Platypus Review 25 | July 2010
ONE FINDS QUITE A BIT OF NAME-CALLING among the innumerable articles and blog posts written in criticism of Hugo Chavez and his government. Although most of this invective is not very illuminating, one article by a young, Colombian, Trotsky-ish labor organizer describes Chavez perfectly in two words: a “postmodern Bonapartist.”
Chavez, his Bolivarian Revolution, and his project of “21st Century Socialism” are postmodern in the sense that they exist in a discontinuity, in an amnesiac disconnect, with the modernist project of social and political emancipation that started with the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century and withered and died sometime in the late 20th century. Since this project of freedom is inseparable from the politics of the revolutionary socialist Left, to say that Chavez’s politics are postmodern is simply to say that they are post-Left. He is not a liberal. Nor is he a Marxist. He has never theorized or organized proletarian revolution like Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, or Trotsky did. He has never even advocated for a “people’s war” like Mao or Che. One hesitates even to brand him a Stalinist. While Stalinism was, in Trotsky’s words, “the great organizer of defeats” for the working class, one would be hard pressed to call Chavez a “great organizer” of anything of such historical significance. Indeed, he is best thought of as more effect than cause. While Stalinism made Marxism into a dogma, the only dogma of the Bolivarian Revolution is whatever notion happens to cross Chavez’s mind at the moment. Chavez’s ideology is so versatile there is seemingly nothing it cannot take on board. From time to time, it even makes gestures in the direction of LGBTQ and women’s rights. This, however, should not be seen as anything more than mere posturing, since in Venezuela abortion is still illegal, and Chavez embraces numerous openly homophobic allies such as Evo Morales, Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There are no coherent, historically self-aware principles to the politics of Chavismo. It is bricolage, a precarious construction: Some ’30s vintage Pop Frontism mixed together with a little ’90s anti-globalization, molded upon an armature of ’60s-style developmentalist Third Worldism, and then sprinkled with equal parts “communitarian” participatory democracy, “multiculturalism,” and ascetic anti-consumerism. (A touch of anti-Semitism is added as and when necessary.) Although this incoherent composite can sometimes be cynical and performative, more frequently it tends to be semi-conscious and nearly involuntary—made up of vestigial impulses whose purpose has been forgotten, having been inherited from an older political project, now decomposed beyond recognition.
The historical discontinuity between Chavez’s politics and the revolutionary Left of the 20th century is not only theoretical or ideological; it is also practical. Chavez the politician emerges from no labor background or popular movement. He hardly participated in any leftist organizations before being elected president in 1998. In fact, the Left in Venezuela was dead and buried long before he appeared on the scene.
The story of revolutionary politics in Venezuela is short and dismal. In the late 1950s, the Communist Party of Venezuela [CP] formed a popular front with the Social Democratic Party of Democratic Action [AD] to defeat a military dictatorship and to establish, for the first time, a representative democracy in the country. But the communists were soon abandoned by their erstwhile allies. AD and the Christian Democratic Party [Copei] joined forces to exclude the communists from Venezuela’s political life. At this juncture, some of the more impatient communists, galvanized by events in Cuba, armed themselves and took to the hills. The guerrilla war that followed, planned with the help of Che Guevara himself, was a disaster. Many young leftists died, the CP was criminalized, and Moscow, largely responsible for this turn of events, scolded the revolutionists for getting lost in their dreams of Cuba. Anti-imperialist “national liberation” fighting between guerrillas and the Venezuelan government continued into the mid-1970s, having now little to do with socialist politics. Meanwhile, the CP shriveled as its cadre began its exodus into Eurocommunist-style parties or “third way” social democracy.
It was not until the late 1980s, years after this Cuban-inspired hara-kiri, that Chavez stepped onto the Venezuelan political stage. From the beginning his political career was ideologically unengaged and organizationally disconnected from the history of the Venezuelan Left. But, in fact, this discontinuity is one of the traits that gives Chavez his appeal, especially for his American and European supporters. This is because Chavez seems to stand at a remove from the Left’s sordid history of failure. He appears to offer a fresh start to the intellectually and politically exhausted, while also letting them have it both ways. For although Chavez basks in the fresh air of ahistoricism, he never ceases to piously, if disjointedly, rehearse all the old certainties and comforts. “21st Century Socialism” is appealing because it authorizes its supporters’ unwillingness to reflect upon the failures of its 20th century predecessor without denying them the moral self-satisfaction of remaining true to the good old cause.
Supporters hold up cutouts of Chavez at a rally.
Hugo Chavez came of age in the 1970s and 80s as a military man who believed that the decaying institutions of the Venezuelan government could only be fixed by a strong dose of military discipline. His early ideas of national regeneration had little to do with anti-imperialism and still less to do with socialism. At the time of his failed coup in 1992, they amounted to the belief that the causes of poverty and suffering in Venezuela were the result of nothing more than bureaucratic corruption, so that all that was needed was a strong hand to make the state into a more equitable and efficient redistributor of its wealth.
The young Chavez was right about one thing: In the late 1980s, the Venezuelan state was decaying. The old clientelistic petro-state, which for three decades had produced little political freedom but great stability and a relatively high standard of living, was corroding from within due to corruption and loss of revenue resulting from falling oil prices. The subsequent delegitimization came to a head in 1989 with the explosion of popular anger called the “Caracazo.” The debt crisis of the 1980s forced the newly elected Carlos Andres Perez government to restructure the country’s economy along neoliberal lines and to accept an IMF package that caused a sharp and sudden rise in the cost of living. On the day of the Caracazo, people from the slum city of Guarenas woke up to find they could no longer travel to work because bus fares had doubled overnight. Arguments over the new fares became fights, fights became riots, and riots became massive protests and widespread looting in the neighboring capital city of Caracas. The government cracked down hard and the frenzy of state violence that ensued was of a magnitude such as Caracas had never seen. In the end, some 3000 people were killed, most of them at the hands of Venezuelan security forces.
Despite its tragic dimensions, such a spontaneous, unfocused and disorganized uprising can hardly be called a political movement. And yet, American and British Chavez enthusiasts treat the Caracazo as if it was, as if the rioting masses in Venezuela, who had never heard of Chavez at this point, had somehow been clamoring for a Bolivarian Revolution back in 1989. But the Caracazo was no proletarian uprising, nor even an anti-globalization movement; it was a hopeless rebellion against hopelessness, a desperate protest against the desperation that flowed from Venezuela’s rapidly worsening economic situation and bankrupt political system.
