Lenin lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017

Introduction:
Marxism and the challenge of
counterfactual history
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Often Marxism is caricatured as a rigidly deterministic worldview, whose stress on the inevitability of social change allows no room for individual agency. Determinism needs to be carefully differentiated from fatalism, though, “which would leave us as passive spectators of phenomena in which no direct intervention is felt possible.” Voluntarism, or “the fond hope that one can speed up processes through the force of example and self-sacrifice,” lies across from it on the political spectrum. In fatalistic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of objective factors following with mechanical necessity, whereas in voluntaristic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of subjective factors brought about “by a gigantic effort of heroism and will.” Yet “Marxian determinism does not seek a compromise halfway in between,” the Italian communist Amadeo Bordiga maintained, “but dialectically and historically rises above them both.”1 His Hungarian colleague Georg Lukács put it succinctly: “Fatalism and voluntarism only appear contradictory to an undialectical and unhistorical mind.”2

Still, the charge of determinism — in the narrow sense, as a synonym for fatalism — has proven difficult to shake. Counterfactual narratives would thus seem a good test for Marxist theory, to see whether it grants that the past might have been otherwise: What if such and such had occurred, instead of this or that? Ex post facto reasoning of this sort does not carry much weight in historical research, to be sure. Necessity is a tricky enough concept even for philosophers, let alone historians, who are taught not to speculate if other possibilities were latent in a given set of facts. “One can always play a parlor game with the might-have-beens of history,” the British chronicler of the Bolshevik Revolution, Edmund Hallett Carr, opined, “but this has nothing to do with determinism, since the determinist will simply reply that the causes had to be different for things to have been different.”3 The source of Carr’s annoyance here was more specific, however, than any general objection to counterfactuals, and concerned the example often chosen as the basis for such conjectures: namely, what the world would be like if October 1917 never took place. As Carr saw it, the conservative motive behind this choice of topic was obvious, indicating a wish to reverse the results of the Russian Revolution.4

Lately, the Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek has also explored this theme of counterfactuality. Reviewing the essay collection What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians back in 2005, he underscored “the conservative sympathies of ‘what if?’ volumes.” Does this mean that, in order to avoid being labeled a conservative, one has to subscribe to a crudely deterministic vision of the past? In such a vision, whatever ends up happening is all that ever could have happened. Žižek rejects this premise emphatically, however, associating it with the vulgar Marxism of Georgii Plekhanov, Lenin’s onetime mentor. Plekhanov argued that there was a “deeper historical necessity” at work in the transition from Jacobin Republic to Napoleonic Empire in France, beyond the individual traits of Napoleon. Yet this raises the issue of whether something similar was going on in the shift from Bolshevism to Stalinism in post-1917 Russia:

For many, the rise of Stalinism was necessary… such that without Stalin, or in the case of his premature death, another leader would have played the role: maybe even Trotsky, his great rival. But for Trotskyists, as for others (e.g., Kotkin), the role of Stalin’s contingent person was crucial: no Stalinism without Stalin. Had he suddenly disappeared from the scene in the early 1920s, things like the forced collectivization of agriculture and “the construction of socialism in one country” would never have taken place. Was the rise of Stalinism simply an accident, then? In other words, the actualization of just one of the historical possibilities lying dormant after the Bolsheviks’ victory?5

One could extend this argument further, however, pointing out that a political phenomenon like Stalinism perhaps resulted from the fact that revolution failed to spread westward, which left Russia isolated and hence vulnerable to capitalist encirclement. Minor details might have been different if someone else succeeded Lenin, but the overall effect largely the same. This begs the question of whether the fate of the Russian Revolution ultimately depended on the success or failure of the German Revolution in 1919. Adorno later mused that “[h]ad things gone otherwise here in 1919, the potential existed to influence developments in Russia and with great probability prevent Stalinism.”6 Such hypotheticals may seem an idle exercise, or an attempt to save face after the fact, but with the centenary of October 1917 approaching it is opportune to reflect. Žižek, for his part, suggests that “a properly dialectical relationship between necessity and contingency… cannot change the past causally, retroactively undoing what happened at the level of facts, yet it can do so counterfactually, retrospectively altering what happened at the level of meaning.”7

Endnotes, a communist theoretical journal located in Britain and the United States, does not indulge such second-guessing when it comes to the history of failed revolutions. “When we address the question of these failures, we cannot resort to ‘what if’ counterfactuals,” the authors indicate in their inaugural issue, “blaming the defeat of revolutionary movements on everything (bad leaders, inadequate organization, wrong ideas, unripe conditions) other than the movements themselves in their determinate content.”8 But if their defeat was somehow preordained — written in the stars or the historic constellation of forces, as it were — then it is futile to do more than just report the facts. These movements failed because they were bound to fail. Nothing could have been different, so it is impossible to assign responsibility to anyone involved. Interpretations which see failure as the consequence of “betrayal,” “loss of nerve,” or even “miscalculation” are no doubt dissatisfying. Precisely because revolutionaries aspire to historical agency, however, seeking to make history rather than simply be made by history, they must be held accountable for their failings. For this very reason, moreover, one finds them preoccupied with the judgment of posterity, which leads to one of Žižek’s more ingenious reversals:

Seeing as the non-occurrence of the Bolshevik Revolution is a favorite topic for all the “what if?” historians, it is worth looking at how Lenin himself related to counterfactuality. He was as far as could be from any reliance on “historical necessity.” Quite the contrary, his Menshevik opponents were the ones who emphasized the impossibility of omitting one of the “stages” prescribed by historical determinism: first bourgeois-democratic, then proletarian revolution. And so when Lenin claimed this was the Augenblick in his “April Theses” of 1917 — i.e., the unique opportunity to start a revolution — his proposal was at first met with contempt and stupefaction from a large majority of his colleagues. Yet he understood that this chance had been made possible by a variety of circumstances, and that the propitious moment might be forfeited if it was not seized, perhaps for decades. Lenin entertained the alternative scenario: What if we do not act now? It was his acute awareness of the catastrophic consequences of not acting which impelled him to act.9

Žižek forgets, though, that the negative impulsion to act in this example is just another form of historical necessity, what Marx referred to as “absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of theoretical necessity.”10 This counterfactual injunction is likely what Lukács had in mind when he claimed in 1919: “Lenin and Trotsky, as truly orthodox, dialectical Marxists, paid little attention to so-called ‘facts,’ blind to the ‘fact’ the Germans had won, and secured for themselves the military means to march into Petrograd at any time, occupy Ukraine, and so on. Because they grasped the necessary materialization of world revolution, they adjusted their actions to this reality, not the ‘facts’.”11 Marxists regard freedom as insight [Einsicht] into necessity, following Hegel and Spinoza, an accurate appraisal of what must be done in order to liberate mankind.

Gregor Baszak’s short review of the 2017 alternative history Lenin Lives!, by Philip Cuncliffe, follows the notes to this introduction. I am told that Cuncliffe thanks me in the acknowledgments, which is rather unexpected and frankly humbling. Either way, I hope to pick up a copy soon.

