Without a socialist party, there is no class struggle, only rackets
Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016
HORKHEIMER’S REMARKABLE ESSAY “On the sociology of class relations” (1943)1 is continuous with Adorno’s contemporaneous “Reflections on class theory” (1942) as well as his own “The authoritarian state” (1940/42), which similarly mark the transformation of Marx and Engels’s famous injunction in the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggles.” All of these writings were inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “On the concept of history” (AKA “Theses on the philosophy of history,” 1940), which registered history’s fundamental crisis. Instead, for Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, history has become the history of “rackets.”2 As Horkheimer concludes his draft, parenthetically citing Marx on Hegelian methodology, “the anatomy of man is key to that of the ape:” the past is explicable from the present, in the form of clique power-politics. But this change is for Horkheimer a devolution -- regression. It stemmed from the failure of proletarian socialist revolutionary politics after 1917-19. Without Marxism, there was no class struggle.3
The significance of this change is the relation of the individual to the collective in capitalism. This affects the character of consciousness, and thus the role of theory: the critical theory of the capitalist totality -- Marxism -- is fundamentally altered. Specifically, the role of working-class political parties in developing this consciousness is evacuated. At stake is what Horkheimer later (in his 1956 conversation with Adorno translated as Towards a New Manifesto ) called, simply, the “memory of socialism.” It disappears. This was Horkheimer’s primary concern, why he points out that the socialist party was not focused on fighting against exploitation, and was indeed indifferent to it. This is because exploitation does not distinguish capitalism from other epochs of history; only the potential possibility for socialism does. That is why, without socialist politics, the pre-capitalist past reasserts itself, in the form of rackets.
At the conclusion of “The authoritarian state,” Horkheimer wrote that, “with the return to the old free enterprise system, the entire horror would start again from the beginning under new management.” Regarding the specific topic stated in the title of this essay in particular, we should note Horkheimer’s unequivocal observation in “The authoritarian state” that,
“Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.”4
If there was a “sociology of class relations” to be had, then it would be, as usual for the Frankfurt School, a “negative” and not positive phenomenon. The issue was how to grasp the significance of the original proletarian socialist revolutionary “will toward freedom” degenerating into a matter of mere “sociology” at all. We need to pay attention to the problem indicated by the “On . . .” in the title of Horkheimer’s essay. “Class” in Marx’s sense was not amenable to sociology; but “rackets” are. Sociology is about groups; but the proletariat for Marx was not a sociological group but rather a negative condition of society. The proletariat in capitalism was for Marx a negative phenomenon indicating the need for socialism. The political task of meeting that necessity was what Marx called “proletarian socialism.”
Horkheimer was in keeping with Marx on this score. As the former SYRIZA Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent (October 23, 2015) interview, Marx was not concerned with “equality” or “justice,” but “liberty” -- freedom.5 Moreover, as Varoufakis correctly observes, for Marx, capitalism is a condition of unfreedom for the capitalists and not only for the workers.6
As Marx wrote, at least as early as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the capitalist class is constituted as such, as a class, only in response to the demands of the workers. It treats the demands of the workers as impossible under capitalism, as a more or less criminal violation of society. It is only in meeting the political challenge of a unified capitalist class that the working class constitutes itself as a class “in itself,” not only subjectively but also objectively. For Marx, the historical turning point in this development was Chartism in England, which inaugurates the “class struggle” of the working class per se.
Only in fulfilling the task of proletarian socialism, transcending not only the workers’ (competing, racket) economic interests in capitalism but also democracy in bourgeois society, that is, coming up against the limits of liberalism, does the proletariat become a class “for itself” -- on the way to “abolishing itself” in overcoming the negative condition of society in capitalism: its politics is not about one group replacing another. But Chartism in the U.K., like the revolutions of 1848-49 on the Continent, failed. For Marx, this is the need for “revolution in permanence” (1850) indicated by the failure of the democratic revolution and of the “social republic” in 1848. This is why Adorno (1966) characterized the critical concept of “society” itself, negatively, as originating “around 1848.” The Chartists’ last act was to translate Marx and Engels’s Manifesto.7
So what, for Marx, was missing in 1848? This is key to what is missing for Horkheimer a hundred years later: an adequate political party for proletarian socialism; the means for making capitalism a political issue.
The role of the political party, specifically as non-identical with the workers' consciousness, both individually and collectively, was to actually preserve the individuality of the workers -- as well as of intellectuals! -- that is otherwise liquidated in the corporate collectives of capitalist firms, labor unions and nation-states. These rackets have replaced the world party of proletarian socialist revolution, which was itself a dialectical expression of the totality of market relations and of the otherwise chaotic disorder of the concrete conditions of the workers. For Horkheimer, workers related to the political party individually, and only as such constituted themselves as part of a class -- in revolutionary political struggle to overcome capitalism through socialism. It was not that Lenin’s party caused the liquidation of the individual, but the later travesty of “Leninism” in Stalinism was the effect of a broader and deeper socially regressive history of capitalism -- what Marx called “Bonapartism” in the 19th century -- that the 20th century authoritarian state and its concomitant “sociological” problem of political “atomization” expressed.
Liquidating the political party paves the way for conformism: individuality in society instead becomes individualism, whether of persons or corporate bodies. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Not only as wish but in fact. By contrast, the party was the negative political discipline adequate to the societal crisis of liberal capitalism in self-contradiction. But for Horkheimer, now, instead positivity rules, in a direct authoritarian manner that capitalism eludes. Avoidance of the party means avoiding capitalism -- which suits the power of the rackets as such.
The problem of society’s domination by anonymous social forces was revealed by the struggle against exploitation, which demonstrated the limits of the power of the capitalists and hence the problem of and need to transform “society” as such. The “social question” dawned in the political crisis of 1848: the limits of the democratic republic. This becomes replaced by overt power relations that are mystified, by appearing to know no limits. For Horkheimer, following Lenin8, the party's struggle for socialism picked up where the struggle against exploitation reached its limits; without the party there is no struggle for socialism: no pointing beyond but only accommodating capitalism as nature -- or at least as a condition seemingly permanent to society.
This is why Horkheimer likens the ideology of organized "racket" capitalism in the 20th century to traditional civilization, by contrast with the liberal capitalism of the 19th century mediated by markets. Indeed, the problem with the rackets is that they falsify precisely the universalism of ideology, which in liberalism could be turned into a negative critique, an index of falsity. Universality is no longer claimed, so the universal condition of domination by capital is rendered occult and illegible. As Adorno put it, “The whole is the false.” Only by confronting the negative totality of capitalism politically was class struggle possible. The power-struggles of rackets do not point beyond themselves. There is no history. | P
Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/horkheimer/content/pageview/6591478>. See the symposium on Horkheimer's essay with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), from which this essay is taken: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. ↩
Horkheimer specified the concept of “rackets” in “On the sociology of class relations” as follows:
“The concept of the racket referring to the big and to the small units struggling for as great a share as possible of the surplus value designates all such groups from the highest capitalistic bodies down to the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. It has arisen as a theoretical concept when, by the increasing absoluteness of the profit system the disproportion between the functions of the ruling class in production and the advantages which they draw from it became even more manifest than at the time of . . . [Marx’s] Capital.” ↩
Rosa Luxemburg had a half-century earlier expressed this succinctly in her October 3, 1898 speech to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), that, “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle:”
“Think about it: what really constitutes the socialist character of our whole movement? The really practical struggle falls into three categories: the trade-union struggle, the struggle for social reforms, and the struggle to democratize the capitalist state. Are these three forms of our struggle really socialism? Not at all. Take the trade-union movement first! Look at England: not only is it not socialist there, but it is in some respects an obstacle to socialism. Social reform is also emphasized by Academic Socialists, National Socialists, and similar types. And democratization is specifically bourgeois. The bourgeoisie had already inscribed democracy on its banner before we did. . . .
“Then what is it in our day-to-day struggles that makes us a socialist party? It can only be the relation between these three practical struggles and our final goals. It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle. And by final goal we must not mean, as [Wolfgang] Heine has said, this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. . . . This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.” (Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>.) ↩
Max Horkheimer, “The authoritarian state,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 117. ↩
See also Horkheimer’s “The little man and the philosophy of freedom,” in Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52. There, Horkheimer wrote that,
“[A]lthough [the capitalists] did not themselves create the world, one cannot but suspect that they would have made it exactly as it is. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible . . . [n]ot only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.”
Horkheimer paraphrased Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family (1845), where they wrote that,
“The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.” (Quoted in Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” part III “The standpoint of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1971], 149. Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm>.) ↩
See David Black, “The elusive threads of historical progress: The early Chartists and the young Marx and Engels,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011 – January 2012), available on-line at: </2011/12/01/elusive-threads-of-historical-progress/>. ↩
See Lenin's What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished "socialist" from "trade union consciousness:" "We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals." Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm>.
Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that, "It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this Lenin sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things." Trans. Frederik van Gelder at: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_mh_grossmann_letter.html>. Original letter in German: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_MH_Grossmann_letter_DEU.pdf>. ↩
Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016
Marx and Spencer's facing graves (photograph by Christian Fuchs)
HERBERT SPENCER’S GRAVE faces Marx’s at Highgate Cemetery in London. At his memorial, Spencer was honored for his anti-imperialism by Indian national liberation advocate and anti-colonialist Shyamji Krishnavarma, who funded a lectureship at Oxford in Spencer’s name.
What would the 19th century liberal, Utilitarian and Social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was perhaps the most prominent, widely read and popular philosopher in the world during his lifetime -- that is, in Marx’s lifetime -- have to say to Marxists or more generally to the left, when such liberalism earned not only Marx’s own scorn but also Nietzsche’s criticism? Nietzsche referred to Spencer and his broad appeal as the modern enigma of “the English psychologists.” Nietzsche critiqued what he took to be Spencer’s assumption of a historically linear-evolutionary development and improvement of human morality leading to a 19th century epitome; where Nietzsche found the successive “transvaluations of values” through profound reversals of “self-overcoming” (On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, 1887). Nietzsche regarded modern liberal morality not as a perfection but rather as a challenge and task to achieve an “over-man,” that, failing, threatened to result in a nihilistic dead-end of “the last man” instead. Marx regarded Spencerian liberalism as an example of the decrepitude of bourgeois-revolutionary thought in decadence. Marx’s son-in-law, the French socialist Paul Lafargue, wrote, just after Marx’s death, against Spencer’s “bourgeois pessimism”, to which he offered a Marxist optimism (“A few words with Mr. Herbert Spencer,” 1884).1 Such Marxism fulfilled Nietzsche’s “pessimism of the strong.” By the late 19th century, Marxists could be confident about transcending bourgeois society. Not so today.
Spencer’s distinction of “militant” vs. “industrial” society (The Principles of Sociology vol. 2, 1879/98) -- that is to say, the distinction of traditional civilization vs bourgeois society -- is still, unfortunately, quite pertinent today, and illuminates a key current blind-spot on the ostensible "Left," especially regarding the phenomenon of war. Spencer followed the earlier classical liberal Benjamin Constant’s observation (in "The liberty of the Ancients as compared with that of the Moderns," 1816) that moderns get through commerce what the ancients got through war; and that for moderns war is always regrettable and indeed largely unjustifiably criminal, whereas for ancients war was virtuous -- among the very highest virtues. Do we moderns sacrifice ourselves for the preservation and glory of our specific “culture,” as “militants” do, or rather dedicate ourselves to social activity that facilitates universal freedom -- a value unknown to the ancients? Does the future belong to the constant warfare of particular cultural differences, or to human society? Marx thought the latter.
The question is whether we think that we will fight or, rather, exchange and produce our way to freedom. Is freedom to be achieved through “militant” or rather “industrial” society? Marx assumed the latter.
When we seek to extol our political leaders today, we do not depict them driving a tank but waking at 5 o’clock and staying up past midnight to do society’s business. We do not speak of their scars earned in combat but their grey hairs accumulated in office. Not enjoying the spoils of war on a dais but getting in their daily morning jog to remain fit for work. We judge them not as cunning warriors but as diligent workers -- and responsible negotiators. In our society, it is not the matter of a battle to win but a job to do. Carl Schmitt thought that this has led to our dehumanization. But few would agree.
What would have appeared commonplace to Spencer’s contemporary critics, such as Nietzsche and Marx, must strike us today, rather, as profoundly insightful and indeed critical of our society. This is due to the historical regression of politics and society since Marx’s time, and, moreover, to the liquidation of Marxism. What Marx would have regarded as fatally one-sided and undialectical in Spencer, would today seem adequate to the prevailing condition, in the absence of the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. The Marxist critique of liberalism has been rendered moot, not in the sense of liberalism’s actual social supersession but by historical regression. Society has fallen below the historical threshold of not only socialism but of classical liberalism -- of bourgeois emancipation itself. Not only have we fallen below the criteria of Kant and Hegel that surpassed 18th century Empiricism, we have fallen below its 19th century successor, Positivism, as well. The question is the status today of liberalism as ideology. It is utopian. As Adorno put it, it is both promise and sham.
Militant and industrial tendencies confront each other today not as different societies, but as opposed aspects of the same society, however contradictorily and antagonistically, in capitalism. Similarly, the phases of “religious,” “metaphysical” and “positive” forms do not succeed one another sequentially in a linear development but rather interact in a dynamic of social history. What Spencer regarded as regressive “metaphysics” remains valid in capitalism, as “ideology” calling for dialectical critique. We cannot now claim to address problems in the clear air of Enlightenment.
