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You are here: Platypus /Archive for category Issue #37

Third Annual Platypus International Convention

Opening plenary

Chris Cutrone, Andrew Feenberg, Richard Westerman, and Nicholas Brown

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

The opening plenary of the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, held April 29–May 1, 2011 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was a panel discussion between Nicholas Brown of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Andrew Feenberg of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Richard Westerman of the University of Chicago. The panelists were asked to address the following: “Recently, the New Left Review published a translated conversation between the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer causing more than a few murmurs and gasps. In the course of their conversation, Adorno comments that he had always wanted to ‘develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while keeping up with culture at its most advanced.’ Adorno, it seems, was a Leninist. As surprising as this evidence might have been to some, is it not more shocking that Adorno’s politics, and the politics of Critical Theory, have remained taboo for so long? Was it really necessary to wait until Adorno and Horkheimer admitted their politics in print to understand that their primary preoccupation was with maintaining Marxism’s relation to bourgeois critical philosophy (Kant and Hegel)? This panel proposes to state the question as directly as possible and to simply ask: How did the practice and theory of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin, make possible and necessary the politics of Critical Theory?” The full audio recording of the event is available at the above link.

Opening remarks

Waiting for history: Horkheimer and Adorno’s theatre of the absurd

Andrew Feenberg

IN 2010 the New Left Review (NLR 65) translated a dialogue between Horkheimer and Adorno on “a new manifesto.”[1] This dialogue, which took place in 1956, is only understandable against the background of Marx and Lukács’s interpretation of the theory-practice relation. In this talk I will try to explain how that background blocks the production of the manifesto and reduces discussion of it to absurdity. But first, let me show how Horkheimer and Adorno set up the problem.

Their dialogue is a strange document. The pretension to update the Communist Manifesto written by Marx and Engels in 1848 is astonishing, particularly given the silliness of much of their talk. For example, what are we to make of the first exchanges on the misplaced love of work, which then devolve into a conversation about the anal sounds emitted by a motorcycle? The dialogue returns constantly to the question of what to say in a time when nothing can be done. The communist movement is dead, killed off by its own grotesque success in Russia and China. Western societies are better than the Marxist alternative that nevertheless symbolically represents an emancipated future. Horkheimer is convinced that the world is mad and that even Adorno’s modest hope that things might work out someday stinks of theology. Horkheimer remarks, “We probably have to start from the position of saying to ourselves that even if the party no longer exists, the fact that we are here still has a certain value.” In sum, the only evidence that something better is possible is the fact that they are sitting there talking about the possibility of something better.

Horkheimer asks, in this situation, “In whose interest do we write?” “People might say that our views are just all talk, our own perceptions. To whom shall we say these things?” He continues, “We have to actualize the loss of the party by saying, in effect, that we are just as bad [off] as before but that we are playing on the instrument the way it has to be played today.” And Adorno replies, cogently and rather comically, “There is something seductive about that idea—but what is the instrument?” Although Adorno remarks tentatively at one point that he has “the feeling that what we are doing is not without its effect,” Horkheimer is more skeptical. He says, “My instinct is to say nothing if there is nothing I can do.” And he goes on to discuss the tone and content of the manifesto in such a way as to reduce it to absurdity: “We want the preservation for the future of everything that has been achieved in America today, such as the reliability of the legal systems, the drugstores, etc. This must be made quite clear whenever we speak about such matters.” Adorno replies, “That includes getting rid of TV programmes when they are rubbish.” Contradicting himself, Horkheimer concludes the recorded discussion with the grim words, “Because we are still permitted to live, we are under an obligation to do something.”

In 1955, shortly before this exchange occurred, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. The speculations of Vladimir and Estragon anticipate Max and Teddie’s absurdist dialogue. Vladimir says, for instance: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed….But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”[2]

This introduction to the discussion of Horkheimer and Adorno’s text may seem unfair. Do they deserve my mockery? “Yes and no,” to quote Horkheimer. In one sense their text is already self-mocking. The lighthearted tone of many of the exchanges shows them to be well aware of the literal impossibility of carrying out their project. Horkheimer claims that the tone in which the manifesto is written must somehow overcome its futility in the present period when it can have no practical effect. Something similar takes place in the dialogue. The tone reveals what cannot be explained adequately about the contradiction between the existential situation of the speakers and their project. But they do try their best to make the contradiction explicit.

The obstacle is their conception of the relation of theory to practice. Adorno points out that Marx and Hegel reject abstract ideals and reconstruct the concept of the ideal as the next historical step. This means that theory must be tied to practice, to real historical forces. As Horkheimer later says: “Reality should be measured against criteria whose capacity for fulfillment can be demonstrated in a number of already existing, concrete developments in historical reality” (55).

But, Adorno argues, Marx and Hegel did not live in a world like ours in which the unwillingness to take the next step blocks the actual realization of utopia. Under these conditions, the temptation to utopian speculation returns, but the pressure to meet the Hegelian-Marxist historical desideratum blocks the further progress of thought. Horkheimer concludes that, “the idea of practice must shine through in everything we write” without any compromise or concession to the actual historical situation, a seemingly impossible demand. This yields what he calls “a curious waiting process,” which Adorno defines as, “in the best case…theory as a message in a bottle” (56, 58).

What is most peculiar about this exchange is the refusal of these two philosophers to derive a critical standard from philosophical reflection once history can no longer supply it. This is what Habermas would do later: admit the breakdown of the Hegelian-Marxist historical approach and establish a properly philosophical basis for critique. If no “next step” lights the way, perhaps ethics can do the job in its place. But Horkheimer and Adorno insist on the importance of situating their thought historically both in terms of their own position and the absence of a party and a movement. As Horkheimer notes, “We have to think of our own form of existence as the measure of what we think.” How can critique negate the given society since that society is the critic’s sole existential support? The critic is the highest cultural product of the society. In the absence of any realistic alternative his capacity to negate the society justifies it. He can neither escape from history into the transcendental, as Habermas would have it, nor can he rest his historical case on the progressive movement of history. No wonder the dialogue wavers between the comic and the portentous.

How did Marxism end up in such a bind? As I mentioned at the outset, I believe this question leads back to Marx and Lukács. Lukács’s important book History and Class Consciousness contained the most influential reflection on the relation of theory and practice in the Marxist tradition. He renewed the Hegelian-Marxist historical critique of abstract ideals that underlies the dilemma at the heart of the dialogue. This text was known to Horkheimer and Adorno and its impact on their own reflections is obvious.

Lukács introduces the problem of theory and practice through a critique of an early text in which Marx demands that theory “seize the masses.” But, Lukács argues, if theory seizes the masses it stands in an external relation to their own needs and intentions. It would be a mere accident if the masses accomplished theoretical goals. Rather, theory must be rooted in the needs and intentions of the masses if it is to be really and truly the theory of their movement and not an alien imposition.

Lukács takes up this theme at a more abstract level in his critique of Kantian ethics. In Lukács’s terms, the antinomy of theory and practice is an example of the more general antinomy of value and fact, “ought” and “is.” These antinomies arise from a formalistic concept of reason in terms of which theory and practice are alien to each other. This concept of reason fails to discover in the given facts of social life those potentialities and tendencies leading to a rational end. Instead, the given is conceived as fundamentally irrational, as the merely empirical, factual residue of the process of formal abstraction in which rational laws are constructed. Lukács explains, “Precisely in the pure, classical expression it received in the philosophy of Kant it remains true that the ‘ought’ presupposes an existing reality to which the category of ‘ought’ remains inapplicable in principle.”[3] This is the dilemma of bourgeois thought: political rationality presupposes as its material substratum an irrational social existence hostile to rational principles. The rational realm of citizenship, illuminated by moral obligation, stands in stark contradiction to the crude world of civil society, based on animal need and the struggle for existence.

But, if this is true of bourgeois theory, what of the theory of the proletarian movement? Is Marxism just a disguised ethical exigency opposed to the natural tendencies of the species? This is the flaw of heroic versions of communism, which oppose morality to life. Demanding sacrifice for the party, the next generation, and the “worker,” conforms precisely to the bourgeois pattern Lukács criticizes. This is not Marx. Starting from the Hegelian critique of abstract ethics, the early Marx arrived at a general concept of revolutionary theory as the “reflection” of life in thought.

There is for example a letter to Ruge in which Marx writes: “Until now the philosophers had the solution to all riddles in their desks, and the stupid outside world simply had to open its mouth so that the roasted pigeons of absolute science might fly into it.” Instead, philosophy must proceed from actual struggles in which the living contradiction of ideal and real appears. The new philosopher must “explain to the world its own acts,” showing that actual struggles contain a transcending content that can be linked to the concept of a rational social life. “We simply show it [the world] why it struggles in reality, and the consciousness of this is something which it is compelled to acquire, even if it does not want to.” “The critic,” Marx concludes, “therefore can start with any form of theoretical and practical consciousness and develop the true actuality out of the forms inherent in existing actuality as its ought-to-be and goal.” This is what Horkheimer meant by his remark that society must be measured against “concrete developments in historical reality.” As Marx writes elsewhere, “It is not enough that thought should seek to realize itself; reality must also strive toward thought.”

Marx’s later writings are ambiguous, conserving only traces of this reflexive theory of consciousness, as for example in this brief passage in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. . . . What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drives the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent.[4]

This passage invites revision to say that the proletariat too confronts “problems” that are “solved” theoretically by Marxism in a way that reflects the similar practical solution to which its life circumstances drive the class. Unfortunately, the later Marx did not make such an application of this suggestive remark. Instead, he proposed the historical materialist theory of the “determination of thought by being.” This deterministic language leaves open the question of the relation of Marxist theory to proletarian class consciousness.

This is the question Lukács addressed. He needed to show that Marxism was not related in a merely accidental manner to the thought and action of proletarians, that it is not a scientific “consciousness from without,” for which the proletariat would serve as a “passive, material basis,” but that it was essentially rooted in the life of the class. His misunderstood theories of reification and class consciousness relate to the form in which the social world is given immediately to the consciousness of all members of a capitalist society. Lukács writes that “in capitalist society reality is—immediately—the same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” And again: “The proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the reification of every aspect of its life.” However, the experience of reification differs depending on class situation. It is interesting that Lukács cites as evidence for this one of the few Marxian passages on alienation to which he had access. “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.”

Bourgeois and proletarians experience the “same” alienation, Marx claims, but from different vantage points. Similarly, Lukács remarks that where the capitalist perceives lengthening the work day as a matter of increasing the quantity of labor power purchased at a given price, for the worker this “quantity changes into quality.” The worker goes beyond the reified quantitative determinants immediately given in the reified form of objectivity of his labor because he cannot ignore the real qualitative degradation of life and health associated with them. Thus, “the quantitative differences in exploitation which appear to the capitalist in the form of quantitative determinants of the objects of his calculation, must appear to the worker as the decisive, qualitative categories of his whole physical, mental and moral existence.”

The proletariat sees beyond immediacy in the act of becoming (socially) self-conscious. This self-consciousness penetrates beneath the reified form of its objects to their “reality.” This more or less spontaneous critique of reification gives rise to everyday practices that can be developed into the basis of a revolutionary movement by union and party organizations.

Lukács thus claims that the workers’ response to the reification of experience under capitalism is the foundation on which Marxist dialectics arise. In a sense one could say that Marxism and the proletariat share a similar “method,” demystifying the reified appearances each in its own way—the one at the level of theory, the other at the levels of consciousness and practice. Where the theory shows the relativity of the reified appearances to deeper social structures, workers live that relativity in resisting the imposition of the reified capitalist economic forms on their own lives. Both theory and practice lead to a critique of the economic and epistemological premises of capitalism. As Marx himself writes in Capital, “So far as such criticism represents a class, it can only represent the class whose vocation in history is the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of all classes—the proletariat.”