Introductory notes


1 Amadeo Bordiga. “The Lyons Theses: Draft Theses for the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Italy.” L’Unità. (January 1926). Translator not listed.
2 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (second version). Translated by Rodney Livingstone. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1973). Pg. 4.
3 E.H. Carr. What is History? (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 97.
4 “Last term here in Cambridge I saw a talk advertised under the title ‘Was the Russian Revolution Inevitable?’ If I had seen a talk advertised on ‘Were the Wars of the Roses Inevitable?’, though, I’d at once have suspected some joke. Historians write of the Norman Conquest or American War of Independence as if what happened was in fact bound to happen. Nobody accuses them of being determinists or of failing to discuss the possibility that William the Conqueror or the American patriots might have been defeated. Whenever I write about the Russian Revolution of 1917 in precisely this way, however — the only proper way, for the historian — I come under attack for depicting what happened as something bound to happen, and for failing to examine the other things which might have happened. Suppose Stolypin had time to finish his agrarian reforms, it is said, or Russia had not gone to war. Perhaps the revolution would not have occurred. Or suppose the Kerensky government had made good, and leadership of the revolution assumed by the Mensheviks or Social Revolutionaries instead of the Bolsheviks… The point here is that today no one seriously wishes to reverse the results of the Norman Conquest or American Independence, so nobody objects whenever historians treat them as a closed chapter. But plenty of people who have suffered, directly or vicariously, from the results of the Bolshevik victory, or still fear its remoter consequences, desire to register their protest against it.” Ibid., pgs. 96-97.
5 See the section “Counterfactuals,” in Slavoj Žižek. Disparities. (Bloomsbury Academic Publishers. New York, NY: 2016). Pgs. 277-281.
6 Theodor W. Adorno. “Those Twenties.” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchphrases. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1998). Pg. 43.
7 Žižek, Disparities. Pg. 278. This is a better formulation than appears elsewhere in the book, where he tries to describe this relationship as “a contingent choice which retroactively becomes necessary,” coming dangerously close Lenin’s warning against dialectical “zigzags” or retroactive justifications.
8 Endnotes. “Bring Out Your Dead.” Volume 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century. (London, England: 2008). Pg. 4.
9 Slavoj Žižek. “Lenin Shot at Finland Station! Review of What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians.” London Review of Books. (Volume 27, № 16: August 2005). Pg. 23.
10 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer. Translated by Clemens Dutt and Richard Dixon. Collected Works, Volume 4: August 1844-late Autumn 1845. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 37.
11 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (first version). Translated by Michael McColgan, in Tactics and Ethics: The Question of Parliamentarism and Other Essays. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2014). Pg. 26.

Gregor Baszak
Platypus Review
November 2017
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Book Review:
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Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining
the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017.
Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2017.

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When President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord on June 1, 2017, for many liberals it meant that doom was upon us, that the earth was surely soon to be uninhabitable. Yet, if the Paris Accord was the best shot that our civilization had at survival, we were perhaps doomed from the start. NASA scientist James Hansen, at least, one of the earliest voices to raise the alarms about the effects of climate change, had deemed the Accord to be thoroughly inadequate to begin with.1

Here’s an alternative way in which the year 2017 might have unfolded:

It is an unseasonably warm November 2017 in Leningrad, although within planned temperature ranges. There is discussion among atmospheric engineers and climate planners whether to make minor adjustments to the cloud systems they are responsible for in order to reflect more sunlight away from the northern hemisphere, or whether to accelerate the construction of orbiting Lagrange space mirrors intended for longer term climate control.2

In this scenario, climate change is understood to be an administrative problem, albeit one that is administered by “climate planners” who consciously choose to set earth’s thermometer at a specific temperature range.

In the real world of today, Leningrad is St. Petersburg, Russia is governed by a neoliberal autocrat, and earth’s climate is out of control. The counterfactual history envisioned above was penned by Philip Cunliffe, author of the new book Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017, published by Zero Books. As the title suggests, the book imagines an alternative history of the twentieth century, one in which the October Revolution was soon followed by successful revolutions in the capitalist centers of the West, in England, France, Germany, and — the big prize — the United States.

Writing counterfactual history, Cunliffe notes, has so far been the domain of conservative revisionists. In one such infamous counterfactual, for example, Winston Churchill envisioned his dream scenario — the glorious ascendancy of a racialized Anglo-Saxon global empire, had Robert E. Lee only won the battle of Gettysburg (85). Yet, as Cunliffe usefully points out, the notion of “what if” appears to have been inscribed into the very project of Bolshevism itself, a project “self-consciously predicated on counterfactuals” (20; italics in the original). What, in other words, if Lenin’s plan that a revolution in Russia would provide the spark that would light the flames of revolution in Germany and elsewhere had actually succeeded? Lenin didn’t know quite what would happen in the wake of the October Revolution, but it was a gamble worth making. Human freedom required it.

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“Last illusions”: The Labour Party and the Left

Efraim Car­le­bach
Platy­pus Re­view
№ 97
, June 2017
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In every era the at­tempt must be made anew to wrest tra­di­tion away from a con­form­ism that is about to over­power it… even the dead will not be safe from the en­emy if he wins. And this en­emy has not ceased to be vic­tori­ous.

— Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Theses on the Philo­sophy of His­tory

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Since Jeremy Corbyn took lead­er­ship of the La­bour Party in 2015, he and his party have been the North Star for many on the Left. This re­ori­ent­a­tion has raised old ques­tions about the Left’s re­la­tion­ship to the La­bour Party. At the Ox­ford Rad­ic­al For­um in March the de­scrip­tion for a pan­el on “Corbyn, La­bour, and the Rad­ic­al Left” put for­ward a num­ber of symp­to­mat­ic pro­pos­i­tions. It re­gistered the fact that “sev­er­al so­cial­ist tend­en­cies which had pre­vi­ously cam­paigned against the party now com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing it un­der Corbyn’s lead­er­ship” and that Corbyn’s elec­tion to lead­er “was largely viewed as a mo­ment of tri­umph for the far left.” But what is the Left? And what would mean for it to tri­umph? It sug­ges­ted that the Left has “a great­er de­gree of in­flu­ence in party polit­ics than it has for dec­ades.” But what is a polit­ic­al party for the Left? The de­scrip­tion wor­ries about what will hap­pen if Corbyn loses in a gen­er­al elec­tion. The hopes for trans­form­ing the La­bour Party seem in danger. Ral­ph Miliband is un­con­sciously in­voked: Should the left “pur­sue so­cial­ism” by “par­lia­ment­ary” or “non-par­lia­ment­ary” means? Solace is taken in the thought that the La­bour Party is “clearly more so­cial­ist than any since 1983 — and per­haps even earli­er.”1 But what is so­cial­ism?

As the Left, in vari­ous ways, rushes to em­brace La­bour, the his­tory of the La­bour Party rises up be­hind it. This art­icle relates that his­tory to the his­tory of Marx­ism from 1848 to WWI, par­tic­u­larly the “re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute.” On the ru­ins of that his­tory ap­pears the ap­par­ent pleth­ora of “Left” ori­ent­a­tions to La­bour today.