If Adorno, for instance, critiqued sociological “positivism,” this was not as a Romantic anti-positivist such as Max Weber, but rather as a critique of positive sociology as ideology in capitalism. For Adorno, positivism and Heideggerian ontology, as well as Weberian “cultural sociology,” opposed each other in an antinomy of capitalism that would be overcome not in one principle triumphing over another, but rather in the antinomy itself being succeeded dialectically in freedom. Weber denied freedom; whereas Spencer assumed it. Both avoided the specific problem of capitalism. To take a condition of unfreedom for freedom is the most salient phenomenon of ideology. This is what falsified positivism as liberal Enlightenment, its false sense of freedom as already achieved that still actually tasked society. Freedom is not to be taken as an achieved state but a goal of struggle.
An emancipated society would be “positivist” -- Enlightened and liberal -- in ways that under capitalism can only be ideologically false and misleading. Positivism should therefore be understood as a desirable goal beyond rather than a possibility under capitalism. The problem with Herbert Spencer is that he took capitalism -- grasped partially and inadequately as bourgeois emancipation -- to be a condition of freedom that would need yet to be really achieved. If “metaphysics,” contra positivism, remains valid in capitalism, then this is as a condition to be overcome. Capitalist metaphysics is a real symptom of unfreedom. Positivism treats this as merely an issue of mistaken thinking, or to be worked out through “scientific” methodology, whereas it is actually a problem of society requiring political struggle. The antinomy of positivism vs metaphysics is not partisan but social. As Adorno observed, the same individual could and would be scientifically Positivist and philosophically ontological-Existentialist.
Spencer’s opposition to “socialism” in the 19th century was in its undeniable retrograde illiberal aspect, what Marx called “reactionary socialism.” But Marx offered a perspective on potentially transcending socialism’s one-sidedness in capitalism. Spencer was entirely unaware of this Marxian dialectic. Marx agreed with Spencer on the conservative-reactionary and regressive character of socialism. Marx offered a dialectic of socialism and liberalism presented by their symptomatic and diagnostic antinomy in capitalism that pointed beyond itself. 18th century liberalism’s insufficiency to the 19th century problem of capitalism necessitated socialist opposition; but liberalism still offered a critique of socialism that would need to be fulfilled to be transcended, and not dismissed let alone defeated as such.
Only in overcoming capitalism through socialism could, as Marx put it, humanity face its condition “with sober senses.” This side of emancipation from capital, humanity remains trapped in a “phantasmagoria” of bourgeois social relations become self-contradictory and self-destructive in capital. This phantasmagoria was both collective and individual -- socialist and liberal -- in character. Spencer naturalized this antinomy. His libertarian anti-statism and its broad, popular political appeal down through the 20th century was the necessary result of the continuation of capitalism and its discontents.
Spencer regarded the problem as a historical holdover of traditional civilization to be left behind rather than as the new condition of bourgeois society in capitalist crisis that Marx recognized needed to be, but could not be, overcome in Spencer’s liberal terms. Marx agreed with Spencer on the goal, but differed, crucially, over the nature of the obstacle and, hence, how to get there from here. Not only Spencer’s later followers (more egregiously than Spencer himself), but Marx’s own, have falsified this task. It has been neglected and abandoned. We cannot assume as Marx did that we are already past Spencer’s classical liberalism, but are driven back to it, ineluctably, whether we realize it or not. Only by returning to the assumptions of classical liberalism can we understand Marx’s critique of it. The glare of Marx’s tomb at Highgate stares down upon a very determinate object. If one disappears, they both do. | P
Platypus Review 18 | December 2009
THE PERIOD FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR to the Cold War belies easy classification. Unlike the single decade associated with the New Left, this extensive and historically dense period, that of the “Old Left,” has to be broken up into decades. Indeed, this is done even in the popular imagination, in which the 1930s were a time of economic collapse and union radicalism; the 1940s, a time of “the common enemy,” fascism; and the 1950s, a time of refrigerators and consumerism, of complacency and automatic dishwashers. The 1920s are willfully neglected, or else acknowledged only with respect to the “Lost Generation,” an historical touchstone that, while important, draws us away from America, back to the Old World of Europe. But, as is often the case, actual history cuts against the grain of popular storytelling.
A union rally in 1947 held at Madison Square Garden in New York City to oppose the passage of the Labor Management Relations Act, generally referred to as the Taft-Hartley Bill.
When former SDS president Carl Oglesby sat down in the late 1960s to map out the contours of the New Left, he asked himself, with good reason, “Why New? Why not simply a continuation of the previous Left?” As an opening into this question, he poses others, “Why did the workers permit the purge [of communists], [why did] the people authorize the anti-Bolshevism, [why did] their leaders allow the top-down liquidation of McCarthy to provide, above all, for the continuation of McCarthyism by more subtle means?” But these questions find no ready answers. So, instead, Oglesby attempts to cut against the idea of 1950s conservatism by claiming the decade also belonged to “the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cubans, the Algerians, [and] the decolonizing African states.” He goes on to argue that the East is separate from “Western Culture,” which “appears to be distinguished by its failure to produce a class whose essential objectives transcend the capacities of the given order and whose presence would therefore force a structural transformation of the relations of production.” Here we get the familiar paradigm. What is the new agency of revolutionary change, asks Oglesby and the New Left, now that the workers have failed us? The answers range from the intellectual and the student to the wretched of the earth and the subaltern.
We can no longer today evade the important questions. And the fact remains that, even if we are to believe that in the 1960s students and peasant rebels emerged as new agencies of social transformation, this does nothing to explain why the working class in the First World became depoliticized in the first place. Why was it that the revolutionary potential of the working class seemed to melt into air? How did the Old Left become depoliticized? To answer this question we must look at the history of the Left, both in terms of the possibilities it created and the fetters it imposed on itself.
First, to be clear, the conservative turn in the labor unions after the post-Second World War strike wave is an inescapably true historical development, culminating in the notorious 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The problem that confronted the New Left—the problem of a stymied organized working class—was real. The problem persists to this day, even as our understanding of this issue, which strikes directly at the question of creating a strong Left in the U.S., remains frozen in place. C. Wright Mills, one of the intellectual catalysts of the New Left, summed up the mood of the 1950s when he wrote that union leaders were “government-made men, and they have feared—correctly, as it turns out—that they can be unmade by the government… Neither labor leaders nor labor unions are at the present juncture likely to be ‘independent variables’ in the national context.” Now, Mills was drawn to the idea that, at least in the postwar situation in which he found himself, intellectuals were what he termed “the independent variable.” For Mills understood, even if many of his New Left followers did not, that the isolation of the intellectual was nothing less than a symptom of Stalinism. Mills was not interested in “leaving behind” the working class, as a political program. At the same time, he was also acutely aware of the alliance between labor and the state forged in Roosevelt’s New Deal and maintained during the Second World War as part of the alliance with the Soviet Union. To the extent that the New Left brushed aside the hostility of the “hard hats,” it not only chose to ignore the issue but, no less certainly, also blocked its own way into the history of the Left. And this, above all, fatally compromised the New Left from the beginning.
Mills began working towards a theory of the shifting social groups, and the new post-war consolidations of power, while partially under the influence of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party, an intellectual tradition stemming from the Left Opposition (commonly referred to as Trotskyism). This thwarted tradition was bitterly aware of the nightmare unfolding in the 1930s. But, unlike the New Left, and unlike thinkers such as C. Wright Mills, Shachtman put forth a different and far more controversial conclusion in 1950: “It is not Marxism that has failed, as many gloomy critics find it so popular to say nowadays; it is the Marxian dogmatists who have failed.”
To grasp why there is no adequate theoretical tradition in America, one must first abandon the idea of the radical 1930s so popular today, and focus instead on the preceding decade. As Christopher Lasch argued, “By the middle twenties American radicalism had acquired the characteristics it has retained until the present day: sectarianism, marginality, and alienation from American life.” Unlike in Europe, American radicalism was not split by social democracy. In 1917, at the American Socialist Party’s emergency convention in St. Louis, it espoused an openly internationalist perspective, opposing on that basis America’s entry into the war. But such declarations must be viewed in proper perspective. At the only Socialist-led action in opposition to the war, which took place in Boston, “hundreds of Socialists were beaten and forced to kiss the flag on their knees.” The anti-war tendencies in the U.S., which might have been the springboard for a radical international socialism, lacked effective organization.
It was not until the end of the First World War that these bad omens were fully realized in the actual political situation. As Shachtman recalled in a speech he gave in the late 1960s,
The once spectacular IWW had all but died-out completely. The Farm-Labor party movement of the early twenties collapsed after the defeat of Senator La Follette in the 1924 presidential election. The official labor movement of that time was conservative, narrow, smug, and small. Before it was split in 1919, the united Socialist Party had well over a hundred thousand dues-paying members in its ranks. It is certain that the communists and socialists parties had less than 20,000 members between them ten years later when the [stock marked crash] erupted.
Max Eastman, James P. Canon, and Big Bill Haywood at the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern held in Moscow in 1922. At this meeting, Cannon successfully argued for the legal and open functioning of the Communist Party of America.
Displaying a stunning lack of perspicacity, the communists of the 1920s set American Leftist politics on a collision course, a disaster on par with and in the tradition of the failed revolution in Germany, the botched general strike in Britain in 1926, and the crushed Shanghai Commune of 1927. Effectively writing off the entire organized working class in favor of underground irrelevancy, the majority of American communists adopted a supercilious attitude toward the explosive strike wave that swept the country in 1919. When, after years of inter-party struggle and the intervention of the Soviet government, the communists finally formed a legal party that working class Americans could actually read about and join, the radical tide had turned. At the 1921 founding conference of the legal party, future leader of the American Left Opposition, James P. Cannon, lamented, “We have a labor movement that is completely discouraged and demoralized. We have an organized labor movement that is unable on any front to put up an effective struggle against the drive of destruction, organized by the masters. We have a revolutionary moment which, until this inspirational call for a Workers’ Party Convention, was disheartened, discouraged, and demoralized.” Future rationalizations for failing to strike when the iron was hot generally express, as did the Communist Party in 1919, contempt for the potential of the organized working class in the U.S.
Following the reigning dogma of the Comintern in the mid-1920s, communists attempted to align themselves with the Farm-Labor Party movement. The rather remarkable assumption behind this was that the most advanced capitalist country in the world at that time had not yet developed to the stage where the formation of a genuinely proletarian party was appropriate. Indeed, it was thought American workers may even be incapable of forming something comparable to the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. The U.S. working class was, to the communists in the 1920s, unripe. But to leftists familiar with American trade unions, far from being “unripe,” the situation of American radicalism desperately called out for the theory and the kind of political support it received during the fight for a legal party. The American situation was, in other words, plenty ripe; it just had to be “plucked” by an internationalist and revolutionary Left. As James P. Cannon pleaded, during his factional fight with the Comintern representative,
The American movement has no counterpart anywhere else in the world, and any attempt to meet its problems by the simple process of finding a European analogy will not succeed. The key to the American problem can be found only in a thorough examination of the peculiar American situation. Our Marxian outlook, confirmed by the history of the movement in Europe, provides us with some general principles to go by, but there is no pattern, made-to-order from the European experience, that fits America today.
Yet, despite such pleas, American communists, along with their international counterparts, slid farther and farther to the right throughout the 1920s. It is on this very issue, and for this reason, that at the end of the decade Cannon broke with Stalinist orthodoxy in favor of Trotsky’s Left Opposition.
Commenting on the rightward drift of communists in the 1920s, Shachtman argued, “Everything that had distinguished Communists from Socialists at the time of the historic split between them after the First World War was sunk without a trace [by the start of the 30s]. In fact, the ‘Popular Front’ position of the Communist Party on all questions of theory and politics would have repelled the most extreme right-wing socialism at the time of the split in 1919.” This statement may appear rather bombastic to the romanticized view of the radical 1930s, the counter-example undoubtedly being the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Bracketing for a moment the Moscow Trials and the unchallenged rise of fascism in Europe, let us take a closer look at the Popular Front politics of communists in the CIO. At this time communists had taken a monumental rightward leap: from a position of out-and-out disaffiliation with every non-communist union, the communists, under the aegis of the Popular Front, became uncritical cheerleaders for Roosevelt’s New Deal, working closer to the Democratic Party than any previous American radical could ever have imagined.
The communists’ pernicious role in the New Deal alliance between labor and the state has had complex as well as lasting results. When the Second World War was in full swing and strikes threatened military production, the CIO, in line with Popular Front thinking, supported no-strike pledges, a portentous state directive that culminated after the War in the Taft-Hartley Bill. This in effect outlawed not only wildcat strikes but sympathy strikes and, indeed, all labor action deemed undesirable to the state. The legislation allowed the CIO to purge the communists, placing organized labor firmly within the dualistic Cold War framework, which profoundly affected political action in the following decades. These difficulties were further compounded by the failure of the CIO’s all too timid attempt of 1946–53, known as “Operation Dixie,” to organize in the South, a failure that helped trigger the Cold War merger between the CIO and American Federation of Labor in December 1955, which in effect ended the CIO’s period of militant organizing. December 1955, as any good American history buff knows, was also the start of the Montgomery Bus boycott. The missed opportunity, during the birth of the New Left, simply takes one’s breath away. Yet, the source of such problems lies in the 1920s, when American communists squandered the possibility of labor becoming an “independent variable,” rather than a lackey for the state.
In all matters essential to thinking through the history of the American Left, especially the need for a party of labor, a place where the tension between reform and revolution can be dialectically propelled, the communists of the past give us little critical insight; they even conspired against those who might have provided some. American communists offered ossified thinking and a shift to the right in practice, withering along with the New Deal they supported, dying in the war whose aims they could not influence. Yet, posed against this was a different current of thought, whose hopes were pinned on the unbounded dynamism of the American working class, a hope that goes all the way back to Marx, who wrote in Capital,
In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California with the seven-league boots of the locomotive.
