Red seder

In Berlin 5777, a new communist Haggadah for a Red Passover Seder was brought forth into the world. It replaces the communist Haggadah of  Brooklyn, 5771. This new one is the first Red Haggadah since the Jewish Bolsheviks used them in the 1920s. I now offer it here for use (the Hebrew text came out backwards, unfortunately). The historical background text is below, but to do an actual seder, one must download the Haggadah and follow the steps. Love live October 5778!

Download the Haggadah for a RED SEDER: to readto print

The celebration of Passover is traditionally associated with the spirit of freedom and independence. The seder ceremony features a special menu, the reading of the Haggadah (the retelling of the story of Exodus), songs, and even games. Passover is also the only Jewish celebration whose ritual requires dialogue between children and parents. All this creates an ideal basis for the introduction of new concepts in a popular, well-known format. By the end of the nineteenth century Jewish radicals in Poland, the United States, and Canada were employing the Passover seder for the promotion of political views as well as a way to criticize their opponents. Various political movements organized political seders in interwar Poland.

Soviet Jewish activists, too, did not miss the opportunity to use Passover as a propaganda tool. In 1921 the Central Bureau of the Bolshevik Party’s Evsektsii sent instructions to all local branches to organize “Red Passovers.” Popular brochures that came to be known as “Red Haggadahs” were published, specifying how to conduct the alternative celebrations. Many were written by local activists following a series of centrally directed patterns. One of these was the Komsomolishe Haggadah (Komsomol Haggadah), published in Moscow in 1923 by Moyshe Altshuler. Traditionally the start of Passover (an eight-day holiday during which the consumption of bread or leavened products and yeast is forbidden) is marked with the Bdikas khometz — a search for all remaining traces of leavened food, followed by its burning. In Altshuler’s Komsomolishe Haggadah, this ceremony was transformed as follows:

Ten years ago [in 1917] the working class of Russia with the help of peasants searched for khometz (leaven) in our land. They cleaned away all the traces of landowners and bourgeois bosses in the country and took power in their own hands. They took the land from the landowners, plants and factories from the capitalists; they fought the enemies of the workers on all fronts. In the fire of the great socialist revolution, the workers and peasants burned Kochak, Yudenich, Vrangel, Denikin, Pilsudskii, Petlyura, Chernov, Khots, Dan, Martov, and Abramovich. They recited the blessing: “All landowners, bourgeois and their helpers — Mensheviks, Esers, Kadets, Bundists, Zionists, Esesovtses, Eesovtses, Poaley Zionists, Tsaarey-tsienikes, and all other counterrevolutionaries should be burned in the flame of revolution. Those who are burned should not ever survive, and the rest should be given to us and we shall transfer them to the hands of the GPU.

The Komsomol Haggadah combines all enemies of the Soviet regime as khometz, and recommends burning them. Equating antagonists who were notoriously anti-Jewish, such as the commander of the White Army Aleksei Denikin, to Jewish Soviet opponents, such as Bundists or Zionists, was a popular method of Soviet propaganda. It was not important why or how but simply that they were portrayed as being equally obnoxious.

Haggadah shel pesakh (Story of Passover), cover from the second edition. Drawing by Alexander Tyshler. Moscow, 1927

Every seder ritual was transformed in the Soviet Haggadah. The traditional handwashing and blessing before the meal became a political statement:

Wash off all the bourgeois mud, wash off the mold of generations, and do not say a blessing, say a curse. Devastation must come upon all the old rabbinical laws and customs, yeshivas and khaydorim, that becloud and enslave the people.

Soviet ideologists saw a clear need to create viable alternatives to established rituals and holidays for Jews. They considered that, during the transition period, these rituals had to be based on Jewish traditions and then gradually lead to the establishment of completely new Soviet holidays. In the 1920s these holidays were used both as propaganda against the old religion and promotion of the new political system and ideology. The most notable attempt was the organization of alternative Passover and Yom Kippur celebrations. Continue reading

They saved Lenin’s brain

 

An autopsy was performed on Lenin the same night as his embalming, lasting four hours and forty minutes. “Approximately halfway through the process Lenin’s brain was opened, and the direct cause of death was ascertained… When Lenin suffered a stroke on January 21, 1924, a large amount of blood rushed into his brain, much more blood than the sclerotic arteries had been transmitting. This pressure was too great for the brain’s damaged vessels, and the walls of those vessels broke down, flooding the brain with blood.” An official report of the autopsy was published the day of Lenin’s funeral. One reader, a non-party intellectual, criticized it for conveying the message that “Lenin is only matter, nothing more than a combination of a cranial hemisphere, intestines, an abdominal cavity, a heart, kidneys, a spleen…”

The weight of Lenin’s brain was 1,340 grams.