Bona­partism and re­form­ism

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In their re­spect­ive cri­ti­cisms of re­vi­sion­ism in the re­vi­sion­ist dis­pute with­in the Second In­ter­na­tion­al, Lux­em­burg and Len­in ar­gued that the re­vi­sion­ists had re­gressed to pre-Marxi­an so­cial­ism, to lib­er­al­ism and petit-bour­geois demo­cracy, li­quid­at­ing the need for so­cial­ist lead­er­ship. Len­in and Lux­em­burg sought to ad­vance bey­ond the im­passe by re­turn­ing to the high point of con­scious­ness in Marx’s re­cog­ni­tion of the les­sons of the failed re­volu­tions of 1848. Un­like the re­vi­sion­ists they did not have a lin­ear-pro­gress­ive view of his­tory. The 1848 re­volu­tions failed to de­liv­er the “so­cial re­pub­lic.” As Marx wrote, the bour­geois­ie were no longer able to rule and the pro­let­ari­at not yet ready.2 The state had to in­ter­vene to man­age the self-con­tra­dic­tion of bour­geois so­ci­ety, that is, cap­it­al­ism. Louis Bona­parte filled this va­cu­um of power by ap­peal­ing for sup­port to the dis­con­tents of all classes in so­ci­ety and ex­pand­ing state in­sti­tu­tions of wel­fare and po­lice as tools for con­trolling con­tra­dic­tions in so­ci­ety. So Bona­partism led the dis­con­tents of the masses to polit­ic­ally re­con­sti­t­ute cap­it­al through the state. This was an in­ter­na­tion­al phe­nomen­on, af­fect­ing all the ma­jor cap­it­al­ist coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United King­dom. For Marx, the les­son of 1848 was the ne­ces­sity of the polit­ic­al in­de­pend­ence of the work­ing class from petit-bour­geois demo­cracy, or the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at. In the ab­sence of this in­de­pend­ent polit­ic­al lead­er­ship, the masses would be led by the right, as they were by Louis Bona­parte.

In Re­form or Re­volu­tion, Lux­em­burg ar­gues that so­cial re­forms do not so­cial­ize pro­duc­tion, lead­ing piece­meal to so­cial­ism, but so­cial­ize the crisis of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion. The work­ers’ bour­geois de­mands for work and justice needed a pro­let­ari­an party for so­cial­ism to “achieve the con­scious­ness of the need to over­come la­bour as a com­mod­ity, to make the ‘ob­ject­ive’ eco­nom­ic con­tra­dic­tion, a ‘sub­ject­ive’ phe­nomen­on of polit­ics3 — “to take its his­tory in­to its own hands.”4 In Len­in’s terms, the re­vi­sion­ists’ “tail­ing” of trade uni­on con­scious­ness dis­solved the goal in­to the move­ment, li­quid­ated the need for the polit­ic­al party for so­cial­ism.

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Society, totality, and history

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Dia­lectics elude straight­for­ward defin­i­tion. No doubt it is easi­er to say what dia­lectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdin­and Las­salle, Marx re­marked in a let­ter to En­gels that “Hegel nev­er de­scribed as dia­lectics the sub­sump­tion of vast num­bers of ‘cases’ un­der a gen­er­al prin­ciple,” and there­fore con­cluded that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od is wrongly ap­plied.”1 Vladi­mir Len­in like­wise poin­ted out that Geor­gii Plekhan­ov, the founder of Rus­si­an Marx­ism, erred in treat­ing dia­lectics as “the sum-total of ex­amples,” a mis­take from which even En­gels was not fully ex­empt.2

Still less is dia­lectics re­du­cible to an ab­stract for­mula or ste­reo­typed pro­ced­ure of thes­is-an­ti­thes­is-syn­thes­is. James re­garded this series as “a ru­in­ous sim­pli­fic­a­tion” in his 1948 Notes on Dia­lectics,3 while Len­in fol­lowed Hegel in con­sid­er­ing “the ‘tripli­city’ of dia­lectics… [as] its ex­tern­al, su­per­fi­cial side.”4 In sim­il­ar fash­ion, the Frank­furt School the­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno re­called that “Hegel ex­pressed the most cut­ting ob­jec­tions to the claptrap tripli­city of thes­is, an­ti­thes­is, and syn­thes­is as a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al schema.”5 Early in his ca­reer, Len­in up­braided the pop­u­list Nikolai Mikhail­ovsky for his fatu­ous por­tray­al of the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic as some sort of par­lor trick which “proves” cap­it­al­ism must col­lapse. “Marx’s dia­lect­ic­al meth­od does not con­sist in tri­ads at all,” ex­plained Len­in in 1894, “but pre­cisely in the re­jec­tion of ideal­ism and sub­ject­iv­ism in so­ci­ology.”6

How can this meth­od be re­tained in so­ci­ology, however, while at the same time get­ting rid of its ideal­ist residues? Ob­vi­ously, if the dia­lectic is to be any­thing more than a sub­ject­ive ad­di­tion, an ar­bit­rary “way of think­ing” about the world, its lo­gic has to be dis­covered in the ob­ject (i.e., so­ci­ety) it­self. The ma­ter­i­al­ist in­ver­sion of Hegel’s dia­lectic can only be jus­ti­fied if its con­tours ap­pear at the level of so­cial real­ity. “Dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing is noth­ing but the con­cep­tu­al form of a real dia­lect­ic­al fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 mono­graph Len­in: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ con­tem­por­ary, the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion­ary Le­on Trot­sky, main­tained that the meth­od should not be ap­plied to just any sphere of know­ledge “like an ever-ready mas­ter key,” since “dia­lectics can­not be im­posed upon facts, but must be de­duced from their char­ac­ter and de­vel­op­ment.”8 Re­flect­ing on his con­ver­sion to Marx­ism, Trot­sky wrote that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od re­vealed it­self for the first time, not as an ab­stract defin­i­tion, but as a liv­ing spring found in the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess.”9

Trot­sky’s meta­phor of the spring re­curs fre­quently in his art­icles and speeches. “Marx­ism without the dia­lectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later de­clared.10 Wound tightly in­to the shape of a spir­al, the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic simply mir­rors the dy­nam­ic ten­sion of cap­it­al­ism it­self. “Cycles ex­plain a great deal,” Trot­sky main­tained in 1923, “form­ing through auto­mat­ic pulsa­tion an in­dis­pens­able dia­lect­ic­al spring in the mech­an­ism of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”11 Earli­er in the year he stressed that an ad­equate so­ci­olo­gic­al ac­count must be both strong and flex­ible, since “dia­lect­ic­al thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12

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David Riazanov and the tragic fate of Isaak Rubin

Re­portedly, the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion­ary and pi­on­eer­ing Marx­o­lo­gist Dav­id Riazan­ov once in­sul­ted Stal­in to his face at a party meet­ing held dur­ing the mid-1920s. At the time, the ma­jor top­ic of de­bate was over the feas­ib­il­ity of so­cial­ism ab­sent a re­volu­tion in the West. In the years that fol­lowed Oc­to­ber 1917 the fledgling So­viet re­gime had sur­vived bru­tal win­ters, food short­ages, and an in­ter­na­tion­al block­ade while fight­ing off a bloody do­mest­ic coun­ter­re­volu­tion staged by dis­par­ate ele­ments of the old re­gime (the Whites) with the sup­port of for­eign powers (the Al­lied In­ter­ven­tion). The civil war was over, but re­volu­tion had else­where stalled out as the USSR’s bor­ders sta­bil­ized: the European pro­let­ari­at failed to over­throw the crisis-rid­den bour­geois gov­ern­ments of France, Ger­many, Eng­land, Aus­tria, and a host of oth­er na­tions. Now the ques­tion on every­one’s mind where the Bolshev­iks should go from there. Could so­cial­ism could be es­tab­lished in one (re­l­at­ively back­wards) na­tion?