Three years before the first volume of Marx’s masterpiece was published, the International Working Men’s Association (which Marx served as Secretary) wrote as follows to Republican Party leader and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln,
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
In this same spirit, and in no less perilous a time, Trotsky proclaimed, completely out of sync with the dominant thought of the 1930s, most especially among “communists,” that a socialist America was not only possible, but desirable:
The governments of Central and South America would be pulled into [the North American Soviet] federation like iron filings to a magnet. So would Canada. The popular movements in these countries would be so strong that they would force this great unifying process within a short period and at insignificant costs. I am ready to bet that the first anniversary of the American soviets would find the Western Hemisphere transformed into the Soviet United States of North, Central and South America, with its capital at Panama.
Why must this, even as a distant hope or dream, appear to the Left today, so concerned with “anti-imperialism,” as a sacrilege?
How did the Left depoliticize a generation, and future generations, up to this day? The question with which Oglesby began is where we too must start. But, rather than searching the nooks and crannies of either the university or the Third World for an alternative revolutionary subject, we would do better to revisit the history that Oglesby and the New Left first misunderstood, then obscured. It was Stalinism itself, and not the purging of the Stalinists from the American trade unions in the heyday of McCarthyism, that most fundamentally conditioned the subsequent rightward turn of the working class. Moreover, the seeds of this were planted even before Stalinism had fully taken hold of American communism. At this critical juncture of history we can see, in figures like Shachtman and Cannon, glimpses of a nascent alternate future that had died by the end of the 1930s. The same might have been visible to the likes of Oglesby. Had he looked to it, the long detour of the New Left might have been avoided. That generation might conceivably have done what we must do now, namely undertake a critique of the history of the Left that, precisely because it takes a critical stance, declines to take the historical failure of the Left for granted. |P
. Carl Oglesby, “The Idea of the New Left,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 2.
. Ibid., 4.
. Ibid., 9.
. C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 263–65.
. Max Shachtman, “Reflections on a Decade Past,” New International 16:3 (May–June 1950): 131–144.
. Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Knopf, 1968), 40.
. Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism (New York: Viking Press, 1957), 96.
. Max Shachtman, “Radicalism in the Thirties: The Trotskyist View,” in As We Saw the Thirties: Essays on Social and Political Movements of a Decade, ed. Rita James Simon (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1969), 10–11.
. Draper, Roots of Communism, 341.
. James P. Cannon, “The Workers Party Today—And Tomorrow,” in James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920–1928 (New York: Prometheus Research Library, 1992), 137.
. Shachtman, “Radicalism in the Thirties: The Trotskyist View,” 34.
. For a fuller analysis on the effects of the New Deal alliance on the Civil Rights Movement, see Adolph Reed, “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” Telos 39 (Spring 1979): 71–93.
. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 414.
Transcript of the plenary presentations and discussion at the 1st annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, June 12–14, 2009. (Audio recording.)
Audience Q & A
Question 1 (Laurie Rojas): Ian just spoke about membership, and I wanted to expand on that, but, mostly to Chris and Richard, who have given very different, less concrete, presentations, now that Ian has raised the issue of membership, how is the membership to understand what the two of you just presented?
Richard Rubin: I think that they are rather separate issues. There are a lot of different models we could have for membership, or organizational models. I don’t think that that’s particularly necessarily connected to our ideological project. We don’t really know clearly what Platypus is. We don’t think of Platypus as a political party, but it is some kind of an organization. We have a newspaper, which is in some ways an organ for our organization, but it is not intended to be a “party” newspaper. In fact, the biggest problem we’ve had, is that we want more “external” content, representing non-Platypus views, against which Platypus can rebound.
I think that the membership question is a separate practical, instrumental question, and I don’t have clear views on what should be done on that. On this I’m probably of a minority in the organization, but it’s unclear to me that membership, while it’s a practical necessity for Platypus, is so central to the project. Since we’re interested in creating a milieu, we don’t necessarily need a large membership. Members are really the people who do the work. And while that is obviously a very important practical necessity, what we really want is a broad milieu, of people who will listen to and think about these ideas. Not necessarily those who agree, but pay attention to the ideas.
Ian Morrison: I was looking back at certain historical contexts for some kind of precedent, organizationally. There is an interesting example that, at one point, the group around Shachtman wanted very much to orient towards youth, to help sap out Stalinism in America. That failed. But we’re in a similar situation. We want to sap out bad pedagogy on the Left, and we can only do that starting in the university culture.
Chris Cutrone: I’d like to elaborate on that, the phrase “bad pedagogy.” We don’t consider the sectarian Left to be truly political. In other words, we don’t consider groups like the Spartacists, or the ISO, or the RCP, et al., to be really political organizations. Rather, we consider them to be bad pedagogues. . . .
IM: The idea that they’re “political” is bad pedagogy!
CC: . . . Right! There are two elements to the pedagogy. One, that’s more direct, meaning, the vulgarization of ideas. The other, though, is more indirect, which, we would also like to participate in, although our politics in this respect would be “liberal.” Meaning, that we give, what we’re trying to offer, and not just to our members, or even through membership in the organization, but really, what we’re trying to do through things like the paper and the fora, our events, the conversation we’re trying to host, is give a pedagogy not only of ideas, but of political practice. We’re thrown back onto an Enlightenment model of “philosophical debate.” Meaning, we’re back to the realm of teaching people that ideas matter, and that, in a sense, the polity can be constituted at the level of ideas.
So in that sense the bad pedagogy is both ways. There’s the purveying of bad ideology, but there’s also the purveying of a bad model of politics.
IM: Sometimes I think we might get a bad rap, which is difficult, about, we have an attack on activist culture. One thing about “theory,” and the “what is to be done?” question, is that we very much want to hit the brakes, we want to stop people, before they act, to think. And that is damaging to activism, on one level. If you think of activism as not intimately bound with theory, if you take activism as an ideology of, that people only learn to understand the world in a way that is “born of struggle,” in a way that is not linked to reflecting on that struggle, that you can only struggle, and then reflect, or so forth, this idea is very problematic.
RR: I want to make two practical points. One is that the fact that Platypus Review exists is to some extent an accident. Because the original goal of Platypus, before it really became a group, was to set up some kind of an academic journal. So we never, paradoxically, were able to that, but we were able to produce a newspaper, of a certain kind of academic tone.
The other is that, the fact that Platypus focuses on certain things and not other things is not necessarily an indication of our goal. I mean, there are a lot more things that, if we had a broader membership, we could do. A lot of people have interest in certain areas that, if we were a bigger organization, we would focus on doing. There are people in Platypus who do things like labor organizing, and so forth. So it’s not that we’re opposed to any type of concrete political activity. And there were people, and it’s a very mixed and complex question, there were a lot of people in Platypus who were active in SDS.
CC: I want to put a finer point on Ian’s point about “activism.” I think that what’s being referred to there is protest culture, which is different. What Christian Parenti, Doug Henwood and Liza Featherstone called “activistism,” or what Adorno called “actionism.” From the 1960s to the present, a lot of political “activism” is, actually, (a) not political, and (b) not really an “action,” not really actual action. Going to a protest, going to a demonstration, is not organizing workers. Those are two completely different actions. The fact that we can think of both of them as “actions” is itself a problem. So, it’s not that we are trying to interrupt “action,” it’s that we’re trying to interrupt “activistism,” which is a different kind of thing. We’re trying to interrupt the protest culture.
I think that part of the origins of Platypus comes from, both among the younger and older generation in the group, the feeling that, we would go to demonstrations, we would go to protests, we would go to anti-war protests, and we would feel like we were suspending disbelief while attending the demonstration. We wanted to be there, we wanted our feet on the ground, register our protest, our heart was in the right place. But we felt like we had to suspend our own thinking in order to participate. Because the slogans, because the conventionality of the event, what people seemed to tacitly agree upon, was something that we had, in a sense, to suspend disbelief about, because we found it inadequate. And what we found was that, and this was a strange phenomenon, probably most people at these demonstrations feel the same way. In which case, that begs the question.
So, in that respect, it should not be seen as theory as opposed to practice. Rather, we have our own theory-practice problem. And we relate that to the typical bad Left’s botching of the theory-practice problem. They have their way of dealing with the theory-practice problem, and we have our way of dealing with the theory-practice problem, and they’re not antithetically opposed. What they are is related. We’re trying to make up for a deficit. We don’t expect “activist-ism” to go away, but we do want to interrupt it. We do want to add something that’s a missing element at this point.
IM: Actually, our paper is very much inspired by the problem of protest culture. I’m sure everyone has had the experience who went to protests of getting a plethora of crazy newspapers that one couldn’t make any sense of, really, with all different variations on workerism, really. And that’s a very odd sort of experience, that young people have no way of even decoding, this kind of strange language that’s been passed down. That was at least my experience, during the Iraq war, going to protests, and taking all these different sorts of views, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of them, really. And I think that’s most people’s experience. What’s sad about that is that I think people are actually very interested in those ideas, but have no real access to where such positions come from, what the motivation is, because it is a position-taking that’s very incoherent in our time. That’s one of the reasons why we emphasize more, when we read the classical texts in Marxism, what is the general impetus behind these writers, and not these “classic” disputes, like the “Lenin-Luxemburg dispute” or so forth, that are sometimes very obscuring of what it is they actually agreed about.
So, in a way, anyone who’s interested in making a “decoder” for this world is a writer for our paper. It’s about reflecting on that kind of experience, that is very common for people in their university life, if they go to protests.
CC: There are two things about that that are important. One is that the sectarian Left is there, and there is this kind of museumified Marxism that gets trotted out. As well as there’s academic Leftism. Meaning, you read Foucault, and you’re supposed to understand what Foucault is in dialogue with. It’s just this tacit understanding that there’s this critique of Marxism going on here. But it’s all underspecified. What we’re trying to do is essentially reconstitute the debate that’s taken for granted, and that doesn’t occur. Meaning, you go to a protest and you get several different groups’ sectarian newspapers. You make sense of them yourself. And, really, these groups don’t speak to each other. The reason that they don’t speak to each other is that they really don’t “speak,” to begin with, right?
The point is that we are trying, in a sense, to make the “dead” speak, by putting them in dialogue with one another. And our own contribution to that is, simply, why we think that needs to happen. All of these groups basically pretend these other groups don’t exist, and wish the other groups would just go away. But in so doing they’ve abdicated on politics. They’ve abdicated on the actual controversies, in favor of some kind of brute sectarian schisms. I think that, again, our model is the something like, the kind of conversation on the Left that supposedly is always “going on,” but somehow never takes place. We’re actually trying to make that happen.
Q2 (Gabe Gaster): I could sort of formulate my response as a question. In response to what Ian was saying, about squashing the “bad pedagogy” at universities . . .
CC: “Draining the swamp.”
GG: . . . “Draining the swamp,” right. I would say that’s almost like ceding too much ground, maybe. Aren’t we challenging them to be better, to articulate, challenging them to speak to one another? That’s a point that you arrived at. But I would say that we are maybe ceding too much ground to this idea that we are just “squashing them.” The point is that we are challenging them to be better activists, to articulate their thoughts, so that one can make head or tail of their political context that they exist in. And, also, what happened to the “journal of letters?”
CC: I want to say something about the journal, because it was raised. The journal project is still in the offing. It’s not that the Platypus Review has replaced the journal project. Also, the journal project is not meant to be an academic journal. It’s meant to replace the New Left Review. And destroy that milieu. The whole apparatus. And related publications. There are other versions of this, such as Historical Materialism. Especially in the Anglophone world, where we aim to, in a sense, provide a different context. It would not be either an academic journal, nor would it be “Platypus.” But, rather, a place where existing Left intellectuals would be prompted to write, think, in ways that they are not now prompted to do. And that project continues. It just takes a while to start such a journal, and it also involves establishing relationships with people, which we are also doing, through our public fora, and whatnot. Inviting people to speak on panels, to engage these debates, to fertilize their thinking in such events, is a way of demonstrating that an audience for the kind of journal we want to start could exist. Because, right now, the existing intellectual Left essentially assumes that such an audience can’t exist, and that’s why you get the antics of a Zizek. There’s a notion that there’s no audience for this, anyway.
IM: Let me clarify something. The “draining the swamp” idea is different than “smashing” the dead Left, as if with a hammer. It’s more the idea that there are people trapped in this swamp, who are going to be fossilized very soon, as they’re falling down, waving to each other. We want to drain that morass, so that people could talk to each other. So that when we have our public events, we always invite, usually, someone from a “sectarian Left group,” if that’s the term to be used, a student who does some kind activism, one of us, and maybe a Left academic. That’s usually the format, every time. And our experience has been that in the context we create these people are able to be much better than they are in their books, or in the New Left Review, or so forth, by the very context of conversation we’re making, and that they very much feel is impossible. So that’s the idea. I think, it’s not about smashing other groups, or anything like that, at all. It’s about people who give each other the silent treatment. In What is to be done?, of course, there is a discussion about “freedom of criticism,” the way people will use the idea of “freedom of criticism” to stifle criticism, this kind of psychology. Because that book is all about opening up a conversation that Lenin didn’t think would happen in the 2nd International, basically. We want to make a conversation that, even though they carry on, don’t think is possible at all.
RR: I wanted to respond to two points. One is the point about people not talking, and pretending nobody else existed. The first thing that actually attracted me to the Spartacist League was not their manifest politics, some of which repelled me, initially, but rather the fact that they had all these esoteric polemics against bizarre other little groups. I found that very attractive, because it meant that they were the only group on the Left paying attention to other groups on the Left. And that was very interesting to me. The other thing that attracted me was that you get their bound back issues, all their bound issues, which I now own, though they are in storage, from the ’60s to the early ’90s. Reading them was a great education in the history of the sectarian Left. It gave you, despite whatever problems one might have with the specific criticisms or positions, there wasn’t anything comparable where one could get such information. It was very hard to get that type of information.
