Under the banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»], 1923-1931

So it seems some glorious madman has taken it upon himself to scan and upload the entire run of the early Soviet theoretical journal, named Under the Banner of Marxism [«Под знаменем марксизма»]. A stupendous Stakhanovite feat. Needless to say, whoever did this is a bona fide герой труда.

Using a comically outdated online platform, no less. It was posted somewhere in the ultradank universe of Russian Livejournal, which has more or less become a medium for blogging. On one such blog, evidently belonging to a Baconian Bolshevik — entitled Знание власть, or “knowledge is power” — I found it.

Predictably, the quality of the articles began to sharply decline by the end of the 1920s. Wilhelm Reich’s Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis was published on its pages as late as 1929, however. You can download all of them, excepting the post-1931 issues (which can be found here), by clicking below.

Following those links, you can read the open letter Trotsky sent the editors of the first issue. Lenin himself singled out this letter in his own note, which was included in the double issue published next, while expressing the hope this venture would take the shape of a “society of materialist friends of Hegelian dialectics.” Abram Deborin, the stuffy Hegelian Menshevik and prominent critic of Lukács, edited the journal from 1926 through 1930, before being purged later in that decade.

Trotsky himself underscored the importance of the letter in The Stalin School of Falsification (1937), which, in pointing to the difference between the changed conditions of education of the younger members of the party from that of their older comrades, outlined the necessity of a new theoretical approach in order to safeguard the political experience accumulated within the party.

Despite the importance attributed to the letter by Lenin and Trotsky, Leszek Kolakowski, in his Main Currents of Marxism, considered the letter to be unexceptional. So much the worse for him.



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Althusser’s reading of Marx in the eyes of three of his contemporaries: George Lichtheim, Alain Badiou, and Henri Lefebvre

It has been fifty years since the publication of Louis Althusser’s influential collaboration with his students, Reading Capital. Verso has already announced that it will be publishing, for the first time, a complete English translation of the French original. For forty years, the abridged rendering by Ben Brewster has been available. But this version contains only the portions written by Althusser and Étienne Balibar, and omits the contributions of Pierre Macherey, Roger Establet, and Jacques Rancière (though Brewster did translate Rancière’s essay on value in another publication). The new edition of Reading Capital will compile all of these sections.

Commemorating this anniversary, the new Marxist theory journal Crisis & Critique has moreover dedicated an entire issue to providing a retrospective evaluation of the book. Many celebrated theorists of the past few decades are featured here: Adrian Johnston, Jacques Bidet, and Vittorio Morfino. Establet wrote a rare reflection on his former master, and the literary critic Macherey granted an interview to the editors, Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza. Panagiotis Sotiris has an article on Althusserianism and value-form theory, a subject that interests me greatly despite my obvious preference for the New Marx Reading of Helmut Reichelt, Hans-Georg Backhaus, Werner Bonefeld, Michael Heinrich, and Ingo Elbe. You can download Crisis & Critique, 2.2: Reading Capital, 50 Years Later by clicking on the link.

When Reading Capital came out in 1965, it had an immediate incendiary effect. Numerous polemics were written against it, from practically every corner of the Marxist theoretical universe. Lucien Sève and Roger Garaudy, both prominent members of the PCF, attacked it from a more or less “orthodox” angle. Henri Lefebvre, Lucien Goldmann, and Jean-Paul Sartre approached it from a perspective more independent of the official party. Soon even Rancière would turn on his former master, in his vitriolic work Althusser’s Lesson (1974), which reflected his conversion to a more militant strain of Maoism. In Britain, where the abridged translation mentioned above appeared in the early 1970s, the book elicited some initial excitement, especially in the New Left Review crowd. E.P. Thompson eventually came out against it, however, throwing down the gauntlet in his The Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors.

Below you will find three more immediate reactions to the Althusserian reading of Marx. George Lichtheim’s generally unfavorable overview appeared in January 1969. Alain Badiou published his much longer, generally favorable review of Reading Capital in May 1967. Finally, an extract from Lefebvre’s 1971 book on structuralism, later condensed into a critique of The Ideology of Structuralism in 1975, is included as well. Of the three, I am most disposed to Lichtheim’s appraisal. It can be a bit dismissive and its tone is rancorous, but still it gives a good summary of the major weaknesses of Althusserianism. An incisive public intellectual and gifted scholar of the Frankfurt School, as well as of Marxism and socialism as a whole, Lichtheim in another essay on “Dialectical Methodology” heaped scorn upon “the quasi-Marxism of Louis Althusser, for whom a genuinely scientific theory of society remains to be worked out after the unfortunate Hegelian heritage has been shed.” He continued:

Anyone who imagines that [Althusser’s] standpoint is compatible with Marx’s own interpretation of historical materialism is advised to read Alfred Schmidt’s essay “Der strukturalistische Angriff auf die Geschichte” in Beiträge zur marxistischen Erkenntnistheorie (which ought to be translated for the benefit of British and American students of the subject who in their enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss may have missed Sartre’s and Lefebvre’s devastating attacks on Althusser and his school). What we have here is a discussion whose significance far transcends the silly dispute between Western empiricists and Soviet Marxists: a quarrel which has now gone on long enough and should be quietly terminated before the audience dies of fatigue.