The attempt to turn the Caracazo retrospectively into a proto-Bolivarian mass movement derives from anxiety at the fact that no social movement led to or culminated in the Bolivarian Revolution. When he won the 1998 election six years after his failed military coup, Chavez was not the popular leader of a social movement. He was popular because Venezuela’s political system had lost all legitimacy. People lacked faith in state institutions. Unsurprisingly then, in 1998 Chavez’s support was not drawn exclusively from the working poor, but came from all social classes. Voters responded to Chavez’s message that, as a strong executive, he would be able to shake up corrupt state institutions and save the nation. Chavez’s road to power was thus Bonapartist in that he presented himself as the ideal Venezuelan national who is necessary to reorganize a state in crisis, someone who would discipline decadent elites and facilitate reconciliation between social classes. Yet the qualification of “postmodern” should be added to this Bonapartism because, unlike Napoleon III or Benito Mussolini, Chavez was not the product of the failure of an emergent revolutionary Left. Rather, he is the result and expression of the creeping decay characteristic of a political order vacated by the Left.
At the time of his bungled military coup in 1992, Chavez was no socialist. Nor had he become one when he won the election in 1998. He was still not a socialist when, from 2002 to 2004, sectors of the ruling class banded together with a large majority of Venezuelan organized labor in an attempt to topple him, first by a military coup, then by organizing a lockout of the oil industry, and finally by demanding a recall referendum. The reason for their hostility was not that they feared that Chavez was becoming a socialist or that he might establish a socialist state; they were simply alarmed that his reckless spending, his power-driven nationalization projects, and his unpredictable interventions into legislative matters were producing an environment that was bad for business.
Critics and supporters alike recognize that it was not until the aftermath of the recall referendum of 2004 that Chavez began to move steadily leftward. Only then did he adopt the new rhetoric of “Socialism of the 21st Century.” In the aftermath of the coup and lockout debacles of 2002–03, Chavez’s popularity had hit its lowest point. He had become weak, his attitude towards his enemies conciliatory. But in the months leading up to the referendum, he discovered a new way to rapidly increase his support, especially among the urban poor. A few months before the vote, while flush with income derived from the post-Iraq invasion spike in oil prices, Chavez embarked on a massive program of social spending that targeted sectors of society known as the “ni-ni’s” (neither-nors). These were poor or lower-middle class people who did not feel strongly about the government one way or the other. The device was highly successful and it taught Chavez a lesson he has not forgotten: He could outflank his enemies and maintain his grip on power not through appeasement, but by polarizing Venezuelan society through radical rhetoric and programs for which he alone was responsible.
From 2005 on, Chavez was able to seriously weaken the opposition by making support for the regime a precondition for benefitting from the government’s petrodollar largesse. At the same time, more frequently than before, Chavez took recourse to intimidation and direct attacks against his regime’s opponents. While the most widely publicized case of this new aggressive attitude, the shutting down of the right-wing anti-Chavez TV station RCTV, was itself an unwarranted assault on free speech, other manifestations of this new willingness to intimidate opponents were even more sinister. There was, for example, the “Lista Tascón,” a database of the 2,400,000 people who signed the petition for the recall referendum. Many on this list were fired from their jobs, banned from working in the public sector, and denied issuance of official documents. Use of these and similar techniques of polarization accompanied the change of strategy that Chavez announced at the 2005 World Social Forum to begin work towards a new “Socialism for the 21st Century.” It seems, then, that the radicalization of Chavez’s discourse after 2004 is little more than part of the regime’s more aggressive and polarizing approach. Like the clientelistic spending and the electoral bullying, the turn from nationalist Bolivarianism to “21st Century Socialism” is an instrument of the regime’s larger strategy to foster a “with us or against us” political atmosphere in Venezuela. Those who oppose Chavez, from the Right or from the Left, are no longer just traitors to the nation, but also traitors to socialism and agents of American imperialism.
“21st Century Socialism” and the “revolutionary process” Chavez has spoken about for more than five years now consists primarily of intermittent and radical gestures disguising a system that is very similar to the old pre-Chavez welfare petro-state. Venezuela remains a mixed economy in constant need of foreign investment. This is evident from the way the government continues to avidly court potential American investors. This is also demonstrated, more perniciously, by the government’s practice of aggressively cracking down on inconvenient labor activism, such as the recent intimidation of protesting workers from Mitsubishi, a firm with which Chavez’s regime has many close ties. The bourgeoisie has not been expropriated, nor will it be. Aside from Chavez’s now complete control of the key petroleum industry, expropriations have been primarily symbolic or have served as means of punishing political enemies. They have not significantly changed the economy. As an article in The New Yorker put it in 2007,
If this is socialism, it’s the most business friendly socialism ever devised… The U.S. continues to be Venezuela’s most important trading partner. Much of this business is oil: Venezuela is America’s fourth-largest supplier, and the U.S. is Venezuela’s largest customer. But the flow of trade goes both ways and across many sectors. The U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter to Venezuela, responsible for a full third of its imports. The Caracas skyline is decorated with Hewlett-Packard and Citigroup signs, and Ford and G.M. are market leaders there. And, even as Chavez’s rhetoric has become more extreme, the two countries have become more entwined: trade between the U.S. and Venezuela has risen thirty-six percent in the past year.
There is no dictatorship of the proletariat here, and the government certainly has no intention of “withering away.” In fact, Chavez’s state functions more or less like the old AD and Copei regimes, projecting its power through the selective, top-down redistribution of oil wealth. The difference is mainly rhetorical. Chavez makes poverty relief programs into “missions”; welfarist measures like economic stimuli for small businesses and the building of housing projects are rebranded as “revolutionary” institutions of a “new social economy.” Of course these initiatives, notably the relief missions, are most welcome to those who benefit from them. They have had significant success in alleviating extreme poverty, particularly through subsidized food and free healthcare. Were the Chavista regime to dissolve, this much needed aid might cease. But this should not obscure the fact that these programs render their beneficiaries politically powerless. Because they are intended to be politically demobilizing, this generosity comes at a very steep price. Besides, the anti-poverty initiatives have proven difficult to sustain, decreasing substantially since the economic crisis of 2008. If there were to be a significant fall in oil prices, a situation the regime has not yet suffered, the aid would probably vanish altogether without its recipients being able to do much about it. This is not socialism overcoming the tyranny of poverty. It is a charity that, for the moment, has remained affordable and politically beneficial to a government that holds all the cards.