Marx and Lukács established the methodological horizon of Marxism for the Frankfurt School. This is the background against which Horkheimer and Adorno discuss their new manifesto. They accept the critique of pure theory; but now that the proletariat no longer supports a transcending critique of society, any concession to practice drags theory back into the realm of everyday political wheeling and dealing or, worse yet, into complicity with the murder of millions by totalitarian communist regimes. As Adorno remarks, “What is the meaning of practice if there is no longer a party? In that case doesn’t practice mean either reformism or quietism?”

There appears to be no way out of the trap set by the tension between norm and history, now that the revolution has failed. To return to the “roasted pigeons of absolute science,” that is, to some sort of utopian or transcendental thinking, is now impossible. But there is no way to anticipate the “next step” of history toward a better world. Horkheimer poses the dilemma in two contradictory propositions, saying, on the one hand, “Our thoughts are no longer a function of the proletariat,” and, on the other hand, that “Theory is theory in the authentic sense only where it serves practice. Theory that wishes to be sufficient unto itself is bad theory.”

Is there no alternative within the Marxist framework? In fact there is an excluded alternative occasionally evoked in the course of the dialogue. This alternative, referred to derisively is Marcuse, who hovers like Banquo’s ghost over the conversation. Adorno comes closest to articulating this position and is pulled back by Horkheimer each time. At one point he remarks, “I cannot imagine a world intensified to the point of insanity without objective oppositional forces being unleashed” (42). This will turn out to be the thesis Marcuse hints at in One-Dimensional Man and develops in An Essay on Liberation. But Horkheimer rejects this view as overly optimistic. A bit later Adorno refuses to accept that human nature is inherently evil. “People only become Khrushchevs because they keep getting hit over the head” (44). But again Horkheimer rejects the hope of a less repressive future and even ridicules Marcuse by claiming he expects a Russian Bonaparte to save the day and make everything right.

What are we to make of this ghostly presence of a Marcusean alternative? It seems to me that these remarks already anticipate and condemn Marcuse’s openness to the return of the movement in the form of the New Left. Where Horkheimer and Adorno ultimately rejected the New Left, Marcuse took the Hegelian-Marxian- Lukácsian plunge back into history. Adorno was sympathetic to the movement at first but eventually condemned what he called its “pseudo-activism.” Marcuse was well aware that the New Left was no equivalent to Marx’s proletariat, but he tried to find in it a hint of those “objective oppositional forces” of which Adorno spoke in 1956. In this way theory might be related once again to practice without concession to existing society, although also with no certainty of success.

Marcuse’s important innovation was to recognize the prefigurative force of the New Left without identifying it as a new agent of revolution. We still live under the horizon of progressive politics established by the New Left; its issues are still ours although of course transformed in many ways by time. But the most significant impact of the New Left is on our identity as leftists. The New Left invented a non-sectarian form of progressive opposition that defines the stance of most people on the Left today.

Much to Marcuse’s surprise, on his 80th birthday, Beckett published a short poem as a tribute to him. The poem recognizes the obstinacy required by the seemingly impossible demands of the Frankfurt School’s stance toward history. Here is the poem:

pas à pas
nulle part
nul seul
ne sait comment
petits pas
nulle part

step by step
not a single one
knows how
tiny steps

Lukács’s party and social praxis

Richard Westerman

THE FOUNDATIONAL TEXTS of Critical Theory, Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness [HCC] and Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, were the products of a crisis in European Marxism. Both published in 1923, they represented a response to both failed and successful revolutions: whilst the Bolsheviks had taken control of Russia despite its relative underdevelopment, Communist governments in Hungary and Germany had rapidly been toppled due to a lack of popular support. Notably, both Lukács and Korsch had served in these governments—Lukács himself on the front lines with the Hungarian Red Army. Though memorably condemned as “Marxism of the Professors” by the nascent Soviet orthodoxy, the deeply philosophical readings of Marx that Korsch and Lukács developed were very much the product of their personal involvement in and response to practical revolutionary situations.

The fact that these books were written, as Lukács observed, as “attempts, arising out of actual work for the party, to clarify the theoretical problems of the revolutionary movement” is usually forgotten.[5] This is evident in the reception of the concept of reification. Loosely, reification describes a social pathology in which individuals understand society and social relations through fixed, unalterable laws, with the result that they feel isolated and unable to change society. It is usually—wrongly—assumed that Lukács’s solution is an updated version of German Idealism, according to which the proletariat suddenly realizes that it is the creator of this objective world, and so spontaneously reappropriates its creation to free itself. As a result, Lukács’s account of the role of the party in the final essay of HCC is read through this misinterpretation of reification, and he is accused of paving the way for a centralized state controlled by an authoritarian party. On this standard interpretation, Lukács apparently believes that because the proletariat hadn’t realized that it was the subject of history, the revolutionary party simply needed to act for them. He is seen as endorsing a Blanquist party that would deteriorate into post-revolutionary dictatorship.

Surprisingly few of Lukács’s interpreters have recognized that he actually envisages a much more democratic party. The central reason for this common misrepresentation is a failure to understand adequately what Lukács means by his central concept of reification, and the way it shapes his theory of party organization. Most interpretations of Lukács think reification is a mistake made by a thinking subject—even if the mistake is attributed to social reasons. The party would then try to correct this mistake. Reification does not, however, describe an epistemology; from the outset, it describes a type of praxis. Lukács’s party isn’t there to play the role of a wise leader to guide the proletariat—it’s there to provide a locus for genuinely dereified, and thus dereifying praxis. Rather than a Blanquist cadre of professional revolutionaries, Lukács’s party is essentially a more institutionalized version of Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike.

I am going to start by tracing the roots of the problem Lukács is trying to solve to Marx’s critique of the distinction between state and civil society in “On The Jewish Question” [OJQ], and showing how this problem clearly could not be solved by a vanguardist party. I’ll then consider Lukács’s own position: I’ll argue that his vision of the party sits somewhere between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, in that he sees the formal organization provided by the party as essential for real proletarian class consciousness. Finally, I’ll suggest a few ways in which this might provide a model for the sort of democratic activity that might provide a counterweight to existing social and political structures.

Marx’s OJQ, written in response to Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet on the question of full Jewish emancipation within the German state, radically reinterprets the meaning of social freedom. Arguing that the secularization of the state would only mean the reproduction of religious division at the level of society, Marx questioned the Hegelian division of state and civil society. Civil society, for Hegel, was the realm of particular satisfaction and immediate social unity: the individual was tied to other individuals through an economic system of needs, rationalized through social institutions built on this basic necessity. In contrast, the state was the realm of rational freedom, in which citizens were united as rational universal individuals. For Marx, this was an alienated form of freedom: first, it meant that political forms seemed to come from an impersonal universal force of reason, rather than free human action; second, it treated the categories of social existence as invariable, necessary, and open only to knowledge, not change. Marx proposed, therefore, that we bring heaven down to earth and make society itself into the realm of freedom by transforming social relations themselves. Real freedom thus means collective control over such relations.

It’s this sort of freedom that Lukács sees in party activity. But I think it should be obvious at once why a party that sought to carry out revolution on behalf of the proletariat would be unable to realize it. Such a party would reduce the working class to the role of spectators, just as unfree as before. In fact, Lukács is extremely clear in his rejection of such a top-down party, and it’s hard to see how an honest and rigorous reading could come up with any other conclusion. He states explicitly that “even in theory, the communist party does not act on behalf of the proletariat,”[6] lest it reduce the masses to “a merely observing, contemplative” attitude that leads to “the voluntaristic overestimation of the active significance of the individual (the leader) and the fatalistic underestimation of the significance of the class (the masses).”[7] And he repeatedly uses the word “reification” to caution against fixing any one organizational form and insulating it from criticism or change by the masses. Lukács could not be more clear: a top-down, proto-Stalinist party would represent a return to the lack of freedom of capitalist society.

Lukács draws heavily on Rosa Luxemburg, which was perhaps rather an unusual tactic in 1922, when the success of the Bolsheviks seemed to indicate a clear victory for Lenin’s idea of a disciplined cadre of revolutionaries. The mass strike in which she vested such hopes was supposed to bring about the spontaneous development of class consciousness by forcing all strata of the working class into organizing themselves. Luxemburg’s party plays a very secondary role, little more than a sort of secretarial role in fact, and certainly not any kind of leadership.

Nevertheless, Lukács also repeatedly praises Luxemburg for her insights. He explicitly endorses her criticisms of Western European parties who underestimated mass action, and thought only an educated party was ready to assume leadership.[8] However, he suggests that she makes the opposite mistake, and criticizes her for “underplaying of the role of the party in the revolution.”[9] As we’ve seen, he doesn’t think this role entails “leadership” in a conventional sense, so to understand what Lukács means, we need to look a little more closely at his definition of reification.

Most interpretations of Lukács take reification to be an epistemological error. The problem they think Lukács identifies is that the categories that capitalist society is construed in are too abstract and formal. As a result, they think his project is to replace such categories with more substantial ones that “accurately” reflect the qualitative underlying reality. Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn’t withstand a close reading of the text.[10] Reification—Verdinglichung, “thingification”—doesn’t refer to a problem of abstraction, of quantity opposed to a qualitative substrate—but rather to the undialectical ossification of forms as things that cannot be changed. This is clear enough in the central essay of the book, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Here, Lukács presents an interpretation of what he calls “bourgeois” philosophy, the classical German thought of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. He identifies the epistemological preoccupation of such philosophy: it starts from the separation of subject and object; therefore, its central question is, How far can our knowledge and its forms match up with a reality that is external to consciousness? This epistemological standpoint, Lukács argues, reduces us to mere spectators of society: we think it is only possible to grasp it through predetermined forms. Lukács’s problem with this isn’t that the forms are wrong – rather, it’s the very attempt to separate subject, object, and consciousness from one another. We can see what Lukács means by “reification” in the more detail in the way he talks about the party.

In the first place, Lukács’s party essentially serves as the institutional form of proletarian class consciousness. Without a party, such consciousness would be formless and immediate; the proletariat needs to give an institutional form to its self-consciousness in order to understand itself properly. The party, therefore, is the form that the revolutionary proletariat gives itself. The leading sections of the working class organize themselves in a party. As Lukács puts it, “the organizational independence of the communist party is necessary, in order that the proletariat can see its own class consciousness, as a historical form … so that, for the whole class, its own existence as a class can be raised to the level of consciousness.”[11] Whereas a Blanquist party would be there to tell the workers what to think, the Lukácsian party embodies the proletariat in its organizational forms. Moreover, these forms aren’t just a representation of what is already there – a more or less accurate representation of an underlying substrate of labor or essence. Rather, Lukács states that the party is the proletariat’s “act of self-conscious becoming.” It’s only by taking on form for itself that the proletariat really becomes a class.

Furthermore, the close ties Lukács establishes between form and existence indicate how reification could return as a problem in the organization of the party. Though tactical concerns play some role in organization, this should not result in the imposition of certain forms in the name of exigency. Rather, what’s crucial is that forms come from the self-organization of the proletariat. “The emergence of the communist party,” as he says, “can only be the consciously-performed work of the class-conscious workers.”[12] As a result, organization is not a once-and-for-all action: Lukács is not trying to replace one set of (abstract, quantifiable, capitalist) forms with other, more “authentic,” or “qualitative” forms. To do this would be, he suggests, to risk the return of reification—which he identifies with the organizational structures of party leadership. For Lukács, it’s not so much what the party does that matters, but more the opportunities it affords proletarians to become actively involved in shaping the forms of their existence. He writes, “insofar as the communist party becomes a world of activity for every one of its members, it can overcome the contemplativity of bourgeois man.”[13]

Lukács identifies the party as the practical overcoming of reification. “Organization is the form of mediation between theory and practice.”[14] Like Luxemburg, he rejects a Blanquist party that takes control on behalf of the workers. But he goes beyond Luxemburg in his insistence on some kind of fluid institutional form for proletarian consciousness, without which it would be vague and ineffective. Dereification, therefore, is necessarily practical—it means deliberate engagement in practices that give form to one’s own existence. The party is practical consciousness, the embodiment of such forms in a way that allows for their transformation.