Lefebvre, whose early rejoinders against Althusser are cited approvingly by Lichtheim, evidently agreed a few years later when he wrote that “the elimination of Marxism goes hand in hand with the elimination of the dialectic.” This is unsurprising considering Lefebvre had been, along with the translator Norbert Gutermann and the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among the first French Marxists to read the Hegelian Marxist texts of Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács. Nowadays Lefebvre is mostly known for his writings on space and everyday life, while his earlier work on mystification, false consciousness, Romanticism, and dialectic are not as familiar.

I’ve included Badiou’s review here in order to offer a more balanced range of interpretations. Badiou was broadly sympathetic to Althusser’s project, despite having been a student of Sartre in the early 1960s. He rejected the Hegelian Marxist notion of “totality” as metaphysical and confounding, and went even further than Althusser in rejecting terminology like “contradiction” as an unscientific, vestigial holdover of idealism. Evidently, Badiou welcomed Reading Capital as an opportunity for the renewal of Marxist theory, now disburdened of its embarrassing nineteenth-century inheritance.

Anyway, I hope this selection of pieces reacting to Althusser’s For Marx and Reading Capital will grant some sense of the early reception of this work. Lichtheim is especially worth checking out, in my view, as his fate is almost directly the reverse of someone like Badiou’s. Whereas Badiou made some slight waves in the 1960s and 1970s, fading into obscurity in the 1980s and 1990s before enjoying a massive renaissance during the 2000s, Lichtheim’s erudite historical and critical studies of the development of Marxism, socialism, European history, geopolitical conflicts, and philosophy were well known during his lifetime but have since faded into obscurity. Following his suicide in 1973, a series of conferences honored the memory of Lichtheim, the German-born son of Zionists who came to distance himself from liberalism, official Marxism, and Israeli nationalism. Yet today, very little remains of this legacy. Some of his books can be downloaded here:

  1. Marxism: An Historical and Critical Study
  2. From Marx to Hegel
  3. Imperialism
  4. Europe in the Twentieth Century
  5. “The Concept of Ideology”

My own estimation of Althusser is not very high. Though it is a seductive method, reading for “symptomatic silences” and filling in the blanks, even applying Marx’s own approach in reading Smith to subsequent readings of Marx, Althusser resorted to this mostly for want of textual support for his claims. His attempt to read structuralist motifs back into Marx’s work was fundamentally misguided. Plus, he made far too much use of metaphors of production: “production of knowledge,” “production of discourse,” etc. Nevertheless, Althusser represents one of the most serious challenges to the Hegelian reading of Marx to date. I will readily defend this seriousness against what I think are unfair or reductive critiques, as in my response to Anne Boyer’s review of the most recent translation of unpublished notebooks by Althusser, “Biography is Destiny.”

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Stalinism and Bolshevism

Leon Trotsky
Socialist Review

(August 1937)

Reactionary epochs like ours not only disintegrate and weaken the working class and isolate its vanguard but also lower the general ideological level of the movement and throw political thinking back to stages long since passed through. In these conditions the task of the vanguard is, above all, not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavorable relation of forces prevents it from holding political positions it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly paid experience of the past. Fools will consider this policy “sectarian.” Actually it is the only means of preparing for a new tremendous surge forward with the coming historical tide.

The reaction against Marxism and Bolshevism

Great political defeats provoke a reconsideration of values, generally occurring in two directions. On the one hand the true vanguard, enriched by the experience of defeat, defends with tooth and nail the heritage of revolutionary thought and on this basis strives to educate new cadres for the mass struggle to come. On the other hand the routinists, centrists and dilettantes, frightened by defeat, do their best to destroy the authority of the revolutionary tradition and go backwards in their search for a “New World.”

One could indicate a great many examples of ideological reaction, most often taking the form of prostration. All the literature if the Second and Third Internationals, as well as of their satellites of the London Bureau, consists essentially of such examples. Not a suggestion of Marxist analysis. Not a single serious attempt to explain the causes of defeat, About the future, not one fresh word. Nothing but clichés, conformity, lies and above all solicitude for their own bureaucratic self-preservation. It is enough to smell 10 words from some Hilferding or Otto Bauer to know this rottenness. The theoreticians of the Comintern are not even worth mentioning. The famous Dimitrov is as ignorant and commonplace as a shopkeeper over a mug of beer. The minds of these people are too lazy to renounce Marxism: they prostitute it. But it is not they that interest us now. Let us turn to the “innovators.”