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In 1968, Paragon Films adapted one of its older theater releases for television. Madmen of Mandoras (1963) only ran for seventy minutes, so about twenty minutes of footage had to be added to fill an hour-and-a-half slot. The result was They Saved Hitler’s Brain, an awful potpourri of shitty sixties sci-fi, WWII nostalgia, and spy film.

Of course, no one actually saved Hitler’s brain. As everyone knows, most of it was left splattered over the walls of a Berlin bunker. What little remained could hardly be salvaged.

However, the brain of another world-historical figure — one who was comparable in stature, if politically his polar opposite — was in fact preserved. Vladimir Lenin’s brain is still soaking in a vat somewhere inside the Moscow Institute of Brain Research, founded shortly after his death. Nikolai Semashko, Commissar of Health, summoned a pair of internationally renowned neurologists to the Russian capital to examine Lenin’s brain. Cécile and Oskar Vogt were the ultimate brain cytology power couple in Paris at the time. Semashko and his Politburo ally, Stalin, ostensibly wanted to establish the genius of the deceased Soviet premier on a materialist basis.

Upon their arrival in 1925, the Vogts were warmly greeted by party officials. Given a team of understudies and laboratory aids, as well as a building in which they could conduct their research, the husband-and-wife tandem immediately set to work. Oskar in particular was impressed by Lenin’s neuronal arrangements. His brain apparently housed a high number of abnormally large pyramidal cells clustered near the cortex, supposedly indicating a strong associative faculty. Vogt referred to Lenin in private as an “association athlete.”

lenin's brain compared with another

But there was an ulterior motive behind their invitation to Moscow. Lenin had left a testament in which he commented upon the strengths and weaknesses of the leading Bolsheviks, many of whom were now vying to succeed him. While none emerged wholly unscathed, the sharpest criticisms were reserved for Stalin. In the final months before Lenin’s death, he and Stalin had fought vociferously. Things got so heated that Lenin recommended Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary.

Krupskaya, Trotsky, and a few others hoped Vogt would find Lenin was compos mentis up to his death. Stalin of course hoped that Vogt would vindicate Lenin’s brilliance, but judge him to be not fully competent at the time he dictated his testament. At the end of the day, not much came of the inquiry. Provisional results were published in 1929, but no follow-up articles or essays immediately succeeded it. Not until 1967 would more information be released regarding the tests performed on Lenin’s brain.

Мозг Ильича Журнал «Смена» за 1925 год, рассказывает о «лучшем образце мозга человека с крупнейшим интеллектом»

Much has been written about this bizarre episode in the history of medical science and the early Soviet state. Tilman Spengler, a German author, novelized the story in 1991. Lenin’s Brain has since been widely translated. Paul R. Gregory, a Cold War liberal, included a chapter on it in his hokey collection Lenin’s Brain, and Other Stories from the Soviet Secret Archives. Igor Klatzo’s joint biography of Cécile and Oskar Vogt features a chapter about their time in Moscow. Jochen Richter’s “Pantheon of Brains: The Moscow Brain Research Institute, 1925-1936” can be read here.

Dubious though the science must seem, at nearly a century’s remove, the cult of genius within neuroscientific circles was not limited to Lenin. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s brain was also donated to the Institute and studied at length. Following the death of Albert Einstein in 1955, the great physicist’s brain was removed, mapped, cut into cross-sections, and scrutinized at length. Like Lenin, Einstein considered himself a socialist (albeit of a different stripe). Go figure.

Communist cranial capacity crushes cretinous capitalism.

The first building of the Moscow Brain Institute "Mozga" DETAIL_PICTURE_697657_80754362untitledVogt, Oskar *06.04.1870-+Hirnforscher, D- in seinem Forschungsinstitut im Schwarzwald bei der Betrachtung einer Filfolie aus einer Serie von Gehirnschnitten- 1943

Tony Cliff’s legacy today

James Heartfield
Platypus Review
July 24th, 2014
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Tony Cliff’s recognition in his own moment of a certain kind of impasse within Trotskyism and his attempt to overcome it require full consideration and appreciation both in terms of the merits of its potential and a consciousness of its limits.