Other programs, the ones that are actually supposed to empower the “people,” are even more problematic. This is especially the case with the “communal neighborhood councils.” It seems that Chavez has keyed in to the fact that it has become fashionable on the contemporary “Left” to replace the working class with the “community” as the agent that will overcome capitalism, and to replace internationalism with localism. The regime represents the neighborhood councils as a new form of “communal participatory democracy” destined to overcome the “elitism” of bourgeois representative democracy. These councils are localized organizations, strictly party affiliated and exclusively funded by the state, where a group of families from a neighborhood are selected to lead community work on neighborhood development and local infrastructure. Their political scope is extremely limited: They make decisions on repairing streets or building houses, all the while remaining completely dependent on the state. In this environment, “participatory democracy” simply consists of the elimination of the secret ballot and thus the monitoring of opposition within the councils. Ultimately, these organizations have been a boon for Chavez, since a law has recently been passed in which Chavez’s government can overrule decisions made by local elected officials such as mayors. Since Chavez is in complete control of these councils, they have become a useful tool for him to keep disgruntled officials in check, whether they are members of his own party or affiliated with the opposition.
Then there are the cooperatives, which are also touted as the basis of the new “social economy.” Despite the rhetoric of non-capitalist, “endogenous” development, these cooperatives function chiefly as sources of cheap, temporary labor for the public sector. Small groups of workers are given financial and logistical support to enter into short-term contracts with private companies, but as often as not they end up working for PDVSA, the state oil company. Since members of these cooperatives are legally not considered workers, but self-employed associates, their labor is exempt from labor laws and subject to super-exploitation. As a result, they are often paid less than minimum wage. The cooperatives go out of business or lose government patronage if they attempt to improve their conditions.
The fact that enthusiastic observers of Chavez’s “revolutionary process” see such initiatives as the way to overcome capitalism says more about the observers’ understanding of capitalism than it does about the process itself. For such enthusiasts, capitalism equals the Washington consensus and IMF-enforced neoliberalism. In their imagination, a charitable, paternalistic state that constantly violates workers’ right of association seems to have replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the road to socialism. This is especially shameful for self-avowed Marxist supporters of Chavez such as Tariq Ali and Alan Woods, who are either not paying attention or just playing stupid with respect to El Comandante’s approach to labor.
Noam Chomsky visits Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Chavez has been an enemy of union autonomy and organized labor from day one. As early as 1999, he suspended all collective bargaining in the public administration and petroleum sectors. The state has frequently intervened in union elections, and refused to recognize leadership unsupportive of the government. Even before they backed the coup attempt, Chavez tried to destroy the old AFL-CIO affiliated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). More recently, he has succeeded in strong-arming the National Union of Workers (UNT) to surrender their autonomy and join his newfangled United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). As with the Mitsubishi case, Chavez showed his willingness to use the police to put an end to politically inconvenient mobilizations, strikes, and factory takeovers. As he put it with cynical bluntness in one speech, “We need the party and we need the unions, but we can’t let each do as they please. Unions are just like parties, they want autonomy and they want to make decisions. This is not right, we didn’t come here to fumble around. We came here to make a revolution.” When UNT joined Chavez’s party it crippled the union for years, and today the leaders who opposed the union’s surrender of autonomy have been purged. At the moment, the UNT, now headed by Chavista organizers, is considering dissolving itself altogether. To replace it and other unions, Chavez now proposes a new program of “workers councils” which, despite their revolutionary-sounding name, will be no more than servile government organizations meant to monitor and ultimately eliminate the authority of pesky labor activists. Autonomous political action by the working class is, at this point, under a full-scale assault in Venezuela.
The Bolivarian Revolution christens everything it does with high-sounding revolutionary names. Union-busting government organizations get the name of “workers councils,” party-dependant neighborhood associations become “participatory democracy,” and unfinished housing projects in depopulated areas are trumpeted as visionary “socialist cities.” Chavez has renamed the familiar tools of holding onto power, by drawing heavily upon the vocabularies of 20th century socialism. This has been most obviously the case with the regime’s use of the language of anti-imperialism. Chavez’s clownish anti-American antics, such as calling Bush the devil, and saying he had “left a smell of sulfur” at the UN, are just so many desperate publicity stunts to get negative attention from Washington. Chavez needs the American threat. It is an awkward situation for him that there are no serious plans for U.S. invasion, and that the days have passed when the Venezuelan Right was strong enough to ask Washington for support like it did in 2003. A diffuse state of emergency is a critical element of the regime’s political effectiveness. If Chavez becomes a non-issue for the U.S., it will become more difficult for him to wield anti-imperialist rhetoric, to blame the opposition for all that goes awry, and to demonize his opponents as agents of imperialism—a practice that reached its absurd nadir when the Chavista UNT organizers accused the Trotskyist labor leader Orlando Chirino of working for imperialist counterrevolution.
From what standpoint does one criticize a “socialist” regime that threatens striking workers with arrest and prosecutes labor leaders who seek to maintain union independence? From what standpoint do we oppose a military strongman who has called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “brother revolutionary”? Despite the obvious opportunism, ideological incoherence, and anti-labor politics of the regime, the question of whether it is possible to oppose Chavez from the Left is not cut and dried. Although Chavez’s regime is indeed an obstacle for truly emancipatory politics in Venezuela and around the world, it is difficult to even point this out when such an emancipatory politics has ceased to exist. As things stand, it is as if the only perspective from which to point out the incompetence, authoritarianism, corruption, and most of all, the hypocrisy of the regime, is from a desire to return to the incompetent, authoritarian, and corrupt neoliberal order that preceded it. And as things stand, such a return is the only possible result of the end of Chavez’s rule. Must the Left simply hold its nose in solidarity for what might or might not be the lesser of two evils? Should it just be glad and thank the heavens that something somewhere looks remotely like its distorted memory of what socialist revolution used to be?