Vanishing commissars 1.

The former Austrian communist, Willi Schlamm, has devoted a small book to the Moscow trials, under the expressive title, The Dictatorship of the Lie. Schlamm is a gifted journalist, chiefly interested in current affairs. His criticism of the Moscow frame-up, and his exposure of the psychological mechanism of the “voluntary confessions,” are excellent. However, he does not confine himself to this: he wants to create a new theory of socialism that would insure us against defeats and frame-ups in the future. But since Schlamm is by no means a theoretician and is apparently not well acquainted with the history of the development of socialism, he returns entirely to pre-Marxist socialism, and notably to its German, that is to its most backward, sentimental and mawkish variety. Schlamm denounces dialectics and the class struggle, not to mention the dictatorship of the proletariat. The problem of transforming society is reduced for him to the realisation of certain “eternal” moral truths with which he would imbue mankind, even under capitalism. Willi Schlamm’s attempts to save socialism by the insertion of the moral gland is greeted with joy and pride in Kerensky’s review, Novaia Rossia (an old provincial Russian review now published in Paris); as the editors justifiably conclude, Schlamm has arrived at the principles of true Russian socialism, which a long time ago opposed the holy precepts of faith, hope and charity to the austerity and harshness of the class struggle. The “novel” doctrine of the Russian “Social Revolutionaries” represents, in its “theoretical” premises, only a return to the pre-March (1848!) Germany. However, it would be unfair to demand a more intimate knowledge of the history of ideas from Kerensky than from Schlamm. Far more important is the fact that Kerensky, who is in solidarity with Schlamm, was, while head of the government, the instigator of persecutions against the Bolsheviks as agents of the German general staff: organised, that is, the same frame-ups against which Schlamm now mobilises his moth-eaten metaphysical absolutes.

The psychological mechanism of the ideological reaction of Schlamm and his like, is not at all complicated. For a while these people took part in a political movement that swore by the class struggle and appeared, in word if not in thought, to dialectical materialism. In both Austria and Germany the affair ended in a catastrophe. Schlamm draws the wholesale conclusion: this is the result of dialectics and the class struggle! And since the choice of revelations is limited by historical experience and…by personal knowledge, our reformer in his search for the word falls on a bundle of old rags which he valiantly opposes not only to Bolshevism but to Marxism as well.

At first glance Schlamm’s brand of ideological reaction seems too primitive (from Marx…to Kerensky!) to pause over. But actually it is very instructive: precisely in its primitiveness it represents the common denominator of all other forms of reaction, particularly of those expressed by wholesale denunciation of Bolshevism.

“Back to Marxism”?

Marxism found its highest historical expression in Bolshevism. Under the banner of Bolshevism the first victory of the proletariat was achieved and the first workers’ state established. No force can now erase these facts from history. But since the October Revolution has led to the present stage of the triumph of the bureaucracy, with its system of repression, plunder and falsification — the “dictatorship of the lie,” to use Schlamm’s happy expression — many formalistic and superficial minds jump to a summary conclusion: one cannot struggle against Stalinism without renouncing Bolshevism. Schlamm, as we already know, goes further: Bolshevism, which degenerated into Stalinism, itself grew out of Marxism; consequently one cannot fight Stalinism while remaining on the foundation of Marxism. There are others, less consistent but more numerous, who say on the contrary: “We must return Bolshevism to Marxism.” How? To what Marxism? Before Marxism became “bankrupt” in the form of Bolshevism it has already broken down in the form of social democracy, Does the slogan “Back to Marxism” then mean a leap over the periods of the Second and Third Internationals…to the First International? But it too broke down in its time. Thus in the last analysis it is a question of returning to the collected works of Marx and Engels. One can accomplish this historic leap without leaving one’s study and even without taking off one’s slippers. But how are we going to go from our classics (Marx died in 1883, Engels in 1895) to the tasks of a new epoch, omitting several decades of theoretical and political struggles, among them Bolshevism and the October revolution? None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course. So the question is reduced to the simple advice to study Capital. We can hardly object. But the Bolsheviks, too, studied Capital, and not badly either. This did not however prevent the degeneration of the Soviet state and the staging of the Moscow trials. So what is to be done? Continue reading

Why read Lukács? The place of “philosophical” questions in Marxism

Chris Cutrone
The Last Marx­ist

A re­sponse to Mike Macnair

Whatever one thinks of Chris Cutrone or Platy­pus, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s con­tro­ver­sial rhet­or­ic, meth­ods, and antics, the fol­low­ing is an ex­cel­lent es­say and re­sponse in the (still on­go­ing) ex­change between Platy­pus and the CP­GB. This was first presen­ted at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chica­go, Janu­ary 11, 2014. A video re­cord­ing is avail­able here, an au­dio re­cord­ing avail­able here.