A panel on the legacy of Tony Cliff opened the panel discussion at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention held in Chicago on April 4th, 2014. What follows are the opening remarks by English journalist and author James Heartfield.
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International Socialism and the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky
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I became a Trotskyist in 1933. The theory of state capitalism is a development of Trotsky’s position…But at the end of the Second World War, the perspectives that Trotsky had put forward were not realized. Trotsky wrote that one thing was certain: the Stalinist bureaucracy would not survive the war. It would either be overthrown by revolution or by counterrevolution…The assumption was that the collapse of the Stalinist bureaucracy would be a fantastic opening for the Trotskyist movement, for the Fourth International. The Stalinist bureaucracy not only didn’t collapse but it expanded…Therefore, at that time, Stalinism had a fantastic strength. And we had to come to terms with it.

— Tony Cliff, interview with
Ahmed Shawki (1997)

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Let me start by saying how grateful I am to be invited here today. I’ve been a keen watcher and reader of Platypus. It is really useful that we look critically at the thinking and reasoning of the Left because if the Left doesn’t become self-reflective, it won’t have any importance whatsoever. In my comments on the International Socialist Group, which was founded by Tony Cliff and a few others, I want to say roughly this: the best way to understand the intellectual development of Tony Cliff and of the International Socialist Group is to see it in context.

Tony Cliff was very interested in an argument about socialist organization derived from something Lenin said in the early 20th century. In the pamphlet What is to Be Done? Lenin “bent the stick,” as Tony Cliff used to say, and very forcefully made the point that the spontaneous consciousness of the working class would not go beyond trade-union consciousness and that political, theoretical reflection upon that would necessarily be, as Lenin wrote in the pamphlet, “introduced from the outside.” That argument of Lenin’s was anathema to Tony Cliff and a point he criticized; he criticized it in a 1959 book he wrote about Rosa Luxemburg and in a 1960 pamphlet on Trotsky called Party and Class.

Now this is the core of the argument. What Lenin is doing is very old-fashioned in philosophical terms in that his argument is derived from an Enlightenment view. He’s saying that in essence there is a distinction to be made between higher thought and opinion, between rational or reflective thought and immediate or natural thinking. That distinction would be commonplace amongst Enlightenment thinkers like Hegel or Locke; it would be easily understood by them.

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Did it have the sectarian implication that Cliff saw in it? I suggest not.

Lenin, like Hegel, understood that when he talked about higher thought or reflective thought or theoretical reflection, and distinguished it from the merely spontaneous reflections of people in their activity, he understood that essentially they were the same — they were the same stuff, the same substance. That reflection, that theoretical thinking, was not separate and apart wholly — it was not an absolute distinction — but it was of the same material. It was a distillation of experience, but that distillation was not something that could happen unbidden. That was the very point: it could only come about through organization; it would have to be reflected through organization. Continue reading

Stalinism and Bolshevism

Leon Trotsky
Socialist Review

(August 1937)

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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

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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”?

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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

Stalinist kitsch

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The title of this entry deserves some explanation. “Stalinist kitsch,” one might object, is a bit superfluous. Or redundant, rather. Everything is announced by simply saying “Stalinist,” after all. Doesn’t matter if it’s politics, aesthetics, whatever. It’s already assumed that it’s kitsch.

All the same, there’s plenty about Stalinism that deserves to be taken seriously. Not because it’s “right” about history or society or economics; no, nothing like that. Rather, it’s because whether we admit it or not, Stalin did seem to represent one solution (or at least stopgap) to the problem of mass society. Perhaps not a likable answer to the issues posed by modernity, but a likely one. This is something that Boris Groys, among others, has pointed out.

Moreover, though Stalin might have been more than a little lackluster as a theoretician — the primitiveness and crudity of his imagination was legendary — it’s not like he was completely ignorant. Least of all about Bolshevism and its various controversies over the years. He’d been in the party since 1903, so he was hardly a novice. And to be honest, many historians politically aligned with Stalinism wrote very rigorous, detailed accounts of their various objects of study. Though they may be a little vulgar and undertheorized at times, they’re preferable to a lot of the crap that’s published.

What’s even scarier is that those few explicitly Stalinist parties that still exist often have better politics than their soi-disant “Trotskyist” counterparts, who now operate more or less according to the logic of Stalinoid popfrontism, but without even the vague self-consciousness that Stalinists possessed. Sad times indeed.

Below are a bunch of the kitschier photos, posters, and artworks from the Stalin era. Click on any of the images to enlarge them. Furthermore, to compensate for this bit of lighthearted parody, I’m including Evtushenko’s somber 1961 poem, published in Pravda, on the “heirs of Stalin.”

