuss the differences and similarities between their organizations. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Tri Logos

Bhaskar Sunkara: It is impossible to deny that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) Weekly Worker is an important publication. It is a publication that is right about many things, without a doubt more right than their peers on the British left, and their ideas deserve more engagement, so I am very pleased that Platypus has us together on this panel. There is no regular party publication on the American left that comes close to the Weekly Worker’s competence, especially considering the small size and resources of the CPGB. They have been consistently against the perversion of democratic centralism and lack of accountability by the leadership in groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I have been reading it for a couple of years and I think they have a really nuanced view of Trotskyism’s legacy. They also have a solid critique of Eurocommunism and other coalition politics. What I like most of all is their openness about their small size and their limited influence as an organization. For someone like me, who has been around the Left and its posturing, we at Jacobin think the Weekly Worker is far more refreshing and useful than organs that herald the coming of every new socialist movement as if it is going to resurrect the Left. Platypus’s approach is also sometimes useful on this point. Jacobin doesn’t share the same politics, but only because we are operating in different contexts. We aim to reach a different audience. Jacobin, as a political project, is a publication that cannot substitute for the role of a political organization or the role of a party. It also cannot have the uncompromising and coherent vision and perspective of a propaganda group. And it is subject to lots of different pressures and forces — such as the market and the petty-bourgeois culture of writing and publishing.

Our different orientations affect whom we are trying to reach. Jacobin was always two projects. It is something of an intra-left project: emphasizing a Marxist perspective towards organization building. But our main project has been an outwardly directed one: engaging with American liberalism. We have always been geared towards the general public. We are liberals articulating radical ideas and we do so in a way that is clear and accessible. If we have any measure of mainstream success, it is intentional. We have sought to be a terrain for deep theoretical debates. It has been said that we are visible reminders of a long-forgotten socialist tradition, which would define us politically somewhere in between Leninism and the Democratic Socialists of America. One result of this is that the level of politicization of Jacobin’s readership is not quite the same as the level of politicization of our editors, and you could probably say there is a lot more political parity between the readership and the editors of the Weekly Worker and the Platypus Review.

James Turley: The CPGB is not a party. It doesn’t exist; it is a name. The name comes from the older official communist party that has since wound up. The name represents an ideal that we look towards. The far left is divided into small propaganda circles and some of them deny that they do propaganda. The SWP would be a good example; the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is another. They think they are talking to the masses, but it is bad propaganda reaching a mass audience. The CPGB identifies openly as a propaganda group and so probably would the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) or the Spartacist League. So there is a very similar landscape out of which the CPGB of the 1920s was formed. The original CPGB was formed from one wing of the Socialist Labour Party, which was a kind of syndicalist sect, and the large majority of the British Socialist Party. At that time, it was a far-left Marxist sect rather than the mass party form that existed in continental Europe. Along with the South Wales committee, their forces together totaled about four to five thousand. If you add up the people in Britain today committed to some form of socialist revolution, you get a ballot figure of about five thousand. After 70–90 intervening years we are, in a sense, back where we started. That says something about the 20th century. Continue reading

Black politics in the age of Obama

Cedric Johnson and Mel Rothenberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On May 6, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society  hosted a conversation on “Black Politics in the Age of Obama” at the University of Chicago. The speakers included Cedric Johnson, the author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (2007) and The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (2011); and Mel Rothenberg, a veteran of the Sojourner Truth Organization and coauthor of The Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR (1980). Michael Dawson, author of the forthcoming book, Blacks In and Out of the Left, was unable to attend due to an emergency. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Complete audio of the event can be found online.

Cedric Johnson: I want to demystify the Obama phenomenon, which dates back much further than the 2004 DNC, as it has unfolded over the past decade. I also want to demystify the notion of “black politics” generally.

I am not disappointed with Obama, because being disappointed would mean I had expectations that had not been realized. I certainly disagree with Obama, but he has done just about everything I expected him to do with respect to domestic policy, questions of inequality, or geopolitics. He has been fairly consistent.