Still read­ing Lukács? The role of “crit­ic­al the­ory”

Why read Georg Lukács today? Es­pe­cially when his most fam­ous work, His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, is so clearly an ex­pres­sion of its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al mo­ment, the abor­ted world re­volu­tion of 1917-19 in which he par­ti­cip­ated, at­tempt­ing to fol­low Vladi­mir Len­in and Rosa Lux­em­burg. Are there “philo­soph­ic­al” les­sons to be learned or prin­ciples to be gleaned from Lukács’s work, or is there, rather, the danger, as the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain’s Mike Macnair has put it, of “the­or­et­ic­al overkill,” sty­mie­ing of polit­ic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies, clos­ing up the struggle for so­cial­ism in tiny au­thor­it­ari­an and polit­ic­ally sterile sects foun­ded on “the­or­et­ic­al agree­ment?”

Mike Macnair’s art­icle “The philo­sophy trap” (2013) ar­gues about the is­sue of the re­la­tion between the­ory and prac­tice in the his­tory of os­tens­ible “Len­in­ism,” tak­ing is­sue in par­tic­u­lar with Lukács’s books His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness (1923) and Len­in (1924) as well as with Karl Korsch’s 1923 es­say “Marx­ism and philo­sophy.” The is­sue is what kind of the­or­et­ic­al gen­er­al­iz­a­tion of con­scious­ness could be de­rived from the ex­per­i­ence of Bolshev­ism from 1903-21. I agree with Macnair that “philo­soph­ic­al” agree­ment is not the prop­er basis for polit­ic­al agree­ment, but this is not the same as say­ing that polit­ic­al agree­ment has no the­or­et­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. Rather, the is­sue is wheth­er the­or­et­ic­al “po­s­i­tions” have ne­ces­sary polit­ic­al im­plic­a­tions. I think it is a tru­ism to say that there is no sure the­or­et­ic­al basis for ef­fect­ive polit­ic­al prac­tice. But Macnair seems to be say­ing noth­ing more than this. In sub­or­din­at­ing the­ory to prac­tice, Macnair loses sight of the po­ten­tial crit­ic­al role the­ory can play in polit­ic­al prac­tice, spe­cific­ally the task of con­scious­ness of his­tory in the struggle for trans­form­ing so­ci­ety in an eman­cip­at­ory dir­ec­tion.

A cer­tain re­la­tion of the­ory to prac­tice is a mat­ter spe­cif­ic to the mod­ern era, and moreover a prob­lem spe­cif­ic to the era of cap­it­al­ism, that is, after the In­dus­tri­al Re­volu­tion, the emer­gence of the mod­ern pro­let­ari­an­ized work­ing class and its struggle for so­cial­ism, and the crisis of bour­geois so­cial re­la­tions and thus of con­scious­ness of so­ci­ety this en­tails. Continue reading

Deleuzeans of grandeur

Image: Pieter Brueghel
“The Flatterers” (1592)

Earlier today, I tried to make my way through this rather long, theory-heavy Facebook thread. It popped up on my feed and some of the first few comments seemed pretty interesting. You know: it concerned concepts and authors like totality, status quo ante, the proletariat, Jameson. Figured I could maybe dig some of the Deleuze and communization stuff, even if I agreed with it less. Then all of a sudden all these theoretical accretions and academic encrustations began to glom onto the original topics under discussion at this crazy, exponential rate — sometimes as backstory or context, but more often as just syncretistic add-ons and meaningless whirligigs, an intellectually promiscuous process of addition, lunatical topsy-turvydom, etc.

Maybe I just didn’t know enough of these theories or theorists, but I don’t think that’s it. Really, I’m not anti-theory at all; I’m good at it. I have a lot more patience for dense theoretical discourse than many people I know. (That much should be obvious to anyone who reads or even glances passingly through this blog). But there’s some massive leveling our generation needs to do. Most of what’s been written recently or being written right now needs to be mercilessly torn down, without remorse or concern about hurt feelings. The elbow-rubbing and chummy collegiality needs to go. We must separate the wheat from the chaff, the Hearts—Stars—Clovers—Blue-Moons from the ordinary cereal. Honestly, we’re far too easily impressed with ourselves and each other. Most of what we produce is total garbage, and we should have no problem owning up to that. No more compliments or gentle “critiques” that just mildly “complicate” or “problematize” whatever bullshit we’re on about lately. Could be way off but who knows.

Anyway, I communicated these sentiments more or less exactly as I just presented them here to the posters in this thread. It was probably ill-advised decision to do so, bound to piss off everyone involved. People tend to get really touchy and insecure whenever their intellectual credentials are challenged. Of course, I wasn’t looking to call anyone out or target anybody in particular, though I could have, but leave things at this fairly generalized level. Still, most in the thread had enough of a sense of humor about themselves to move on quickly and not take it very personally. Except for one person: Louis-Georges Schwartz. Continue reading

Through iron and glass, darkly

A review of Douglas Murphy’s
Architecture of Failure

Image: Cover to Douglas Murphy’s
Architecture of Failure (2012)

The following review was published in shortened form several weeks ago in Radical Philosophy 181. Included here are some passages that were excised from the final printed version, as well as some footnotes.