Seasoned personages of the anti-capitalist Left are aware that their politics have run out of steam, and that self-deceiving optimism is the only option. In his book Pirates of the Caribbean, the 1960s radical Tariq Ali depicts Chavez, Fidel Castro, and Evo Morales as a new “axis of hope” against the evils of the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, Z Magazine contributor Gregory Wilpert continues to maintain his website venezuelanalysis.com, which reads like little more than the American public relations page for the Chavista bureaucracy. The International Socialist Organization’s Lee Sustar routinely publishes articles in support of Chavez’s PSUV and its Stalinist tactics of absorbing or destroying every other leftist organization. And Parecon author Michael Albert found no problem in signing Chavez’s farcical call for a 5th International, presumably failing to notice that among the parties invited was Mexico’s PRI, infamous for its 71-year long iron grip of the country and, among its many crimes, the notorious massacre of hundreds of protesting students in October of 1968.
For someone familiar with the history of revolutionary politics it is tempting to reproach sycophants as traitors of “real Marxism” or of “authentic socialism.” Certain Trotskyist groups would even go so far as to call these self-deceivingly optimistic intellectuals petty bourgeois anarchists, revisionists, Shachtmanites, Pabloists, or some such deviation. Unfortunately, the truth is more prosaic: the sycophants are not ideologically deviant. They are simply exhausted. They have come to terms with the fact that revolutionary anti-capitalist politics have ceased to exist as a material force in the world and are ready to grasp at the next best thing—their simulacrum. Bolivarian “21st Century Socialism” is the socialism that today’s “Left” deserves. It is the socialism that makes sense in a world where the Left is dead. It is an adequate representation of the state of emancipatory politics today.
The question stands: If authentic internationalist Marxism is dead, from what standpoint does one launch a critique of Chavez and his followers without joining the Venezuelan opposition nostalgic for neoliberalism? The only answer is history: The consciousness that the present has fallen short of what once seemed politically possible, and that this possibility could once again become available. The knowledge that there was once such a thing as an international Left that was able to intervene, transform, and lead social movements around the world in the direction of the overcoming of capitalism. The awareness that the mass politicization of the Bolivarian Revolution, which has put the word “socialism” on the lips of hundreds of thousands of working people, will end up as yet another wasted opportunity if such a Left is not reconstituted.
Admittedly, this standpoint is not much to start with. It is clearly not as immediately gratifying as the self-deceiving “optimism” of supposedly Marxist publications such as the International Socialist Review and the Monthly Review. But the game they are playing is no more than a spectator sport. Cheering for team Chavez is a way for such post-mortem leftists to hold on to dear life. It is how they justify their existence and convince themselves that they are still serving a purpose: The good fight is still being fought; even if they are helpless, they can be complacent in this helplessness, since they can always look at the next populist strongman or, even better, wait for the next American invasion of a Third World country to give them a new lease on life. But if we are to reconstitute an international revolutionary Left, the first step will be to stop kidding ourselves. People continue to struggle, but the struggle to overcome capitalism has not really been sustained. Revolutions with a hope of actually overcoming capitalism around the world are now a distant memory, at best. The current changes in Venezuela cannot contribute to any real revolution until a genuine Left challenges the regime that has instituted them. But such a feat will be impossible if we do not finally get it into our heads that the fatalistic slogan, “¡Patria, socialismo o muerte!” means the exact opposite of the visionary words, “¡Proletarios de todos los países, uníos!” |P
. James Surowiecki, “Synergy with the Devil,” The New Yorker, January 2007, <www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2007/01/08/070108ta_talk_surowiecki>.
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
From their canonization in the 1960s through their appropriation by postmodernism in the 1980s, the writings of the Frankfurt School have had their Marxian dimension minimized, vulgarized and ultimately ignored. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, the only names of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory’s roster that seem to be remembered today, have instead become characterized as anything from old-timey liberals to mystical eclectics; from Left Hegelian hippies to ivory tower elitists. According to this, the standard narrative, these thinkers abandoned Marxism in the 1940s, when the continued atrocities and political unviability of the Soviet Union turned them into Cold War liberals of varied stripes.
Such narratives, which tend to claim that the deepest insights of these thinkers were accomplished in spite of their Marxism or even in the process of overcoming it, are plain wrong. From the beginning of Horkheimer’s directorship of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory in 1930 through to Adorno’s death in 1969, the goal of the Frankfurt school was to maintain the critical purchase of a Marxian social critique as it was threatened by the accelerated process of decay that the Left began in the 1920s. A look at the Institute’s early history allows us to see how the necessity of this approach came to be. In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute—half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman and Karl August Wittfogel, were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction. They understood their task as an advancement of the sciences that would prove useful in solving the problems of a Europe-wide transition into socialism, which they saw, if not as inevitable, at least as highly likely. But as fascism reared its head in Germany and throughout Europe, the younger members of the Institute saw the necessity for a different kind of Marxist Scholarship. Beyond accumulating knowledge relevant to an orthodox Marxist line, they felt the need to take the more critical and negative approach that is required for the maintenance of an integral and penetrating understanding of society during a moment of reaction. This could be described as the politically necessary transition from Marxist positive science to Critical Theory.
After the German worker’s revolution of 1918–19 had been betrayed and crushed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the early 1920s saw a period of relative stability slowly settle upon Germany. Despite the fact that further attempts by the German Communist Party (KPD) to challenge the SPD’s rule were weak and ineffective, the possibility of Europe-wide socialist revolution continued to be a topic of conversation among Leftist intelligentsia in postwar Germany. This sense of possibility seemed justified: the Soviet Union had succeeded in surviving its civil war and from a distance seemed to be on a path to successful stabilization; the KPD’s membership continued to grow in the permissive atmosphere of the Weimar Republic; and, with the exception of Italy, Fascism did not yet appear to be an immediate threat. In spite of their deep conservatism, the Social Democrats continued to hold up Marxism as their ideology, legitimizing it and thus making it into an open, officially sanctioned field of discussion.