The heirs of Stalin

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Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fixed bayonets.
He also was mute — his embalmed fists,
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory:
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie,
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past. Continue reading

Burying Lenin

The revolution entombed

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The Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow was first designed by the architect Aleksei Shchusev in 1924. Even outside of Russia, its image is fairly familiar: some kind of cross between geometric modernism and a primeval ziggurat. What is seldom remembered today, however, is that Shchusev had to design and redesign the building more than once. Of course, the public display of Ulianov’s corpse was originally intended to only last a few weeks.

An exceptionally cold winter (Lenin died in January) helped preserve the Bolshevik leader’s remains longer than expected. Despite Lenin’s explicit request that his body be cremated and buried next to that of his mother, the new Soviet administration began making more permanent arrangements.

Soviet architect Aleksei Shchusev

Vladimir Paperny offered a fairly memorable explanation for this fact in his book Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin. He suggested that a transition was then underway between the two dominant cultural attitudes that define Russian-Soviet history:

Culture One [Bolshevik, avant-garde culture] wanted to burn its limbs [Shklovskii (1919)], wash memory from its soul, kill its old [Maiakovskii (1915)], and eat its children — all this as an attempt to free itself from the ballast that was interfering with its surge into the future. In Culture Two [Stalinist, realist culture], the future was postponed indefinitely. The future became even more beautiful and desirable [the architect Krasin (1937)], and the movement forward was even more joyous [state prosecutor Vyshinskii (1938)], but there did not seem to be an end in sight to that movement — the movement had become an end in itself.

[Stalinism’s] movement “forward, ever forward” changed nothing: The…goal was still the same; therefore, there was no way to determine whether this was movement or rest…Movement in Culture Two became tantamount to immobility, and the future to eternity…The history of the building of the Lenin Mausoleum is a good example of how culture’s idea of the longevity…changed. In Culture One, the idea of a mausoleum evoked a temporary structure, one that was needed “in order to grant all those who wish to, and who cannot come to Moscow for the day of the funeral, a chance to bid farewell to their beloved leader.” Culture Two had no intention of bidding farewell to the beloved leader. The temporary wooden mausoleum erected in 1924 was replaced first by a more solid wooden structure [six months later], and then, in 1930, by one of stone built to last.

Clearly, the different materials implemented in the construction of each version reflect different anticipated durations. The first was to be fleeting, the second durable, the third eternal. While the second is still, like the first, only made of wood, its form already appealed to eternity. Planks and crossbeams combined into regular geometric slabs, beyond real space and time. The upper half meanwhile ascends in pyramidal fashion, evoking that same mute permanence one feels before the ancient pharaohs’ tombs.

Lenin’s memory still haunts today’s Left. Just as the post-1991 Restoration in Moscow could not bring itself to finally lay his corpse to rest, neither can the contemporary Left bring itself to discard the legacy of October 1917. Even in rejecting Lenin or Leninism — whatever this might be thought to entail, be it democratic centralism, vanguardism, totalitarianism — it is forced to confront such associations. This is to say nothing of those who seek to take up Lenin’s mantle, with all the competing interpretations and conflicting points of emphasis. Continue reading

A Soviet homage to the Great French Revolution

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Happy Bastille Day, everyone. To celebrate, here are some assorted artworks by early Soviet sculptors and painters commemorating the Great French Revolution.

We begin with two pieces from the years immediately following the October Revolution. One of these, of course, is the sculptor Nikolai Andreev’s frightening Head of Danton (1919). Less well known are the memorials to M. Robespierre (1918 & 1920) by Beatrice Sandomirskaia [Беатрисе Сандомирская] and Sarra Lebedeva.

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Still more remarkable, though from a slightly later date, is the set of illustrations by the Bolshevik artist Mikhail Sokolov depicting the principal actors and main events of the last great bourgeois revolution. These were intended as part of a volume entitled Figures of the 1789 French Revolution (1930-1934), and are reproduced below alongside some of the historical representations on which Sokolov’s work was based.

Continue reading

Young Lukács

An interview & photo gallery

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Image: Georg Lukács seated in
the darkness of his library

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From an interview conducted by the New Left Review, translated 1971:

New Left Review: How do you judge today your writings of the twenties? What is their relationship to your present work?