The other point I wanted to go to was this metaphor of “draining the swamp.” And here I’m going to be a bit of a devil’s advocate. The first thing that came up to mind with that image, was that there’s a place in the Galilee, Northern Israel, or Palestine, if you prefer, where there are the Hula Swamps. It was one of the early heroic stories of Zionist pioneers, that they drained these swamps. They were very successful in draining the swamps. But it ended up causing huge ecological disaster. So what is the point of this metaphor? Because they did drain the swamps and build agriculture, but it turned out the swamps were very important for the ecology of the region, and so forth. And they hadn’t realized that when they did that. So the point of this is that we actually have a parasitic relationship to both the sectarian Left and the academic Left. (IM And activism!) While I am constantly filled (I put that image of the Rapture in there, which is obviously not going to happen) with annoyance at the sectarian Left, the prospect of it literally disappearing is actually frightening to me. And I think it is questionable whether we in Platypus could actually carry on in a world where certain symptoms of the dead Left completely disappeared. I mean, that may seem like a contradictory message, but it’s something we have to think about. And I think that there’s a way in which the content of academic Leftism has itself deteriorated as external, sectarian Leftism has started to dry up. And that’s not a problem that in the long run we would be immune to.
IM: There’s also the idea of the “revolving door,” sort of a different image. My feeling, usually, is that a lot of people who get involved in the sorts of groups that we’re talking about, it’s very much a two- or three-year project for them. And their experience is, extremely, one of disillusionment.
I was talking to somebody at a party not that long ago about their experience in one of these front groups. And they were extremely fascinated by Marxism, and had read everything that they could get their hands on. But they were kind of shocked by the way that, they thought, that, because they were not addressed up-front, with all the theory of Marxism, when they got involved in this group, that they really had the sense that, even though the group was “Marxist” in some sense, that they didn’t believe that they could appeal to people with the content of their own ideas. And that was a very depressing way to come to Marxism and the Left. And so they’ll wander off, and do this or that activist thing, until it peters out, when there’s no war going on, and so forth.
Q3 (Troy Pasulka): I wanted to divide it into two parts. I think the first one is that, as Platypus is a “talking shop,” more than that, also, and it wants to be more than that. How to improve the “talking shop?” I just want to bring up two things on how to improve the “talking shop.” One, I think a focus on destroying the New Left Review and critiquing all these Left groups, as someone said on Friday, should be situated within a broader aim of transforming capitalism, socialism, learning from the history of the Left in order to fix the problems. Second, I think a better understanding of US imperialism should be fostered within this “talking shop.” It was said in the panel, “American imperialism is no longer fighting Leftists, it’s fighting reactionary Islam . . .”
TP: Okay, predominately, right. Certainly not solely. If you look at many places around the world, it’s certainly not fighting reactionary Islam. Even in the Arabic world, it’s not fighting solely reactionary Islam, it’s fighting Baathists, who are secular, it’s fighting Communists, it’s fighting the oil workers’ union, it’s fighting a lot of people. The second thing I wanted to say, in addition to the talking shop, what I think we need to change the world. I think we need to build a revolutionary organization that’s going to put into practice all of this theory. And what type? The type like the Spartacists, who focus on attacking other Left groups? I don’t think that’s the type. I think we need the type that’s going to the people who are open to propaganda, and getting involved in stuff. Ian, you were saying there’s no one open to propagandize to, and that’s simply not true. I talk to people all the time who are interested. Like you said, there’s all kinds of people who are into these ideas, very interested in moving forward, and not at all interested in focusing on the New Left Review, and how they suck, and how all these other Left groups suck. No, they want to progress. For example, I agree Obamaism isn’t great, but labeling everyone who is for Obama “reactionary,” no. There’s some progress, there’s some open people there. I agree, going to a protest is not all that’s political to do, but it’s not not organizing workers, because workers go to protests. You can go to a protest, and you can critique it, or you can go to a protest, and you can organize. And just one more clarification, I’m in the ISO (International Socialist Organization), so it’s wrong to say that nobody on the Left talks to anyone else. I’m here. I’ve been talking to a guy who is in the FRSO [Freedom Road Socialist Organization]. So I just wanted to point that out.
RR: I’ll respond briefly. The ISO and the Spartacist League. The Spartacist League publish all kinds of attacks and polemics against the ISO, which I would probably be largely in agreement with, but I’ve never read any polemics by the ISO against the Spartacist League in the paper. There is an asymmetry in the way the two organizations conceive of their roles as revolutionary Marxist parties. I think the Spartacist League is clearly the exception, and the ISO, in that respect, is the norm on the Left. That is not to necessarily make the Spartacist League a model, but it certainly makes them more interesting to me than the norm. We obviously are of a different sensibility.
With regard to American imperialism, really, the question isn’t understanding American imperialism, because that’s not the issue. The question is: what does it say about the world that the greatest challenge to American imperialism is not coming from Leftist insurgents? It’s coming from Islamist reactionaries. That says something about historical regression. To get to the fundamental issue, which is the absence of the Left in that constellation. You mentioned the Arab world — look at Palestine today, which is a case I know fairly well. If you look at Palestinian politics in the ‘70s, you would have seen a lot of Leftist nationalist groups, many claiming to be Marxist. Now, whatever one’s critique of them, clearly those groups have disappeared. The dominant political force in opposing Israel is Islamist, is Hamas. There is no way of getting around that. That’s true throughout the Middle East, that’s true throughout the world. Even in the cases where there are Leftist political movements, like in Latin America, they are tame versions compared to the ‘70s or ‘80s. Not that the ‘70s or ‘80s were any better, I’m not trying to foster that, but it’s obvious there’s been a massive transformation in the world, and it’s a transformation toward the Right. It’s the non-acknowledgement of that fact that is significant, not the “understanding of American imperialism.” It’s not American imperialism that has changed, it’s the Left, it is the collapse of an opposition to it from a Leftist direction. There are people who are opposing American imperialism for all sorts of reasons, but they are reactionary reasons. If you want to talk about American imperialism fostering reaction, one of the things few people on the Left would say is that if the Soviet Union had won in Afghanistan, 9/11 would not have happened. People on the Left won’t say it, people on the right won’t say it, and it’s clear. It’s clear that one of the ultimate causes of 9/11 was the policy of the United States government that directly funneled money to the Islamist reactionaries who were fighting the Red Army. That’s a context where the Left doesn’t acknowledge its own history. Overwhelmingly, the American Left, including the supposed far Left, were supporting the Mujahideen. I think the model of building the Left in the way you are talking about it already entails a concession to a bad history.
IM: I was recently at an event where a representative from the trade unions in Iraq was at, and they were talking about a conference they had in Arbil, and there were almost no Left groups there, for reasons one could explore. But something I found almost shocking was that their conference, which was an attempt to unite the various unions in their country, which do non-violent work, which are anti-religious, which are anti-sectarian, which have women’s rights groups and so forth, all sorts of interesting demands, their conference would not have happened without a group called U.S. Labor Against the War. Even though the labor movement is extremely small in America, the Left in other countries is dependent on. Lenin used the word tailism in supporting another group in this or that part of the world — you should be more conscious in the absence of a Left in America is extremely detrimental to Left groups abroad. It’s a burden we have, and I think the typical anti-imperialist rhetoric really confuses this burden that we have. And so it is a question of theory, it’s a question of a certain kind of conversation that would have to start for anyone to begin to think of the sort of complicated practical issues that would be involved, and that we might not have answers to.
CC: Let me say something about propagandism. The Spartacist League call themselves a “fighting propaganda group.” I’m not sure what the history of that term is, I think it might have a deeper history. The self understanding of a group like the ISO might be something like that: it’s not a political party, it’s a propaganda group, trying to get ideas out there, intersecting people in their political activities, at the level of ideas. That’s where we get back to the bad pedagogy. Getting back to “draining the swamp” and “the revolving door syndrome,” my experience now that I am faculty and not a student, and I spent a number of years tuning out the Left, although Richard kept me informed. The experience was that not only do you get a bad education of Marxism by groups like the ISO, the Spartacist League, the RCP idea that you brawl with the police and that’s how you make people revolutionary, and others, that’s depoliticizing in another way. In other words, not only do you get a bad education of what Marxism is about, you get a bad education of what politics is about. You spend a few years — young people who are idealistic in these organizations — and you quit. They quit and become politically cynical. They quit and hold their nose and vote for Democrats. That’s what happens, in 99% of cases. It’s only the true nutjobs that say in those groups. In other words, it self-selects for bad human material.
So then, what do you do? What happens to people when their initial experience with Marxism is one of crude ideas and futile activity? The reason we say we are not trying to do propaganda is precisely because the model of propaganda refers to a historical period in which people were more active politically, in which society was more politicized, in which the working class was more organized, in which the Left was more self-consciously and principally more organized. Ian talked about going to a protest and getting all sorts of newspapers. Well, that’s one thing. In the 1930s, people would have been literally yelling at each other. You would have gone to Greenwich Village or Washington Square Park, and people would have been literally haranguing each other, respectfully, maybe sometimes beating each other but not always. But there was a sense of politics through ideas in a way that is severely lacking now. So it’s not that propaganda is sort of a bad model, it’s misplaced right now in comparison to what it used to be. Our attitudes towards groups on the sectarian Left is that they are doing what they have always done outside of the context where that ever made sense. In other words, doing it in the ‘60s wasn’t also doing it in the ‘30s; doing it in the ‘30s didn’t work, first of all. Carrying it out in the ‘60s and continuing it today is a surreal, what we call “zombie” practice, no matter what it appears to be. So why don’t we do propaganda? Because the propaganda is bad, and because that model of activity is without a context. I would say in terms of “draining the swamp” and stopping the revolving door, we would like to prevent people in college from having their first experience with Marxist ideas to be with the sectarian Left or with the bad faith, ex-New Left academic Leftists. We desire to put a stop to that, absolutely. Now what Richard is saying is true too, meaning you can’t bring that to an absolute halt, but you can transform it. In other words, what Richard is saying is, okay, if they all disappeared in the rapture, it would be a terrible context. We’re for nudging things along, for clearing out the cobwebs, and for waking up the zombies, whatever metaphor you want to use. As Ian said earlier, about the house of cards character, meaning that one of the reasons groups don’t like to deal with us is that they detect if they engage in this kind of conversation, their whole thing might fall apart. And it will fall apart.
Q4 (Ashley Weger): I want to thank you for this panel. Chris, you kind of talked about, not in these terms, about relearning and redefining our relationship to the past, and I think that requires a certain amount of unlearning, particularly, I can say, from personal experience. This is at the core of my incapacity to answer a question posed to me by Richard about my relationship to history, because it is requiring so much unlearning on my part, to be able to engage in that kind of conversation. From a very practical level, how do you see Platypus facilitating this starting over process for folks, or when you are starting from scratch? Because to be quite honest, and I think this is an appropriate critique of Platypus, you seem esoteric to a lot of people, because they either A. haven’t had experience with your perspective on Marxist ideas, or B. they have been affiliated with folks from whom they need to do a lot of unlearning. So how do you see this being facilitated? Because, although I think the reading group is a good way to do that, if you are coming to Marxism late, that is a hard conversation to start having. How do you bring in a crowd of people like myself, who are maybe a bit politically immature, but craving this sort of conversation?
CC: Ian was talking about the importance of the reading group of people who are participants as members in the organization. But reading group is not the be all, end all of the group by any means. Really, the best initial exposure we can provide to people doesn’t come through reading groups or even something like this talk we are giving today, or the talk we gave Friday night. What we are really trying to do at the level of relearning, rethinking, changing the relationship to the past is what we are trying to do through the fora and the newspaper. That’s where the majority of voices will not be from this organization. In other words, on the forum panel, there will be four persons, and maybe one person from Platypus, but the person from Platypus will be there mostly to piss people off, to shake people out of their complacency. That has sort of been my role, and that’s what I have been doing. So the initial exposure is not to our ideas, but to the conversation, which is also meant to be productive for us — we have no theory. We are about remembering theory, we don’t have a theory, it’s not that kind of pedagogy. It’s more the pedagogy of the conversation, making that happen. That’s how we hope people will re-find a relationship to the past, not through what we have to say, but through what we try to get other people to say.
RR: My response to the question of us seeming esoteric — the problem is not that we seem esoteric, the problem is that we are more esoteric than we even seem. That’s the real problem. The problem of us seeming esoteric, I think, is more a problem of people’s anxieties about the parts that are not that esoteric. A lot of people avoid us not to the extent that they don’t understand us, but to the extent that they do. But the real problem is, we are much more esoteric than we seem, and that’s the problem at the deepest level.
CC: There’s a flip side to that though.
RR: Yes, there’s a flip side to that. With regard to the question of unlearning, which is a problem I have thought about a lot, because, as I said, I did not come to Platypus as some 18 year-old or 19 year-old in a class with Chris Cutrone. On the contrary, coming to Platypus essentially alongside Chris, was a process of massive unlearning, and is still a process of unlearning, and is something I have deep resistance to. There are many aspects of Platypus I inwardly resist, and I’m constantly challenging myself. I have gone through several stages in my political thinking which involved considerable unlearning. Before I went to college, I had sort of a New Left, Chomskyite perspective, unspecified, which had kind of grown organically out of the default liberalism of my family. Then I encountered the Spartacist League, adopted not literally, but essentially, the Spartacist perspective, which then in turn, was again, to a certain extent, unlearned to adopt a Platypus perspective. I’m not really sure, at the end, what that has left me with. I’m saying that, because it’s important to understand that’s what’s at the core of the project, particularly among the people who started the project. To the extent that some people may be able to start with Platypus and see the Left from Platypus’ lenses, I have much more difficulty understanding those people than the people who resist Platypus. I mean, I’m glad that they exist, but I find it difficult to see how anybody could see the world, or the Left, rather, starting out with Platypus. It’s kind of astonishing to me.