It was in this environment that Felix Weil, a young graduate of the Frankfurt University who, at age 20, had fought with the workers during the revolution of 1919, began to use his great inherited wealth to finance initiatives for Marxist theoretical discussion. Having written his dissertation on ‘the essence and methods of socialization’, financially supported Left wing artists such as George Grosz and taken part in the social circle around KPD members Klara Zetkin and Paul Frolich, his joking self description as a “Salon Bolshevik” was not far from the truth. One of the initiatives he financially supported was the “First Marxist Workweek,” a retreat at a hotel on the edge of the Thuringian Forest in which more than two dozen Marxist intellectuals, most of them affiliated with the KPD, gathered to discuss the latest works by Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, respectively “Marxism and Philosophy,” and the seminal “History and Class Consciousness.” Among the attendants were Korsch and Lukács themselves, Horkheimer, Zetkin, and economist Friedrich Pollock. As it turned out, thanks to Weil’s efforts, this gathering could retrospectively be seen as the first “seminar” of what would become the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory, since throughout the next decade most of its participants would become affiliated with the Institute in some function or another.
After the “Workweek” the time seemed appropriate to go forward with Weil’s project for “an institutionalization of Marxist discussion beyond the confines of middle class academia or the narrow mindedness of the communist party.” After successfully convincing the ministry of culture of the necessity of an institute for the study of sociology connected to the University of Frankfurt but independent from it, Weil’s first instinct was to appoint the director position to either Lukács or Korsch. But this proved impossible. The largely conservative professorship and administration of the University of Frankfurt—already up in arms about the study of sociology, which was to them “mere socialism”—would have strongly opposed the admittance of such politically active communists as faculty. Under these considerations, Weil was obliged to offer the directorship to Karl Grünberg, a senior Marxist economist from the University of Vienna. Grünberg had been affiliated with Austrian Social Democracy for more than a decade and had once made plans to create a social research institute with the notorious SPD theoretician Karl Kautsky at its head. At the end of 1923, once Grünberg was chosen as the director, construction of the Institute’s building on the Frankfurt University campus began.
Grünberg’s address at the inauguration of the Institute paints an optimistic picture of a world already in an inevitable transition to a freer society:
“There are pessimists who stand horrified and amazed in the midst of the ruins which the process of change brings with it…They see the ruins not just as the ruins of their own world, but of the world as such. . . . in contrast with the pessimists there are the optimists…Supported by historical experience, they see, instead of a decaying form of culture, another, more highly developed one approaching. . . . [These] people, whose numbers and influence are constantly growing, do not merely believe, wish and hope, but are firmly scientifically convinced that the emerging order will be a socialist one, that we are in the midst of the transition from capitalism to socialism and are advancing towards the latter with gathering speed.”
Grünberg’s Marxism stemmed from precisely this worldview. For him, the transition to socialism was only a matter of time and “scientific” certainty:
“It is found that the driving pressure of the material interests which are systematically at work in economic life, and their collision one with another, produce a regular progression from lesser to greater perfection. And just as, from the point of view of the materialist conception of history every single expression of the life of society is a reflection of the current form of economic life, so equally, all history—except in primitive conditions—appears to be a series of class struggles.”
This kind of mechanistic view of history would be precisely the kind of Marxism that later members of the Frankfurt Institute such as Adorno, Benjamin and Marcuse would turn their backs on. For them, as well as for earlier Hegelian Marxists such as Lukács and Korsch, Dialectical Materialism was not the science that predicted the automatic transformation of society. It was instead a kind of critical consciousness that emanated from within the contradictory character of society that pointed to the possibility of overcoming those very contradictions. But to see Grünberg’s traditional, mechanistic Marxism as mere wrong-headedness or as a quaint artifact of the times would be to not do it justice historically. The political situation at the time seemed to indicate that a transformation of the social order was coming. It was not necessary to be affiliated to a particular party to see the recent European revolutions and the formation of the Communist Third International as the harbingers of a new era of an all out battle between capitalism and socialism—a battle out of which socialism might very well emerge victorious. In this historical period, before the series of defeats the Left suffered throughout the majority of the 20th century, to think that the simply “more advanced” character of one social system would automatically replace the current, crisis ridden one might not have been as obviously over-optimistic as it appears today.
This worldview was the reason the research of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research during these years included little reference to the quintessential recurring themes of the Frankfurt School as we remember it today: aesthetic theory, German idealism, and Freudian psychoanalysis. This set of theoretical tools would have seemed, from the perspective of Grünberg’s “optimism,” irrelevant: his mechanistic Marxism, affirmed by history’s concurrent unfolding, would have taken them as tools of bourgeois enlightenment made obsolete by Marxist theory, which needed only to be put in practice to render this kind of enlightenment wholly obsolete. This was an attitude that, at this point, only the Hegelian Marxists Lukács and Korsch had explicitly warned against. Quoting Marx’s dictum, “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized,” Korsch had criticized theoreticians of the Second International for their assumption that “scientific Marxism” had effectively superseded philosophy—a criticism that could have very well been applied to Grünberg.
It was in the spirit of this “optimistic” traditional, mechanistic Marxism that the Institute began to output its large amount of research. A look at the titles of some of these projects shows a picture of the extent to which the Institute understood its task as the collection of empirical research within the framework of revolutionary politics: The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System by Henryk Grossman; Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917–1927 by Friedrich Pollock; The Economy and Society of China by Karl Wittfogel; The Theory of the Capitalist Agrarian Crisis: a Contribution to the Explanation of Structural Changes in American Agriculture by Julian Gumperz.
By the late 20s, with such research underway, the Institute was in fact shaping up to become what Weil had wanted it to be from the very beginning: a “foundation similar to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow—equipped with a staff of professors and students, with libraries and archives”—an institute which would be worthy of one day being “presented to a [soon to come] German Social republic.” On the one hand, the Institute’s endowment was large enough and on the other, its curriculum independent enough from the conservative Frankfurt University, that it could give ample and exclusive sponsorship to young Marxist graduate students, from mainstream Communist Party members to Trotskyists. Its facilities housed a library of more than 37,000 volumes and an archive of historical documents on the German labor movement and the Revolution of 1918–19, a collection whose focus and scope were one of a kind. Weil and Grünberg had created an institution that saw its present academic role as only a preparation for its real role: the center for the social sciences in a post-revolutionary Germany.