Although Lukács’s account rests very specifically on the conditions of the industrial working classes and the phenomenological construction of proletarian self-consciousness, I think his fundamental concept of dereified praxis can help inform progressive democratic organization more generally. Even within current social and political forms, the idea of reification can be used to critique universalist discourses of rights, starting from a fixed standpoint that makes it impossible to negotiate the boundaries of citizenship or group membership in any substantial way. More radically, though, Lukács’s party provides a model for broad-based social action. Democratization would, for Lukács, entail much more comprehensive involvement in forming our social relations than just reformation of legal and political categories. We should understand social forms through the idea of practices—that is, structured, repeatable interactions that acquire a certain significance or meaning within the totality of a culture. It is these practices that become reified. Rather than seeing them as things that we do, things that are recharged with meaning only because we continue to practice them, we wrongly treat them as fixed and immutable. Social practices can seem almost divinely sanctioned. Alternatively, we might come up with a supposedly scientific theory that explains such practices in terms of an eternal, unchangeable human nature that inevitably develops into specific social forms. We seem only able to interact in these ways.

Dereification would entail a deliberate transformation of these practices: we should, Lukács would argue, treat our practices as things we can adapt to circumstances. We cannot recreate social forms at will out of nothing—but at the same time, by recognizing that forms as practices are things we do, we can open them to steady transformation. At the suggestion of Sourayan Mookerjea, I’d like to point to the alter-globalization example, as a model. Alter-globalists welcome the growth of global interaction and cooperation that current development has generated. However, they reject neo-liberal ideas that such development can only take place in one way, determined by scientifically-knowable economic processes. Alter-globalization therefore tries to develop alternative social practices, orienting itself towards positive redefinition of social interaction, not the unthinking rejection of internationalism.

Lukács’s model of the party also indicates ways such activity needs to be carried out: it must be a grassroots movement with a deliberate orientation towards the problem of its own organization. That is, emancipatory movements shouldn’t view themselves as instrumentally-oriented towards attaining a particular end; rather, they need to devote much of their energy to themselves, and to shaping the ways in which they hold together as organizations. In doing so, they afford their members an opportunity for the very sort of dereified praxis that Lukács aspires to.

To sum up: Lukács’s understanding of the revolutionary Party aims to fulfill some of the emancipatory goals of Marx’s OJQ. Rather than a centralized cadre of professional vanguardists, Lukács’s party is shaped by Luxemburgian aspirations of grassroots self-organization. By interpreting the party as the conscious form of social relations, Lukács indicates the importance of some objective presentation of our practices, if we are to understand our social existence properly. But he also suggests a new definition of praxis. The very act of self-organization, or of consciously modifying the practices that make up our social and cultural totality is, for Lukács, the essence of revolutionary praxis. If we accept certain ways of interacting as eternal and unchangeable, we succumb to reification. Only by constantly struggling against the ossification of our practices into unchangeable forms can we hope to be emancipated.

Adorno’s “Leninism”

Chris Cutrone

THE POLITICAL ORIGINS of Frankfurt School Critical Theory have remained opaque, for several reasons, not least the taciturn character of the major writings of its figures. The motivation for such reticence on the part of these theorists is itself what requires explanation: why they engaged in self-censorship and the encryption of their ideas, and consigned themselves to writing “messages in a bottle” without immediate or definite addressee. As Horkheimer put it, the danger was in speaking like an “oracle;” he asked simply, “To whom shall we say these things?”[15] It was not simply due to American exile in the Nazi era or post-World War II Cold War exigency. Some of their ideas were expressed explicitly enough. Rather, the collapse of the Marxist Left in which the Critical Theorists’ thought had been formed, in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia and the German Revolution and civil war of 1918–19, deeply affected their perspective on political possibilities in their historical moment. The question is, in what way was this Marxism?

A series of conversations between Horkheimer and Adorno from 1956, at the height of the Cold War, provide insight into their thinking and how they understood their situation in the trajectory of Marxism in the 20th century. Selections from the transcript were recently published in the New Left Review (2010), under the title “Towards a New Manifesto?” The German publication of the complete transcript, in Horkheimer’s collected works, is under the title “Discussion about Theory and Praxis,” and their discussion was indeed in consideration of rewriting the Communist Manifesto in light of intervening history. Within a few years of this, Adorno began but abandoned work on a critique of the German Social-Democratic Party’s Godesberg Programme, which officially renounced Marxism in 1959, on the model of Marx’s celebrated critique of the Gotha Programme that had founded the SPD in 1875. So, especially Adorno, but also Horkheimer, had been deeply concerned with the question of continuing the project of Marxism well after World War II. In the series of conversations between them, Adorno expressed his interest in rewriting the Communist Manifesto along what he called “strictly Leninist” lines, to which Horkheimer did not object, but only pointed out that such a document, calling for what he called the “re-establishment of a socialist party,” “could not appear in Russia, while in the United States and Germany it would be worthless.” Nonetheless, Horkheimer felt it was necessary to show “why one can be a communist and yet despise the Russians.” As Horkheimer put it, simply, “Theory is, as it were, one of humanity’s tools” (57). Thus, they tasked themselves to try to continue Marxism, if only as “theory.”

Now, it is precisely the supposed turning away from political practice and retreat into theory that many commentators have characterized as the Frankfurters’ abandonment of Marxism. For instance, Martin Jay, in The Dialectical Imagination, or Phil Slater, in his book offering a “Marxist interpretation” of the Frankfurt School, characterized matters in such terms: Marxism could not be supposed to exist as mere theory, but had to be tied to practice. But this was not a problem new to the Frankfurt Institute in exile, that is, after being forced to abandon their work in collaboration with the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute, for example, which was as much due to Stalinism as Nazism. Rather, it pointed back to what Karl Korsch, a foundational figure for the Institute, wrote in 1923: that the crisis of Marxism, that is, the problems that had already manifested in the era of the Second International in the late 19th century (the so-called “Revisionist Dispute”), and developed and culminated in its collapse and division in World War I and the revolutions that followed, meant that the “umbilical cord” between theory and practice had been already “broken.” Marxism stood in need of a transformation, in both theory and practice, but this transformation could only happen as a function of not only practice but also theory. They suffered the same fate. For Korsch in 1923, as well as for Georg Lukács in this same period, in writings seminal for the Frankfurt School Critical Theorists, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were exemplary of the attempt to rearticulate Marxist theory and practice. Lenin in particular, as Lukács characterized him, the “theoretician of practice,” provided a key, indeed the crucial figure, in political action and theoretical self-understanding, of the problem Marxism faced at that historical moment. As Adorno remarks, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin” (59). So, the question becomes, “faithful” in what way?

Several statements in two writings by Horkheimer and Adorno’s colleague, Herbert Marcuse, his “33 Theses” from 1947, and his book Soviet Marxism from 1958, can help shed light on the orientation of the members of the Frankfurt School towards the prior politics of “communism,” specifically of Lenin. Additionally, several letters from Adorno to Horkheimer and Benjamin in the late 1930s explicate Adorno’s positive attitude towards Lenin. Finally, writings from Adorno’s last year, 1969, the “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” and “Resignation,” restated and further specified the content of his “Leninism” in light of his critique of the 1960s New Left. The challenge is to recognize the content of such “Leninism” that might otherwise appear obscure or idiosyncratic, but actually points back to the politics of the early 20th century that was formative of Adorno and his cohort. Then, the question becomes, what was the significance of such a perspective in the later period of Adorno’s life? How did such “Leninism” retain purchase under changed conditions, such that Adorno could bring it to bear, critically, up to the end of his life? Furthermore, what could Adorno’s perspective on “Leninism” reveal about Lenin himself? Why and how did Adorno remain a Marxist, and how did Lenin figure in this?

One clear explanation for Adorno’s “Leninism” was the importance of consciousness in Adorno’s estimation of potential for emancipatory social transformation. For instance, in a letter to Horkheimer critical of Erich Fromm’s more humane approach to Freudian psychoanalysis, Adorno wrote that Fromm demonstrated “a mixture of social democracy and anarchism . . . [and] a severe lack of . . . dialectics . . . [in] the concept of authority, without which, after all, neither Lenin’s [vanguard] nor dictatorship can be conceived of. I would strongly advise him to read Lenin.” Adorno thought that Fromm thus threatened to deploy something of what he called the “trick used by bourgeois individualists against Marx,” and wrote to Horkheimer that he considered this to be a “real threat to the line . . . which [our] journal takes.”[16]

But the political role of an intellectual, theoretically informed “vanguard” is liable to the common criticism of Leninism’s tendency towards an oppressive domination over rather than critical facilitation of social emancipation. A more complicated apprehension of the role of consciousness in the historical transformation of society can be found in Adorno’s correspondence on Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936. There, Adorno commended Benjamin’s work for providing an account of the relationship of intellectuals to workers along the lines of Lenin. As Adorno put it in his letter to Benjamin,

The proletariat . . . is itself a product of bourgeois society. . . . [T]he actual consciousness of actual workers . . . [has] absolutely no advantage over the bourgeois except . . . interest in the revolution, but otherwise bear[s] all the marks of mutilation of the typical bourgeois character. . . . We maintain our solidarity with the proletariat instead of making of our own necessity a virtue of the proletariat, as we are always tempted to do—the proletariat which itself experiences the same necessity and needs us for knowledge as much as we need the proletariat to make the revolution. I am convinced that the further development of the . . . debate you have so magnificently inaugurated . . . depends essentially on a true accounting of the relationship of the intellectuals to the working class. . . . [Your essay is] among the profoundest and most powerful statements of political theory that I have encountered since I read [Lenin’s] The State and Revolution.[17]

Adorno likely had in mind as well Lenin’s What is to be Done? or “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. In the former, Lenin (in)famously distinguished between “trade union” and “socialist consciousness.” But in the latter work, Lenin described the persistent “bourgeois” social conditions of intellectual work per se that would long survive the proletarian socialist revolution, indeed (reiterating from What is to be Done?) that workers became thoroughly “bourgeois” by virtue of the very activity of intellectual work (such as in journalism or art production), including and perhaps especially in their activity as Communist Party political cadre. For Lenin, workers’ political revolution meant governing what would remain an essentially bourgeois society. The revolution would make the workers for the first time, so to speak, entirely bourgeois, which was the precondition of their leading society beyond bourgeois conditions.[18] It was a moment, the next necessary step, in the workers’ self-overcoming, in the emancipatory transformation of society in, through and beyond capital. Marxism was not extrinsic but intrinsic to this process, as the workers’ movement itself was. As Adorno put it to Horkheimer, “It could be said that Marx and Hegel taught that there are no ideals in the abstract, but that the ideal always lies in the next step, that the entire thing cannot be grasped directly but only indirectly by means of the next step” (54). Lukács had mentioned this about Lenin, in a footnote to his 1923 essay in History and Class Consciousness, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” that,

Lenin’s achievement is that he rediscovered this side of Marxism that points the way to an understanding of its practical core. His constantly reiterated warning to seize the “next link” in the chain with all one’s might, that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment, his dismissal of all utopian demands, i.e. his “relativism” and his “Realpolitik:” all these things are nothing less than the practical realisation of the young Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.[19]

This was not fully achieved in the revolution that began to unfold from 1917 to 1919 in Russia, Germany, Hungary, and Italy, but was cut short of attaining the politics of the socialist transformation of society. Thirty years later, in the context of the dawning Cold War following the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, Marcuse’s “33 Theses” tried to take stock of the legacy of the crisis of Marxism and the failure of the revolution:

[Thesis 3:] [T]o uphold without compromise orthodox Marxist theory . . . [i]n the face of political reality . . . would be powerless, abstract and unpolitical, but when the political reality as a whole is false, the unpolitical position may be the only political truth. . . .

[Thesis 32:] [T]he political workers’ party remains the necessary subject of revolution. In the original Marxist conception, the party does not play a decisive role. Marx assumed that the proletariat is driven to revolutionary action on its own, based on the knowledge of its own interests, as soon as revolutionary conditions are present. . . . [But subsequent] development has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. Only in the theories of the communist parties is the memory of the revolutionary tradition alive, which can become the memory of the revolutionary goal again. . . .