The problem with the Obama phenomenon is that too many people got caught in the rhetoric of “change.” As a political slogan it was perfect: No matter where you were, you could find something you could connect with. This operated on at least three different registers. On one level, it simply meant a change to another party’s leadership. For some, simply turning the page on the Bush years counted as change. At another level, there was what might be called the Jackie Robinson effect: There were those who wanted to see Obama break the barrier and become the first black president. Finally, and this was the most dangerous, many believed that Obama was going to deliver some substantive revitalization of liberalism within the United States. The idea was that he would be the second coming of FDR. People have made the same argument more recently. Michael Eric Dyson made this case last year on Democracy Now!, in fact, urging support for Obama’s reelection bid. One or another of these arguments proved convincing for many who ought to have known better — not just liberals, but people who consider themselves Marxists or radical leftists. Continue reading

Platypus’ “position” on “imperialism”

by Chris Cutrone

Image: Czechoslovak avant-garde painter
Frantisek Foltyn, Imperialismus (1925)


Note: Just to be clear about my own relationship to Platypus as an organization, I must again remind readers that I am not currently a member, though I am obviously still sympathetic to its cause. This letter clarifies a number of common misperceptions and baseless accusations that are leveled against it. Even if such accusations were true, however, I find it the height of hypocrisy that anyone, especially university professors, would refuse to participate in Platypus events on the ground that it supposedly “lends ideological support” to reactionary ideologies like Zionism or imperialism. This is all the more true given the fact that most of them hold positions at universities and routinely speak on campuses subsidized by the U.S. military (and all the foreign military forces it aids), in return for the advanced weapons technologies their research and development departments provide.

Submitted as a letter to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) Weekly Worker on May 21, 2013.

We in Platypus have been called out for taking an alleged at least tacit “pro-imperialist” political position. The CPGB’s Mike Macnair and others have characterized our expressed opinion, that we “did not support” the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and Libya), as implying that we also “did not oppose” them. This is untrue.

The Spartacists, for example, take the position of “no political support” for Right-wing military forces against the U.S. and its allies. But what they really wanted in Iraq was not the military and political victory of the insurgency against the occupation, but rather a meteorite to hit the Green Zone. But this was not a political position. For what the Spartacists among others wanted was a military defeat for the U.S. government et al. without this being a concomitant political victory for the Iraqi Right — former Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists. Let’s not mince words: such forces are the Right, at least as much as the U.S. government and its allies are. It is not the case that somehow the action of Baathists and Sunni and Shia Islamists increased democratic possibilities in Iraq against the U.S. government and allied occupation.

The actual Iraqi Left — the Iraqi Communist Party and Worker-communist Party of Iraq — chose politically not to mount its own let alone join in the existing military forces occasionally opposing the U.S. government and allied occupation, but rather to oppose the latter as well as the former in other ways, through working class organizing and strike action, to some limited success, for instance in preventing the privatization of the Iraqi oil industry. The international Left largely scorned them, in favor of a fantastical imagined “anti-imperialist” insurgency, which was not that but rather an ethno-religious sectarian-communal civil war among forces targeting each other far more than they targeted the U.S. government and its allies, jockeying for a position within the occupation and its political settlement, not against it. Continue reading

Moscow modernism

Color photographs from 1931

Image: A modernist staircase in a
workers’ club in Moscow (1931)


You know, this whole thing would have been much more of a fair fight and an interesting debate if any of these hysterics had actually bothered to read any Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, etc. — figures in whose footsteps they claim to follow — rather than just regurgitate third-rate digest versions of these authors out of the Cliffite canon. If you’re really going to insist on being a “Leninist” today, it might help to have at least a passing familiarity with these authors’ writings, rather than desperately distort their work so as to confirm whatever it is you are doing already. Obviously, the famous revolutionaries from the history of Marxism mentioned above would find all the various grouplets of the Left today unrecognizable, bearing no relation whatsoever to the emancipatory project they either inaugurated or contributed toward. Yes, even the cryogenically-preserved consciousness of Trotsky himself (i.e., the Sparts).

My reaction to the latest hullabaloo — Muscovite worker taking a swig from a bottle while on break (1931)

My reaction to the latest hullabaloo — Muscovite worker taking a swig from a bottle while on break (1931)

That’s not the point, thankfully. While it may seem antiquarian in the Nietzschean sense, the reason for my “obsession with and curatorial affection for communism’s arcana and paraphernalia” is not some vain belief that this past, which they belong to, can be recreated or revived, but because they belong to a period when the Left actually mattered and played a significant role in world events. By comparison, the actually-existing Left of today — whether former advocates of a Living Marxism or self-declared members of “the (still-living) Left” — appears a rather shriveled, paltry thing. Sure, one could point out that there are X or Y number of doctrinally Marxist or avowedly leftist groups “still kicking,” slowly hemorrhaging its membership or amalgamating itself into the amorphous blob of “Left unity.” But what kind of “life” is that? If eking out some miserable, politically-irrelevant existence “carrying on the good fight” is what they call “living,” then I’m more than happy to admit to myself that I’m “dead.”