But the revolution never came. In fact, the political situation was taking a sharp turn to the Right. From 1926 on, it became a common practice of hostile conservative forces within the university and the government to dig up the communist past of Institute affiliates, such as Weil and Grossman, as a way to rile up dissent against them. This was made easier when in 1930, the Weimar administration, in its last struggle to maintain stability in a country that had become politically polarized into Communist and Nazi camps, made it illegal for people on the governments payroll to belong to either of these parties. Finally, in the same year’s election the Nazi party won a majority in parliament. Left wing students of the Frankfurt University, including some graduate students affiliated with the Institute, had to organize security contingents after Nazi youth began demonstrating at the university gates. Such defensive tactics could offer only temporary protection. The election of Hitler as chancellor was only two years away.
In 1930, two years after a stroke left Grünberg unable to continue his work at the helm of the Institute, Horkheimer replaced him as director. He shared none of his predecessors “scientific” optimism. In view of the threat that the rising tide of Nazism presented to an academic institution run by Jewish Marxists, Horkheimer transferred the Institute’s finances to Switzerland and set the stage for flight. Horkheimer’s inaugral speech was very different from the one Grünberg gave only seven years before. He spoke, not of an unstoppable thrust towards socialism, but instead referred to the necessity for a backward glance, an accounting for the failure of the emancipation that had only a few years ago seemed just around the corner. He did this by proposing a look at the roots of Marxian Critical Theory, the enlightenment philosophies of Kant and Hegel, together with an approach to empirical sociology informed by Freudian psychoanalysis and focused on mass psychology. For Horkheimer the traditional Marxist economics of Grünberg, Grossman and Wittfogel were no longer able to explain the shape the world was beginning to take.
The regression in political consciousness that had taken place, since the failure of the German revolution of 1918, culminated in the popularity and electoral success of the Nazi party. Horkheimer’s pessimism, shared by younger members of the Institute such as Marcuse and Adorno, was a recognition of this fact. To some critics, the pessimistic turn towards theory that the Frankfurt School took in the 1930s represents a cowardly abandonment of revolutionary orthodoxy towards a safe liberalism; to most of its advocates as the fortunate correcting of the more “dogmatic” aspects of orthodoxy. And yet, seen in this historical context, it was neither. It was instead the result of an immeasurable political failure. Kant, Hegel, Durkheim, Freud—the enlightenment the Frankfurt School’s brand of Marxism revisited, having once seemed a fait accompli to be safely filed away as a past victory, was now in danger of being negated, forgotten, neutralized. If Grünberg’s brand of orthodoxy once dictated the obsolescence of this kind of enlightenment, the political events of 1933 had been such a giant step backwards that it was now forward thinking orthodoxy that had become unable to grasp the present. This is what Adorno meant when he began his own retrospective summation, “Negative Dialectics” in 1966, with a melancholy inversion of Marx’s dictum: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” |P
Platypus Review 2 | February 2008
There was a gathering of about fifteen people on the evening of December the 13th at Mess Hall, a small artist-run storefront in Rogers Park dedicated to community education and organizing. Sponsored by the 49th St. Underground and the Industrial Workers of the World, the topic of the event was described as “anti-capitalist street protest,” but the presenter made it clear from the beginning that he was going to talk about the Seattle anti-WTO summit protests of 1999 and their aftermath. He said that he was associated with a Black Bloc, but emphasized that he was not a representative. According to him, less than an organization, a Black Bloc is a strategy, a kind of network of small affinity groups who, by using their own brand of “direct action,” have been attempting to undermine events such as the one in Seattle, or, in another well-publicized example, the G8 summit at Genoa in 2001.
Like the talk given by the presenter, the pamphlet distributed at the meeting, “How to Fight a War?” had at its center the assumption that the “Battle of Seattle” of 1999 had been an unqualified victory for “radical politics” (a term that was used by the presenter and most of the attendees as something with unquestionable value and self-evident meaning.) The Black Bloc strategy had gained currency during these protests, since they provided the most public exposure to their tactic of confrontational, open protest—a tactic of property destruction and rioting. A great amount of nostalgia surrounded the events in Seattle, and the question that the discussion at Mess Hall was meant to address was that of the diminishing impact of “radical politics” in the years since these protests. According to this account, despite the satisfactory results of mobilizations such as the one in Genoa, the “summit hopping” model of anti-globalization protesting had become exhausted. The anti-war movement that followed, in turn, had been taken over by what the presenter described as “Marxists and other authoritarian types.” Since the high point of Seattle, things had thus gone downhill, and a new wave of radicalization was now in order.
The two-hour long open discussion that followed the presentation thus focused primarily on tactics. There were many questions: Is property destruction a good idea? Should this kind of anarchist direct action be allied with trade unions? Should there be a centralized organization for this kind of protest or should it continue be based on affinity groups? The issue that seemed to be present in everyone’s minds but somehow necessarily ignored was the issue of purpose¬––of determining a goal to these activities. The answer for many in the room, especially those associated with the Black Bloc, was something along the lines that life should be lived as class struggle; that the end-goal of being a “radical” was to cause enough damage so that the “spells cast by corporate hegemony” could be destroyed. It is important to mention that, despite using the verbiage of class struggle—this terminology was not used in the Marxian sense. While for Marx class struggle was the expression of a contradiction in society to be overcome by producing real historical change, for those associated with the Black Bloc, class struggle consisted of a kind of lifestyle. That is, it consisted of a way of living somehow “outside capitalism”—a way of life that constantly gives the finger to those in power in solidarity with those who are oppressed.
Underlying the perspectives on tactics and strategy in this meeting—which was populated by self-avowed anarchists—was the conviction that in spite of the necessity to fundamentally change society, to even think of taking power was out of the question. Throughout the discussion a palpable and irrational fear that any kind of empowerment for an organized movement on the Left could produce horrible “hierarchies” was coupled with a belief that real change in society is ultimately impossible. The stasis to which those associated with the Black Bloc conceded seemed to be the inheritance of a long series of defeats on the Left throughout the 20th century. And this is no wonder: from Russia in ’17 to China in ’49 to France in ’68, the most substantial attempts of the Left to overcome capitalism have produced little but more of the same horror and waste. What the undercurrents of the discussion summed up to was a sense of desperation—a sense of desperation that made the central question in the minds of those in the meeting not “why should we fight this fight?” but instead “how much damage can we make?”
