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

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

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

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

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

Stalin, Hitler, similar salutes copy 2 U_39_299435507822_paris37.a

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

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

On progress: Critical theory and the “decolonial” imperative

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I repost below Bruce Robbins’ excellent review of Amy Allen’s very poor book, The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (2016), originally appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books website. My reasons for titling this post “Critical Theory and the ‘Decolonial’ Imperative” is that Allen clearly thinks decolonization is something that ought to happen (i.e., a moral guideline or maxim that determines practical action). She somehow fails to self-reflexively see the normative foundations of her own critique of critical theory, at least until the very last chapter, as Robbins points out in his review. He is a bit disingenuous, I think, when he remarks at the outset that The End of Progress is a “difficult but rewarding book” — a begrudgingly charitable judgment not borne out by what follows, which thoroughly dismantles Allen’s argument. Nevertheless, her argument deserved to be panned, so I don’t see this as a problem.

Apart from this specific instance of “decolonial” thought, I should perhaps explain my more general objections to the discourse. One of my reasons for being so skeptical is purely aesthetic, a result of my distaste for clunky academic language. “Conversations with Enrique Dussel on Anti-Cartesian Decoloniality & Pluriversal Transmodernity,” a 2015 collection of articles edited by Mohammad Tamdgidi, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Ramón Grosfoguel, provides ample evidence of the jargon employed by theorists of decolonization. The title alone should be enough to discredit it. Beyond this aesthetic disgust, however, a more intellectual objection I’ve always had to decolonial theory is its anachronism and its consequent reliance on metaphor. Great colonial empires are today mostly a thing of the past, the colonizers having been driven out by anti-colonial movements for national liberation or self-determination. In fact, the only real colonies that remain today are arguably Palestine (occupied by Israel) and Tibet (occupied by China). Even then, they’re odd sorts of colonies. Palestine is not directly administered, and Tibet is ruled by a government which claims to be communist.

Whenever decolonial activists go beyond the metaphoric injunction to decolonize — “kill the pilgrim in yr head!” — and insist on its literal meaning, they veer into absurdity. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” proposes to forcibly expel everyone who is not of Amerindian or African descent from the Americas, i.e. Occupied Turtle Island. By that logic, all East Asians, Middle Easterners, and Indians would have to repatriate, to say nothing of individuals who are of mixed descent. Sadly, claims of “indigeneity” can be used to justify the most ridiculous ends. Ryan Bellerose, an indigenous rights activist from Alberta, Canada, advocates on behalf of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland, upholding their native rights. It’s hard to counter this line of reasoning once you accept indigenist premises. Unless one wants to concoct some statute of limitations for Blut und Boden ethnic claims to historic lands, it’s impossible to resolve the issue within the framework of indigenous politics. Fortunately Marxism does not aim to permanently restore territories to any particular group. Individuals should be able to live peaceably wherever they damn well please, irrespective of any “organic connection” to the land.
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Paul-KleeProving the impossibility of progress

Bruce Robbins
LA Review of Books
May 13, 2016
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REVIEW: Amy Allen, The End of Progress:
Decolonizing
the Normative Foundations
of Critical Theory
(January 12, 2016)
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Walter Benjamin famously imagined the angel of history, wings spread, propelled backward into the future by an irresistible, all-annihilating wind. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” Benjamin wrote, the angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage on wreckage.” The angel can obviously know nothing of the future, to which his back is turned. All he can know is “the pile of debris before him.” This, Benjamin says, is how we should think of progress.

Within months of composing this scenario, Benjamin was dead, a victim of the Nazis. The manner of his death helped make his beautiful, disillusioned tableau of progress-as-catastrophe one of the best remembered takeaways from the Frankfurt School. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, the Frankfurt School was a brilliant group of German-Jewish Marxo-Freudian analysts of culture who (except for Benjamin) escaped the Holocaust and lived long enough to denounce American consumerism, jazz, and the student movement. Their present-day inheritors, collectively known as critical theory, include thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth in Germany and, in the United States, Seyla Benhabib, Thomas McCarthy, Nancy Fraser, Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, and other luminaries. They and what they made of the concept of progress are the subject of Amy Allen’s difficult but rewarding book, The End of Progress. Allen argues that key members of this generation (the Germans, but for some reason not the Americans) have been too uncritical of progress — much more uncritical than Benjamin or Theodor Adorno or, for that matter, Michel Foucault, whom she drags across the Rhine and conscripts as an ally. Allen exposes, hidden below the philosophical work of Habermas, Honneth, and Rainer Forst, a belief in progress that in her view is fatally Eurocentric, hence unworthy of their high emancipatory project.