Bukhar­in was the chief ar­chi­tect of the pro­gram for those who af­firmed that it could. His days as a left com­mun­ist be­hind him, Nikolai Ivan­ovich had mean­while suc­cumbed to prag­mat­ism and un­ima­gin­at­ive Real­politik. Mar­ket re­forms put in place by Len­in un­der the New Eco­nom­ic Policy after 1921 were to be con­tin­ued, and the trans­ition to “a high­er stage of com­mun­ist so­ci­ety” delayed, but its achieve­ment no longer de­pended on the spread of world re­volu­tion. Eager to make a name for him­self as a lead­ing the­or­eti­cian, Stal­in in­ter­jec­ted with some com­ments of his own. “Stop it, Koba,” Riazan­ov acerbically replied. “You’re mak­ing a fool of your­self. We all know the­ory isn’t ex­actly your strong suit.” Little won­der, then, that Stal­in would later want Riazan­ov’s head on a plat­ter; he’d in­flic­ted a deep nar­ciss­ist­ic wound. For as Trot­sky would later point out, in a two-part art­icle mock­ing “Stal­in as a The­or­eti­cian,” noth­ing was more im­port­ant to the Gen­er­al Sec­ret­ary than to be re­garded as well-versed in the sci­ence of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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Marx and Engels on Karl Kautsky

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That Vladi­mir Len­in and his fel­low re­volu­tion­ar­ies of 1917 con­sidered the So­cial-Demo­crat­ic lead­er Karl Kaut­sky a ped­ant and a phil­istine is well known. Len­in pin­pointed the reas­on for Kaut­sky’s post-1914 reneg­acy in his di­lu­tion of Marxi­an dia­lectics. “How is this mon­strous dis­tor­tion of Marx­ism by the ped­ant Kaut­sky to be ex­plained…??” the Bolshev­ik asked rhet­or­ic­ally in a sec­tion of his 1918 po­lem­ic, The Pro­let­ari­an Re­volu­tion and the Reneg­ade Kaut­sky, “How Kaut­sky Turned Marx in­to a Com­mon Lib­er­al.” “As far as the philo­soph­ic­al roots of this phe­nomen­on are con­cerned,” he answered, “it amounts to the sub­sti­tu­tion of ec­lecticism and soph­istry for dia­lectics.” In an­oth­er chapter, Len­in ac­cused Kaut­sky of “pur­su­ing a char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally petty-bour­geois, phil­istine policy [ти­пич­но ме­щан­скую, фи­лис­тер­скую по­ли­ти­ку]” by back­ing the Men­shev­iks. Need­less to say, Len­in’s im­mense re­spect for the so-called “Pope of Marx­ism” be­fore the war had all but evap­or­ated.

What is less well known, however, is that Karl Marx and Friedrich En­gels shared this ap­prais­al of Kaut­sky. But this would only be re­vealed in 1932, sev­er­al years after Len­in’s death, in ex­tracts pub­lished from their cor­res­pond­ence. En­gels con­fided to Eduard Bern­stein in Au­gust 1881 that “Kaut­sky is an ex­cep­tion­ally good chap, but a born ped­ant and hair­split­ter in whose hands com­plex ques­tions are not made simple, but simple ones com­plex.” Marx, for his part, sus­pec­ted that En­gels’ fond­ness of Kaut­sky was due to his ca­pa­city to con­sume al­co­hol, as he re­cor­ded in a note to his daugh­ter Jenny Longuet from April that same year:

[Jo­hann Most, grand­fath­er of le­gendary Bo­ston Celt­ics an­noun­cer Johnny Most,] has found a kindred spir­it in Kaut­sky, on whom he had frowned so grimly; even En­gels takes a much more tol­er­ant view of this joker [Kautz, pun­ning on Kautz-ky] since the lat­ter gave proof of his con­sid­er­able drink­ing abil­ity. When the charm­er — the little joker [Kautz], I mean — first came to see me, the first ques­tion that rose to my lips was: Are you like your moth­er? “Not in the least!” he ex­claimed, and si­lently I con­grat­u­lated his moth­er. He’s a me­diocrity, nar­row in his out­look, over-wise (only 26 years old), and a know-it-all, al­though hard-work­ing after a fash­ion, much con­cerned with stat­ist­ics out of which, however, he makes little sense. By nature he’s a mem­ber of the phil­istine tribe. For the rest, a de­cent fel­low in his own way; I un­load him onto amigo En­gels as much as I can.

Le­on Trot­sky was caught off-guard by the ca­su­istry Kaut­sky dis­played after 1914, re­mem­ber­ing the praise he had showered on the Rus­si­an work­ers’ move­ment a dec­ade or so earli­er. “Kaut­sky’s re­ac­tion­ary-pedant­ic cri­ti­cism [пе­дант­ски-ре­ак­ци­он­ная кри­ти­ка Ка­ут­ско­го] must have come the more un­ex­pec­tedly to those com­rades who’d gone through the peri­od of the first Rus­si­an re­volu­tion with their eyes open and read Kaut­sky’s art­icles of 1905-1906,” de­clared Trot­sky in his pre­face to the 1919 re­is­sue of Res­ults and Pro­spects (1906). “At that time Kaut­sky (true, not without the be­ne­fi­cial in­flu­ence of Rosa Lux­em­burg) fully un­der­stood and ac­know­ledged that the Rus­si­an re­volu­tion could not ter­min­ate in a bour­geois-demo­crat­ic re­pub­lic but must in­ev­it­ably lead to pro­let­ari­an dic­tat­or­ship, be­cause of the level at­tained by the class struggle in the coun­try it­self and be­cause of the en­tire in­ter­na­tion­al situ­ation of cap­it­al­ism… For dec­ades Kaut­sky de­veloped and up­held the ideas of so­cial re­volu­tion. Now that it has be­come real­ity, Kaut­sky re­treats be­fore it in ter­ror. He is hor­ri­fied at Rus­si­an So­viet power and thus takes up a hos­tile at­ti­tude to­wards the mighty move­ment of the Ger­man com­mun­ist pro­let­ari­at.”

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Henri Lefebvre and Marxism: A view from the Frankfurt School

Le­fe­b­vre and con­tem­por­ary
in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx

Al­fred Schmidt
Frankfurt, 1968

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In re­cent years the lit­er­at­ure that has ap­peared about, for, and against Marx and Marx­ism has in­creased to the point where it can hardly be sur­veyed. Yet it would be false to con­clude that the de­bate over mat­ters of con­tent has been ad­vanced. To the ex­tent that this lit­er­at­ure does not speak the lan­guage of the Cold War and at­tempt to es­tab­lish a du­bi­ous “counter-ideo­logy,” it pro­duces (as polit­ic­al sci­ence or Krem­lino­logy) works full of in­form­a­tion con­cern­ing the state of So­viet Marx­ist doc­trines in terms of their de­pend­ence on cur­rent polit­ic­al trends. To the ex­tent that Marxi­an the­ory it­self still enters its field of vis­ion, it is dulled by the fact that people (gen­er­ally fol­low­ing Karl Löwith) clas­si­fy it in the his­tor­ic­al tra­di­tion of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, or else re­duce it to an ahis­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of the prob­lem­at­ic of ali­en­a­tion in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts.