Douglas Murphy’s debut, The Architecture of Failure (2012), is an odd and unsettling monograph. The book begins with a description of our present moment as heralding “a new period of Ruinenlust,” in which there exists a preponderant passion for the ruins of modernity, as opposed to Romanticism’s earlier infatuation with the ruins of antiquity. Like his peer, the British architecture critic Owen Hatherley, Murphy sets out to recover through his study the image of “a potential future that only existed in the past.”1 Whereas Hatherley approaches this theme head-on, however — directly confronting the avant-garde legacy in his 2009 manifesto, Militant Modernism — Murphy prefers to address it more obliquely.2 The Architecture of Failure looks at the spans of time that bracket the modern movement on either side. Murphy opens with an examination of the “ferro-vitreous” age, from Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851 to Dutert’s 1889 Galerie des Machines. The second half of the book covers the drift from exhausted postwar modernism toward the renewal of architectural transparency following the turbulence and upheaval of 1968.3

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (1997)

Certain peculiarities complicate what is otherwise a solid and convincing, if perhaps a bit oversubtle, thesis. One of The Architecture of Failure’s more confusing features is the structural asymmetry of its two sections. While the first part of the book is devoted to an interpretation of three specific buildings of the iron and glass age — the glamorous Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, its decidedly less spectacular reincarnation at Sydenham two years later, and the ill-fated Albert Palace off the River Thames — the second part instead deals with three general trends within post-’68 architecture — trends that Murphy christens Solutionism, Iconism, and Virtualism.7 This imbalance can be slightly disconcerting for readers who anticipate a continuation of detailed analyses of individual structures beyond the earlier chapters. To be sure, the chapters on Solutionism (postmodernism/“high-tech,” roughly) and Iconism (post-structuralism/“decon,” again roughly) include passing treatments of Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Center in Paris and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.8 But Virtualism, a kind of Deleuzean neo-baroque, finds no built equivalent. Its reality is instead displaced onto the unconstrained imaginary space of digital “diagrams,” allowing for infinitesimally intricate, schizoid patterns of design.9

In fact, there is a way in which the second half of the book almost forms a microcosm of the original Crystal Palace at Hyde Park described in the first. Following a brief interlude near the middle where Murphy touches on the modernist moment, the architectonic of his argument opens up, beginning to resemble the format of a classic nineteenth-century Expo. Solutionism, Iconism, and Virtualism are itemized, stereotyped, and put on display, as if laid out in booths or pavilions that the reader-flâneur can wander spectrally to and from. If not an historicist inventory of styles, The Architecture of Failure at least in this respect showcases the various ideologemes, mannerisms, and rhetorical conceits that comprise contemporary architecture. Murphy recapitulates this Expo effect in miniature modules, outlining the characteristics that most exemplify each tendency.

Patrik Schumacher, architects' hotel in Belgrade

Patrik Schumacher, architects’ hotel in Belgrade

But Murphy’s sympathy for interdisciplinary usages of “Theory” only extends so far. His criticism of the role it has played in recent architecture is twofold. At one level, he objects to its superficiality. Murphy has little patience for building proposals that look to press “Theory” into service in order to fulfill arbitrary stylistic ends. He therefore faults some practitioners for “bringing theory into architecture as a purely aesthetic device.”13 Relatively speaking, however, this part of Murphy’s criticism is rather tame. Its other side is, by contrast, far more damning. For insofar as it supposedly constitutes a form of “radical critique,” he contends, “Theory” functions to exonerate architects in advance for whatever oversights or questionable design decisions they might make. It becomes a kind of ritualistic gesture, simply “a way of avoiding a wider self-criticism.”14 By citing the right authors and referencing the right texts, the book alleges, architects are able to set up an ideological smokescreen so as to disguise the actual content of their activity.

Murphy does not mince words condemning such methods, however. Those who rely on them are, to his mind, nothing more than “conservatives masquerading in ‘radical’ clothes.”15 Still, The Architecture of Failure wisely refrains from committing the opposite error of denying all legitimacy to theoretical explorations of architecture. Generally speaking, the stance Murphy adopts toward the predominance of “Theory” in the field of contemporary architecture is far more nuanced than those that either blithely celebrate its sophistication or sneeringly dismiss it out of hand. Ultimately, his appraisal of its effect is historical in the way it gauges the cumulative influence of “Theory” upon the discipline: “Difference is becoming standardized, the unique is becoming generic.”16