Q5: I was wondering if you could speak to how important it is for your project to have a viable, Marxist understanding of the present in general. To look at consciousness within the working class, and different trends and tendencies among workers. If you think that’s important, how would you propose reading that, or writing about that? Because obviously, groups on the Left might not represent that the best. So what milieus could people use?
IM: I’ll try to answer that question in a couple of different ways. One think I would point to is a certain ‘60s view of the world, of the idea of students as a class, is one thing I think we unconsciously keep. People who go to school for higher education is a much, much broader group of people than it was in the past. But also, we’ve done events with labor organizers. We’re very interested in exploring those sorts of politics, and the ways universities can recept them. It came up last night — students serve as cannon fodder for a lot of these labor groups, do a lot of organizing with them without thinking. The university and its kind of culture intersect a much wider purvey of society than I think people think. There really is something confusing about politics when people raise this abstract of the working class, and it’s a part of the ‘30s propaganda politics. I think our real disagreement is with not wanting to be a propaganda organization, because we want to foster a certain kind of conversation. I mean, obviously, anyone can come to our reading groups, anyone can come to our public events: they are open to the public, we publicize them in all sorts of places, they are not exclusive to any kind of group or person or so forth, so I guess I would just question the sort of stereotypes of this abstract working class that is often referred to.
CC: At the same time, I would modulate that a little bit. I think that, first of all, because we do do these events, we have established relationships with people, from our fields, from the sectarian Left, as well as further fields of the academic Left. And those relationships are vital. Meaning, the labor organizers we deal with and those milieus we intersect both inform our own thinking about things as well as provide different kind of audiences. The newspaper is not only distributed on campuses but also at union halls, where we have existing relationships with people. It’s a little bit of a shot in the dark to expose unionists and “regular” working class people to the kind of esoteric conversation going on on the Left. But frankly, it’s only a variation of the discourse you find in places like The Nation, which of course, working class people read those kinds of publications. It’s not extrinsic to it or foreign to it. It does matter to us, but I think we have accepted, more or less, that we can only have an indirect relationship to it.
IM: I think if we could have a stronger pedagogical relationship to a larger sect of society, we would. I think now we are interested practically in what the fetters are on such a practice, and don’t think the propaganda model (hanging outside the factory with your paper) is an especially effective one. Unions in the past — the Port Huron Statement, as an example, Port Huron is a sort of retreat for the UAW. They sponsored that conference. Now, unions are much smaller, so they use their budgets differently.
I think people get confused about the Left, because it’s so small today, that one group is supposed to be the Jack-of-all-Trades for this new Left we don’t have. There really is a division of labor. We’re not going to preach the tactics of union politics — that would be ridiculous of us. But if there was a real medium where one could make ideas more broadly accessible, we’d be interested in that.
Q6: I haven’t been thoroughly convinced that the Left is totally dead, but I think the argument has been established that if it isn’t dead, it’s pretty close to it. I’ve been around for a while. For whatever reason the Left has become what it is, it’s a fact. The other side of that is that bourgeois ideology is not only pervasive, but it’s corrosive. I think that’s part of the reason you see part of the Left moving right. My question is — I have been very pleasantly surprised by this convention — but how do you account, objectively and somewhat concisely, how you have resisted this extremely corrosive bourgeois ideology?
IM: Maybe. First off, our whole slogan “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” is not propaganda — it’s a provocation. When we go to protests and we have that slogan, it’s not like a declaration.
CC: It’s supposed to make people think.
IM: That’s the idea. It’s supposed to almost be Dada-esque: What is that? What do you mean? I don’t get it. It’s not supposed to be, like, “Oh, yeah! The Left is dead.”
RR: I am going to respond in two parts. One is that it’s not just that bourgeois ideology is so pervasive, because bourgeois ideology has always been so pervasive, the problem is that the bourgeois ideology is so crass. In a sense, the bourgeois ideology is corrosive to itself, corrosive on both sides. And, as you’ve said, that also effects the Left. As for the question of resisting bourgeois ideology, I wouldn’t put it that way. Chris and I come from radically different class backgrounds — Chris comes from a working class background, I come from a bourgeois background. I don’t think that obviously different personal background had much impact on our political development. The curious thing, and it’s something I have in common with Chris that I have never quite been able to explain, is that the most radicalizing moment for me politically is what is usually seen as a huge defeat, a catastrophe of the Left, namely the collapse of Stalinism, 1989–92. Its collapse in the sense of the capitalist restoration of Eastern Europe after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The reason it was radicalizing, in the intellectual sense, was that it actually confirmed for me the validity of Trotsky’s basic analysis, which previously I had been strongly resistant to and doubted.
The irony is that a profoundly negative event in the analysis pushed me to a sense of its truth and value, which was a paradoxical relationship: to be pushed to the Left intellectually by an event that was pushing, fundamentally, the whole world to the right. It was partially that dual consciousness that made it impossible to quite literally accept Spartacism. I remember talking to an older comrade, who had been part of the original Trotskyist movement, who had been part of the Communist League of America, a founding member of the Socialist Worker’s Party, a member of that ‘30s generation, an organic, working-class intellectual, who remained faithful to those ideas until his death in the mid-90s. He was very puzzled by this — his radicalization was in the context of a massive working class movement, came from a Communist family background, it was the upsurge of the ‘30s. It is a paradoxical situation, and one that has left a not necessarily desirable intellectual mark on me. I remember thinking at the time, why is it that so few people made the intellectual connection that I have? Because I would have expected more people to be like me, but it turned out that people like me were few and far between. I don’t really know how to account for that — not completely unique, but rare.
CC: There is a metaphor that Richard and I have used in our prior conversation — that we are the mutants of 1989. Meaning in terms of Darwinian evolution, we’re the mutation rather than the predominate mode of life, but we find our niche nevertheless. Now I wouldn’t want to answer the question that way, though — I’d answer the question a little differently. What Richard’s raising is the idea of “via negativa” In other words, how can consciousness on the Left, born of defeat, can come negatively. In a sense, what Platypus shares is this kind of negative lesson, the negative lesson of the Left. The negative lesson of 1989, the negative lesson of the ‘90s Left, the negative lesson of the anti-war movement as ineffectual, with the Iraq War, this kind of “via negativa” has been important for us. And how we would explain resisting the degradation of consciousness that goes on on the Left, and effects all of society, because that’s what we think, the reason I think Richard wouldn’t say it’s about resisting bourgeois consciousness is that, in a sense, bourgeois consciousness is dialectical. Meaning, we conceive the Left to be a species of bourgeois consciousness. The difference is, that it is aware of itself in this way.
RR: Marxism is the highest form of bourgeois consciousness.
CC: Not in a class sense, but in a historical sense. That raises the issue of historical consciousness, of why we frame our own self-understanding for why a certain kind of conversation has to occur on the Left, why we find history to be indicting of the present or critical of the present. We think that consciousness and social reality can be out of sync with themselves. In other words, there can be a non-synchronous relationship between ideology and social reality, and that, therefore, we can say, how come when we started this project, the first thing we were immediately subjected to was the Lenin/Luxemburg debate. Not by people who had been alive in 1917, not by people who had been alive in the 1960s, but by young people! So these ideas obviously have some kind of strange purchase on people — the question is what do we do with that? Because in the present way these ideas have purchase on people, we might just wish them to go away. But they do have some kind of purchase for people — the question is, can that be a starting point?
In other words, people are still attracted to Marxism, young people still join the ISO. These little left sectarian groups still attract people, and the ‘60s generation in the academic Left continues to whip the dead horse of Marx. Every single class is, like, “This is why Marx is wrong,” and “Oh, by the way, this is why Marx is wrong.” Every class at University of Chicago has a “This is why Marx is wrong” moment in it, except, maybe, in the natural sciences. But any place else, “This is why Marx is wrong.” Although, even in the natural sciences, they might bring something up, like, “See? Darwin’s understanding of evolution is non-teleological! Therefore, Marx is wrong!” If that’s the case, if Marx has to be constantly exorcised, if Marxism has to be constantly exorcised, if Bolshevism is still this dirty word, what does that mean? Does that mean anything? What can we do with that? So ideology is a fairly complicated matter, and history has a place in its dynamic. That’s, in a sense, how we understand ourselves. That’s how we account for our ability to “resist,” even though it’s not really resistance at all, and Richard has already raised the danger that we might be just as symptomological as anything we take issue with. It’s a danger that we court, openly. In other words, we are weary of all the ways the Left usually denies that. Rather, we embrace that.
RR: There are weird symptoms in popular culture at a vulgar level that (extend to the quality of Marx). We see them in the economic crisis. There was a discussion on television and Paul Krugman was the Left voice. The question was something like, was capitalism finished? And he said something like, “I don’t think we have to become Red Guards.” It was this odd moment, because, of course, nobody was talking about capitalism being finished, that is so far from the agenda of the mainstream, but even raising the question, and raising the image of Marx entails it as central to dialogue. Because at the same time that the Left is dead, that doesn’t mean, oddly, that the image of Marx becomes dead. The image of Marx continues to haunt, whatever the actual Left or actual Marxists do. | P
Transcribed by Ashley Weger.
Transcript of the plenary presentations and discussion at the 1st annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, June 12–14, 2009. (Audio recording.)
What is to be done?
Ian Morrison, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society
J. P. CANNON SAID that,
If the group misunderstands the task set for it by conditions of the day, if it does not know how to answer the most important of all questions in politics — that is, the question of what to do next — then the group, no matter what its merits may otherwise be, can wear itself out in misdirected efforts and futile activities and come to grief.
Our project has often been subjected to two historical fantasies. The first draws a parallel with the Partisan Review and the second with the Frankfurt School. Our “death of the Left” thesis and the historical gulf between us and the ’30s make the practical orientation of these two projects completely anachronistic, and confuses the needs of our time. The Partisan Review sought to make a specific intervention in American socialism, and the early Frankfurt School was set up to provide an intellectual atmosphere which would transcend the sectarian divisions caused by the failure of the German Revolution. There is no such comparable milieu in our time, to either intersect or transcend. And the problem is much more thoroughgoing than simply the realization that Leftist third parties are defunct or that organized labor is fractured and weak. The groups, which talk about the Left, justify their existence on dubious grounds and do more to muddle the issues than to clarify them — this much is certainly obvious. Many of these groups are of an extremely conservative nature; they are often the manifestation of a new Right.
Because the Left really is dead, we must first and foremost build intellectual milieus from scratch. As we have often said, we must “host the conversation” that would otherwise not happen, and we must demonstrate to others that the Platypus conversation can even happen at all. We have an extremely strong track record of events, providing a space in which intellectuals are able to sound stronger than they would otherwise have the opportunity to.
Our main point of intersection, for better or worse, is at universities and the campus culture more broadly conceived. There is simply no other institution we could realistically intersect today. This is not a blessing. But it can raise a great deal opportunity. Universities are international phenomena.
Public events. — We need to modulate between different styles of events: Large fora, public interviews, teach-ins. Our shift to a chapter model, I believe, is forcing us to change our organizational culture. In the past we have emphasized the build-up towards the event. And I am not proposing that we dramatically change how we plan events; creating a reading list to work up to the event is extremely helpful. But what we need to focus on more than anything is regularity and follow-through. I strongly believe that this will not be to the detriment of our content. On the contrary, I think that we will only learn to improve the quality of our events though regularity. Our inability to have regular events has been our greatest shortcoming. This cannot continue if we have any pretension of growing the organization.
Draining-the-swamp thesis. — We believe we can impact and prevent the recruitment to sectarian “Left” groups on campuses and thus stop the demoralization and depoliticization that results from their activities. We have already begun to do so, and we need to continue this.
The Platypus Review. — We have not fully taken advantage of our paper. Our paper is of an extremely high quality but we have been failing on two scores. The first and most obvious problem is our inability to acquire more content from outside Platypus. To make this possible we need to marshal the whole organization to the task. The interview has been a successful genre for us. We lack reportage. We need to act as a historical record of our time. The Platypus Review can travel to new places before we will be able to provide an organizational structure.
Membership. — The reading group is not optional. The texts we read are not road maps. But, if our project has any line at all, it would perhaps be that nothing that has been passed down to us from the historic Left can be used as an adequate guide. It is not possible to understand the group outside of attending the reading group. The reading group must focus on “what it is that we are doing.” We often said that we don’t have a line. But, it is true that we have a set of concerns and they are very specific. The concerns we are working through are not self-evident and we should be suspicious of anyone who claims to understand the project while infrequently attending our pedagogical activities. If there is one especially surprising aspect of our project it is the way in which our ideas, once adequately grasped, seem to make a permanent impression. Our ideas have not been met with indifference.
What are our members going to become? Intellectuals and cultural workers. The notion of the free intellectual, like liberalism, is dead. There is much more at play than simply good ideas in the making of public intellectuals. We cannot let the topics we have been trying so hard to unearth become taboo to us in our public dealings. There really are people who have made a concerted effort to squash our project. The sectarian Left would like us to disappear. They are set in their ways and they would prefer it if their ideas never met the light of day.
The need to go to Left events. — Our attendance in itself will be corrosive on the existing fake “Left.” We go and ask questions that they cannot answer. What could be easier? This we really need to do.