As things stand, I’m losing interest in satirizing or polemicizing against these intellectual pygmies. It’s just not worth the time or effort. Vintage Soviet alphabet-porn and ceramic Suprematist plateware are far more educational and spiritually uplifting (quite possibly even more revolutionary) than any of this nonsense.

Konstantin Mel'nikov, Rusakov workers' club (1931)

Mel’nikov, Rusakov club (1931) — Where my erstwhile opponents should go: Школа Коммунизма

So now for something completely different:

Here are a few select examples of Moscow modernism taken from the fantastic album “Life in Moscow, 1931: Color photos.” Highly recommended for anyone who reads this blog. Thanks also to The Constructivist Project, whose Facebook page I encourage you all to “like,” for bringing them to my attention. Enjoy! Continue reading

special issue on communism

Platypus Review № 54: Special issue on “communism”

Special Issue on “Communism”

The Platypus Review, № 54 [PDF]

1305823769_www.nevsepic.com.ua_doloy-kuhonnoe-rabstvo-1931-shegalVerso’s Pocket Communism series seeks to reorient leftist discourse by taking the idea of “communism” as a shared point of departure.  In this series of articles and interviews, the Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to host a critical dialogue on this subject in order to clarify the various positions and oppositions that are at work, situate them within the broader history of the Left, and evaluate their salience for the present.

‘Communism’ is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects. It is a name that can not only express the Idea which guides radical activity, but can also help expose the catastrophes of the twentieth century, including those of the Left.

— Slavoj Žižek and Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism (2010), pgs. viii-ix.

I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner.  On the contrary, we must help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.  Thus communism in particular is a dogmatic abstraction.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” (September 1843)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself.  We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)


Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis (2010) The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis
by Chris Cutrone
And yet a very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a very different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the society of capital.


Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels
by Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe
On October 14th, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe both interviewed Bruno Bosteels, a Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jodi Dean's Communist Horizon (2012)

What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left? An interview with Jodi Dean
by Ross Wolfe
On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of Žižek’s Politics (2006) and The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Boris Groys' Communist Postscript (2009)

A remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys
by Ross Wolfe
On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, the Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), and The Communist Postscript (2009). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Further reading:

Editorial statement of purpose

Taking stock of the universe of positions and goals that constitutes leftist politics today, we are left with the disquieting suspicion that a deep commonality underlies the apparent variety: What exists today is built upon the desiccated remains of what once was possible.

In order to make sense of the present, we find it necessary to disentangle the vast accumulation of positions on the Left and to evaluate their saliency for the possible reconstitution of emancipatory politics in the present. Doing this implies a reconsideration of what is meant by the Left.

Our task begins from what we see as the general disenchantment with the present state of progressive politics. We feel that this disenchantment cannot be cast off by sheer will, by simply “carrying on the fight,” but must be addressed and itself made an object of critique. Thus we begin with what immediately confronts us.

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring model Sputnik, Rome 1958

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring a model of Sputnik, Rome 1958

The Platypus Review is motivated by its sense that the Left is disoriented. We seek to be a forum among a variety of tendencies and approaches on the Left — not out of a concern with inclusion for its own sake, but rather to provoke disagreement and to open shared goals as sites of contestation. In this way, the recriminations and accusations arising from political disputes of the past may be harnessed to the project of clarifying the object of leftist critique.

The Platypus Review hopes to create and sustain a space for interrogating and clarifying positions and orientations currently represented on the Left, a space in which questions may be raised and discussions pursued that would not otherwise take place. As long as submissions exhibit a genuine commitment to this project, all kinds of content will be considered for publication.

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Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch 1906)

Twilight of the idoloclast?

On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn



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

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

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

— Peter Thomas, “Overman and
the Commune”

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

— Malcolm Bull, “Where is the

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

Max Ajl vs. Alex Gourevitch in Jacobin on society, nature, and the Left: An intervention

Alex Gourevitch
, whose presence I greatly appreciated on our environmentalism panel at the Left forum this last year, has been causing quite a stir with his articles “Two Hurricanes” and “Nature and Progress.”  Like Gourevitch, I “come from the minority on the Left that is skeptical of environmentalism.” Some of my polemics on the subject of “the ideology of ‘green’,” especially my long essay on “Man and Nature” (published in the speculative realist journal Thinking Nature), elicited a great deal of outrage from the “small-is-beautiful” Left as well. For example, this neat bit of screed from the environmental philosopher and ecofeminist Ronnie Hawkins:

I find myself virtually speechless in the wake of having read Ross Wolfe’s “Man and Nature,” however, especially in light of its concluding quotation, seemingly with approval, of Trotsky holding forth on “the Socialist man” who “will rule all nature by machine,” changing the course of rivers and cutting down mountains — I am left wondering whether this essay was intentionally crafted to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now, and rightly so. At a time in which we are recognizing that we live in a world of limits — not only limits on how much GHG we can stuff into our atmosphere but limits on how much longer we can continue all the complex industrial processes that depend on fossil fuel consumption, including the translocation of staple foods from one continent to another, upon which some millions if not billions today depend — here is an author trotting out the same old, tired anti-Malthusian tirade, without giving the faintest hint of what sort of goal we might be “progressing” toward under his “vision of unlimited human freedom,” apparently unconstrained by any sort of planetary finitude. Wolfe provides not argument but ridicule against the positions of deep ecologists and animal rightists of various stripes, and he betrays an embarrassing lack of familiarity with philosophical ecofeminism. He does environmental philosophy a service, however, by addressing green anarchism head-on, something that the more mainstream journals have shied away from for all too long.

While I’m not quite ready to reject all that goes under the heading of “civilization,” I think a VERY deep critique of the presently dominant, near-global, industrial worldview (cutting at least as far down to the bone as John Zerzan’s problematization of language and the beginning of our primate symbol-use), to be followed by a REVERSAL of the trajectories of many of the activities that are currently being carried out by collective human action — for example, the building of a whole new round of nuclear reactors, and nuclear weapons, and mega-projects of many types as currently contemplated (all ultimately justified on the basis of continuing the growth of our human population indefinitely, though the proximal reasons are often very different) — is absolutely essential if our species is to make it through the twenty-first century. Without some kind of acknowledgment of the wrongness of continuing on in our current direction, and a turning away from it, we will indeed suffer the dystopian future heralded by the “zombie” genre — it will simply be natural selection acting on a species unwilling, to the bitter end, to relinquish its self-deception (one part of a finite system cannot continue to grow indefinitely — that’s very simple logic indeed). I’m afraid neither Marx nor Wolfe’s sort of contemporary Marxist ever got around to understanding “productivity” in terms of what REALLY keeps us all alive — NPP, the net primary productivity of green plants, not the sham “productivity” of human beings making plastic crap in sweatshops nor the complete fantasy of “production” in imagining we are creating something real by the calculation of compound interest.

Instead of continuing to converse in the worn-out terminology from another era, or to stay largely within disciplinary boundaries even with narrow, if more updated, concepts, I think we’re inhabiting a space now where all disciplines need to take an active role in addressing our common human situation, as Ted Toadvine may be advocating. But in that space we now all have access to certain significant findings of contemporary biological science, should we take the trouble to investigate, not the least of which are the astounding commonality (underlying a very broad spectrum of more superficial differences) of Earthly lifeforms, the complexity of organization of every living being, and the myriad interrelationships among them, some of which are importantly linked to considerations of finitude. There is a reality of “what it means to be alive,” in thermodynamic, organizational, and experiential dimensions, that needs to be recognized by everyone who would propose to philosophize about such matters, and a new vitalism — one that does not shy away from acknowledgment of the fact that the living IS different from the nonliving–may be very much in order. There are also interesting possibilities to explore with respect to the relationship between our collective level of awareness and our human social ontology: when we begin to ask questions like “what IS money?” or debt or any of the other socially agreed-upon symbols that we presently invest with power over ourselves but need not, for example, some things may change rapidly. Bumping up our self-reflexive awareness a level or two may well spell the end of globalized exploitative capitalism, which seems to be virtually synonymous with our highly centralized and now faltering industrialism (and let’s not forget patriarchal militarism). That’s why we need local agricultural communities of various sorts to spring up everywhere, by the way — so that there will be an alternative way of feeding people when the great “machine” grinds down — a pattern of social organization based on mistaken metaphysical assumptions that our species must finally leave far behind.