[Thesis 33:] The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory.[20]

As Marcuse put it in 1958, in Soviet Marxism,

During the Revolution, it became clear to what degree Lenin had succeeded in basing his strategy on the actual class interests and aspirations of the workers and peasants. . . . Then, from 1923 on, the decisions of the leadership increasingly dissociated from the class interests of the proletariat. The former no longer presuppose the proletariat as a revolutionary agent but rather are imposed upon the proletariat and the rest of the underlying population.[21]

Adorno’s commentary in conversation with Horkheimer in 1956, in a passage not included in the New Left Review translation, titled “Individualism,” addressed what he called the problem of subjectivity as socially constituted, which he thought Lenin had addressed more rigorously than Marx. Adorno said that,

Marx was too harmless; he probably imagined quite naïvely that human beings are basically the same in all essentials and will remain so. It would be a good idea, therefore, to deprive them of their second nature. He was not concerned with their subjectivity; he probably didn’t look into that too closely. The idea that human beings are the products of society down to their innermost core is an idea that he would have rejected as milieu theory. Lenin was the first person to assert this.[22]

What this meant for Adorno was that the struggle to overcome the domination of society by capital was something more and other than the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists. It was not merely a matter of their exploitation. For it was not the case that social subjects were products of their class position so much as bourgeois society under capital determined all of its subjects in a historical nexus of unfreedom. Rather, class position was an expression of the structure of this universal unfreedom. As Horkheimer wrote, in “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom,”

In socialism, freedom is to become a reality. But because the present system is called “free” and considered liberal, it is not terribly clear what this may mean. . . .

The businessman is subject to laws that neither he nor anyone else nor any power with such a mandate created with purpose and deliberation. They are laws which the big capitalists and perhaps he himself skillfully make use of but whose existence must be accepted as a fact. Boom, bust, inflation, wars and even the qualities of things and human beings the present society demands are a function of such laws, of the anonymous social reality. . . .

Bourgeois thought views this reality as superhuman. It fetishizes the social process. . . .

[T]he error is not that people do not recognize the subject but that the subject does not exist. Everything therefore depends on creating the free subject that consciously shapes social life. And this subject is nothing other than the rationally organized socialist society which regulates its own existence. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible, it is most important that their origin be brought to the light of day so that they do not continue being unfavorable to him. Not 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.[23]

Such a clarification of what would constitute a progressive-emancipatory approach to the problem of capital was cut short by the course of Marxism in the 20th century. It thus also became increasingly difficult to “bring to the light of day” the “origins” of persistent social conditions of unfreedom. In many respects, the crisis of Marxism had been exacerbated but not overcome as a function of the post-World War I revolutionary aftermath. This involved a deepening of the crisis of humanity: the Frankfurt Institute Critical Theorists were well aware that fascism as a historical phenomenon was due to the failure of Marxism. Fascism was the ill-begotten offspring of the history of Marxism itself.

A decade after 1917, Horkheimer wrote, in a passage titled “Indications,” that,

The moral character of a person can be infallibly inferred from his response to certain questions. . . . In 1930 the attitude toward Russia casts light on people’s thinking. It is extremely difficult to say what conditions are like there. I do not claim to know where the country is going; there is undoubtedly much misery. . . . The senseless injustice of the imperialist world can certainly not be explained by technological inadequacy. Anyone who has the eyes to see will view events in Russia as the continuing painful attempt to overcome this terrible social injustice. At the very least, he will ask with a throbbing heart whether it is still under way. If appearances were to be against it, he will cling to this hope like the cancer patient to the questionable report that a cure for his illness may have been found.

When Kant received the first news of the French Revolution, he is said to have changed the direction of his customary stroll from then on.[24]

Despite what occurred in the unfolding of developments in 20th century history, Horkheimer and Adorno never reversed course. Are we yet ready to receive their messages in a bottle?


Nicholas Brown: It does seem to me that these three papers are essentially raising the same question—though not explicitly. So that is the one I am going to ask. I confess I never finished the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue, precisely because of the Beckettian flavor. They are obviously dealing with an impossibility there, which is how are you going to maintain fidelity to Lenin without a party, without a viable party to affiliate with or without a concept of party that is operative. Of course the question then becomes: What is to be done when there’s nothing to be done?

There is a tragic version of this in Negative Dialectics, where Adorno knowingly throws in his lot with the Stoics and frames his own position as essentially a stoic position, knowing better than, or as well as, anyone that the entire ethical force of the Phenomenology of Spirit, which Marx inherits, is the impossibility or the complicity of the stoic position.

The self-effacement of their language is similar to what in the Phenomenology of Spirit is the unhappy consciousness—which oscillates precisely for the same reason as Adorno. Because their unhappy consciousness is incapable, in the words of Chris quoting Lukács, of seizing the next link; because there is no next link—which is again the problem of the party.

So that brings us to the question of the “party” in Lukács. My question for Andrew is, What do we do—what is to be done—without a party? You seem to suggest that Marcuse offers an answer.

Richard shows that, for Lukács, “the party” is not so much a thing, necessarily, as it is a concept. The party is that thing that mediates between the subject in history. The moment we deny epistemology, the moment we deny ontology, the moment we deny Kant, the moment we deny representation, both as a philosophical and a political concept, we are in this Hegelian universe and there becomes an obligation to find “the party,” “the next link,” or “a mediation.” It is that obligation that Adorno finds himself unable to fulfill. That is both the comedy and the tragedy of Adorno. So my question for you is the same: What does the philosophical concept of the party look like today? Your answer is a sort of autonomist, Negrian answer, which seems to be me to be an unsatisfactory solution, since Hegel is waiting for Hardt and Negri as well. That the subject is a fiction but nonetheless a fiction that is necessary—rather like a party is necessary.

And so, Chris, it seems that in Marx, in Lukács, and certainly in Adorno and Marcuse, there is an unresolved tension between the notion of universal unfreedom and the notion of exploitation. The latter, within our present moment has to do with fragility and who is and who is not protected from the winds of history, which is not quite the same question as universal unfreedom and disalienation. The notion of disalienation, the romantic side of eruptions in Marx, in Lukács, and in the Frankfurt school, seem to be what needs to be abandoned in favor of the more hard-headed emphasis on exploitation. If, for the Frankfurt School, the ideal was the next step or link in the chain, what does the Hegelian idea mean in the present?

AF: What I like about Marcuse is that he was able to separate two things, which for Marx, Lukács, and Lenin were essentially connected. One of those things was the subject of revolution and the other was the force able to dereify at least some portion of the social reality. In the classical Marxist conception, it’s the workers who dereify, by their refusal to submit passively to the forms in which their lives are cast, and it’s also the workers who are going to create the new society. What Marcuse realized was that you could have one without the other. You could have dereifying gestures, express solidarity with them, and articulate them theoretically without any confidence at all that those making such gestures were capable of overthrowing the society and creating a new society. After the events of May 1968 in France, it was clear that that a historically new type of opposition had arisen, so I think he was right to try and join Marx’s theory to that opposition. I think that is still a significant alternative to the despair of Adorno and Horkheimer or, on the other side, to the attempts to revive a traditional Marxist proletarian party.

RW: My answer to “what is to be done” is that it’s not really our place to say. I think that would be Lukács’s response. I think the party, or any form of organization, rather than being viewed as the instrument, is more to be seen as the way in which the multiplicity of wills become, not necessarily one, but at least learn to think of themselves as united. Not so much for the specific decisions by which they come to practical action, but more about the self-organization, the institutional forms they give themselves.
I think Lukács’s critique of Hegel and, indeed, bourgeois philosophy in general, stems from the idea of a subject; the idea that we should conceive of action as a subject acting on a world and recognizing himself. What he sees in the party is the entity, if I can use such an ontologically reifying term, the entity that is a subject in so far as it manifests itself objectively through its organizational forms. That is slightly different from conceiving the party as the agent.

CC: What we are discussing is political form. In other words, the party is a form. What we are talking about is the party as mediation: the mediation of theory and practice, a mediation of subject and object positions.

On the notion of the Hegelian ideal as the next step for Horkheimer and Adorno, I would offer something speculatively, not literally: Andrew noted the fundamental ambiguity of the late Marx with respect to the way he conceived philosophy as a young man. But I would argue that the question of mediation recurs. The critique of political economy is not merely an analysis of “bourgeois” forms, but rather an analysis and critique of the incipient consciousness of the workers’ movement. The workers’ movement inherited political economy, bourgeois critical consciousness, but only when the thought of the bourgeoisie itself had grown vulgar. Marx commends Adam Smith for being willing to present society as self-contradictory. So I would situate the question of what is the next step with respect to the question of the critique of capital. How then would one rearticulate Marx’s own political praxis with his theoretical critique of capital, which is the Hegelian attempt to raise social form to the level of self-consciousness, for working class militants, who were coming up against certain very determinate obstacles in their political practice in the wake of the revolutions of 1848. There was a “meeting,” if you will, to put it back in Adorno’s more traditional terms, of the intellectuals and the workers, around the question of what is the purchase of the critique of capital.

Post-60s, there was a return to Marx: there was a return to the Hegelian Marxism with respect to the critique of capital. If we describe ourselves as intellectuals, then the very point would be to ask, “How can these ideas find traction?” Korsch says that the crisis of Marxism threatens to break the umbilical cord between theory and practice; this means that these are two separate things. I would stress mediation in the concept of form, over the liquidation of theory and practice in the concept of form or party.

Q & A

If we as Marxists, communists, or would be radicals/revolutionaries, are not in a position to speak, then we should ask: What would be required to transform ourselves into those that could speak? How can we write like Lenin and Mao? I was struck by the Adorno-Horkheimer dialogue; Horkheimer was certainly not alone in attributing the deaths in the Great Leap Forward to Mao and Stalin. What if instead of putting their messages in a bottle, Horkheimer and Adorno had sent their messages to China, and hadn’t prematurely written off that actual revolution?

RW: There isn’t a prohibition on “speaking” as such. But it depends on whether we’re speaking ex cathedra or from within something else. I agree with Habermas in his insistence that when we’re talking about these things we have to participate on an equal level with everyone else. A danger that Lenin himself noted, in those final furious letters demanding that the party should stay as far away as possible from the soviets, was that in all likelihood honest workers and peasants would be either intimidated or look in awe at the wise men from Moscow. What we should do to be able to speak, then, is deny who we are, if anything. I think that is always the danger for anyone speaking with any badge of authority. It leads to this kind of intellectual leadership problem where precisely the freedom that people like Marx envisage is sidelined.

AF: I disagree! There are no ignorant peasants any more. Those who are the most vociferous in opposing any intellectual authority are themselves intellectuals. So, that’s just another theory! I don’t know that there is a problem, really; it’s more a question of, “Is there anyone who is willing to listen?” rather than, “Are we oppressive in putting forward our views?” That’s my conclusion, from having participated in the good old days, in many struggles over this question of authority.

CC: In terms of the self-transformation of intellectuals, it isn’t a problem of who’s speaking, but rather of what’s being said. I would introduce another kind of Leninist category, namely, “tailism.” There is a problem of articulating historical consciousness and empirical realities. I want to return to an issue that was raised by both Andrew and Richard that I thought was very helpful with respect to reification. What Lukács meant by reification was the Second International, the socialist workers’ movement, as it had been constituted in that historical juncture. And this is why he was sympathetic to Luxemburg, because Luxemburg critiques that party form in the Mass Strike pamphlet, in which she argues that social democracy had become an impediment or obstacle to the workers’ movement in, I would say, a subject-object dialectic: the workers’ movement generated itself historically into an object of self-critique.