So, we should have no illusions. Our project is time-sensitive. We live at a crossroads. Though it may seem like we have an overabundance of esoteric ideas forcibly bundled together, which are ridiculously challenging to impress upon others — this is our estimation of our period. | P
Transcript of the plenary presentations and discussion at the 1st annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, June 12–14, 2009. (Audio recording.)
Four types of ambiguity
THE TITLE OF THIS TALK, “Four Types of Ambiguity,” is, of course, a take-off on William Empson’s classic 1930 book Seven Types of Ambiguity, which is heralded with launching the New Criticism. The thesis of it is that Platypus as a project can best be understood by considering the plausible misreadings of Platypus and how Platypus both is and is not like the ways it might be misunderstood. Hence, the emphasis on our ambiguity. But perhaps that is exactly what one would expect from a project named after an egg-laying mammal that looks like a cross between a duck and a beaver!
The notion of ambiguity is itself ambiguous, however. To quote Empson,
An ambiguity in ordinary speech means something pronounced and as a rule witty or deceitful. I propose to use the word in an extended sense, and I shall think relevant to my subject of verbal nuance, however, slight, which gives room to alternative reactions to the same piece of language. Sometimes . . . the word may be stretched absurdly far, but it is descriptive because it suggests the analytical method, and with that I am concerned.
At the end of this talk I hope you feel that I have been witty and you may very well feel that I have been deceitful, and like Empson I will at times stretch the word “ambiguity” absurdly far. Unlike him, I will be concerned with ambiguities of thought and ideology rather than language.
I will consider four types of ambiguity relating to Platypus, or, should I say, four questions. The first three types of ambiguity are rather straightforward and involve political misreadings. The fourth, however, is more complicated and involves epistemological problems. The first three involve accusations and come from without. The fourth, however, is a problem coming from within. It involves not how outsiders are likely to misunderstand the project, but rather how we ourselves are likely to misunderstand the problems we pose. We will leave consideration of it for last.
The three political accusations that we will consider are that we are Spartacists, that we are neoconservatives, and that we are liberals. Like classical anti-Semitic theories about Jews, that combine contradictory notions of Jews as plutocrats and Jews as communists, the hostility to and anxiety generated by Platypus seems to take in contradictory notions, so that some of our enemies seem to feel that we are some sort of monstrous Spartacist neo-Con Liberals all at once! I am reminded by this of the Hippogriff, a mythological creature: part eagle, part lion, part horse and part snake.
The creator of this political monster is supposedly a nefarious character named Chris Cutrone, a charismatic teacher and corrupter of impressionable youth. Before I begin an examination of the intellectual content of Platypus, some remarks about the personal and pedagogical aspects of the project are in order. As someone who knew Chris before he became a Cutronist, I have a somewhat different take on the issue of “Cutronism.” Unlike many of you, for whom the ideas of Platypus, and indeed the existence of Platypus, came as a unified package, I came to them at the same time Chris did, not as a student of his, but simply as someone following a common ideological trajectory. Because Chris’s pedagogy has been so central to the development of Platypus, my long, non-pedagogical relationship to Chris gives me a better perspective from which to discuss Platypus. While Chris has been central to the development of Platypus, and Platypus would certainly not exist without him, he is not the sole source of its ideas, even though this may seem to be the case because he has been our main spokesman. Does Platypus then have an “ideology?” Where did it come from? The answer to these questions cannot be as straightforward as one would hope. I will use phrases like “we” and “Platypus,” but these are meant to suggest an idealized collective consciousness not the decisions of a specific body or even particular individuals. It represents what I estimate is the basic common understanding of those members of Platypus who have the best understanding of the intellectual foundations of the project. It is certainly not, as I have indicated, an exegesis of “Chris Cutrone thought.” I, for one, have significant disagreements with many of Chris’s formulations. On the other hand, it is not a democratically agreed-upon programme, either. As a political organization, Platypus seeks to be run by a democratically elected leadership, but as an ideological enterprise the pedagogical model predominates. This is a somewhat contradictory and undesirable state of affairs, but is also at present a necessary one even if it gives rise to the notion of Platypus as a Cutronist cult.
Platypus is not a political party and does not have a “line.” Yet it clearly stakes out certain ideological positions. Explaining the tension between these two statements can become as complicated as explaining the particle-wave duality in physics. Precision in certain areas is achieved at the expense of precision in others. Platypus is still a work-in-progress. The questions it seeks to pose are extremely difficult ones that have no easy answers. Some of them may be unanswerable, and Platypus as a project may be a delusion. But we do not want to pretend that Platypus is merely an open-ended search for truth. Platypus embodies a distinct sensibility and set of ideas that make it unique on the Left, or rather among the ruins of the historic Left. Like our namesake, we are a peculiar creature.
Here I will now try to explore our peculiarities in a somewhat peculiar way. Instead of merely indignantly rejecting the accusations, I will try to seek a limited truth in each of them, and show that in each case a fragment has been mistaken for the totality. We will look at each part of the Hippogriff in turn, and ask what it says about us that we are understood this way.
The first accusation we will consider is that Platypus is a form of Spartacism and that we are crypto-Spartacists. As most of you here will know, the relationship of Platypus to the actual Spartacist League is quite asymmetrical. The Spartacist League has nothing but vitriolic contempt for us. To them, we are “pro-imperialist,” a “talk shop,” et cetera. Certainly, the actual Spartacists do not see us as in any way similar to them. We, though, have considerable respect for the Spartacist League, or at least their historic role. We encourage people to read many of their pamphlets, for example, and treat them as qualitatively different from other sectarian Left groups. How is this asymmetry to be understood? There is a certain type of glass that on one side looks like an ordinary mirror but on the other side is like looking through a transparent but dark-colored window, rather like a gigantic set of sunglasses. It is often used in nursery schools, so that parents can come and observe their children playing and interacting with the other children, but the children do not know they are being observed. The Spartacists are on the mirror-side of the glass, and they cannot see us, because they can only see reflections of themselves, and we can only be understood as a distorted reflection, people who, as they put it, “use our texts to eviscerate them of revolutionary content.” We, on the other hand, can “see” the Sparts, as through a glass darkly.
If one mentions the Sparts to most Leftists, the response is likely to be that they are “crazy” or “ultra-Leftist sectarians.” In fact, the Sparts are only “crazy” and “sectarian” in a secondary sense, that is, they have been driven into a posture which necessarily seems “crazy” and “sectarian,” and the need to maintain that position does ultimately end up making them “crazy” and “sectarian” in reality. But they are certainly not “ultra-Leftist,” and that they are perceived as such by nearly everyone on the Left is a sign of how far to the Right most of the “Left” has gone. The tragedy of the Spartacists is that they are hated, not for their actual pathologies, but rather for their non-pathological aspects. It is not their shrillness that is the real reason they are despised, but rather their genuine insights into the nature of political reality. The Sparts understand that the vast majority of the so-called “Left” is really a “fake Left” and that this fact is a fundamental reason why the world is such a miserable place. What the Spartacist league does not account for, however, is why millions and tens of millions of people do not share their views. But like the Red Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass, the Sparts run as fast as they can, but only to stay in the same place. This is our fundamental difference with them. Our emphasis is on historical regression. Although they inevitably assume our differences are based on some set of political differences — such as the Iraq war — our actual differences are meta-historical and involve the nature of Marxism, indeed the nature of history itself. It is impossible to express these in the language available to the Spartacists. A mathematical analogy may be useful. The Riemannian notion of curved space can not be expressed in the language of Euclidean geometry. Things can be curved in space but space itself can not be curved. Curved space to a Euclidean geometer is simply gibberish. On the other hand, from a Riemannian standpoint Euclidean geometry is easy to understand. It is simply the special case where the curvature of space is zero. However, accepting the logical coherence of non-Euclidean geometries still leaves open the question of whether or not they are true. For many decades after non-Euclidean geometries had been accepted by mathematicians, it remained an open question as to whether or not real physical space was Euclidean or not. Eventually, it was determined by physicists that it is not Euclidean, but that is an empirical fact. Kant was wrong to believe on a priori grounds that space was necessarily Euclidean, but equally clearly there is no logical reason for space not to be Euclidean, as it seemed to be for thousands of years. Similarly, although, to the Sparts, a Platypus position is necessarily gibberish, the opposite is not the case, and from our meta-historical standpoint one could raise the question seriously of whether, after all, the Sparts might not be right. I obviously do not think that is so, since if I did I would not be here, but that is no reason to rejoice. Indeed, if the Spartacists were right, and Platypus were wrong, that would be reason to rejoice, since ours is undoubtedly a darker view than theirs. However, perhaps that last sentence is not quite right. Ours is a darker view than the Sparts to the extent that we believe what we say and they believe what they say. But often the Sparts remind one of soldiers bravely doing their duty, willing to fight to the death even though they know the war is lost. The willingness to express pessimism is not necessarily the best measure of it. Only at their height could the Greeks write great tragedies; in their decadence they could at best produce the pleasant farces of the New Comedy.
If Platypus is not a form of Spartacism, then perhaps we are form of neo-conservatism? Just as no actual Spartacist is going to see us bearing a resemblance to Spartacism, no actual neo-conservative is going to mistake us for neo-conservatives. But the impulse to see us as neocons is highly symptomatic. Like the hatred of the Sparts, the hysteria about the neocons reveals a great deal about the bad faith of the “Left.”
The sense that we are neo-conservatives is not really the sense that we are like Irving Kristol or Paul Wolfowitz but rather that we are like Christopher Hitchens. The anger directed at a Hitchens is the anger directed at an ex-Leftist who insists that it was the Left that betrayed him, rather than he the Left. Just as the Stalinophobia of the late Shachtman, causing him to support Nixon, was at least subjectively a distorted extension of his earlier Trotskyist anti-Stalinism, similarly the impulse that pushes a Hitchens toward supporting U.S. imperialism is revulsion at Leftist support for Islamist reactionaries. The notion that the neocons are “Trotskyists” who have pinned their faith on U.S. imperialism instead of world revolution is, of course, ridiculous, but it contains a germ of truth. It needs, however, to be stood on its head. It is the failure of Trotskyism — that is, revolutionary Marxism — that has made neo-conservatism possible. The neo-conservatives are a distorted reflection of the Left, just as classical conservatism is a response to the rise of the Left. It was the French Revolution that made possible Edmund Burke, but it was the 1960s that paved the way for neo-conservatism.
If the hatred directed at the Spartacists is because they remind the “Left” of its abandonment of revolutionary Marxism, the hysteria about the neocons is because they remind the Left that all political change in the world now happens from the Right. What is most striking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military might of U.S. imperialism is not aimed at Leftist insurgents, as it would have been in the past, but Islamist reactionaries. Merely saying that makes many on the Left very uncomfortable, though. To us, the apostasy of a Hitchens is a less clear, less provocative, and — let us say it — less hopeful version of Platypus declaring “The Left is Dead!”
What is interesting to Platypus about the neocons is not their ideas. After all, supporting U.S. imperialism is hardly a strikingly original idea. Rather it is what they illuminate, in a negative sense. It is in so far as neo-conservatism represents an unconscious alienation from the conservatism and cynicism of the “Left” we are interested in it. In so far as the response to this alienation is an open embrace of the Right it is uninteresting. We do not need to “support” the neocons — whose policies, of course, are being continued by Obama — or U.S. imperialism, because they and it need the support of Platypus as little as the North Korean “deformed workers’ state” needs the Spartacist League to defend it.
For us, the problem of neo-conservatism is fundamentally about understanding the “Left,” or, in the case of the neocons, “the ex-Left,” as a collection of symptoms. Etymologically, the word “symptom” is related to the word “asymptote.” One might say that Platypus is the study of the asymptotic symptoms of the Left — the recognition of a meeting point, “at infinity,” of symptoms of an historical condition that is poorly represented by the categories of “Left” and “Right.”
Finally, we come to the third part of the political Hippogriff. Perhaps we in Platypus are simply liberals, in the end? Certainly, for the most part we are primarily talking to them. It is unlikely we can win people over from, say, the Spartacist League, and it is unlikely we can win over neo-conservatives, whatever hidden affinities we may have with either or both. Instead, we talk to a mostly soft Left-liberal, rad-lib, anarchoid milieu. Most of these people do not like being called “liberals.” Anarchists think of themselves as revolutionary, as more radical than “conservative” Marxists. To such people, we say that anarchism nowadays is just a dishonest liberalism, a liberalism in denial about its own liberalism. Indeed, we prefer the honest liberals, the open Obama supporters to the anarchists and ISO supporters, et al. Ideally, for Platypus — although it will never happen — all the anarchists, anarchoids, ISO-ers, RCP-ers, et cetera would suddenly vanish in the Rapture, leaving only Obama supporters, the Sparts, and us. In such a context, Platypus would have the least noise to compete with.
Thus, in SDS, an organization in which several Platypus members participated, the role of Platypus was essentially to try to push SDS into a recognition of its own incoherent liberalism. The goal was not to push SDS “to the Left,” but rather into a self-recognition of its own incoherent politics. To imagine one could push SDS “to the Left” would have been to give too much credit to the incoherent liberalism that motivated it. This attitude by Platypus naturally can make us seem to the Right of SDS, as a recent critique of Platypus’s participation in the Naomi Klein/Milton Friedman Institute debate said, in the Spartacist League’s newspaper Workers Vanguard, that “Platypus does not even want the crumbs they do.”