Exterior of Paxton's 1851 Crystal Palace, Hyde Park

Exterior of Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace, Hyde Park

“The Crystal Palace was certainly one of the most significant early moments of modern capitalism,” Murphy writes. “Indeed, it is widely described as the moment in which modern (or even postmodern) capitalist culture was born, the point at which the gaze of capitalism first turned back upon itself and the symbolic value of the products that it was consuming; the very beginnings of ‘the spectacle.’”18 This spectacular reflexivity, whereby men stand transfixed before the products of their labor, is part and parcel of the phenomenon of reification. Incidentally, this also allows Murphy to establish a homology between the Crystal Palace (1851) and the Pompidou Center (1971) in relation to their time. Whereas the former recalls liberal policies of laissez-faire and free trade promulgated by Cobden and the Manchester School, the latter conjures up associations with neoliberal policies of deregulation and financialization as formulated by Hayek and the Austrian School:

The Pompidou Center marks the largest attempt to elaborate the theoretical and practical concerns of the period in a single building; and we can compare it to the Crystal Palace in a number of interesting ways: both were commissioned by the state, both were conceived within the context of periods of social unrest, both called for an unprecedented program of display…Finally, both were “radical” designs by relative outsiders, won through public competition. Rogers and Piano’s winning design…hinged upon notions of flexibility; the building would be a massive shed with little or no internal division; massive moveable internal spaces serviced entirely from their periphery would be created; the designers would merely provide the space for “events,” with all the post-’68 connotations that the word brought up.

Once again Murphy emphasizes the element of “social unrest” that lay behind the building of the structure, in this case the Pompidou Center. The passage is packed with a number of embedded references, which might be briefly borne out: “flexibility” suggests the well-known Marxian interpretation of neoliberalism as a regime of “flexible accumulation”;19 the description of Pompidou as a “massive shed” calls to mind Brown and Venturi’s populist ideal of the “decorated shed”;20 the word “event,” as Murphy mentions in passing, acquired unmistakable political overtones after the “events” of 1968 (particularly in French Theory).21 As before with the Crystal Palace, the Pompidou is understood as a spatial manifestation of broader historical forces. Murphy draws another parallel between the two buildings, this time in terms of their epochal significance. “[J]ust as the Great Exhibition can be analyzed as marking a fundamental shift, the birth of the modern consumer,” he writes, “the Pompidou Center can signify the shift into the postmodern world of consumption.”22

Figure 4: Centre Pompidou in Beaubourg under construction (1971)

Centre Pompidou in Beaubourg under construction (1971)

All this should raise some questions regarding the nature of the “failure” contained in the book’s title. What sort of failure is Murphy investigating in The Architecture of Failure? Though the author insists that the issues discussed in the text are “as much architectural issues as any other kind,” it is difficult not to feel that there is something more at stake.25 Murphy is engaging in a species of ideology critique — a “critique of architectural ideology” in the vein of Tafuri.26 Some of the failures portrayed in the book are strictly architectural in character, but more often than not these failures attest to deeper political failures that have taken place in society over the last sesquicentennial. Murphy’s The Architecture of Failure skillfully maneuvers over diverse historical terrain without ever losing sight of this central thematic, using architecture as a lens through which the political regression of recent times may be viewed with melancholic lucidity.


1 Murphy, Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. (Zero Books. Washington, DC: 2012). Pgs. 1-2.
2 Compare: “We have been cheated out of the future, yet the future’s ruins lie about us, hidden or ostentatiously rotting. So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” Hatherley, Owen. Militant Modernism. (Zero Books. Washington, D.C.: 2009). Pg. 3.
3 Murphy, The Architecture of Failure. Pg. 76.
4 Ibid., pg. 138.
5 Ibid., pg. 139.
6 Ibid., pg. 3.
7 The book’s structure runs as follows. Part I — the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park: ibid., pgs. 12-23; at Sydenham: ibid., pgs. 24-43; the Albert Palace: ibid., pgs. 44-60. Part II — Solutionism: ibid., pgs. 77-98; Iconism: ibid., pgs. 99-118; Virtualism: ibid., pgs. 119-137.
8 On Pompidou: ibid., pgs. 84-86, 97, 118; on Guggenheim Bilbao: ibid., pgs. 100, 113-116, 121.
9 On “diagramming”: ibid., pgs. 123-125, 127, 134; on “schizophrenic processes”: ibid., pg. 122.
10 On Schumacher: ibid., pg. 135; on Eisenman: ibid., pg. 105.
11 Ibid., pg. 103.
12 On Derrida: ibid., pgs. 20-21, 38-39, 59-60, 107, 109, 119; on Benjamin: ibid., pgs. 34-35, 59-60; on Deleuze and Guattari: ibid., pgs. 122-130, 134. On the irony: ibid., pgs. 100-101.
13 Ibid., pg. 107.
14 Ibid., pg. 104.
15 Ibid., pg. 111.
16 Ibid., pg. 136.
17 Ibid., pgs. 22-23.
18 Ibid., pg. 23.
19 Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. (Blackwell Publishers. Cambridge, MA: 1990). Pgs. 141-172.
20 Brown, Denise Scott and Venturi, Robert. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1972). Pgs. 87-89.
21 Some prominent examples include Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 89, 93,187-192. Original from 1968.
…….Barthes, Roland. “Writing the Event.” Translated by Richard Howard. The Rustle of Language. (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1986). Pgs. 149-155. Original from 1968.
…….Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Translated by Alan Bass. The Margins of Philosophy. (The Harvester Press. Chicago, IL: 1982). Pgs. 307-330. Original from 1971.
22 Murphy, The Architecture of Failure. Pgs. 84-85.
23 Ibid., pg. 69.
24 Ibid., pg. 80.
25 Ibid., pg. 23.
26 Tafuri, Manfredo. “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.” Translated by K. Michael Hays. Architectural Theory since 1968. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1998). Pg. 29.