Now, why Horkheimer’s afraid of China is the apparent “revolutionary” success of what he and Adorno considered to be counter-revolution, namely, Stalinism. Having lived through the 30s and the transformation of Marxism in Stalinism, to see Stalinism flourish as the Marxism of the post-World War II period, they could only regard as a sign of the regression of Marxism itself. Now, why didn’t they send their “messages in a bottle” to intellectuals in China? Because it would have been a sure-fire way of getting those Chinese intellectuals executed on the spot. We could read their statements as evincing an anti-Chinese bias prime facie. But there is a dialectic there. As Horkheimer says, well, what about the fact that 20 million Chinese are going to die, but after that there won’t be any more starving Chinese? He asks what do we make of that? What Horkheimer and Adorno had in mind is that, had the success of the revolution that had opened in 1917 spread to Germany, had it spread beyond, a revolution in China as took place in 1949, with all the sacrifices and the calamities that it entailed, would have been unnecessary. This was their image of emancipation; their concern was that the conditions of barbarism were being confused for the struggle for emancipation.

NB: On the space of intellectuals, when there is a mass movement, the situation of the intellectual is both much easier and much more difficult. It is easy because you know what to do but the project of transformation that you’re talking about is hard. The problem we’re facing is a different one, which is that there is no mass movement. And to the extent that there is one, it’s a totally corrupt, right-wing one.

Adorno very clearly throws in his lot with the West, so it’s not a matter of getting Adorno to actual Chinese dissidents, it’s a matter of the question: Did Adorno have to, that clearly, throw his lot in with the West and so clearly server links with actual existing socialism? That question is a little less clear-cut than whether it would have been beneficial to have Chinese dissidents parroting the Adornian line.

Kant demanded that we think politically, in that we are forced to comment on society as members of that same society; we are obligated to contribute to the development of society. Lukács saw that only through the party can society continue developing, therefore the question of individual responsibility in history seems somewhat misplaced. It is only the party that, having the ability to shape history, is obligated to think about history. Can it be that this is what motivates Lenin and Luxemburg when talking about the party? That is, when Luxemburg worries about the vote in the Reichstag about the war credits, the concern is about the decline of the party and the need to reconfigure the party to affect history?

RW: I disagree. Lukács doesn’t think that the party can change history, it is the class that can change history. The party brings the class about. The party might be the starting point but it’s emphatically not the end-point. To say the party changes history directly would give it the kind of heroic role that, I think, Lukács is trying to avoid.

CC: I would say that the political party, or the agency of political mediation, can’t, itself, emancipate society. However, it can certainly block that emancipation, and so be thought of negatively. The importance of the party hinges on the issue of historical consciousness. So where I’m more in sympathy with Luxemburg’s critique of the SPD in its political collapse is her charge that the party is responsible for history, negatively. She is saying that the party has been part of bringing history to this point of crisis, and it is the party that is tasked with self-overcoming in its form of mediating political agency.

First: I find the Lenin described—mediated through Adorno and Lukács—completely unrecognizable from the Lenin of the collected works. But what I recognize as being described as Lenin in Adorno and Lukács is the resolution of the Second and Third Congresses of the Comintern on the role of the political party in the proletarian revolution. Does this not encapsulate a false history of the Bolshevik party? A history of the Bolshevik party that projects back the character which the Bolshevik party assumed between 1918 and 1921, under the civil war conditions, onto the pre-history of the Bolshevik party before 1917?

Second: For Marx and Engels, consistently, from the 1840s through to Engels’s death, with a brief interlude in the period in the First International when they were in alliance with the Proudhonists, the issue as stated in the 1871 Hague Congress Resolution what that, “the working class cannot act except by forming itself into a political party.” How do the attempts to make Marx more Hegelian satisfactorily account for this political aspect of Marx and Engels’s interventions?

CC: Maybe the difference that you see between the Lenin that you would recognize and the Lenin of official Comintern Leninism is the difference that you then raise between Marx himself, in his own political practice, or Marx and Engels, and the sort of Hegelianized Marx that you find in Lukács and Adorno.

Lenin has a specific contribution in the history of Marxism that can’t be ignored, namely that he’s the great schismatic of Marxism, he divided Marxism.[25] That is precisely what esteems him in Adorno’s eyes. His is not a minority vanguard view; it is about politics in the working class. What Lenin introduces in the Second International is the idea of competing working class parties that all claim to be anti-capitalist, revolutionary, and Marxist. The crisis of Marxism refers to the political controversies within Marxism. To deny that is to say that politics is only “the workers vs. the capitalists” and not an intra-working class phenomenon. The Kautskyan party, the “one class, one party” idea, that vis-à-vis the capitalists the workers are of one interest, and the attempt to be the “party of the whole class,” denies that the content of political emancipation can be disputed among the workers and among Marxists of different parties.

AF: It seems to me that the position Lenin took could not be easily explained or justified in terms of Marxist theory, and that what someone like Lukács was engaged in doing in 1923, or Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks, was an attempt to ground that practice in Marxist theory by finding the missing link. There are many different statements in Lenin, in his early work, that don’t add up to a theory of what he was doing. But he knew what he was doing, and it had a significance historically, as Chris has just explained. So the question could be asked separately from the historical facts of whether Lenin was doing the right things in terms of Marx’s theory. Lukács recognized that Lenin had done something historically important and tried to figure out how to revise or interpret the theory in such a way that it could encompass what he had done. Lukács did make an important advance theoretically in terms of understanding how there could be a connection between the working class, Marxist theory, and the political parties that represent workers; how there could be a connection grounded in an ontological relation, a relation to reality that would be shared at different levels, in different ways, between these different instances of the movement. That is a very important theoretical idea, which I don’t think you can find in Marx or Engels or in Lenin, but is necessary to make sense of what happened, historically.

RW: Lukács is very clear that he wants the party, ultimately, to grow into a mass-based movement. But in the interim, he explicitly states in the essay on party organization, every different school, every different take on the very question of what the party should do needs to give itself organizational forms. He’s all for a broad, pluralist sprouting of different practices, which, I think, undermines the idea of a single, concentrated, vanguardist party. This might risk radical sectarianism, but at least it avoids reification, from Lukács’s perspective.

NB: Whether Lukács and Adorno got Lenin right, is not the same question and is usefully distinct from the question of whether Lenin was politically useful, and what is to be done today. On the Hegelianization of Marx, you can’t “Hegelianize” Marx, because Marx is more Hegelian than Hegel!

I take it that the primary thrust of the argument that Adorno is a Leninist is to enlist the Leninist Adorno in the project of reconstituting the Left. What is the utility of Adorno as Leninist?

CC: Adorno enlisted himself to the Leninist project. He says so: “I want to be faithful to Lenin.” What is the content of that? He said this when 99.99% of Leninists in the world would not have accepted that Adorno was being faithful to Lenin in any way. So I would turn the issue around and say that I am interested in the Lenin that becomes visible through Adorno. When Adorno says “a strictly Leninist manifesto,” it’s not that this is against Luxemburg. It’s the Lukácsian attempt to grasp what the Second International radicals had in common. Why did Luxemburg call herself a Bolshevik? She wrote an essay in the last months of her life titled “What is German Bolshevism?” In other words, “This is what we want. Why are we with the Bolsheviks?” Hers was comradely criticism—that’s the point. So I am interested in how this history of Marxism looks, specifically through Adorno’s eyes, through Lukács’s eyes, through Korsch’s eyes; we would be remiss to ignore the insights that they had into that history.

AF: At this moment in history, we know so little about the forces of opposition, their potential, and where they’re going to come from next, that we won’t have the theoretical basis and the basis in practical experience that the socialist movement had at the time when these parties were formed and developed. Under present conditions, we need to try and find sources of opposition and tensions around the reifying power of the institutions wherever they appear, even if they don’t look or appear to be political. We would prematurely close things down trying to have a theory and a party that was trying to direct struggles.

CC: What is meant by the party? On the one hand, the formation of a party of a recognizable type from history, at the present moment, would foreclose possibilities. On the other hand, I have my own reservations about the Hardt-Negri moment that we’re in with respect to movementism, which sees the party as the road to Stalinism. If we say that the earlier socialist movement had an accumulated historical experience, then we have to say that, for a generation, we’ve been denied that. So we’re left saying, “OK, something like a party?” to expand the notion of “form.” What Richard is pointing to, in terms of the concept of form, is very important. The danger is in applying it too broadly, in what I raised earlier as tailism, as a justification for what we’re already doing. That’s a danger that I would resist at one end. At the other end, I agree that it would be precipitous and still-born to try to implement a party in a historical-model kind of way.

RW: The institutional memory of a party is crucial; I think that its absence has led to a disastrous collapse in progressive thought. I stressed the Luxemburgian elements in Lukács, earlier. This is where Lukács critiques Luxemburg, rightly, because a party can form this institutional memory.

To address Andrew: we don’t really know what forces there are there. The act of forming or supporting the formation of parties is one of the ways we can find out. I refer back to what I said earlier about Lukács and his insistence that every position should try and develop its own organizational forms. That’s how we get to know. If we treat it as a purely sociological question, I think we risk falling back into the same reified standpoint of just collecting facts, rather than engaging in practice. Encouraging the development of parties, of institutional forms in various ways, is a way in which those oppositional forces can really come to be. Without that, the forces wind up less coherent and less aware of their opposition.

Without a push for the formation of a party, without a strong stance on a need for leadership, how can we apply these various theories practically to the working class? The conditions that existed in the 50s, 30s, or 20s are not what we have today. Without a party, without leadership, what hope do we have?

RW: I’d hesitate with that phrasing; it is dangerous to talk about applying theories to the working class. The leadership issue strikes at that. It was alluded to before, but I think the Tea Party is quite successful, for all of its obvious incoherencies and absurdities, precisely because of its lack of a leader and the dispensability of their totemic figures. There are voices, but there is no one leader, so there are a number of different Tea Parties. One of the reasons it’s so successful is that it is widespread, diffuse, and decentralized.

AF: Of course if we had a party that had authority and that was listened to, we’d be in much better shape. But how do you get there?

CC: What works for the Right cannot work for the Left. There’s a fundamental difference between the Right and the Left—that the Right thrives on incoherence in a way that the Left cannot. I would also say rather polemically, or in a jaundiced fashion, that the Tea Parties are the true children of the New Left.

The idea of theoretical leadership, in the sense of theory that is applied, is precisely something that the Marxist tradition wanted to overcome. That is what they understood as a “bourgeois” notion of theory or epistemology. Going all the way back to Kant, however, there was already the idea of a self-conscious practice: it’s not about the abstract application of theory to practice. Already with Kant—and there’s a continuity, I think, between Kant and Hegel and Marx—the point is to try to raise existing practices to self-consciousness. This is quite different from crafting a theory and applying it to reality.

Concluding remarks

AF: I think that the Left still lives under the horizon of demands and dissatisfactions that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Movements like environmentalist movements, feminist movements, many other kinds of protest that have emerged in remote areas of society, such as medicine, come under the kinds of categories elaborated in the New Left to articulate these new kinds of dissatisfactions. That is the contribution that Marcuse made; Adorno and Horkheimer did not contribute to that because they viewed the New Left as a rather minor blip on the horizon. And I’m actually extremely puzzled by the eclipse of Marcuse’s thought on the Left and the rise of this new vision of the Frankfurt School as Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer. To me, it signifies a certain lack of political seriousness that people pass over the only one who actually engaged with the kind of leftism that we are capable of today.

RW: I’d also like to conclude by responding to the “lack of political seriousness.” The reason for people like Adorno and Benjamin coming back is that much of the academic reception has been done in literature departments or it’s been done through cultural studies. I think the reason is precisely that there is a lack of direct engagement and direct activity. The importance of engagement and some form of practice, with some degree of leadership that one attributes to it—a theoretical form of praxis—is the crucial thing, I think.

CC: I would end with a bid to take Adorno seriously as a political thinker and not just as a literary figure. Certainly, he does say, “Music and art are what I know and so they are what I write about.” But he was being a bit falsely modest. His work made a very strong intervention in German sociology, introducing both American empirical sociological technique and the Durkheimian approach, as opposed to a Weberian approach, to the question of modernity and capital. In his correspondence with Marcuse in 1969, in which there was bitterness around the controversy stirred up by the New Left, Adorno says to Marcuse: “Look, it’s the Institute. It’s the same Institute. It’s our old Institute.” And Marcuse responds: “How could you possibly claim that the Institute in the 60s in the Federal Republic of Germany is what it was in the 30s?” To this Adorno could only say, “What about my books?” In other words, “What about the books that the Institute’s existence has allowed me to write?” That is, Adorno was a lone champion of Hegelian Marxism within German sociology and philosophy, as such his works are powerful statements about, and try to keep alive, the kind of insights that had been gained by the earlier Marxist tradition of Lukács and Korsch in the aftermath of the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of the early twentieth century.