Beyond making the charge of Eurocentrism, Allen does not really argue the anti-progress case. She doesn’t compare childhood mortality statistics or the quality of neighborliness, the situation of women or the amount of carbon in the atmosphere now and 100 years ago; the sorts of pros and cons that might come up in a dorm room late at night don’t interest her much. And her indifference to empirical examples is not incidental. The major accusation she levels against the best-known of the critical theorists, Habermas and Honneth, is that although they seem rigorously philosophical, they pay too much attention to facts like these. For Allen’s style of philosophy, any attention is too much attention. Continue reading

László Moholy-Nagy and his vision

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You can download the 1969 translation of
László Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film (1927) by clicking on the embedded link. A while ago I posted some of Moholy’s work, but this is much more comprehensive. Otto Stelzer’s postscript to the 1967 reissue of the classic Bauhausbuch release appears below along with some examples of his films, photographs, and paintings.

Nearly out of space on my WordPress account. So I might have to set up a Paypal account and start soliciting donations. For now, though, enjoy.

Painting

Otto Stelzer
Janet Seligman
(March 1969)
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László Moholy-Nagy saw photography not only as a means of reproducing reality and relieving the painter of this function. He recognized its power of discovering reality. “The nature which speaks to the camera is a different nature from the one which speaks to the eye,” wrote Walter Benjamin years after Moholy had developed the experimental conditions for Benjamin’s theory. The other nature discovered by the camera influenced what Moholy, after he had emigrated, was to call The New Vision. It alters our insight into the real world. Much has happened in the meantime in this field and on a broader basis than Moholy could have foreseen. Painting, Photography, Film today exists as a new entity even in areas to which Moholy’s own creative desire could scarcely have led: for example, in the Neo-Realism of Bacon, Rivers, Warhol, Vostell and many others whose reality is no more than a second actuality produced by photography.

Moholy is one of those artists whose reputation continues to grow steadily after their death because their works have a prophetic action. Moholy always saw himself as a Constructivist but he passed quickly through the static Constructivism of his own time. In a few moves he opened a game which is being won today. His light-modulators, his “composition in moving colored light,” his leaf-paintings of the forties, represent the beginnings of a “kinetic art” — even the term is his — which is flourishing today. Op Art? Moholy did the essential spade-work of this school (the old expression is in order here) in 1942, even including the objective, important for Op artists, of a “use”: with his pupils in Chicago he had evolved studies for military camouflage. The display of these things, later mounted in the school of design by his collaborator and fellow Hungarian György Kepes, was at once the first Op exhibition, “Trompe l’oeil,” and its theoretical constituent. New materials? Moholy had been using celluloid, aluminium, plexiglass, and gallalith as early as the Bauhaus days. Modern typography? Moholy has influenced two generations of typographers. Even in the field of aesthetic theory Moholy found a new approach; its aim was a theory of information in art. Moholy enlisted pioneers of this now much discussed theory as long as twenty-five years ago, nominating Charles Morris, the authority on semantics, to a professorship at the New Bauhaus, Chicago and inviting Hayakawa, another semanticist to speak at his institute. In 1925, when the Bauhaus book now being re-issued first appeared, Moholy was regarded as a Utopian. That Moholy, this youthful radical, with his fanaticism and his boundless energy, radiated terror too, even among his colleagues at the Bauhaus, is understandable. “Only optics, mechanics, and the desire to put the old static painting out of action,” wrote Feininger to his wife at the time: “There is incessant talk of cinema, optics, mechanics, projection and continuous motion and even of mechanically produced optical transparencies, multicolored, in the finest colors of the spectrum, which can be stored in the same way as gramophone records” (Moholy’s “Domestic Pinacotheca,” p. 25). Is this the atmosphere in which painters like Klee and some others of us can go on developing? Klee was quite depressed yesterday when talking about Moholy.” Yet Feininger’s own transparent picture-space seems not wholly disconnected from Moholy’s light “displays.”

Pascal discovered in human behavior two attitudes of mind: “One is the geometric, the other that of finesse.” Gottfried Benn took this up and made the word “finesse,” difficult enough to translate already, even more obscure. “The separation, therefore, of the scientific from the sublime world…the world which can be verified to the point of confirmatory neurosis and the world of isolation which nothing can make certain.” The attitudes which Pascal conceived of as being complementary and connected are now separated. The harmonization of the two attitudes of mind to which the art of classical periods aspired is abandoned. The conflict between the Poussinistes and the followers of Rubens, conducted flexibly from the 17th to the 19th century, became a war of positions with frozen fronts.