But this preference for honest liberalism, over the manifold dishonest varieties, contains yet another danger. Thus, while Platypus certainly wanted (and expected) Obama to win, it did so for the peculiar reason that it saw an Obama victory disorienting to the “bad Left,” and thus politically clarifying. But if Obama’s victory was disorienting to the bad Left, it was equally disorienting to us, since there was an ever-present temptation to read Obama-ism in a traditional progressive-ist way rather than as further regress. The problem posed by liberalism is that what constitutes “revolutionary politics” in the present is not clear. On the one hand, a group like the ISO simply dresses up rad-lib movement-ism as “revolutionary politics,” and, on the other, the Sparts simply understand “revolutionary politics” as the maintenance of correct positions. For us, however, it is not clear that there is any possibility of “revolutionary politics” at all in the present. Thus, we are in the paradoxical position of defending the necessity of “revolutionary politics” while simultaneously bracketing the possibility of “revolutionary politics.” Clearly, a very thin line separates intellectual honesty from self-delusion, here! Precisely, because the default political background against which we operate is an academic liberalism, our bracketing the possibility of revolutionary politics, despite our insistence on its necessity, as the lodestar of our ideological orientation, nevertheless leaves open constantly the possibility of our simply becoming a “smarter” version of academic liberalism. Despite the high levels anxiety generated by our willingness to entertain “Spartacist” or “neo-conservative” positions, the real ideological danger is, in fact, that we will simply become a smart, slightly eccentric version of academic Leftism, a more serious version of Slavoj Zizek, perhaps. The collegiality of the academic environment we predominantly operate in also acts as an obvious inhibiting force. Fundamentally, academic Leftism, and by default we are a variety of academic Leftism at this point, is deeply apolitical.
The complement of our ambivalent relationship to Spartacism is our relationship to the work of Moishe Postone. As much as the Platypus synthesis can be described as an attempt to synthesize Trotsky and Adorno, it can also be described as an attempt to unite what is of value in the superficially wildly divergent insights of the Spartacist League and Moishe Postone. To do this, particularly since both the Sparts and Postone are still alive, unlike Trotsky and Adorno, we must, of course, maintain the conceit that we understand both the Sparts and Postone better than they do themselves. This poses two questions. The first is whether the Platypus thesis that both Postone and the Sparts can be understood as wildly divergent symptoms of a common crisis on the Left — indeed, as the most interesting symptoms, as opposed to the myriad uninteresting symptoms — is in fact correct. Most people outside this room including both Postone and the Sparts would dismiss this idea as hogwash or lunacy. The second question is internal to Platypus and concerns the relative weight of these two elements. There are two ways that Platypus members tend to think of the Platypus project ideologically. One group tends to think of it as “Left-Postone-ism,” and the other as “neo-Trotskyism,” and there is considerable tension between these two views, so it is not only a question of whether one accepts the possibility of the synthesis but also the relative weight one assigns to the components.
Of course, this attempt to “marry” Postone and Spartacism may remind some people of the anecdote about George Bernard Shaw. When a famous beauty suggested they marry, saying, “With my beauty and your brains, think what wonderful children we would have,” Shaw replied, “Yes, but what if they had my beauty and your brains.”
Lastly, I will raise the epistemological problem. I will state it in its strongest form. Is it possible that we in Platypus will be the greatest misunderstanders of Platypus? Is it possible that we in Platypus cannot understand Platypus? That Platypus is, in essence, a project based on a deep misunderstanding of itself? Yes, it is possible. If we see in the present degenerate state of Leftist politics a collection of symptoms, we must add that we too are an acute symptom. If the Left is a corpse, we too are part of the stench! We must, though, like Alyosha Karamazov faced with the stench of the rotting Holy Father Zossima, not surrender to our initial impulse of despair with this realization. Thinking through the limitation of our own ability to understand Platypus may, paradoxically, be the best way of understanding Platypus.
The ideological core of our project is based on recognition of past defeats and their cumulative effects, and, as such, we are in constant danger of embracing the necessity of defeat even as we formally deny it. This is a fairly obvious danger. But the deeper problem is what, for lack of a better term, must be called the “opacity” of the present. With each passing generation, the Marxist project becomes more tenuous. Its language becomes more esoteric. It becomes both more elusive and allusive, more akin to religious mysticism than scientific materialism. It is not merely bourgeois ideology that obscures social reality, as for our high-Marxist predecessors, rather, the nature of social reality itself seems to become increasingly opaque, and the decline of Marxism is accompanied by a simultaneous disintegration of bourgeois culture itself, the ground out of which Marxism emerged, as an immanent critique. Post-modernism is the reactionary manifestation of this, the celebration, as emancipatory, of an incoherence that is the product of contingent historical defeats. Against post-modernism, we are hyper-modernists. It is not “modernism” that failed, but rather our condition is the expression of the inability — ultimately political — to complete modernity by abolishing capitalism.
Platypus is clearly marked by its moment. Mostly Platypus is a group of quite young people. The oldest contingent in Platypus consists of those of us who were in college in 1989. The youngest, of people born or in utero then. None of us directly experienced the politics of the 1960s. We are a product of late-Bush-ism and early Obama-ism. Culturally, we share in the general exhaustion with baby-boomer-ism and the endless recycling of the 1960s, a decade towards which we have a rather jaundiced and certainly not nostalgic attitude. The youth of Platypus also enables it to historicize the 20th century. This has many advantages since it enables one to sidestep many problems. Nowadays, historians of the 16th and 17th centuries do not feel compelled to take a side in the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. A modern historian would not generally be interested, as was still the case in the 19th century, whether, say, Wallenstein or Richelieu should be praised or condemned for their actions, but rather would want to understand the context in which their actions occurred. In a similar way, the struggle between Cannon and Shachtman in 1939–40 has achieved a certain distance for Platypus that it certainly has not for a group like the Spartacist League. We do not study the history of the Left to know where we would have been on the barricades, but rather to find the ruptures and subterranean linkages in a problematic history. But, while this attitude has advantages, it poses certain problems, too. I have been speaking so far of the resistance to Platypus, the anxiety generated by the project. But what of the opposite? Often, I have found myself wondering at the ease with which Platypus was being accepted. It seemed to be going down too easily with many people. I am made uncomfortable often by the absence of resistance to Platypus, just as I am constantly frustrated by the manifest resistance to the project. I have often suspected that if the Platypus notion of the “death of the Left” were to become widespread, it would signal the failure of Platypus, not its success, since it would mean only that the notion “the Left is dead” had lost its provocative quality, and thus been naturalized as fact.
Trying to understand this paradox, I have been led to a curious and rather provocative analogy. Radical political theory in our time reminds me of pornography. If Marcuse in the 1960s offered the notion of “repressive tolerance,” we might offer, by contrast, a notion of “repressive transgression.” Radical political thought nowadays is constantly stressing its naughtiness, but such naughtiness, like pornography, only ends up reinforcing what it supposedly resists. It would clearly be a mistake to imagine that societies that tolerate, produce, and consume pornography are more sexually liberated than societies that try to repress it. On the contrary, the impulse to produce and consume pornography and to repress it are aspects of the same problem. Pornography and puritanism are twins, not opposites. Pornography is ultimately only about sex in the same way music is about sound. Sex is merely the medium through which a condition of unfreedom is mirrored. As such pornography is inherently a rightwing phenomenon. Can one imagine a pornmovie trying to express revolutionary sentiments? Only as parody. By contrast, pornography created deliberately as fascist propaganda is extremely easy to imagine. Yet pornography is at the same time ambiguous. One might say that it is a frozen utopian longing, and the denial of that longing, simultaneously. And just as sado-masochistic role playing is not equivalent to the desire to be an actual master or an actual slave, so one should not expect that a fantasy of unlimited freedom is a genuine desire for it.
About a month ago, on a wall in Neve Tzedek, a hipster neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, I read a graffito that said, “If you are bored, you are already resisting the system.” The image that came to mind was of someone watching a pornmovie and being utterly, unbearably bored by it, but unable, for some reason, to turn it off and do something else. Perhaps this person would continue to hope that the movie would become titillating. Perhaps a nostalgia for a time when pornography was still arousing would continue to sustain viewing. Or, perhaps the excruciating boredom would simply be accepted, masochistically, as suitable punishment for the guilt of craving pornography in the first place? Or perhaps viewing would be sustained by the thought that everything else was equally boring and obscene, and that the whole world is just bad pornography, anyway. Like pornography, the Left is most honest when it is bored with itself.
Unlike pornography, psychoanalysis offers a scarier version of freedom. We in Platypus have taken on a role of psychoanalysts of the “Left.” We seek to dig up and understand repressed memories in order to overcome their debilitating effect. Platypus is, like psychoanalysis, a “talking cure.” We are, as we are accused of being, a “talk shop.” Such an approach runs the risk of seeming — and perhaps becoming — nothing but talk. Certainly, it seems at odds with the heroic traditions of the classical Left we admire, which sought to radically transform the world. Is Platypus, then, a reversion to those philosophers who “sought merely to interpret the world?” No.
Capitalism is unique in human history, as the only social system to produce the “Left.” For us, both the future of humanity and the key to understanding its past lie in the now-uncertain fate of this small fragment of capitalist modernity. Like our predecessors on the classical Left, we see no future for humanity in a decaying capitalism. Unlike them, we see our main immediate task as a critique of the Left. Our response is historically contingent. If we were living in 1909 instead of 2009, this would not have been our diagnosis.
As I have indicated, such an approach is fraught with ambiguity, and, as I have shown, the more one examines these ambiguities, the more complicated their ambiguity becomes. Our Marxism is a bridge between highly “orthodox” and intensely “revisionist” readings, and we are suspended above a deep, fog-shrouded abyss whose bottom we cannot see.
But probably the deepest and most perplexing of all our ambiguities, both to ourselves and others, is that, although Platypus is itself a response to generations of defeats, and, as such, suffused with despair, it is also a project based on profound hopefulness. | P
Next presentation: History, theory
I WANT TO BEGIN, straightaway, with something Richard raised, on which I would like to try to elaborate, by way of properly motivating the more “positive” aspect of Platypus’s theory. Not how we are misrecognized, as either neoconservatives, crypto-Spartacists or academic Left-liberals, and what this says “negatively” about our project, as if in a photonegative, as Richard has discussed, but rather how we positively think about the intellectual content of our project.
Let me begin with a thought experiment: What if the Spartacist critique of the 1960s New Left and Moishe Postone’s critique of the New Left, as disparate and antithetical as they might appear, were both correct? In other words, what if, paradoxically, the problem of the 1960s New Left was that it was simultaneously “too traditional” and “not traditional enough” in its Marxism?
What if the Spartacists were right that Stalinism and Trotskyism (and Bolshevism more generally) were not to be conflated, as they were in both Stalinophilic New Leftism, of Maoism and Che Guevarism, etc., and Stalinophobic neo-anarchism, Situationism, etc.? And what if Postone was correct, that Trotskyism, as part of “traditional Marxism,” was unable to deal with the problem of mid-20th century capitalism’s differences from earlier forms, and not able to address why revolutionary proletarian class consciousness, as it had previously manifested, did not continue, but seemed to become either irrelevant or, worse, affirmative of the status quo of the “administered society” of “organized” capitalism in the mid-20th century?
What both the Spartacists and Postone are unable to address, however, is why both of their perspectives, which purported to grasp the problem of capital more deeply and in broader historical context than others in the post-1960s New Left, found virtually no adherents. If we in Platypus say that both the Spartacists and Postone are correct, but both fail to adequately account for their own forms of consciousness, this raises an interesting paradox that points back to issues of historical interpretation for the Spartacists and Postone’s points of departure, namely, Bolshevism as revolutionary Marxism, and Marx’s own Marxism.
We could say that the problem of the Spartacists and Postone point to two different aspects of temporality in the history of the Left, that the Spartacists act as if no historical time intervenes between themselves and 1917, and Postone acts as if the progression of historical transformation leaves the Marxist tradition permanently superseded.
Both the Spartacists and Postone acknowledge, in however a limited fashion, the problem of regression; in the case of the Spartacists, the regression is post-1917, and for Postone it is post-1968, but both consider regression in only a linear and static manner, as if the emancipatory moments of 1917 and 1968 wait to be resumed at some time in a future that never comes. — And, behind both of these, lies 1848, which also continues to haunt our world, as taken up by the Situationists, “Left-” and “council” or “libertarian” communists and “anarchists.” What if all three are correct, that we are indeed haunted by 1848, 1917 and 1968, that these moments actually circumscribe present possibilities? Then the question would be: How so?
The point would be, contra both the Spartacists and Postone, to grasp how and why the pertinence of history changes and fluctuates, over time, and as a function of the present. The point would be to be able to grasp a non-linear conception of historical progression — and regression. If, according to the Spartacists, the moment of the Bolshevik Revolution remains permanently relevant, and, for Postone, Marx remains permanently relevant, this side of overcoming capital, then we ought to be able to explain how this is so, and in ways the Spartacists and Postone themselves have been unable to do. This is precisely what Platypus sets out to do.
Please let me begin again, with 4 quotations, to be considered in constellation. The first is from Walter Benjamin’s 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History:”
Karl Kraus said that “Origin is the goal.” History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.
In attempting to read the history of the accelerated demise and self-liquidation of the Left after the 1960s, reading it, as Benjamin put it, “against the grain,” we in Platypus face a problem discussed by Nietzsche in his 1873 essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life:”
A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. [Nietzsche translation by Ian Johnston at: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/history.htm]
However, as Karl Korsch wrote, in his 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy:”
[Marx wrote (in his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) that] “[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence.” [But] this dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch. [Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy (NLB: New York and London, 1970), 58]
As Adorno wrote, in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics:
The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that ‘world history is the world tribunal’. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations. [T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Continuum: New York, 1983), 143–144]
We in Platypus consider ourselves, quite self-consciously, to be a function of such a return, under changed circumstances, to what was “cast aside but not absorbed theoretically.” We think that such an approach as ours is only possible by virtue of the ways history, in failing to be transcended, continues to “fester,” “yielding its truth content,” but “only later.” Our approach is informed by prior models for such an endeavor, namely, Trotsky and Adorno, and those who succeeded them, namely, the Spartacists and Moishe Postone.