On the oth­er hand, the group of au­thors hon­estly in­ter­ested in the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of Marxi­an the­ory is ex­cep­tion­ally small. They are able to ab­stract from what still fre­quently passes for Marx­ism in the East­ern half of the world without deny­ing the ob­ject­ive sig­ni­fic­ance of the East-West con­flict for their thought. They have in­volved them­selves in­tens­ively with texts of Hegel and Marx, which by no means have fi­nally been dis­posed of, without fall­ing in­to the hair-split­ting on­to­logy — with its con­sec­rated body of quo­ta­tions — that is typ­ic­al for the post-Sta­lin­ist peri­od in So­viet philo­sophy. To this group be­longs Henri Le­fe­b­vre (who has re­cently be­come known in Ger­many through his acute ana­lys­is of Sta­lin­ism).1 His writ­ings are in­dis­pens­able to those who aim at an ad­equate (and there­fore crit­ic­al) un­der­stand­ing of Marx with­in the lim­its of the al­tern­at­ives that have been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the polit­ic­al arena: either call­ing dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism a “wa­ter­tight world­view” (Robert Mu­sil) or dis­miss­ing it out of hand as a product of the dis­cred­ited nine­teenth cen­tury.

If a pub­lish­er has de­cided to bring out an edi­tion of Le ma­té­ria­lisme dia­lec­tique,2 a work that ap­peared over three dec­ades ago, it is be­cause it has scarcely lost its ac­tu­al­ity — aside from a few points that needed cor­rec­tion. The philo­soph­ic­al dis­cus­sion of Marx­ism that began dir­ectly after the First World War with Ernst Bloch’s Spir­it of Uto­pia and Georg Lukács’ His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, and was es­pe­cially furthered by Karl Korsch, Her­bert Mar­cuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Ad­orno, broke off with Hitler’s seizure of power. There­fore, works on Marx from that peri­od, as well as those writ­ten in west­ern Europe in the late thirties, are still of great im­port­ance to us: not least be­cause those works ap­proached prob­lems in a way far more polit­ic­al and closer to real­ity than was pos­sible for the new West Ger­man at­tempts at an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx after 1945, which re­mained more or less aca­dem­ic. These were all es­sen­tially centered on the “young Marx” in whom the au­thors (Thi­er, Po­pitz, Fromm) wanted to see an “ex­ist­en­tial thinker.”

Since Le­fe­b­vre’s book also seems at first glance to be­long to the ex­ist­ence-philo­soph­ic­al, mor­al­iz­ing, and ab­stract an­thro­po­lo­gic­al school of in­ter­pret­a­tion, it seems ne­ces­sary to make the read­er some­what more con­vers­ant with Le­fe­b­vre’s in­tel­lec­tu­al de­vel­op­ment.3 Only on that basis can the cent­ral concept of “ali­en­a­tion” in his Dia­lect­ic­al Ma­ter­i­al­ism be un­der­stood and dif­fer­en­ti­ated from in­ter­pret­a­tions us­ing this concept in a sense al­most ex­actly op­posed to the Marxi­an one.

First, some dates in pre-World War II French philo­sophy. About the year 1930, the philo­soph­ic­al as­pect of Marx­ism began to arouse in­terest in France. At the same time, a broad gen­er­al re­ceptiv­ity to­ward Hegel, in­ter­woven with at­ti­tudes to­ward Kierkegaard, was an­nounced by Jean Wahl’s book, Le mal­heur de la con­science dans la phi­lo­soph­ie de He­gel. Wahl is in­clined to re­duce the rich­ness of Hegel’s work to the stage of the “un­happy con­scious­ness.” With this em­phas­is on the ro­mantic mo­ment in Hegel, it be­comes al­most im­possible to sep­ar­ate Hegel and Kierkegaard. Sub­sequently, the ap­pro­pri­ation of the ideal­ist dia­lectic is par­alleled by an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx’s early writ­ings in the light of Heide­g­ger’s Be­ing and Time. This pro­cess led to the birth of the French vari­ety of ex­ist­en­tial on­to­logy: to ex­ist­en­tial­ism. It was com­pleted between 1933 and 1938, years in which Al­ex­an­dre Kojève gave his now fam­ous lec­tures on the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Spir­it4 at the Ecole des Hautes Et­udes be­fore stu­dents such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Mer­leau-Ponty, Ray­mond Aron, and R. P. Fes­sard. These lec­tures fol­low the same ques­tion­able lines as Wahl and see ac­cess to Hegel’s en­tire oeuvre in a single level of con­scious­ness. With Kojève, it is the much-com­men­ted-on chapter “De­pend­ence and In­de­pend­ence of Self-Con­scious­ness: Lord­ship and Bond­age.” Al­though he wants his in­ter­pret­a­tion of Hegel to be con­sidered “Marx­ist,” he does not fo­cus on Marx’s ma­ter­i­al­ist “in­ver­sion” of the dia­lectic. Rather, as Fetscher em­phas­izes, Kojève already sees in the phe­nomen­o­lo­gic­al dia­lectic it­self “all the ul­ti­mate con­sequences of the Marx­ist philo­sophy of his­tory.”5 Thus “mo­tifs of thought” that first arose from Marx’s cri­tique of Hegel are ascribed to Hegel. But even Marx’s po­s­i­tion is not done justice, since Kojève lags be­hind his claim that one should el­ev­ate one­self to real his­tory, that is, to the con­crete forms of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, which are de­term­ined dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent mo­ments in time. In­stead, he is sat­is­fied with the sterile defin­i­tion of a Heide­g­geri­an “his­tor­icity of ex­ist­ence” that is sup­posedly present in the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Mind as an “ex­ist­en­tial”6 and rad­ic­ally “fi­nite”7 an­thro­po­logy. Ac­cord­ing to Kojève, the an­thro­po­lo­gic­al char­ac­ter of Hegel­i­an thought be­comes un­der­stand­able only on the basis of Heide­g­ger’s em­phas­is on “on­to­lo­gic­al fi­nitude,” al­though the an­thro­po­logy of Be­ing and Time (which Kojève as­serts in op­pos­i­tion to Heide­g­ger’s in­ten­tion) adds noth­ing new to that de­veloped by Hegel.