Photography 1

The Bauhaus carried on the conflict until the parties retired: on the one side the sublime: Klee, Feininger, Itten, and Kandinsky too, whose “nearly” Constructivist paintings still reminded Moholy of “underwater landscapes’; on the other “geometricians” with Moholy at their head (“forms of the simplest geometry as a step towards objectivity’), his pupils and the combatants, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Mondrian, Van Doesburg, all closely connected with the Bauhaus. On the one side the “lyrical I” (in Benn’s sense), on the other the collectivists, “one in the spirit” with science, social system and architecture, as Moholy formulated it in a Bauhaus lecture in 1923.

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The golden age of bourgeois portraiture, before the rise of photography

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What follows is an assortment of extremely high-resolution portraits of famous figures gleaned from various sources around the web, along with a short text by the French photographer and media critic Gisèle Freund. Almost 175 portraits are included, featuring well-known philosophers, political economists, and revolutionaries such as Thomas Münzer, Stepan Razin, René Descartes, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Ricardo, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Toussaint Louverture, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, Baruch Spinoza, Georges Danton, and numerous others who I’m forgetting. Included also, as mentioned, is an extract from Freund’s Photography and Society (1970), a book more than thirty years in the making.

Freund’s close friend and theoretical influence Walter Benjamin commented on an earlier draft of this chapter:

Study of the history of photography began about eight or ten years ago. We have a number of publications, mostly illustrated, on its infancy and its early masters. But only this most recent study has treated the subject in conjunction with the history of painting. Gisèle Freund’s study describes the rise of photography as conditioned by that of the bourgeoisie, successfully illustrating the causal connection by examining the history of the portrait. Starting from the expensive ivory miniature (the portrait technique most widely used under the ancien régime), the author describes the various procedures which contributed to making portrait production quicker and cheaper, and therefore more widespread, around 1780, sixty years before the invention of photography. Her description of the “physiognotrace” as an intermediate form between the portrait miniature and the photograph shows in exemplary fashion how technical factors can be made socially transparent. The author then explains how, with photography, technical development in art converged with the general technical standard of society, bringing the portrait within the means of wider bourgeois strata. She shows that the miniaturists were the first painters to fall victim to photography.

Besides Freund’s masterful study, I would also recommend Aby Warburg’s longish essay on “The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie” (1902). Less obviously Marxist than the remarks by Freund and Benjamin in this post — Warburg was a self-professed follower of Burckhardt — but quite complementary to them. Feel free to browse and enlarge any of the images below.

Portraits

Precursors of the photographic portrait

Gisèle Freund
Photography &
Society
(1970)
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The development of the photographic portrait corresponds to an important phase in the social development of Western Europe: the rise of the middle classes when for the first time, fairly large segments of the population attained political and economic power. To meet their resulting demand for goods, nearly everything had to be produced in greater quantities. The portrait was no exception: By having one’s portrait done an individual of the ascending classes could visually affirm his new social status both to himself and to the world at large. To meet the increased demand for portraits, the art became more and more mechanized. The photographic portrait was the final stage in this trend toward mechanization.

Around 1750 the nascent middle classes began pushing into areas that were formerly the sole domain of the aristocracy. For centuries the privilege of aristocratic circles, the portrait began to yield to democratization. Even before the French Revolution the bourgeoisie had already manifested its profound need for self-glorification, a need which provoked the development of new forms and techniques of portraiture. Photography, which entered the public domain in 1839, owes much of its popularity and rapid social development to the continuing vogue of the portrait. Continue reading

The mind and face of Bolshevism (1926)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover of New Masses, November 1927

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

Upton Sinclair
The New Masses
November 1927
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There comes in my mail a large and costly volume from England, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, by René Fülöp-Miller. Inside I find a card, informing me that the book is sent with the author’s compliments, and giving me his address in Vienna — which I understand to mean that he wishes me to tell him what I think of his book. So I send him what as children we used to call “my private opinion publicly expressed.”

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

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

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

Continue reading

Adorno’s Leninism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adorno in 1935

Adorno’s Leninism

Chris Cutrone
Platypus Review
April 21, 2010
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Adorno’s political relevance

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

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

Capitalism and bourgeoisie: The sorcerer’s apprentice

The magic and necromancy
of commodity production

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Goethe’s famous 1797 ballad Der Zauberlehrling [The Sorcerer’s Apprentice] provides probably the best allegory for Marx’s own conception of capitalism, which he memorably described as partaking of a kind of sorcery — “the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities.”

Under the capitalist mode of production, the producer is ruled by the products of his labor rather than the other way around. Living labor in the present serves the accumulated dead labor of the past. “We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [The dead holds the living in its grasp!]