Émile Bayard, from Autour de la lune (All around the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), circa 1870

Despite Hawkins’ insinuation that I “intentionally crafted [my essay] to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now,” I was in fact and remain quite serious about the positions I laid out in that paper. The tendentiousness of her brief list of objections, including a complete misreading about what is meant by “production” in a specifically Marxist sense and her scientifically-misunderstood invocation of the second law of thermodynamics, should be obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about either Marxism as a social science or physics as a natural science. And yet many of the same arguments Hawkins makes in these lines are trotted out yet again by authors like Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber of Humanity or Max Ajl in his rejoinders to Gourevitch on Jacobin‘s online section, “Climate Change and the Politics of Responsibility” or “Really-Existing Environmentalism.” Ajl closes the second of these papers with the following lines:

Heavy industrialization has no answer to these questions of how to regulate the human interaction with the surrounding environment. But one thing is for sure, at its core, Gourevitch’s argument reduces to a call for total human control over nature and a destructive demand for the demobilization of all radical environmentalist social forces.

Both requests are criminally stupid. They have no place on the Left.

Criminally stupid, eh? No place on the Left, eh? I defer to the statements of both Friedrich Engels and Leon Trotskii included in the close to my essay on “Man and Nature.” The reader can decide for himself whether or not Engels or Trotskii were here behaving “criminally stupid” or if their opinions “have no place on the Left”:

In the final analysis, far from being a single, unitary ideology, the ideology of Green is rather just a hodgepodge of past ideological remnants — neo-Romanticism, vitalism, primitivism, Luddism, Eastern mysticism, and quasi-fascist Germanic naturalism. Though there is a small kernel of truth to its project insofar as it deals with sustainability (i.e., the ability to carry on the exploitation of natural resources without the threat of environmental catastrophe), more often than not there is an underlying notion amongst eco-activists that humanity should have some sort of “respect” for nature as an inviolable thing-in-itself. The Green movement therefore views nearly every industrial-technical instrumentalization of nature, plant and animal alike, as invasive and chauvinist. Insofar as it preaches “eating local” and “going organic,” and then promotes the long-outdated ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s tacitly advocating a return a semi-feudal mode of production, which would necessarily involve massive famine and urban depopulation.

Humanity does, indeed, stand alienated from nature. And yes, there is good scientific evidence that supports the theory of global warming, though the scientists are characteristically more cautious in their predictions. Those on the Right who insistently deny the fact of climate change are just as delusional as the hysterical dispensationalists on the Left who declare the world is doomed. But the present-day Green movement provides no real answers for reconciling man with nature, when posed as a social problem, outside of, perhaps, its notion of sustainable growth. So what might a Marxist approach to the societal problem of man’s relation to nature look like?

To begin with, it must acknowledge that the answer can only lie in radical social transformation. Since humanity’s alienation from nature began with the foundation of the first societies — i.e., the beginning of history as such — and since the precise form in which this alienation has manifested itself has varied throughout history, we are left two options. Either we renounce society in its entirety, with all its freedoms and higher sensibilities, and retreat into the dark recesses of prehistory (as the anarcho-primitivists suggest), or we must progress into a new, as-yet-unseen social formation. With the former option, nature would no longer present itself as a problem to humanity because there wouldn’t be a consciousness of anything different, and we would act on our every savage instinct. Following the latter course of action, human society must gain a more self-conscious mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will. What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature. Only by pursuing one or the other of these options can the contradiction be overcome — only then might humanity be disalienated from the natural world.

For the Marxist, the choice is simple. Though regressions do occasionally take place throughout history, one cannot turn back the hands of time wholesale. Thus is the dream of the anarcho-primitivists only a nightmarish fantasy, never to be realized. One can only progress by moving forward. The only answer the Marxist can accept is worldwide revolution — the fundamental transformation of existing social relations. This revolution must honor neither regional convention nor national boundary, it must extend to encompass the globe. And only by eliminating society’s foundation on that insatiable category called Capital, only then can society exist for itself, only then can men truly make his own history, rather than be made by history. In the words of Marx, “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Engels expanded on this in later work, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action.The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. [my emphases]

How to achieve such a seizure of the means of production is a political question, one that has been dealt with historically by figures like Lenin and Trostkii. And although it would be utopian to speculate exactly what such a realized society would look like, a few possibilities seem plausible. First, such an emancipated society, freed from the rule of Capital and the forces of history, can now consciously direct its actions at a global level. No longer would there be the haphazard, chaotic hyperexploitation of nature that one sees under capitalism, which so often gives rise to crises and acute shortages. Secondly, humanity, liberated from its servitude to merely use technology as a tool to generate relative surplus-value, can now self-consciously harness the vast technological forces bestowed upon it by capitalist society. No longer beholden to these machines, gadgets, and other devices, but their master, human society can use these technological instruments to radically reshape nature for the benefit of both society and nature.Indeed, this would involve both the transformation of man and nature. Or, as Trotskii put it in the conclusion of his book, Literature and Revolution, in a quote that might as well serve as an appendix to our whole discussion:

The Socialist man will rule all nature by the machine, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth.[…]

[And thus, t]he wall will fall not only between art and industry, but simultaneously between art and nature also. This is not meant in the sense of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that art will come nearer to a state of nature, but that nature will become more “artificial.” The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste.