Architecture and politics

“Architecture as politics is by now such an exhausted myth that it is pointless to waste anymore words on it,” sighed Manfredo Tafuri at the outset of his magnum opus, The Sphere and the Labyrinth (1980). Despite Tafuri’s dismissive gesture, many today still insist that architecture possesses considerable political agency. Personally, I’m more inclined to agree with Tafuri. While it would be mistaken to regard architecture and politics as totally unrelated, the precise nature of their interconnection is not at all what most advocates of architecture’s political role seem to think.

And so, without reopening this discussion wholesale, I think there are some basic clarifications that must be made before issuing any judgment about their relationship to architecture. Continue reading

“What Now?” — The Question Haunting the #Occupy Movement

Protestors assembled in New York

by Ross Wolfe

The remarkable success of the #Occupy phenomenon to date — in terms of its sheer scope and longevity — has caught nearly everyone by surprise.

Since the demonstrations first began last month in Liberty Plaza, deep in the heart of New York City’s financial district, Occupy Wall Street has achieved a number of unexpected victories.  It has received a lot of media coverage, captured the public imagination, and enlisted the support of a number of different forces: prominent leftish celebrities (Michael Moore, Cornel West, Naomi Klein, Susan Sarandon, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, etc.), prominent unions (SEIU, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and others), as well as young activists who are new to politics.  Moreover, it has spawned a series of similar protests across many major cities in North America and abroad, generating a truly international buzz.  A week ago, the protestors at Zuccotti Park successfully stood their ground against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to forcibly evict them — under the dubious pretext of sanitation.

Cardboard signs at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park

But this victory can by no means be considered final.  Rather, it has tasked the protestors with the following, foundational question: “What now?”

If this successful moment of resistance against the coercion of the State is to signal a turning point for this movement, it must begin to address the more serious political issues that confront it.  It is crucial that the participants in these demonstrations ask themselves where they stand in history, and more adequately conceptualize the problem of capitalist society.  Only then can it begin to articulate a political vision of global emancipation.

To this point, most of the participants in the various cities under “occupation” have only expressed a sort of intuitive discontent with the status quo.  In order to get a better sense of what they are up against, they must develop a more comprehensive understanding and critique of the prevailing social order.  This, in turn, will require that the protestors take time to theoretically reflect on the #Occupy movement’s trajectory, thereby determining its political potentialities, its practical exigencies, and the path that it will ultimately take moving forward.

Without such reflection, the demonstrations will degenerate into the political malaise and ineffectuality that has characterized so much of the protest culture of the last fifty years — meaningless gestures of dissent, empty theatrical displays, and directionless activism-for-its-own-sake (l’activisme pour l’activisme).  Over the last half-century, theory and practice have become decoupled to the detriment of both.  On one side, “radical” academic discourse has detached itself almost entirely from the realm of politics, while on the other side activism has become increasingly routine, unreflective, and anti-intellectual.  Most career academics dread the empirical messiness on-the-ground political engagement; most committed activists, for their part, avoid at any cost the so-called “paralysis of analysis.”

"Anonymous" protestors at Occupy Wall Street

Up to now, the participants in the #Occupy movement have managed to organize impressive resources for their daily needs: legal services, a first-aid station, sleeping arrangements, food supplies, defense against police brutality, and a consistent media presence.  The satisfaction of these requirements has doubtless been essential to the endurance of the movement.  However, these pragmatic concerns have so far taken precedent over the discussion of long-term political goals.  The broader question of where the movement is going from here tends to get lost amidst administrative details.

In some respect, the main organizers of these demonstrations have — in a rather studied manner — even actively avoided posing this crucial question.  They raise the specter that this will lead to the inevitable fragmentation of the movement, and warn that reflection on the political content of the protests or formulating specific demands might prove divisive.  Until they pause to think of the shape the movement must take from here, however, #Occupy risks being assimilated to the Democratic Party apparatus — harmlessly reintegrated into the social totality of “business as usual.”