So I would defend Adorno against his devotees. The Adorno that flies in the humanities is a sanitized Adorno, a depoliticized Adorno, an Adorno with the Marxism screened out, or the Marxism turned into an ethical critique of society. Whereas I think Adorno has a lot more to say about the problem of theory and practice that is politically important. |P

Transcribed by Gabriel Gaster

Andrew Feenberg

[1] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto?” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010). Hereafter cited within the text.

[2] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 51.

[3] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 160.

[4] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K. Padover. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <>.


Richard Westerman

[5] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), xli.

[6] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.505: “Auch theoretisch handelt die kommunistische Partei nicht stellvertretend für das Proletariat.”

[7] Ibid., ii.496: “die voluntaristische Überschätzung der aktiven Bedeutung des Individuums (des Führers) und die fatalistische Unterschätzung der Bedeutung der Klasse (der Masse).”

[8] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 297-8.

[9] Ibid., 275.

[10] See, for example, Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, The Young Lukács and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury, 1979).

[11] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, ii.504: “die organisatorische Selbständigkeit der kommunistischen Partei ist notwendig, damit das Proletariat sein eigenes Klassenbewußtsein, als geschichtliche Gestalt, unmittelbar erblicken könne; . . . damit für die ganze Klasse das eigene Dasein als Klasse ins Bewußtsein gehoben werde.”

[12] Ibid., ii.517: “das Entstehen der kommunistischen Partei nur das bewußt getane Werk der klassenbewußten Arbeiter sein kann.”

[13] Ibid., ii.515: “indem die kommunistische Partei zu einer Welt der Tätigkeit für jades ihrer Mitglieder wird, kann sie die Zuschauerrolle des bürgerlichen Menschen . . . wirklich überwinden.”

[14] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 299.


Chris Cutrone

[15] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Towards a New Manifesto,” trans. Rodney Livingstone, New Left Review 65 (September–October 2010): 46. Hereafter cited within the text.

[16] Adorno to Horkheimer, March 21, 1936, quoted in Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance, trans. Michael Robertson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994 [1986]), 266. Moreover, Adorno wrote that, “If one is concerned to achieve what might be possible with human beings, it is extremely difficult to remain friendly towards real people…a pretext for approving of precisely that element in people by which they prove themselves to be not merely their own victims but virtually their own hangmen.” See Adorno to Horkheimer, June 2, 1941, quoted in Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, 268.

[17] Theodor W. Adorno, “Correspondence with Benjamin,” New Left Review I/81 (September-October 1973): 66-68.

[18] As Lenin wrote in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder: “The most shameless careerism . . . and vulgar petty-bourgeois conservatism are all unquestionably common and prevalent features engendered everywhere by capitalism, not only outside but also within the working-class movement. . . . [T]he overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the conquest of political power by the proletariat — [creates] these very same difficulties on a still larger, an infinitely larger scale.” Available online at <>.

[19] Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1923]), 221n60.

[20] Herbert Marcuse, “33 Theses,” in Technology, War, and Fascism, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York: Routledge, 1998), 217, 226–227.

[21] Herbert Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), 149.

[22] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “Diskussion über Theorie und Praxis” (1956), in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 19, Nachträge, Verzeichnisse und Register (Frankfurt: S. Fischer, 1996), 71, quoted in Detlev Claussen, Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 233.

[23] Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926-31 and 1950-69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52.

[24] Ibid., 72-73.

[25] See Chris Cutrone, “Lenin’s liberalism,” Platypus Review 36 (June 2011).

Bret Schneider

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At its Third Annual Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between April 29-May 1, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Art, Culture, and Politics: Marxist Approaches.” Platypus members Omair Hussain, Lucy Parker, Pac Pobric, and Bret Schneider sought to address “What might the problems of aesthetics and culture have to do with the political project of the self-education of the Left?” A full audio recording of the event is available by clicking the above link. What follows are Bret Schneider’s opening remarks.

THIS ESSAY IS SIMPLY TITLED “Trotsky’s Theory of Art.” The title may sound banal, but it is actually quite bizarre. For it is not self-evident why Trotsky would devote such time in 1924, in the midst of social revolution, to the history and prospects of Russian literature. Problematizing the unproblematized expanse of contemporary art production through Leon Trotsky’s writings on art may initially appear counterintuitive as well. Though he is well-known for his journalistic exploits, as an integral leader of the Bolshevik revolution, as a ceaseless proponent of Marxism and Leninism, and as the “last man standing” from the Second International, an art critic Trotsky was not, and so his central book, Literature and Revolution, appears as an odd duck (or a platypus, perhaps!). Nevertheless, Literature and Revolution scintillates with original artistic revelations and even a new theory of art, and one gets the impression that such unprecedented clarity, and even an unrivaled comprehensive perspective on the diverse art of his moment, is the artifact of, and only of, the ebullience of a new world in the making that now appears petrified. That is, the way art was framed was revolutionized—or in the state of revolutionizing itself—in various ways through Literature and Revolution. If, as Gregg Horowitz said in a recent discussion on contemporary critical theory,[1] we are standing in the way of history, if we are blocking the passage of a new world articulated long ago, then it might behoove us to investigate the original stakes of this historical venture and use it as a foil for the confounded present. These stakes included a new culture and a new art as only one of its elements, but such a new culture was clearly an integral concern for Leon Trotsky.

Literature and Revolution is a theory of history parallel to Trotsky’s 1906 Results and Prospects. In Results and Prospects, Trotsky assesses the 19th century bourgeois revolutions, and what unfulfilled latencies seemed to lead to their redemption by a socialist revolution (in 1905, but foreshadowing 1917). Trotsky’s examination was not merely a “cause and effect” study, but a living theory of how the revolution also changed the meaning of history and in what ways. I will not get into Results and Prospects here, but Literature and Revolution is a similar exegesis of bourgeois art, what its implications were for the self-determining constitution of a new culture, and how the new demands of revolution changed the way traditional art forms are and might come to be perceived. In this sense, Literature and Revolution is an artifact of a political becoming, the postulating of a new culture beyond class, as a category, not a reality attained by Bolshevik revolution, or to be identified with it. A decade earlier, Georg Lukács wrote a Hegelian study on the novel, articulating the novel as distinct from pre-modern literature by way of its being a form in flux, a self-constituting form in the process of its own transformation; in other words the novel is the paramount modern literary form specifically because it is a social problem, not a social solution, in a similar sense to how reification is a new problem to be resolved, and with something new to be gained by resolving it. This means framing political and artistic forms as problems, though: problems of tradition, how to depart from it, of the newfound contradictions between the individual and society, the new as the old in distress, as only some examples. Form in flux, open to new possibilities, co-developed with the new subject or the new human, as Trotsky framed it, is also why Benjamin later opened his “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” essay with a new theory of the receiver: “Baudelaire envisaged readers to whom the reading of lyric poetry would present difficulties.”[2] By the time Trotsky wrote Literature and Revolution, the modern becoming—a departure away from everything about the old world, but one that redeems it through abstract relationships with it—which Lukács articulated in the novel form had become such an inescapable problem that new, dynamic forms, unseen and unprecedented, were unanimously called for by social revolution, which sought to problematize this autonomy of art to pursue new, self-determining courses. Thus, Trotsky’s letter to Partisan Review in 1938 concerns overcoming the old world’s ideology of too easily rectifying art and politics, instead of understanding the newfound open possibility of each as a problem:

Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them. Artistic creation has its laws—even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself.[3]

Trotsky echoes—or prefigures, or both—Walter Benjamin’s idea that art can only have the correct political “tendency” if it has aesthetic “quality,” an idea that would later influence Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory, in the sense that what Adorno later identified as the incomprehensibility of art is the precondition for greater reflection and a more adequate social reality (I will get into this a bit later). Every moment of Trotsky’s theory argues the autonomy of art, recently freed, and not constricted by political “reality.” In a sense, Trotsky is the first non-philistine, because he is arguing against a newfound possibility of philistinism, depending on which way international politics will go. In other words, there is an analogy to be drawn between Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism?” insofar as Trotsky seems to be asking, “aesthetics or philistinism?” But what does this mean?

First, this can be illustrated by the very attentive historical and formal criticism of “pre-revolutionary” bourgeois literature: a newly constructed tradition that can be constructively negated (foreshadowing Greenberg’s description of art as its “further entrenchment in the area of its competence,” as well as Adorno’s exhaustive ideas of “tradition”). This is where Trotsky contributes something absolutely new to the theory of art, and here does the previously unthinkable for Marxists: He promotes (and does not condemn) the art of the peasantry. This is not to say that he promotes the politics of the peasantry, but makes a significant distinction between art and the political sentiments contained in it. In other words, he defends the art over the artist. An idea emerges here of “the fellow traveler” of the proletarian socialist revolution, not equivalent to it, but parallel with it. Politics and art grasp each other indirectly for perhaps the first time, and the sheer inescapability of the revolution allows room for autonomous expressions of them that provide multiple, new, and dynamic perspectives that allow them to be seen more holistically, unobstructed by ideology. Regarding young peasant poets, Trotsky says,

It is as if they feel for the first time that art has its own rights….Why do we relegate them to being “fellow-travellers” of ours? Because they are bound up with the Revolution, because this tie is still very unformed, because they are so very young, and because nothing definite can be said about their tomorrow….As if an artist ever could be “without a tendency,” without a definite relation to social life, even though unformulated or unexpressed in political terms.[4]

Trotsky reconstructs Kliuev’s literary peasant world in order to illuminate, from an alternate angle of different subjectivity, the dynamism of the revolution. The way Trotsky speaks of Kliuev’s world is as a “tinsel fairyland,” and that a modern person cannot live in such an environment.”[5] Kliuev’s world is a mesmerizing individual dreamworld, a bucolic, slowly rotating mobile of glistening objects. Kliuev’s peasant world is portrayed as somewhat womb-like, a narcotic experience whose apparent individual peace is also a foreboding of social awakening.

Through delimiting the autonomous formalism of art Trotsky is able to construct an adequate image of cultural and political prospects previously unseen. Would Trotsky have been able to glean, concretely even, that the peasant world was in the process of withering away without literary investigation? Almost certainly. This raises the question of why it is necessary to retain multiple perspectives. Simply put, the achievement of multiple perspectives is an index of the crawling out of instrumental analyses. The exhaustive portrait of the individual peasant dreamworld throws into relief the radically different set of objects and subjects emerging in modern experience—the telephone, the train, the bustling development of metropolises, and the subjective openness of possibility, for example—in order to understand the world in flux more consciously. Similarly to the way Lukacs thought that the short story would take grip of the transient world—or rather the way that he took seriously the novel’s “half art” as a real expression of transforming social conditions—Trotsky perceived that social conditions exerted an influence on the form of Russian literature, demanding études, or sketches. It is easy to see how new cultural forms and mediums like radio, television and so forth would soon come to pass, as continual transformations required to meet the needs of a “modern person”, or a “new human” that needs art less and less, in accord with a society whose emancipated subjects are no longer bound to the continued suffering that is art’s raison d’être.