An illustration of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found on nucius.org

In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels implicitly allude to Goethe’s poem, comparing society’s relation to capital to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Marshall Berman, the late Marxist critic, reflected on this line at some length in his 1982 masterpiece All that is Solid: The Experience of Modernity:

This image evokes the spirits of that dark medieval past that our modern bourgeoisie is supposed to have buried. Its members present themselves as matter-of-fact and rational, not magical; as children of the Enlightenment, not of darkness. When Marx depicts the bourgeois as sorcerers — remember, too, their enterprise has “conjured whole populations out of the ground,” not to mention “the specter of communism” — he is pointing to depths they deny. Marx’s imagery projects, here as ever, a sense of wonder over the modern world: its vital powers are dazzling, overwhelming, beyond anything the bourgeoisie could have imagined, let alone calculated or planned. But Marx’s images also express what must accompany any genuine sense of wonder: a sense of dread. For this miraculous and magical world is also demonic and terrifying, swinging wildly out of control, menacing and destroying blindly as it moves. The members of the bourgeoisie repress both wonder and dread at what they have made: these possessors don’t want to know how deeply they are possessed.

All this ought to be perfectly familiar to attentive readers of Marx. Remarking on this peculiar double aspect, by which all things seem to engender their own negation, Marx observed: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it. The newfangled sources of wealth, as if by some weird spell, are turned into sources of want. The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.”

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To illustrate this, here is Walt Disney’s animated epic Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse. (Walter Benjamin and Sergei Eisenstein already recognized Mickey as a revolutionary in the early 1930s). Capital appears here as a spell to alleviate necessary labor, the bewitched broomsticks as automata. But it works too well. It overwhelms its putative master, resulting in serial overproduction, overflowing basins of water, etc.

The life and works of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro

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The following series of interviews from the early 1990s gives a good sense of the Marxist art historian Meyer Schapiro’s life and work. You can download a selection of his writings by clicking on the links immediately below.

Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

Memories of John Dewey, confrontation with Jacques Derrida, visits with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Claude Lévi-Strauss

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David Craven: It has been suggested by some people that you were involved behind the scenes in the Erwin Panofsky/Barnett Newman debate that took place in the pages of Art News in 1961. Could you confirm or refute this claim?

Meyer Schapiro: Yes, I was in Israel in the Spring of 1961 when I read Panofsky’s letter in Art News. I sent Barnie one letter, with the understanding that my counsel be kept confidential, in which I pointed out that Panofsky was wrong. I told him to check a large Latin Dictionary and he would see that both sublimis and sublimus are acceptable, as demonstrated by their appearance together in Cicero’s citation of a passage from Accius. Both bits of advice appear in the first letter. Everything else in those two letters was contributed by Barnie himself.

DC: What type of relationship did you have with the philosopher John Dewey?

MS: I was a student of John Dewey, whose classes I very much enjoyed. Dewey asked me to do a critical reading of Art as Experience in manuscript form. The book is important, of course, but it is marked by a tendency to treat humanity and art as extensions of nature, as products of nature, without dealing with how humanity reshapes and remakes nature, hence also itself. This lack of emphasis on mediating nature, on humanity using craft and art to redefine itself, is a problem of the book.

DC: Did you ever meet the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch when he was in the U.S.?

MS: I admire his work very much, but I only met him once or twice. His critique of the Stalinist misuse of Marx’s thought is of fundamental importance.

DC: How often did you see Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo when they were in New York City in the early 1930s?

MS: We met with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo several times. Diego was very entertaining and on one occasion he railed with great emphasis against color reproductions of artworks.

Lillian Milgram: Frida was quite taken with Meyer. She gave him gifts a few times, including a pre-Columbian figurine that we still have.

DC: On October 6, 1977, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a presentation at Columbia University, in which he responded to your refutation of Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s 1886 oil painting of shoes that is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This presentation by Derrida would later appear in a longer version as “Restitutions” in his book La Vérité en Peinture (1978). Derrida’s paper is surprising because of how the whole tenor of the piece becomes so shrilly ad hominem.

Yet on the one occasion when I had a chance to talk with Derrida up close, in April of 1983 when he was speaking at Cornell University, I found him to be quite approachable and unpretentious, even though I was taking issue with some things that he had said in his public talk about Western Marxism.6 He welcomed this exchange and was much more put off by the sycophantic behavior of some other people in attendance. This is why I find Derrida’s reaction to you so surprising and perhaps uncharacteristic.

MS: He was challenged strongly by many people in the audience. I was abrupt with him, because he neither understood nor cared to understand the nature of my criticism. Furthermore, I discovered later that Heidegger changed his interpretation of the Van Gogh painting when he did an annotated commentary of his own essay and that he ended up admitting that he was uncertain about whose shoes they were. This material will appear in volume 4 of my selected writings.

One of Derrida’s obvious shortcomings is that he entirely disregards artistic intention in his analysis. Continue reading