I originally wrote this article for the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists (EMAJ).  They have published this article here.

Leon Trotsky’s “Attention to theory: Letter to the editor of Under the Banner of Marxism”

Screenshot from Tarkovsky's Solaris (1971)


Having just noticed this from The Platypus Review #34, I would here like to reprint the excellent translation it rendered of Leon Trotsky’s “Attention to theory: Letter to the editor of Under the Banner of Marxism.”  Their publication of an English version was the first time this letter was made available outside of the Russian language. The original posting of this article can be found here.

by Leon Trotsky

On the occasion of the launch of a new theoretical journal in 1922, Under the Banner of Marxism (Pod Znamenem Marksizma), Lenin singled out the open letter that Trotsky had written to the editors in the first issue, while expressing the hope that the venture would take the shape of a “society of materialist friends of Hegelian dialectics.”Trotsky himself underscored the importance of the letter in The Stalin School of Falsification (1937), which, in pointing to the difference between the changed conditions of education of the younger members of the party from that of their older comradesoutlined the necessity of a new theoretical approach in order to safeguard the theoretical and political experience accumulated within the partyDespite the importance attributed to the letter by Lenin and Trotsky, Leszek Kolakowski, in his Main Currents of Marxism, considered the letter unexceptional.

As the first in an experimental new series of original translations, the Platypus Review is delighted to be publishing the first English translation of this important letter by Trotsky.

Dear comrades!

The idea of publishing a magazine that would introduce advanced proletarian youth into the circle of materialist ideology seems to me highly valuable and fruitful.

The older generation of worker-communists that is now playing a leading role in the party and the country, awoke to conscious political life 10, 15, 20, or more years ago. That generation’s thought began its critical work with the policeman, the timekeeper, and the foreman, then rose to tsarism and capitalism, and then, most often in prison and exile, proceeded onto questions of the philosophy of history and scientific understanding of the world. Therefore, before the revolutionary proletarian reached the critical questions of the materialist explanation of historical development, it managed to accumulate a certain amount of ever-widening generalizations, from the particular to the general, based on its own life’s combat experience. The current young worker wakes up in the atmosphere of the soviet state, which itself is a living critique of the old world. Those general conclusions, that the older generation of workers acquired in battle and were fixed in consciousness by strong nails of personal experience, are now received by the younger generation of workers in finished form, directly from the state in which they live and from the party that governs that state. This means, of course, a giant step forward in terms of creating conditions for further political and theoretical education of the workers. But at the same time that this incomparably higher historical level is achieved by the work of older generations, new problems and challenges appear for young generations.

The soviet state is a living negation of the old world, its social order, personal relationships, views, and beliefs. But, at the same time, the soviet state itself is still full of contradictions, holes, inconsistencies, vague fermentation—in short, the phenomena in which the legacy of the past intertwines with the germs of the future. In such a deeply fractured, critical, and unstable era as ours, education of the proletarian vanguard requires serious and reliable theoretical foundations. It is necessary to arm a young worker’s thought and will with the method of the materialist worldview so that the greatest events, the powerful tides, rapidly changing tasks, and methods of the party and state do not disorganize his consciousness and do not break down his will before the threshold of his independent responsible work. Continue reading

Some Long Overdue Gratitude, Plugs, and Recognition

During my time as author of The Charnel-House I have been the beneficiary of a number of appreciative comments and plugs that have helped to publicize and further spread the word about my blog.  Needless to say, I am deeply grateful to have received these endorsements.  But now it has come time to return their generosity, as well as to include a few plugs of my own.

First of all, I should like to thank the following blogs for their support:

1. Anti-German/Anti-National Translation: A blog with incredible breadth and critical acuity, providing translation work as well as discussions of anti-Semitism on the Left.

2. Nasty, Brutalist, and Short: Perhaps the most original and intriguing architectural critic to be found in the blogosphere, writing from an explicitly Bolshevist and pro-Modernist perspective.

3. Renegade Eye: A blog associated with the Trotskyist International Marxist Tendency (IMT), whose position on Chavez and Venezuela might be a far cry from my own, but which always provides interesting articles and topics for discussion.  The quality of discussion varies from post to post, but the author of the blog himself is quite to-the-point and intellectually honest.

4. Bob From Brockley: Of all the blogs that have linked to mine, I am by far the least acquainted with this one.  From what I understand, the author is a British Leftist who quickly got fed up with all the nonsense floating around on the Left there.  It’s a blog I’d love to explore some more in the coming months.

The list of sites I’d like to plug is too long for a single post, but you’ll find them all in my links on the right-hand side of the page, organized roughly according to their content.  I recommend all of them, with the only reservation being that they do not necessarily reflect my own views.  Nevertheless, I find all of them engaging enough to check out.  Enjoy!