What Trotsky sees in the literary works of the “fellow travelers” is an openness of perspective that they participate in, but are not the wholly constituting expression of, because their seemingly complete and self-subsistent worlds, what Adorno would later call their hermetically sealed quality, are open to a new form of criticism that sees them as “dissonant” with society but not outside of it. Art has a newfound ability to be dissonant with and therefore critical of the social totality. It is nowhere implied that even the most reviling or “anti-Marxist” principles should be foreclosed by Marxist critique, but rather diagnosed to provide a portrait of social conditions at their most dynamic and heterogeneous. Even Kliuev’s occasional anti-Leninism is a welcome critique for Trotsky. Art is not only not exempt from this, but is exemplary in its problematic symptomology. Regarding another young writer’s confrontation with a new openness, Trotsky said, “One can take man, not only social, but even psycho-physical man and approach him from different angles—from above, from below, from the side, or walk all around him.”[6] That he pathetically “steals up to him from below,” evident through the literary form, shows that the old world fosters inadequate cliche assumptions of a “human nature” that need not exist. The autonomy to perceive humans from different angles artistically—which means a “formalist” problem—is a freedom opened up by political conditions, and one that implies the “new humans” Trotsky called for without even needing to enforce explicit ideology upon the art:

Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover, the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry. But to create it, the poet himself must feel the world in a new way.[7]

“Feeling the world in a new way” has resonance with us today as an intellectual idea specifically because it seems stifled. But the new feelings are, again, tied to the radically incomplete world in flux.

Pilnyak has no theme because of his fear of being episodic….Pilnyak wants to show present-day life in its relations and in its movement and he grasps at it in this way and in that, making parallel and perpendicular cross-cuts in different places, because it is nowhere the same as it was. The themes, more truly the theme possibilities, which cross his stories, are only samples of life taken at random, and life, let us note, is now much fuller of subject matter than ever before.[8]

Life in Revolution is camp life. Personal life, institutions, methods, ideas, sentiments, everything is unusual, temporary, transitional, recognizing its temporariness and expressing this everywhere, even in names. Hence the difficulty of an artistic approach. The transitory and the episodic have in them an element of the accidental and the accidental bears the stamp of insignificance. The Revolution, taken episodically, appears quite insignificant. Where Is the Revolution, then? Here lies the difficulty. Only he will overcome it who fully understands and feels the inner meaning of this episodic character and who will reveal the historic axis of crystallization that lies behind it.[9]

Art played a role in determining social totality by articulating the incompleteness of it. In Theory of the Novel, Lukacs describes art as always saying, “‘And yet!’ to life. The creation of forms is the most profound confirmation of a dissonance.”[10] Such a framework—endemic to Lukacs’ theory of the novel and Trotsky’s theory of the fellow traveler, notwithstanding Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory—brings up a vast number of questions for the contemporary, and also forces some all too easy associations. Contemporary artworks are often framed not as the problem, but the solution—or at least there is not a clearly defined dissonance between an artwork and the society it expresses.

This is enough to warrant the question of whether or not what passes itself off as art today could even be called so, but I will leave that to the side. In contemporary artworks we are faced with similar formal problems to those that Trotsky faced. For instance, if Trotsky was critical of the many nefarious endeavors to create a permanent proletarian culture (e.g., artists enlisting in the Proletkult) because the proletariat was a transitional phase to a much broader human freedom yet to be determined, but certainly one beyond the primitive class divisions of “proletariat” and “bourgeois,” what then can be said about the “radical” art activism of today that seeks to ally itself with a vague “working class” that is increasingly depoliticized? Is this alliance doomed to an eternal struggle? Moreover, Trotsky noticed that such political “commitments” were not without their compromising effects on the aesthetic experience and consequently the transformation of subjectivity. In order to “be pals with socialism and with the Revolution,”[11] Mayakovsky had to rely on antiquated cliché truisms that were backwards of modern life and articulated retrogression from Mayakovsky’s earlier, more progressive imagery (using skulls as ashtrays is an amusing example of retrogressive imagery). Trotsky also saw this wanting to be “pals” with the people, or a “mass base” without distinction, as a return to the bourgeois intelligentsia in the 19th century, who,

deprived of a cultural environment, sought support in the lower strata of society and tried to prove to the “people” that it was thinking only of them, living only for them and that it loved them “terribly.” And just as the populists who went to the people were ready to do without clean linen and without a comb and without a toothbrush, so the intelligentsia was ready to sacrifice the “subtleties” of form in its art, in order to give the most direct and spontaneous expression to the sufferings and hopes of the oppressed.[12]

That is, such an appeal to the “people” disregards the “splintering” or dissonant pluralism that Trotsky saw as endemic to the most significant successes of the Left over the course of its history.

As another example, in much new “experimental” music we hear the sounds of Kliuev’s “tinsel fairyland,” the subtle droning of vintage synth gear, a nostalgia for a private world. The “music” is like a narcotic, a therapeutic substance applied to the subject to cure what ails it. Electronic music might have once been counted amongst those modern things, an artifact of a dynamic mutability, but one that is stillborn in a state of endless, almost unsustainable decay. One is reminded again of Trotsky’s description of Kliuev, when we look at much recent album artwork. For example:

A wheat and honey paradise: a singing bird on the carved wing of the house and a sun shining in jasper and diamonds. Not without hesitation does Kliuev admit into his peasant paradise the radio and magnetism and electricity.[13]

In new experimental music a social torpor is embellished and sublimated into an ornate sort of poverty. What does it mean that the bourgeois individual experience of art is still naturally occurring today, without its being formulated as the progressive crisis of its own withering away?

One could go on with new art forms hearkening back to the past, re-digesting those bourgeois, bohemian tropes that fail to die, in the futuristic aspects of new net art for example (Trotsky considered Futurism to be retrograde bohemianism), or the return to painting, and so on. But what does this all amount to? Art wants to pass, it wants to finally die—it is not mere eccentricity that great artists once believed they were making the last artwork. If art finally died, this would signal that the “untransfigured suffering of man”[14] over the ages would finally be transfigured into something else. Simply pronouncing art dead, or irrelevant to the everyday is not enough to warrant its demise, as if it were so simple to eradicate the suffering of man. The culture industry—with its ceaseless thrusting of art in our faces—is the penance for failing to achieve socialism, but also the petrified reminder of its possibility. In this sense, art and culture are not the solution to, but rather the problem of, our own suffering, and the crystallization of this problem also implies redemption. Does it not seem that, contrary to this, we want to preserve art, to restore the world through art, and wasn’t this specifically a crucial element of fascism, or less dramatically, conservatism? In an era of where there are no historical tasks or clearly defined problems, any proposed solution is a false reconciliation. In Adorno’s words, “that the world which, as Baudelaire wrote, has lost its fragrance and then since its color, could have them restored by art strikes only the artless as possible.”[15]

We might today treat Trotsky with the critical method which Trotsky treated bourgeois art, except that this task seems impossible. The salience of Trotsky’s critique today—that we can so easily view the same problems as he did in apparently “new” art—is not the solution, but the problem. The continual indigestion of culture is a problem that needs to be problematized—no simple solutions can present themselves today without also seeing history as a problem. In other words, without historical consciousness that articulates the social situation of art, we are all relegated to philistinism, nostalgic for a moment where all possibilities didn’t seem foreclosed, or predetermined the way they do today. Perhaps now more than ever, art works yearn to be recognized as distinct from the political or social ideas that underlie them—that is, we should not condemn the nostalgia of new age experimental music for example, or the vulgar politics of social art, but formulate them as incomprehensible aesthetic problems that constantly reintroduce social redemption without exactly fulfilling it.

Contemporary art’s biggest and perhaps only problem is that it doesn’t formulate itself as a problem, but instead endeavors to devise quick-fix solutions. This is evident in everything from Fried and Greenberg’s criticism of “literal” art, to relational aesthetics, to the social turn that endeavors to make ‘concrete‘ interventions in the world, as if even the most rhetorical things are without effect. Ultimately this implies a distance so alienated that there seems no connection to the world we live in whatsoever. This is counterposed to a would-be “revolutionary art,” insofar as Trotsky (as quoted above) saw it as impossible for any form of art, no matter how depoliticized, to be somehow illuminative of a seemingly inevitable political becoming. Trotsky understood the forms of both peasant literature and futurism as illuminated by a concept of history that was no longer intact, but fragmentary. As mentioned earlier, Trotsky thought the idea that a work of art could ever be without a political or social tendency—or that some were more “social” than others—was absurd. It is no longer self-evident, as it once was, that all objects, art or otherwise, are shaped by social conditions in such a way that they imply society’s (as we understand it) exhaustion and deserve critical attention. Bourgeois art was withering away and seemed to be yielding to something else.

But without a concept of history—that is, the construction of historical problems—viewers are reduced to philistines, and artists are reduced to dilettantes, grappling for whatever is available, and this is not limited to art, but every other cultural object in the world (I think that Shana Moulton’s videos of subjective interactions with the abstract, everyday objects not limited to art, but nonetheless arty, captures this reified desperation quite well). In this light it is easy to frame the return to the avant-garde art styles—e.g. geometric abstraction, Ab-Ex, or Dada—as something almost wholly inartistic, and reducible to other kitschy objects utilized for the decoration of one’s apparent individuality. It is possibility that is longed for in ever more quixotic ways, and “avant-garde” style is the compromise when it can’t be grasped as a historical problem. This, of course, is kitsch.

In the contemporary state of affairs, where life is a series of arbitrary events without meaning or problematic substance, “fellow travelers” are perhaps reduced to particles in the arbitrariness of natural law. One can’t simply propose that “contemporary art is about this” notion, or is “embodied by that” reality, nor can one find revolutionary qualities in a certain style over another, as we are left without models or a concept of history to shape experience. For example, on the one hand, “art” and “politics” do not only fail to travel side by side, urging each other forward, but we can’t even find an apt metaphor for such traveling in Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road, whose characters aimlessly wander the scorched earth, carrying some vague human torch for future generations that may not exist, going “further along a dreary road,” occasionally bumping paths and sharing what precious scraps of humanity remain, as if it ever did. Rather, both contemporary “art” and “politics” might each be akin to the nameless, free-floating subject in Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, who resembles a lawn ornament more than a human with anything that might be called agency: it is able to freely reminisce about past events that may, or may not have happened—no one really knows for certain—but is ultimately static, congealed into an object, ashen with the soot of forgetfulness and plagued by its never-has-been-ness, trying to reminisce, “but images of this kind the will cannot revive without doing them violence.”[16] One can say that there are no fellow travelers, not even travelers: “art” and “politics” today are lawn ornaments, helpless, kitschy novelties that are permitted continued existence only because they provide a source of petty entertainment to some alien and unknowable authority who finds them amusing in their harmlessness. Sharing a lawn, the contemporary Left and contemporary art believe they have finally found common ground. For instance, at two recent panel discussions hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on the theme of art and activism, many panelists unanimously agreed that the propagandistic poster is a paradigm of art. With this idea they browbeat the audience into believing that this is the highest achievement of artistic form. Whether or not one agrees or disagrees with them is hardly the point. The problem is the regulation of aesthetic forms, naturalized without the criticism that Trotsky perceived as constitutive of the new world. Trotsky—like Benjamin, Adorno, and Greenberg—never foreclosed the endlessly open possibilities of any aesthetic form. As Adorno would later argue in “Commitment,” there are no rules, no formulae for artistic experimentation; certain artworks may be “exemplary, but not a model.”[17] Although Trotsky had deep and well-justified political qualms with the peasantry as much as with Futurism, he was constantly open, and even endeavored to further open the possible directions that their art might take. He criticized at length, taking the work more seriously than the artists often took their own work, and he ends many sections of Literature and Revolution with, “we must wish them luck” even when he disagreed. Trotsky thought, and hoped, that art would “plough the field in all directions.” We have to wonder what the prospects for this are like today. In some ways, there is no “ploughing in all directions,” but rather ploughing in a provincial expanse that rarely leaves the circumference of one’s own arm-length, constrained instead of liberated by a politics filled with “reality principles,” and “lived-world” abstractions that Adorno once criticized. Indeed, it is specifically “directionality” that is lacking, and so, helplessly, art contemplatively turns its critical shafts inwards—the confusion of autonomous art for a depoliticized “art for art’s sake” illustrates this. Ultimately, in the meandering reminiscences of one’s own inner fantasia, one must occasionally pass into the recognition of this contemplation—the question is whether or not this recognition can then be constructed, or if the possibility of life will pass us by.