The sup­posedly broad­er “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al-on­to­lo­gic­al basis”8 with which Kojève wants to dote dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism is more li­able to re­duce it to a doc­trine of in­vari­able struc­tures. Not the least of the ways that this would de­vel­op is in strictly polit­ic­al terms. In­so­far as Kojève breaks the struc­tur­al ele­ments of the Mas­ter-Slave dia­lectic away from its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al back­ground (which must al­ways be thought of with it), he in­flates labor and the struggle for life and death in­to etern­al factors, à la so­cial Dar­win­ism. Stripped of every con­crete de­term­in­a­tion, man ap­pears as an es­sence “which is al­ways con­scious of his death, of­ten freely as­sumes it and some­times know­ingly and freely chooses it”; Hegel’s “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al philo­sophy” is viewed as “ul­ti­mately one… of death.”9 Ana­chron­ist­ic­ally, and thus in a way that fals­i­fies Hegel, Kojève equates the struggle for “re­cog­ni­tion” with a “fight for pure prestige.”10 Hu­man es­sence and know­ledge con­sti­tutes it­self with a de­cided “risk” of life. It is as if “self-con­scious ex­ist­ence is pos­sible only where there are or — at least — where there have been bloody fights, wars for prestige.”11 On the oth­er hand, it mat­ters little that he ab­stractly holds firm to the idea of the “realm of free­dom” that Hegel an­ti­cip­ated and that has to be real­ized by Marx­ism.12 It is a re­con­ciled con­di­tion that does not oc­cupy a situ­ation, in which neg­at­iv­ity (time and ac­tion in their present mean­ings) ceases, as do philo­sophy, re­volu­tions and wars as well: his “polit­ic­al-ex­ist­en­tial” an­thro­po­logy sharpened by “de­cision­ism” bears fas­cist­oid traces.13 If one starts from the premise that the Hegel and Marx ex­eges­is out­lined here was dom­in­ant in the France of the thirties, it be­comes clear that Le­fe­b­vre, even with all the un­avoid­able con­ces­sions to the spir­it of the times, took a path all his own. Op­posed to every on­to­logy, to the late-bour­geois as well as to the Sta­lin­ist ones, he de­veloped him­self in­to a crit­ic­al Marx­ist whose stand­ards grew out of a ma­ter­i­al­ist ana­lys­is of the course of his­tory. His aca­dem­ic teach­ers were hardly ap­pro­pri­ate to lead his thought in this dir­ec­tion. In Aix-en-Provence he stud­ied Au­gustine and Pas­cal14 with the lib­er­al Cath­ol­ic Maurice Blondel, and at the Sor­bonne he worked with Léon Brun­schvig, the “in­tel­lec­tu­al­iste” philo­soph­er of judg­ment who was an en­emy of every dia­lectic. What made Le­fe­b­vre (by no means without con­flict) turn to Marx­ism had little to do with uni­versity philo­sophy. It was the polit­ic­al and so­cial up­heavals of the post­war peri­od, and more par­tic­u­larly per­son­al prob­lems, psy­cho­ana­lys­is, and as­so­ci­ation with the lit­er­ary and artist­ic av­ant-garde, the sur­real­ist move­ment.15 Lastly, it was the sus­pi­cion, which turned in­to a firm con­vic­tion, that philo­sophy as it had been handed down to us had demon­strated that it in­creas­ingly was less able to come to grips with, not to men­tion mas­ter, the prob­lems posed by the his­tor­ic­al situ­ation of be­ing and con­scious­ness in so­ci­ety. At this point, the call of Marx and En­gels, in their early writ­ings, for the “neg­a­tion” of philo­sophy and the turn to­ward a prax­is “which would real­ize philo­soph­ic­al in­sight,” seemed to of­fer it­self to him. A pos­sib­il­ity seemed to open up, not only of more or less ar­tic­u­lately mir­ror­ing the frag­ment­a­tion de­vel­op­ing in mod­ern ex­ist­ence — the way it happened in ir­ra­tion­alist ideo­lo­gies — but of grasp­ing it con­cretely, that is, as something which could be tran­scen­ded.

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Capital as subject and the existence of labor

kupka-egalite-4 kupka-fraternite-4

Werner Bonefeld
Open Marxism
Volume 3, 1995
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Editorial note
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Been reading furiously through the Theories of Surplus Value and the 1863 manuscripts on the relation of “subject” and “object” in Marx’s later writings. My hunch is that Postone is right in his reversal of Lukács, who had the proletariat as the simultaneous subject-object of History. For Postone, it’s capital that is the simultaneous subject-object of History. The thing is, they’re both right. And I’m not saying this just so as not to pick a side, though I think ultimately it’s Lukács who gets the better of Postone (at the precise moment the latter seems to have the upper hand).

Living labor or variable capital — i.e., the proletariat as the embodiment of wage-labor — is the subjective factor in production. Dead labor or constant capital — i.e., the bourgeoisie, or rather the means of production they own, as the embodiment of capital — is the objective factor in production. Early in Capital, Marx identifies the vitality of labor-power as “the subjective factor of the labor process,” and goes on to state that “the same elements of capital which, from the perspective of the labor process, can be distinguished respectively as the objective and subjective factors, as means of production and labor-power, can be distinguished from the perspective of the valorization process as constant and variable capital.”

 However, under capitalism these roles appear reversed: the products rule over their producers. Consider a couple passages from the 1863 manuscripts. First,

Objectified, past labor… becomes the sovereign of living, present labor. The relation of subject and object is inverted. If already in the presupposition the objective conditions for the realization of the worker’s labor capacity and therefore for actual labor appear to the worker as alien, independent powers, which relate to living labor rather as the conditions of their own preservation and increase — the tool, the material [of labor] and the means of subsistence only giving themselves up to labor in order to absorb more of it — this inversion is still more pronounced in the result. In both directions, therefore, the objective conditions of labor are the result of labor itself, they are its own objectification, and it is its own objectification, labor itself as its result, that confronts labor as an alien power, as an independent power; while labor confronts the latter again and again in the same objectlessness, as mere labor capacity.

[Die vergegenständlichte, vergangene Arbeit wird so zum Herrscher über die lebendige, gegenwärtige Arbeit. Das Verhältnis von Subjekt und Objekt wird verkehrt. Wenn in der Voraussetzung schon dem Arbeiter die gegenständlichen Bedingungen zur Verwirklichung seines Arbeitsvermögens und daher zur wirklichen Arbeit als fremde, selbständige Mächte gegenüber erscheinen, die sich vielmehr zur lebendigen Arbeit als die Bedingungen ihrer eignen Erhaltung und Vermehrung verhalten — Werkzeug, Material, Lebensmittel, die sich nur an die Arbeit hingeben, um in sich selbst mehr Arbeit einzusaugen —, so erscheint dieselbe Verkehrung noch mehr im Resultat. Die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit sind selbst Produkte der Arbeit und, soweit sie von der Seite des Tauschwerts betrachtet werden, nichts als Arbeitszeit in gegenständlicher Form. Nach beiden Seiten hin sind also die gegenständlichen Bedingungen der Arbeit Resultat der Arbeit selbst, ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, und es ist diese ihre eigne Vergegenständlichung, sie selbst als ihr Resultat, die ihr als fremde Macht, als selbständige Macht, gegenübertritt und der gegenüber sie immer wieder in derselben Gegenstandslosigkeit, als bloßes Arbeitsvermögen, gegenübertritt.]

Next,

Since the economists identify past labor with capital — past labor being understood in this case not only in the sense of concrete labor embodied in the product, but also in the sense of social labor, materialized labor time — it is understandable that they, the Pindars of capital, emphasize the objective elements of production and overestimate their importance as against the subjective element, living, immediate labor. For them, labor only becomes efficacious when it becomes capital and confronts itself, the passive element confronting its active counterpart. The producer is therefore controlled by the product, the subject by the object, labor which is being embodied by labor embodied in an object, etc. In all these conceptions, past labor appears not merely as an objective factor of living labor, subsumed by it, but vice versa; not as an element of the power of living labor, but as a power over this labor.