The darkest manifestation of this kind of attitude was that from time to time those involved in a black bloc would bring up the question of whether hurting people would be right or wrong in their struggle. This kind of preparedness for violence was deeply unsettling. It was as if, having run out of options, all that anti-capitalism had before it was not only property destruction but also, possibly, terrorism. |P
Platypus Review 1 | November 2007
My first impression upon entering Haseeb Ahmed’s installation, “The Common Sense,” which opened at Around the Coyote Gallery on September 5th was one of open space. It was an openness that contrasted sharply with the hundreds of paintings, photographs, sculptures that cluttered the rest of the many other galleries that opened that Night in Wicker Park’s FlatIron Building. Such a contrast pointed out the fact that, more a piece of interior architecture than a collection of installed objects, the central element to be experienced in Ahmed’s installation was space itself. But Ahmed is no Richard Serra, and he is less interested in having us judge our experience at a purely cognitive level than in inviting us to inhabit this space with our attention focused on its function as a site of social practice—this practice being, namely, Islam.
Haseeb Ahmed was born in Ohio to an observant Muslim family of Pakistani immigrants and was educated in interior architecture, sculpture and Marxist critical theory. With “The Common Sense” Ahmed’s purpose—and the reason why he has received such unexpected attention (and misinterpretation) from the local press—was to temporarily convert Around the Coyote Gallery into a fully functional mosque. For other reviewers of this work, knowing the artist’s origin and purpose seemed to be enough to elicit the expected exercise of the kind of politically correct rhetoric that exoticizes in the name of tolerance, a trap that tends to lead to a mere affirmation the “muslimness” of the work at a political level, while failing to investigate what the gesture of building a mosque in an art gallery does as art. This definition of a practice before the fact is the very problem that Ahmed addresses with this work. In asking us to inhabit his installation both as a mosque and as an artwork, he is asking us to simultaneously inhabit a space of aesthetic reception as a space of worship and to critique the practice of worship as one would critique the experience of an artwork.
Ahmed’s mosque is there and not there; it is a kind of ghost-mosque. Its columns stand truncated, its arches are merely hinted at. They are built out of the most familiar of materials: unpainted wooden two-by-four boards. Clustered into beehive-like formations, the mosque’s decorative muqarnas tiles, manufactured from commonplace polyurethane foam used to repair cracks in concrete, hang from ceilings and climb up columns following no pattern but that which their own shapes dictate. By means of this systematic incompleteness, the mosque surrenders a kind of self-legitimation, what Ahmed calls a “fog of sanctity”, with the purpose of putting into evidence the subjective input that goes into the conceptualizing—into the making an object—of the practice of Islam. Striking evidence of this subjective input can be found in that many attendees spoke of “arches” as the main element in the installation while in fact the arches were absent—only there by way of suggestion.
What Ahmed proposes with his installation is paradoxical: to practice a religion while remaining critical to it—to contemplate religious practice at a distance while remaining engaged in it. Needless to say, such a critical distance is antithetical to the idea of faith. Despite the prayers and lectures that are to be given in the installation, an art gallery turned into a mosque remains an art gallery. And while it can never truly become a place of worship, the isolation of religious practice from the rest of the world by way of aesthetic distancing has the potential to de-naturalize a clear-cut relationship between society and religion, thus putting this relationship into question, leaving it up for reconceptualization or dismissal. As Ahmed himself puts it: “all things in society can and must be unfolded from the universal as the summation of society as a whole. It is only from this perspective that we can finally ask ‘What is the future of Islam?’, which actually means, ‘Could it have one at all?’” |P
Ahmed’s exhibition, “The Common Sense” opened from September 5 to October 14 at Around the Coyote Gallery, in Chicago.
Platypus Review 1 | November 2007
Hungarian literary critic and political theorist Georg Lukács is generally recognized, along with thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg, as one of the most influential intellectual figures of twentieth century Marxism. And while Lukács’ reading of Marx is possibly the most sophisticated and intellectually rigorous to be found in the century and a half long trajectory of historical materialism, his legacy suffers from the “misfortune” that, unlike Gramsci and Luxemburg, he survived what is known as the heroic period of Third International Marxism: the late teens and early twenties. Not sharing the embattled demise and much deserved martyrdom of these figures, it has become easy for many subsequent Leftists to malign a thinker who unfortunately followed his convictions to the historical train wreck that they came to—namely, the left after Stalin—a train wreck that in the present threatens to obscure our vision of his contribution. Those of us that are today interested in the political possibilities of a serious re-engagement with Marxian critical theory have much to lose if the image of ‘Lukács the cranky Stalinist party-intellectual’ of the fifties and sixties succeeds in eclipsing the memory of ‘Lukács the radical dialectician’ of the early twenties—we have much to lose if the carnage and decay that followed the brilliance of his insights scares us into seeing them merely as complex rationalizations for the use of political terror.
Marxism at a Crossroads
In 1918, upon the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Georg Lukács joined the Hungarian communist party, a decision that was regarded, by close personal acquaintances, as sudden and unexpected. Yet in a work like Theory of the Novel, Lukács’ greatest accomplishment preceding his turn to politics, one can already observe a synthesis of elements—a Hegelian approach to history, a Weberian critique of instrumental reason, and an anarchist-utopian undercurrent—that, in retrospect, make the thinker’s turn to Leftist politics seem more than predictable. In addition, this was indeed the moment for the introduction of a dose of realism into the Hungarian intellectual’s long-held utopianism: The weakness of the liberal Karolyi government that replaced Austrian rule in Hungary, the wave of revolutionary consciousness and organization that swept Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war, and the success of the Bolshevik revolution made it seem that the moment for the radical transformation of all human society was at hand.
Lukács immediately began to publish brilliant polemical works attacking ideas of intellectual opponents of Marxism. Examples of these works are “The Question of Intellectual Leadership”, a retort to the criticisms raised by his old friend Karl Polanyi against the Communist International, and “What is Orthodox Marxism?”, a critique of the revisionist Marxism of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. The latter theoretical current consisted of an attempt to remove what Eduard Bernstein, its most notorious proponent, called the “philosophical trappings” of Marx’s theory, namely its Hegelian and revolutionary dimensions. For the revisionists, to do this would allow Marxism to become a kind of neutral, “objective” economics, an analytical tool that could calculate the destructive aspects of capitalism in a way that previous political economies had not been able to. With this tool in hand, it would then be possible to make small reforms so that, in time, the economic system could be controlled in a way that would smoothly, gradually bring the transition from capitalism to socialism. Because of this vision of social progress, for Bernstein and company social revolution would doubtlessly have been counterproductive.