The Marxist vision of an emancipated society is one of abundance and plenitude, not of scarcity and shortage. It is a vision of unlimited human freedom, not within the constraints of an ascetic lifestyle. And these are precisely the terms that the Green movement have set up as unchallengeable, terms of shortage and “ecoscarcity.” And “[t]he danger here is of accepting, often without knowing it, concepts that preclude radical critique,” writes the Marxist theorist and radical geographer David Harvey. “Consider, for example, the way in which ‘ecoscarcity’ (and its cognate term of ‘overpopulation’) plays out in contemporary debate.” With such terms as “ecoscarcity” and the supposed dearth of natural resources, contemporary eco-activism shortchanges the possibilities of human freedom. Harvey continues, writing that the assumption of “ecoscarcity” by contemporary environmentalists implies “that we have not the will, wit or capacity to change our social goals, cultural modes, our technological mixes, or our form of economy and that we are powerless to modify ‘nature’ according to human requirements.” The history of capitalism supports none of these claims. There may be limitations in terms of what we might accomplish in transforming nature at the present moment, but that is no reason set arbitrary limits on what might be accomplished in the future. “Hitherto philosophers have only described the world; the point, however, is to change it,” reads Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. We might close by saying that not only can the social world be changed, but our physical world as well.

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

In this vein, reading Marx on Feuerbach, I recall a passage from The German Ideology that Gourevitch himself cited toward the end of the discussion of environmentalism and Occupy at the Left Forum. With Ajl’s objections to Gourevitch I cannot help but be reminded of Marx’s brilliant critical insight into Feuerbach’s neo-Romantic ruminations on the supposed peace and tranquility one experiences in community with “nature.” Feuerbach, disgusted with the filth and soot of the industrial cities, fled to the countryside, where he contemplated the “natural simplicity” and appreciation human beings feel when surrounded by a natural setting. The specific object of his most sublime contemplations was a cherry blossom (prunus serrulata, I believe), which he commended for its beauty, untouched by the hand of mankind.

Marx pointed out, of course, that this particular species of cherry had actually been imported centuries ago from Japan, through trans-oceanic commerce. And so it was not that Feuerbach was appreciating some pristine bit of nature, apart from human influence; rather, it was only by virtue of human influence acting in history that he was able to sit there and appreciate it at all:

In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things. When occasionally we find such views with Feuerbach, they are never more than isolated surmises and have much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as anything else than embryos capable of development. Feuerbach’s conception of the sensuous world is confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling…He does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest “sensuous certainty” are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach.

Incidentally, when we conceive things thus, as they really are and happened, every profound philosophical problem is resolved…quite simply into an empirical fact. For instance, the important question of the relation of man to nature (Bruno [Bauer] goes so far as to speak of “the antitheses in nature and history,” as though these were two separate “things” and man did not always have before him an historical nature and a natural history), crumbles of itself when we understand that the celebrated “unity of man with nature” has always existed in industry and has existed in varying forms in every epoch according to the lesser or greater development of industry, just like the “struggle” of man with nature, right up to the development of his productive powers on a corresponding basis. Industry and commerce, production and the exchange of the necessities of life, themselves determine distribution, the structure of the different social classes and are, in turn, determined by it as to the mode in which they are carried on; and so it happens that in Manchester, for instance, Feuerbach sees only factories and machines, where a hundred years ago only spinning-wheels and weaving-rooms were to be seen, or in the Campagna of Rome he finds only pasture lands and swamps, where in the time of Augustus he would have found nothing but the vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists.

Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this pure natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men. So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing. Of course, in all this the priority of external nature remains unassailed, and all this has no application to the original men produced by generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation]; but this differentiation has meaning only insofar as man is considered to be distinct from nature. For that matter, nature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin [!!]) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach.

There is truth, in part, to the nature/culture dichotomy, but it is precisely an historical truth, and nothing more. Positing a strict divide between humanity in nature is impossible. In light of such examples from Marx, Engels, and Trotskii, I cannot but conclude that it is in fact Max Ajl who is criminally stupid, and who has no place on the Left.