[Da die Ökonomen die vergangene Arbeit mit dem Kapital identifizieren — vergangene Arbeit hier sowohl im Sinne der konkreten, in den Produkten realisierten Arbeit, als im Sinne der gesellschaftlichen Arbeit, materialisierter Arbeitszeit — , so versteht sich bei ihnen, als den Pindaren des Kapitals, daß sie die gegenständlichen Elemente der Produktion geltend machen und ihre Bedeutung überschätzen gegenüber dem subjektiven Element, der lebendigen, unmittelbaren Arbeit. Die Arbeit wird ihnen erst adäquat, sobald sie Kapital wird, sich selbst gegenübertritt, das Passivum der Arbeit ihrem Aktivum. Das Produkt ist daher bestimmend über den Produzenten, der Gegenstand über das Subjekt, die realisierte Arbeit über die sich realisierende etc. In allen diesen Auffassungen tritt die vergangene Arbeit nicht auf als bloß gegenständliches Moment der lebendigen und von ihr subsumierten, sondern umgekehrt; nicht als ein Machtelement der lebendigen Arbeit, sondern als Macht über diese Arbeit.]

Capital is the actual, albeit unconscious, form of society’s self-objectifying subjectivity, while the proletariat is rather its potential form. Only by becoming conscious of its position within the totality of production (in other words, by attaining class consciousness in the Lukácsean sense) can the subjectivity of the latter be actualized. Wage labor and capital are, after all, only two sides of the same value-relation, constitutive of yet antithetical to one another. Inverting this inverted relationship — expropriating the expropriators, negating the negation — humanity masters its own social organization and finally sets itself off from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Marx’s famous dictum that “the emancipation of the workers [object] must be the task of the workers themselves [subject]” captures precisely this image of the proletariat as subject and object of social emancipation. Yet this “historic mission” does not mean affirming the class essence of workers. Socialist revolution will not result in universal proletarianization; capitalism has already accomplished this. “Just as the condition for the liberation of the third estate, of the bourgeois order, was the abolition of all estates and all orders, so the condition for the emancipation of the working class is the abolition of every class.”

Postone is of course understandably wary of the “notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary Subject, in the sense of a social agent that both constitutes history and realizes itself in socialism.” He writes: “Far from entailing the realization of the proletariat, overcoming capitalism involves the material abolition of proletarian labor.” But Lukács wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment:

Subjectively, i.e. for the class consciousness of the proletariat, the dialectical relationship between immediate interests and objective impact on the whole of society is located in the consciousness of the proletariat itself. It does not work itself out as a purely objective process quite apart from all (imputed) consciousness — as was the case with all classes hitherto. Thus the revolutionary victory of the proletariat does not imply, as with former classes, the immediate realization of the socially given existence of the class, but, as the young Marx clearly saw and defined, its self-annihilation.

Qua embodied negativity, as the negative condition of class society and the promise of its dissolution, “affirmation” of the proletariat can only mean abolishing the present state of affairs. This is what Engels meant when he remarked that “communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, capital is nothing other than the alienated agency of unrealized humanity. The proletariat does not presently represent the material human community in nuce, but it alone is capable of realizing it. By taking command over the accumulated instruments of production, it finally makes possible the advent of a truly human history. Lukács confirms this:

The “realm of freedom,” the end of the “prehistory of mankind” means precisely that the power of the objectified, reified relations between men begins to revert to man. The closer this process comes to its goal the more urgent it becomes for the proletariat to understand its own historical mission and the more vigorously and directly proletarian class consciousness will determine each of its actions. For the blind power of the forces at work will only advance “automatically” to their goal of self-annihilation as long as that goal is not within reach. When the moment of transition to the “realm of freedom” arrives this will become apparent just because the blind forces really will hurtle blindly towards the abyss, and only the conscious will of the proletariat will be able to save mankind from the impending catastrophe.

Werner Bonefeld addresses some of these same issues in the essay appended below, albeit in a somewhat different manner than I do here. He’s addressing Bob Jessop, rather than Postone, whose work he engages with elsewhere. Bonefeld makes many similar points, although as a rule he tends to denigrate “class consciousness.” I take this to be symptomatic of his anti-Leninism, but otherwise agree with his position.

To be sure, he’s right that “[i]n Marx’s work there is hardly any reference to ‘class consciousness’… Marx was not interested in the psychology of the working class.” Nevertheless, though the word Klassenbewußtsein does not appear in Marx’s work, its rudiments can be made out in numerous places. E.g., the Manifesto, where it is written that “the proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”

(As far as I can tell, Kautsky coined the “class consciousness,” indicated by Engels’ 1891 comment: “Instead of ‘class-conscious,’ which in our circles is an easily understood abbreviation, I would say the following to facilitate universal understanding and translation into foreign languages: ‘with workers conscious of their class position,’ or something like it.”)

Personally, I think the issue of proletarian consciousness, what Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution called “the subjective factor in the socialist transformation,” is indispensable. “The stronger [the] contradiction [within production] becomes,” wrote Lenin in 1899, “the more developed become the objective conditions for this transformation, as well as the subjective conditions [объективные условия этого превращения, так и субъективные условия], the workers’ consciousness of this contradiction [сознание противоречия работниками].”

Contra Kautsky, sixteen years later, Lenin thundered: “Not every revolutionary situation…gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the… objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls,’ if it is not toppled over.” Continue reading

Demonology of the working class

One of the most common charges leveled at Marxists is that, for all their atheistic pretensions, they retain a quasi-religious faith in the revolutionary dispensation of working class dictatorship. “It’s become an almost compulsory figure of speech to refer to Marxism as a Church,” observed the French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1951. Barthes was reviewing a book by the surrealist author Roger Caillois, which had just been released, but if anything the use of this lazy metaphor has grown more frequent over time. Just a few years after Barthes’ review was published, the public intellectual Raymond Aron came out with a polemic cuttingly titled The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955). He’d lifted the title from a bon mot by the philosopher Simone Weil, who despite her youthful Bolshevism in the twenties had gone on to publicly debate Leon Trotsky during the thirties. Repeating this old anticommunist jibe, Aron quipped that “in Marxist eschatology, the proletariat is cast in the role of collective savior… that is, the class elected through suffering for the redemption of humanity.” Evidently, in Aron’s understanding, workers were held up as an object of mythic exaltation among the socialists.

To be sure, some of the language adopted by Marxists — e.g., heresies, dogma, sects, orthodoxy, schisms — is clearly borrowed from theological disputes. Furthermore, the recantations made by ex-communists at times seems to lend credence to this view. You need look no further than the famous 1949 essay collection The God that Failed for proof of this fact. Wolfgang Eckhardt’s newly-translated study of The First Socialist Schism (2016), on the split between Bakunin and Marx in the Workingmen’s International, is only the latest in a very long line of examples. André Gorz opened his Farewell to the Working Class (1980) with a chapter on “The Working Class According to Saint Marx,” riffing on the section of The German Ideology dedicated to a critique of “German socialism according to its prophets.” Gorz thus concluded that “orthodoxy, dogmatism, and religiosity are not accidental features of Marxism, since the philosophy of the proletariat is a religion.” More recently, the former Situationist TJ Clark confessed that his own Farewell to an Idea (1999) will likely be seen “as a vestige of early twentieth-century messianism.” Clark sardonically added that “if I can’t have the proletariat as my chosen people any longer, at least capitalism remains my Satan” (though he got this last part a bit mixed up, as we shall see).