Despite all their honest liberalism, Europe’s social democratic parties stood as a major conservative force in a postwar situation that left Europe’s future hanging on the balance between revolution and all-out right-wing reaction. It is in this context that we must regard the political substance of Lukács’ early Marxist essays. And while Lukács was an adamant supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, to take the common view that his writings are limited to a mere philosophical defense of the tactics of the Bolsheviks undermines his relevance to the present. Starting with “What is Orthodox Marxism?” Lukács dedicated himself to attacking a tendency that would become all too familiar throughout the twentieth century: the attempt to reduce Marxism to the framework of an affirmative ideology or a positive science. Commonplace instances of this tendency were to be found not only in Social Democratic revisionism but also, later, in the thought of Stalinist intellectuals (including the later Lukács himself). Examples of this kind of thinking include the understanding of Marx’s thought as a political economy in favor of the working class; the attempt to use historical materialism as an anthropological tool exempt from politics and capable of explaining human relations throughout all historical periods; and, finally, the holding up of Marxism as a description of the mechanism by which human progress will inevitably come about. What these misapprehensions have in common with each other is the idea that the insights to the problems of history and society that Marxian theory offers provide direct, unmediated knowledge of the way social reality works— that, like the positive sciences, Marxism can stand outside of the movement of history and, as an objective observer, make its formulations and predictions objectively.
Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat
In this context, we must regard Lukács’ most important work, the essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, as an account of the social origin of this kind of positivism and as an attempt to work through it and go beyond it using Marx’s own categories. For this purpose, Lukács puts the Hegelian dimension of Marx’s thought front and center, pointing at its political significance. He does this by introducing two concepts: the phenomenon of reification and the idea of the proletariat as ‘the identical subject-object of history’. The purpose of these concepts is the dialectical parsing out of Marx’s use of the categories of ideology and alienation. In a Hegelian way, Lukács does not see ideology and alienation merely as bad things, but as the elements that condition thought in modern society, which tends to a conservative justification of things as they are while simultaneously opening the way to a potential transformation of all human relations.
The concept of reification, which literally means ‘to make thing-like’, is elaborated by Lukács into the phenomenon that characterizes the fate of all human relations in modern capitalist society. It is the way in which social processes become atomized and objectified in a society that universally mediates all of its productive activity by means of units of time –something most evident in, but not limited to, wage labor. As he puts it at the beginning of the essay: “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires…an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” It is this thing-like character of time, thought, and social processes that produces the fundamental antinomy that conditions and limits all modern thought: the division between the abstract and the concrete, theory and practice, subject and object. Lukács argues that this antinomy is deeply enmeshed in modern subjectivity, and that, while it has made possible the great advances modern society has made in knowledge and productivity, it is also responsible for the kind of thinking in which problems of knowledge become dissociated from society and the aim of science, philosophy and politics becomes limited to calculating the processes that shape the world instead of judging them qualitatively with the aim of fundamentally transforming them. As Lukács puts it: “The more highly developed [knowledge] becomes and the more scientific, the more it will become a formally closed system of partial laws. It will then find that the world lying beyond its confines…its own concrete underlying reality lies, methodologically and in principle, beyond its grasp.”
This separation of thought and its object—of the faculties of understanding and the reality that underlies them—makes the laws of social mechanisms seem to be out of the reach of knowledge. They appear, not as historical products of our own activity, but as the fixed, eternal laws of nature. A very clear example of this is the way that economists of the 18th century understood certain basic economic laws as being natural laws of human interaction extending to the dawn of history. Such a condition of thought, in which the social world appears to present its conditions as necessary, is Marx’s definition of ideology. It is a product of what Lukács calls the reified or thing-like character of social life. But again, highlighting the dialectical, Hegelian character of Marx’s thought, Lukács describes this not only as a one-sided process of alienation that is to be simply avoided or eliminated, but as a way in which society acquires knowledge of itself, a knowledge that presents the opportunity of self-overcoming; it is the way in which society is able to make itself into an object of critique. This, Lukács argues, is the purpose of working-class politics—it is the reason for which the Hegelian term “identical subject-object of history” can be applied to the working class and its political consciousness. While remaining a product and a necessary part of modern capitalist society, the working class, its demands, and the theoretical elaboration of these demands into a system of political thought are placed at the same time in immanent opposition to it. For this reason, the working class stands, in Lukács’ account, both within and against society. Leftist politics—understood as the politics of the working class—is thus this society’s self-knowledge and self-criticism, both the subject and the object of historical change. Politics is seen in this way as a form of knowledge that understands the world not as static, but as historically bound and in a constant state of becoming.
A Problematic Legacy
Unfortunately, by the time Lukács published Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat in 1922, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, in which he participated as minister of culture and military official, had already been defeated by right-wing forces—likewise, other socialist revolutions of the period were defeated or simply self-destructed. The late twenties and early thirties witnessed the Stalinization of the Soviet Union and the general dismantlement of the project of world socialism, which only a few years earlier seemed to be within reach. Through these and subsequent changes, Lukács continued to participate in politics, even serving as a member of parliament in the Stalinist regime of post-World War 2 Hungary. Throughout this period he remained, for the most part, uncritical towards the further developments that devastated the Left on a world scale. In the writings of the 1960s meant to repudiate his work of the 20s, Lukács summoned up all his rhetorical brilliance to engage in precisely the kind of thinking that, decades before, he had criticized. These writings are an affirmation of things as they stood—for the Lukács of this period, the “actually existing socialism” of the eastern bloc was human freedom in the process of working itself out. His earlier critique of the very foundation of modern subjectivity had become, to him, mere “ultra-leftist” idealism—as he puts it, “an attempt to out-Hegel Hegel”. These writings demonstrate less some kind of degeneration of thought than a bitter capitulation to the failure of the project he dedicated his life to. They are the sad testament of the tragic history of the decay of Leftist politics throughout the twentieth century, a century that has now begun to recede into the past, becoming historical. Today it is up to us which version of Lukács—the radical dialectician or the bitter party official—we are willing to remember, keeping in mind that regardless of our own need for an “objective” assessment of this thinker’s life, this memory—this knowledge of the past—will necessarily be of a political nature. |P