Georg Lukács: In the twenties, Korsch, Gramsci, and I tried in our different ways to come to grips with the problem of social necessity and the mechanistic interpretation of it that was the heritage of the Second International. We inherited this problem, but none of us — not even Gramsci, who was perhaps the best of us — solved it. We all went wrong, and today it would be quite mistaken to try and revive the works of those times as if they were valid now. In the West, there is a tendency to erect them into “classics of heresy,” but we have no need for that today. The twenties are a past epoch; it is the philosophical problems of the sixties that should concern us. I am now working on an Ontology of Social Being which I hope will solve the problems that were posed quite falsely in my earlier work, particularly History and Class Consciousness. My new work centres on the question of the relationship between necessity and freedom, or as I express it, teleology and causality.

Georg.Lukács and Béla Balázs

Georg Lukács and Béla Balázs

Traditionally, philosophers have always built systems founded on one or the other of these two poles; they have either denied necessity or denied human freedom. My aim is to show the ontological interrelation of the two, and to reject the “either-or” standpoints with which philosophy has traditionally presented man. The concept of labor is the hinge of my analysis. For labor is not biologically determined. If a lion attacks an antelope, its behavior is determined by biological need and by that alone. But if primitive man is confronted with a heap of stones, he must choose between them, by judging which will be most adaptable to his use as a tool; he selects between alternatives. The notion of alternatives is basic to the meaning of human labor, which is thus always teleological — it sets an aim, which is the result of a choice. It thus expresses human freedom. But this freedom only exists by setting in motion objective physical forces, which obey the causal laws of the material universe.

The teleology of labor is thus always co-ordinated with physical causality, and indeed the result of any individual’s labor is a moment of physical causality for the teleological orientation (Setzung) of any other individual. The belief in a teleology of nature was theology, and the belief in an immanent teleology of history was unfounded. But there is teleology in all human labor, inextricably inserted into the causality of the physical world. This position, which is the nucleus from which I am developing my present work, overcomes the classical antinomy of necessity and freedom. But I should emphasize that I am not trying to build an all-inclusive system. The title of my work — which is completed, but I am now revising the first chapters — is Zur Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins, not Ontologie des Gesellschaftlichen Seins. You will appreciate the difference. The task I am engaged on will need the collective work of many thinkers for its proper development. But I hope it will show the ontological bases for that socialism of everyday life of which I spoke. Continue reading

Stalinism’s ghost: Domenico Losurdo on civil society and the State

Symptomatic residues

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Image: Cover to the French edition of
Domenico Losurdo’s Stalin: History
and Critics of a Black Legend

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One of the points on which I take issue most with Domenico Losurdo’s interpretation of historical liberalism regards the old issue of civil society’s relationship to the state. This is, of course, a topic that should be quite familiar to anyone who’s read Hegel (or Marx’s critique of Hegel, for that matter). For Losurdo, a noted Hegel scholar, the entire debate is by now surely second nature. How this figures into the broader history of liberalism might be less clear to readers, however. This might be briefly spelled out.

In his sweeping overview of liberal thought down through the ages, Liberalism: A Counter-History, Losurdo highlights “the self-government of civil society” as one of its core organizing principles.[1] By “civil society” he is here clearly referring to the Third Estate, understood as the undifferentiated mass of commoners exempt from feudal privileges, in contradistinction to the First and Second Estates, comprised of the clergy and the nobility (respectively). The self-governance of civil society thus required the bourgeoisie’s emancipation from the rule of the ancien régime. “First with the Glorious Revolution and then later, more completely, with the American Revolution,” writes Losurdo, “the assertion of self-government by civil society hegemonized by slaveholders involved the definitive liquidation of traditional forms of ‘interference’ by political and religious authority.” Further on, with specific reference to the American context, he writes: “The conquest of self-government by civil society hegemonized by large-scale property involved an even more drastic deterioration in the condition of the indigenous population. The end of the control exercised by the London government swept away the last obstacles to the expansionistic march of the white colonists.”[2] Continue reading

Herr Naphta

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Image: A recent photo
of Herr Naphta

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“Herr Naphta” somehow manages to outdo even Herr Vogt in terms of his sheer buffoonery.

Striking the gravest pose of which such a buffoon is capable, Herr Naphta gleefully announces:

I don’t get denounced by pompous racist asshats every day, but when I do, I buy a bunch of beers and celebrate. [italics mine]

Those unfamiliar with Herr Naphta’s collected works might at first mistake this for a just a passing counter-denunciation, improvised on the spot. Looks can be deceiving, though. “Pompous racist asshats” has a precise — nay, a scientific — meaning within his sublimely banal blog of Marxist marginalia. Continue reading