Socialism, however, is not about worshiping but rather abolishing the worker. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, perhaps the two most prominent theorists of proletarian revolution during the nineteenth century, by no means deified the class they felt might lead to the socialization of humanity. In their first written collaboration, from 1845, the young firebrands maintained:

When socialist writers ascribe [a] world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all… because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. In the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, and even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete. The conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, and at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life, and cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.

Expanding on this passage, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty insisted on the terrestrial foundations of the Marxist hypothesis. “If [Marxism] accords a privilege to the proletariat, it does so because on the basis of the internal logic of its condition… apart from any messianic illusion,” he claimed in Humanism and Terror (1947). “Proletarians, ‘who are not gods,’ are the only ones in a position to realize humanity. Marxists discern a mission in the proletariat — not a providential, but an historical one — and this means that, if we take the proletariat’s role in the present social constellation, it moves toward the recognition of man by man…” Nevertheless, in the meantime workers are hardly godlike; indeed, they’re barely even human, if Marx and Engels are to be believed. As the former would later explain in Capital (1867), “manufacture proper not only subjects the previously independent worker to the discipline and command of capital, but converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity.” His description is reminiscent of the lyrics to that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song “Sixteen Tons,” written about a Kentucky coal miner in 1947: “Some people say a man is made outta’ mud / A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood / Muscle and blood and skin and bones / A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong / You load sixteen tons, what do you get? / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

Over and above the image of the proletariat as divine redeemer, here emerges a picture of the proletariat as beyond redemption. Workers have sold their souls to the company store. Consider the following lines from Marx’s Capital on the topic of automation: “An organized system of machines, to which motion is communicated by the transmitting mechanism from an automatic center, is the most developed form of production by machinery. Here we have, instead of the isolated machine, a vast mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power [dämonische Kraft], at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countless working organs.” Little wonder that the Italian left communist Amadeo Bordiga drew upon these words in elaborating his own “Doctrine of the Body Possessed by the Devil,” from 1951. Quoting Marx, who in turn was quoting Goethe, Bordiga explained how, “by incorporating living labor into capital’s lifeless objectivity, the capitalist simultaneously transforms value, i.e. past labor in its objectified and lifeless form, into capital, value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if possessed by the devil’.” The dispossessed (which is, after all, just another word for “proletariat”) are thus demonically possessed by the alienated products of their labor. For Marx, this was all part of “the magic and necromancy [der Zauber und Spuk] that surrounds the products of labor on the basis of commodity production.”

Gáspár Miklós Tamás, the Hungarian communist dissident turned born-again Marxist, is one of the only theorists in recent memory to have grasped the demonic character of the working class. In his brilliant 2006 essay “Telling the Truth About Class,” Tamás framed his view by contrasting it with that of the British cultural historian EP Thompson:

There is an angelic view of the exploited (that of Rousseau, Karl Polányi, E.P. Thompson) and there is a demonic, Marxian view. For Marx, the road to the end of capitalism (and beyond) leads through the completion of capitalism, a system of economic and intellectual growth, imagination, waste, anarchy, destruction, destitution. It is an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word, a “falling away of the veils” which reveals all the social mechanisms in their stark nakedness; capitalism helps us to know because it is unable to sustain illusions, especially naturalistic and religious illusions. It liberated subjects from their traditional rootedness (which was presented to them by the ancien régime as “natural”) to hurl them onto the labor market where their productive-creative essence reveals itself to be disposable, replaceable, dependent on demand — in other words, wholly alien to self-perception or “inner worth.” In capitalism, what human beings are, is contingent or stochastic; there is no way in which they are as such, in themselves. Their identity is limited by the permanent reevaluation of the market and by the transient historicity of everything, determined by — among other contingent factors — random developments in science and technology. What makes the whole thing demonic indeed is that in contradistinction to the external character, the incomprehensibility, of “fate,” “the stars,” participants in the capitalist economy are not born to that condition, they are placed in their respective positions by a series of choices and compulsions that are obviously manmade. To be born noble and ignoble is nobody’s fault, has no moral dimensions; but alienation appears self-inflicted.

Marx is the poet of that Faustian demonism: only capitalism reveals the social, and the final unmasking; the final apocalypse, the final revelation can be reached by wading through the murk of estrangement which, seen historically, is unique in its energy, in its diabolical force. Marx does not “oppose” capitalism ideologically; but Rousseau does. For Marx, it is history; for Rousseau, it is evil.

Here Tamás was somewhat unfair to Thompson — not to mention Rousseau — but his caricatured presentation served to throw their perspectives into sharper relief. Thompson may have been guilty, from time to time, of romanticizing the English working class, but he entertained no illusions as to the hellish conditions out of which it emerged. After all, it was Thompson who wrote of “the denizens of ‘Satan’s strongholds’ [inhabitants of proletarian neighborhoods in industrial cities], of the ‘harlots, publicans, and thieves’ whose souls the evangelists wrestled for in a state of civil war against the ale-houses.” Every religious doctrine of the age, stated Thompson, had to be “held up to a Satanic light and read backwards” so as to properly grasp their context. One popular Methodist refrain, which he noted in his Making of the English Working Class (1963), spoke of factories as follows: “There is a dreadful Hell, / And everlasting pains, / Where sinners must with devils dwell, / In darkness, fire, and chains.” Regarding “that monstrosity, the disposable working population held in reserve” (to quote Capital), Thompson echoed Marx’s military metaphor in describing “…an unsettling element in the formative working-class community, a seemingly inexhaustible flow of reinforcements to man the battlements.”

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Cartoon maps portraying impending inter-imperialist apocalypse

MP Pavlovich [ML Veltman]
People’s Commissariat of
Nationalities
(5.31.1921)
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Comrade Pavlovich,1

I have arranged for publication of a school atlas (in Petrograd).2 It would be extremely important to include maps of imperialism. Would you not undertake this?

For example:

  1. Colonial possessions 1876-1914-1921, adding or specially shading off semi-colonial countries (Turkey, Persia, China, and so forth).
  2. Brief statistics of colonies and semi-colonies.
  3. Map of financial dependencies. For example, for each country ± with a figure (millions or milliards of francs) of how much this country owes, and how much it is owed;
    Also comparatively for 1876-1914-1921, if 1876 be taken as the culminating point of pre-monopoly capitalism.
  4. Railways of the world, with a note, in each country, showing to whom most of them belong (British, French, North America, etc.).
    Will this prove too much of a mixture? Convenient forms can be found, with what matters, what predominates noted very briefly.
  5. The main sources of those raw materials over which there is a struggle (oil, ores, etc.) — also with notes (% or millions of francs belong to such-and-such a country).
    We must without fail include maps of this kind in the textbooks, of course with a brief explanatory text.
    A statistical assistant can be given you for the auxiliary work.

Please reply whether you undertake this, how and when.

With communist greetings,

Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin)
Chairman, Council of
People’s Commissars

Notes


1 Pavlovich, M. P. (Veltman, M. L.) (1871-1929) — Social-Democrat, Menshevik. He became a Communist after 1917, and from 1921 was a member of the Collegium of the Commissariat for Affairs of Nationalities.
2 Reference is to the preparations for the publication of the Vsemirny geografichesky atlas (Geographical Atlas of the World), launched on Lenin’s initiative. The project was not realized.

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

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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.

1923
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1924
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