We think that figures of historical thought and action such as Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno have an apparently fluctuating pertinence, but we consider them to remain in constellation with the present, however distantly, precisely because these historical figures “remain painful [because they were] thwarted,” and because “history rolled over [their] positions” without their having been actually transcended and superseded, but only mistakenly “dismissed as obsolete.” As Adorno put it, in one of his last essays, “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” or “Is Marx Obsolete?,” if Marx has become obsolete, this obsolescence will only be capable of being overcome on the basis of Marx’s own thought and model of historical action. We in Platypus think the same goes for Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, and Adorno himself.
If these historical figures are obsolete but still remain capable of holding our attention and imagination, then we are tasked with explaining any continued pertinence they have by reference to their own models of historical thought and action, and thus, in a sense, “transcending” them, but only through “remembering” them, and on the basis that they themselves provide for our understanding them. We want to transform the ways these figures haunt us in the present into a matter of actual gratitude as opposed to guilt (as Horkheimer and Adorno put it, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, following Freudian psychoanalysis, about “The Theory of Ghosts”).
We recognize that Marx and the best Marxists, such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, will be transcended only by being fulfilled. We want to actually make them obsolete, whereas we find their (pseudo-)“obsolescence” declared by the “Left” today to be a function of trying to repress or ward them off instead. We begin with the discomfort of their memory, as an important symptom of history in the present.
But this involves a rather complicated historical approach, one that goes on in Platypus under the rubrics of “regression” and “critical” history, or history “against the grain” of events, which I would like to explicate now.
Nietzsche described what he called “critical history,” or an approach to history that is critical of that history from the standpoint of the needs of the present. Let me cite further from the passage of Nietzsche’s “Use and Abuse of History for Life” I’ve already quoted to illustrate this point.
Nietzsche said that,
Here it is not righteousness which sits in the judgment seat or, even less, mercy which announces judgment, but life alone, that dark, driving, insatiable self-desiring force.
So the question becomes, how, if at all, does memory of historical Marxism serve the needs of the present? We in Platypus recognize both the obscurity of the heritage of revolutionary Marxism and the ways the alternative, non-revolutionary lineage of the “Left” in its decline has been naturalized and so is no longer recognized as such. Our point of departure is the hypothesis that the history of the Left, however obscure, is the actual history of the present, or, more accurately, in Hegelian terms, how the history of the Left is the history of the present in its “actuality,” in its potential for change and transformation, and in its constraint of such potential. We are bound by the history of the Left, whether we recognize this or not.
For example, we follow Trotsky’s caveat about the danger of being Stalinist in “method” if not in avowed “politics,” and judge the “Left” today to be beholden to Stalinism in importantly unacknowledged ways. Ian wrote an article in the May issue of The Platypus Review (#12), on “Resurrecting the ’30s,” in which he cited C. Wright Mills on how the “nationalization” of the Left in the 1930s–40s was “catastrophic.” We recognize this “nationalization,” the narrowing of horizons for Leftist politics that has been taken for granted by the Left, especially after WWII, to be the very essence of Stalinism and its historical legacy in the present. More importantly, we recognize that such “nationalization” of Left politics was utterly foreign to the perspectives of Marx and the 2nd International radical Marxists, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. Hence, we find in their example a potential critical vantage-point regarding the subsequent historical trajectory of the Left.
Furthermore, Nietzsche described the danger of
[the] attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended. It is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find a borderline to the denial of the past and because the second nature usually is weaker than the first.
Richard, in his comments at our panel on “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century” Friday night, spoke of how Trotsky and Benjamin provide the “hidden” or esoteric history of the 20th century, by contrast with its “real” history, exemplified by FDR and Hitler. Our present world is more obviously descended from the history of Hitler and FDR, who in this sense made the world what it is today, as the effect of their actions. But how might we (come to) be descended also from Benjamin and Trotsky? Can we claim their history as ours, or are we condemned to being only the products of the history of Hitler, FDR and Stalin (and those who followed them)?
Does the historical possibility represented by Trotsky and Benjamin have any meaning to us today? Clearly their historical legacy of opposition is weaker than the other, dominant and victorious one. But was Trotsky and Benjamin’s opposition to Stalin, FDR and Hitler so fruitless that we cannot make use of them in fighting against the continued effects of, and perhaps one day overcoming entirely, the legacy of the latter? It is in this sense that we can discuss the critique of the present available in history.
Benjamin contrasted such “critical history,” of the “vanquished,” which is related to but the converse of Nietzsche’s, a critique of the present from the standpoint of history, as opposed to Nietzsche’s critique of history from the standpoint of the present, to the affirmative history of the “victors,” the affirmation of history as it happened. — But, first, we need to be very clear about what Benjamin meant by the “vanquished,” who were not merely history’s victims, but the defeated, those who actually struggled and lost: Benjamin’s example was Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League in the German Revolution and Civil War of 1918–19. It was on behalf of such historically “vanquished” that Benjamin wrote that history needed to be read “against the grain” of the victories of the status quo that comprise the present. It is in memory of their sacrifices, the “anger and hatred” that emanates from the image of “enslaved ancestors,” that Benjamin thought the struggle for emancipation in the present could be motivated by history, that history could serve the present, contrary to the way it otherwise oppresses it, in its affirmation of the status quo.
It is in this sense that we in Platypus do not claim so much that Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, et al. were right, but rather we seek to make them right, retroactively. We do not claim their relevance, but seek to make them relevant. For they did not seek merely to find the crisis of capital, but to bring it about. Our critique of the present, initially, is what is available historically: how the present can be critiqued from the vantage-point of history.
The founder of the Spartacist League, James Robertson, once put it very well, in 1973 — in the aftermath of the ’60s — that,
The truth is historically conditioned; that is, the outlook of the Communist movement of the first four congresses of the Communist International rested upon a historic and successful upheaval of the revolutionary proletariat [in 1917]. A comparable theoretical breakthrough and generalization accompanied this massive revolutionary achievement. . . . It is as though the theoretical outlook of the proletarian vanguard in the period 1919–23 in the International stood atop a mountain. But since that time, from the period of the Trotskyist Left Opposition until his death and afterward, the proletariat has mainly witnessed defeats and the revolutionary vanguard has either been shrunken or its continuity in many countries broken. One cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it, and our capacity to change the world is on a very small scale compared to the heroic days of the Communist International.
Robertson pointed out how deeply mistaken, and indeed “arrogant,” it was for us to assume that we know better than revolutionaries historically did. Our point is not to idolize the past but rather to instill an appropriate sense of humility towards it. Furthermore, the point is to be able to think in light of the past, how the past might help us think in the present. For, not only might we not know their past moments better than they did, but we might not know our present moment better than they might be able to prompt us to think about it. As Adorno wrote, in 1963,
The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago — and usually better the first time around.
But repetition is regression. The second time around may not be better, but it might yet be productive in certain ways.
For it is not a matter of how these historical thinkers and actors we find important can be emulated in the present, practically, so much as it is a question of how far their perspective might see into the present. Not what would they do in the present, but what might they say to our present and its historical trajectory? So, initially, it is a matter of theory more than practice. Engaging the historical thought and action of our revolutionary Marxist forebears is not a matter of applying a ready-made theory, but rather tasks our own interpretative abilities. It demands that we think — not a simple matter. As Trotsky wrote to his followers in the 1930s, we must “learn to think,” again. This is what distinguishes us from other supposedly “Marxist” organizations. And this is what informs our practice, what we actually make happen in the world, as Ian will discuss.
Approaching history this way allows us to pose certain questions. It does not provide answers. The positive content of historical ideas is in their ambiguity: this is what makes them live for us today, by contrast with the dead positivity of the pseudo-ideas — really, the suppression of thinking — that we find on the fake “Left” today. For there is not merely the question of what we think about the past; but, also, and, perhaps most importantly, in our regressive moment today, the reciprocal one: what the past might think of us.
As Benjamin put it, history needs to be approached from the standpoint of its potential redemption. We think that the historical thought and action of Marxism demands to be redeemed, and that our world, dominated by capital, will continue to suffer so long as this task remains undone. We think that the constitutive horizon of our world was already charted, however preliminarily, by the revolutionary politics of historical Marxism, but that this horizon has become only blurred and forgotten since then. We in Platypus set ourselves the task of initiating thought about this problem, from deep within the fog of our present. We look back and see the revolutionary Marxists looking towards us from that faraway mountaintop. In their fleeting gaze we find an unfulfilled hope — and a haunting accusation. | P
Next presentation: What is to be done?
Ian Morrison, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society
What is Platypus?
Platypus was set up as an attack on thought-taboos. From the start, we’ve rejected the usual Left culture, which preaches the struggle against the common enemy and focuses all of its energy on demonizing this or that Right-wing clique. In quite the opposite way, we have chosen instead to elucidate the conservative character of our time, and the obvious weakness of the Left, perhaps even its total disappearance, not as a question of bodies on the ground, but as the logical by-product of the Left’s ideological murkiness, as an utter lack of clarity about the world we live in, and moreover as an all-pervasive stigmatization of debate and critique. In the past it may have seemed as if philosophers had hitherto only interpreted the world, but today it seems that people seeking to change the world have stopped interpreting it.
Given our philosophy, it should come as no surprise that our project started as a reading group, hoping to decode the overlapping social imaginations that cover the present with a thick fog. Our initial point of departure was an exploration of the disconnection between the Old and New Left, as well as a study of how this confusion plays out in our time. And, pessimistically, we've come to believe that it is entirely possible that the Marxist tradition will be eclipsed during our lifetimes — that is if it hasn't already been eclipsed — unless the ban on debate and critique about the Left’s history is lifted. The difficulty in addressing the history of the Left is complex, of course, and our world has produced a plethora of shields against this, not least of which is the dogmatism of the pseudo-“Left.” Today, we can neither read the classics of revolutionary Marxism as a road map, nor can we necessarily reject their insights. Because part of the problem is that it is simply not possible to know more about revolutionary change than those did in times past who actually struggled to bring their thoughts to the light of day. So, as an estimation of our time, we are interested in exploring the fetters and taboos that impinge on exploring the highest aspirations for human freedom, which we believe are located in the Marxist tradition.
In late 2006 we began to move outside of our reading group model and started hosting events. As you all know, this was during the Iraq war, in which our project was inevitably bound up. At our first public event we sparked a much-needed conversation about “imperialism,” perhaps the least-understood topic of our time, not least because it serves as mask for a great deal of confusion by acting as a superficial point of shared agreement. We feel that our project has been vindicated by that fact that almost no other group sought to bring out this debate, even though the concept, “imperialism,” found its way on to almost every placard and banner during this time. And yet it is not at all self-evident how one would overcome this problem of misunderstanding “imperialism” while continuing to denounce it. If it were, we would have long since overcome it. For this reason, we believe that one needs to trace the historical changes, especially of ideas like “imperialism,” and not paper-over the problems in the typical anti-intellectual manner of the “Left.” Yet, so profoundly deep-rooted is the hatred for change, the hatred for a thoroughgoing critique, that our project was mistaken to be pro-war, as if to raise a single question would blow over the Left’s house of cards. And perhaps this single question mark will bring the house of cards down. So much the better, in our opinion, for the inability to understand a phenomenon like “imperialism” is as much a part of conserving it as anything else. Perhaps the inability to understand, in fact, is the most important part in perpetuating imperialism. Our project would like to raise that possibility.
Recently, we've also attempted to start a public conversation about how people are mobilized: for what ends, and under what psychology? We have addressed this through an interrogation of some of the other key buzz words the Left likes to throw around, namely Resistance, Reform and Revolution. And we have found that in the virtual world the Left lives in it is not at all easy to articulate these supposedly strict delineations. Following this discussion, we tried to interrogate the rather abstract notion of “movements” — another mysterious, almost occultist thing we are all supposedly clear about.
In our brief history, we have covered a large range of topics including: the conflict in Israel/Palestine; the catastrophe in South Asia; changes in the character of racism; and most recently, in reaction to the recently dubbed economic crisis, we asked working class organizers how their work has been affected. And we’re going to cover a range of other topics at our convention this weekend.
I should say, in order to make myself clear, that we find all these questions deeply ambiguous. In all these conversations we have avoided making the typical predictions and reciting the usual clichés. We refuse to dress up every social movement as revolutionary for our own psychological satisfaction, or see every catastrophe, be it economic or militaristic, as an opportunity, if only for protest. We have decided instead to set up a space for people to take a backwards glance: to work through ideas in an open manner; to finally take a sober look at reality; and, hopefully, transcend the misplaced pessimism and optimism, in favor of a critical approach to our time.
This has also inspired us to publish the Platypus Review. Like our public events it is not a venue simply for Platypus members or other people close to our project. We are hoping to create a clearinghouse for reflections on the Left, for anyone willing to break out of the typical conformity and the blind obliviousness of protest culture.
Platypus has been forging a conversation about the Left that we believe would otherwise not happen. The groups which fall under the banner of the “Left” today, are nothing if not professionals at ignoring each other. They use a vast array of techniques to serve this end, whether it is overtly ignoring each other, or the endless platitudes on shared ground carefully calculated to avoid any real debate. Platypus emphatically rejects the idea that the struggle simply goes on.
For Platypus, the movement is nothing if the goal appears as a farce. This is why we say: “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” | P