Or, perhaps, on the other hand, it may be the case that contemporary art production ploughs too much, works overzealously, ploughing aimlessly, taking the new and autonomous freedom of art as natural law. It may be that political ideology and social criticism cannot penetrate art as the constrained suffering of humans’ failure to move forward, consequently becoming more mute. |P

[1]. J.M. Bernstein, Lydia Goehr, Gregg Horowitz, and Chris Cutrone, “The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today,” Platypus Review 31 (January 2011), available online at </2011/01/01/the-relevance-of-critical-theory-to-art-today/>.

[2]. Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 155.

[3]. Leon Trotsky, “Art and politics in our epoch,” Partisan Review 1938. Available online at <>.

[4]. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005 [1924]), 70–71. Available online at <>.

[5]. Ibid., 68.

[6]. Ibid., 74.

[7]. Ibid., 143–144.

[8]. Ibid., 77–78. Italics added.

[9]. Ibid., 76.

[10]. Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971 [1920]), 72.

[11]. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 133.

[12]. Ibid., 143.

[13]. Ibid., 67.

[14]. Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of Modern Music, trans. Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Blomster (New York: Continuum, 2004 [1958]), 41–42.

[15]. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: Continuum 2004), 50.

[16]. Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (New York: Grove Press, 2009), 109.

[17]. Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” in Selected Writings, Howard W. Jennings et al., vol. 2, 1927-1930, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 237.

Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

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At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Trotsky’s Marxism.” Panelists Ian Morrison (Platypus), Susan Williams (Freedom Socialist Party), and Jason Wright (International Bolshevik Tendency) were asked to address, “What was Trotsky’s contribution to revolutionary Marxism? At one level, the answer is clear. Above even his significance as organizer of the October insurrection and leader of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, what makes Trotsky a major figure in the history of Marxism is his status as the leader of the Left Opposition and, later, his founding of the Fourth International. But this panel asks whether stating this fact is sufficient for understanding Trotsky’s Marxism, or whether this might not in fact merely beg the question. The issue remains: What was it in Trotsky’s evolution from the period of 1905 through the Russian Revolution of 1917 that allowed him to become the leader of the Left Opposition and the great Marxist critic of Stalinism in the 1920s and 1930s? What of Trotsky, rather than ‘Trotsky-ism’?” An audio recording of the event is available at the above link. An earlier issue (PR #35) included Jason Wright’s opening remarks. What follows are Ian Morrison’s opening remarks.

TO SPEAK ABOUT TROTSKY’S MARXISM, and not simply Trotsky himself, is to speak, above all, about the distance traveled from the First to the Second Internationals, as well, of course, as that from the Third to the Fourth. In what manner had political organizations and the discontents those organizations sharpened changed over time, from the Gotha program to the Erfurt program, from the Zimmerwald Conference to the April Theses, all the way to the Transitional Program? The question of Trotsky’s Marxism also seems to presuppose that an essential framework, namely the critique of political economy, somehow remains valid throughout these periods, and that hence the idea of being a Marxist is stable through time. That is, the question of Trotsky’s Marxism suggests that through events such as 1848 and the Paris Commune, and, during Trotsky’s lifetime, the 1905 and October Revolutions—that however cataclysmic they were, however profoundly they transformed the political landscape—still, somehow, Marx’s original standpoint remains. There is no simple, straightforward approach to this.

Trotsky himself was attentive to changing circumstances, arguing that the Bolsheviks (and his leadership thereof) had left an indelible mark on the past, present, and future of Marxism. “Before Marxism became 'bankrupt' in the form of Bolshevism,” he wrote on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution,

…it had already broken down in the form of social democracy. Does the slogan 'Back to Marxism' then mean a leap over the periods of the Second and Third Internationals…to the First International? But it too broke down in its time. Thus in the last analysis it is a question of returning to the collected works of Marx and Engels. One can accomplish this historic leap without leaving one's study and even without taking off one's slippers. But how are we going to go from our classics (Marx died in 1883, Engels in 1895) to the tasks of a new epoch, omitting several decades of theoretical and political struggles, among them Bolshevism and the October Revolution? None of those who propose to renounce Bolshevism as an historically bankrupt tendency has indicated any other course. So the question is reduced to the simple advice to study [Marx's] Capital. We can hardly object. But the Bolsheviks, too, studied Capital and not badly either. This did not however prevent the degeneration of the Soviet state and the staging of the Moscow trials. So what is to be done? [1]

Trotsky’s answer here, in short, is to study and deepen our understanding of Bolshevism from the present “Thermidorian Reaction” all the way back to the party’s origins. No “Marxism” can be complete, Trotsky maintains, without taking up this task, and he himself inaugurated the work, particularly in The Lessons of October (1924), The History of the Russian Revolution (1930), and his autobiography, My Life (1930). It is curious, looking at this incomplete bibliography, how carefully Trotsky modulated the genre of his writing to fit different objectives: as a revolutionary politician, as a historian, and as a modern subject struggling to reflect on his own life. There is no other writer, it seems to me, who presents such a full account of the period in question. His insistence (and persistence) on this score tells us quite a bit about how he sought to register the profound discontents emerging during his lifetime and, subsequently, what it meant to be a “Marxist” in Trotsky’s eyes. Clearly, Trotsky saw no need to reconstruct Marx’s critique of political economy, which is not to say that he believed it to be anachronistic. On the contrary. But during the intervening history—between Marx’s time and Trotsky’s—it seems important to underscore that the object of critique had been transformed as well as the organizations that were being intersected. Turn-of-the-century social democracy and the post-war communist parties are, sociologically, quite unlike the political organizations that made up the First International. In The Lessons of October Trotsky is addressing a political party of which he is a leader, and perhaps more importantly, one that is in power. The dangers and responsibilities of that organization (“the party”) are first and foremost on his mind. The subsequent history makes it clear that when a political party loses its grasp on reality, its degeneration is rapid.

I believe that is one reason why Trotsky begins The Lessons of October with the curious claim that “we met with success in the October Revolution, but the October Revolution has met with little success in our press.” Trotsky develops this claim well beyond a technical critique of the press. Rather, he implies that although the October Revolution appears “objectively” to have been a success, “subjectively” it potentially is not. For reasons that are by no means self-evident, this history is repressed. The party as an institution appears, then, not only as a means for revolutionary action, but also, potentially, as a means for evasion, a political obstacle par excellence. This claim, no doubt, is peculiar. How could a nation be mobilized without being fully cognizant of its intentions? How could the desire to overcome the status quo that had united disparate groups of men and women during “October” somehow be forgotten, averted, recoiled from by the very people who were mobilized by that desire to escape the present? There are many difficult questions here that go well beyond the typical condemnation of bureaucracy.

In Trotsky’s view the results are obvious enough, since he writes The Lessons of October as a response to failure in Germany. He argues that such a forgetful approach,

though it may be subconscious—is, however, profoundly erroneous, and is, moreover, narrow and nationalistic. We ourselves may never have to repeat the experience of the October Revolution, but this does not at all imply that we have nothing to learn from that experience. We are a part of the International, and the workers in all other countries are still faced with the solution of the problem of their own ‘October.’ Last year we had ample proof that the most advanced Communist parties of the West had not only failed to assimilate our October experience but were virtually ignorant of the actual facts. [2]

On first glance it may appear that there is a question of sheer ignorance. There is also the technical problem of simply producing and supplying the intellectual material. These are hardly irrelevant factors. Nonetheless, these factors do not explain the phenomenon itself, especially since this is a problem that has deepened immensely over time. Historical distance has rendered the problem even more opaque, as “narrow and nationalistic” sentiments have only grown. The question worth asking is: Why is it the case that the great struggle associated with Trotsky took the form of a “historical struggle,” a struggle to remember the past, and not merely a struggle of agitation and force?

Marx describes how the leaders of the French Revolution emulated “the Roman republic and the Roman empire.” [3] Socialists in the nineteenth century sought to revert to the craftsman's guilds of the pre-modern city-states. All these impulses and discontents Marx sought to ground in his theory of Capital, tearing asunder all the crude parodies of the past. The leaders of October had no such illusions; the paradigm, it seems, had changed. They struggled over the “incomplete present,” appraising the meaning of their actions on a world-historical scale. It is no small wonder that modern social thought emerged contemporaneously in figures like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Trotsky (and the Bolsheviks) simply stand out as a profound expression of this historical shift, with an acute understanding of the “October” experience.

Trotsky is even clearer on this score in an appendix to his History of Russian Revolution. In a revealing passage, he writes,

The task of the historian [in the period of “Thermidorian Reaction”] becomes one of ideological restoration. He must dig out the genuine views and aims of the revolutionary party from under subsequent political accumulations. Despite the briefness of the periods succeeding each other, this task is much like the deciphering of a palimpsest, for the constructions of the epigone school are by no means always superior to those theological ingenuities for whose sake the monks of the seventh and eight centuries destroyed the parchment and papyrus of the classics. [4]

This is no hyperbole. One only needs to take a quick glance at contemporary “Marxism” to get a sense of how terribly cryptic this material has become.

What was the “ideological restoration” needed? The reader cannot help but be struck by seemingly anticlimactic conclusion of the History, where Trotsky speculates:

The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarized as succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces—in nature, in society, in man himself. Critical and creative thought can boast of its greatest victories up to now in the struggle with nature. The physico-chemical sciences have already reached a point where man is clearly about to become master of matter. But social relations are still forming in the manner of the coral islands. Parliamentarism illuminated only the surface of society, and even that with a rather artificial light. In comparison with monarchy and other heirlooms from the cannibals and cave-dwellers, democracy is of course a great conquest, but it leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched. It was against this deeper sphere of the unconscious that the October revolution was the first to raise its hand. The Soviet system wishes to bring aim and plan into the very basis of society, where up to now only accumulated consequences have reigned. [5]

If we are to believe that history is more then a set of contingent factors, more then an oversized pinball machine shooting us around every which way, or a form of “divine providence” as the pre-moderns believed, we must approach the present as historical, such that “the tradition of all dead generations [really does weigh] like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” [6] This was the project Trotsky had set for himself, and it is the essence of his Marxism.

As far back as 1906, Trotsky had written in his pamphlet, Results and Prospects, “History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution [of 1905] with the Great French Revolution, the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter. The 19th century has not passed in vain.” [7] If only one could be so optimistic today! We face the uncertain phenomenon of 1989 effacing not only “October” but 1789 as well. It may no longer be the case that, as Trotsky once claimed, “The whole of modern France, in many respects the whole of modern civilization, arose out of the bath of the French Revolution!” [8] |P

[1]. Leon Trotsky, “Stalinism and Bolshevism” (28 August, 1937). Available online at <>.

[2]. Leon Trotsky, The Lessons of October, trans. John G. Wright (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1937 [1924]). Available online at <>.

[3]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K. Padover. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <>.

[4]. Leon Trotsky, “Appendix No. 2: Socialism in a Separate Country?,” in The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3, The Triumph of the Soviets, trans. Max Eastman. Originally published in 1930. Available online at <>.

[5]. Leon Trotsky, “Conclusion,” in The History of the Russian Revolution, vol. 3. Available online at <>.

[6]. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire.

[7] Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects. Originally published in 1906. Available online at <>.

[8]. Leon Trotsky, “In Defense of October” (speech delivered in Copenhagen, Denmark in November, 1932). Available online at <>.

Lars T. Lih

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

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At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18–21, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Lenin’s Marxism.” Panelists Chris Cutrone of Platypus, Paul Le Blanc of the International Socialist Organization, and Lars T. Lih, the author of Lenin Reconsidered: “What is to be Done?” in Context, were asked to address, “What was distinctive about Vladimir Lenin’s Marxism? What was its relationship to the other forms of Marxism and Marxists of his era? Was Lenin orthodox or heterodox? Was there a ‘unity’ to Lenin’s political thought, as Georg Lukács argued, or do his major works—What is to Be Done? (1902), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), The State and Revo­lution (1917), “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Dis­order (1920)—express distinctive and even contradictory phases in Lenin’s political development? How did Lenin’s Marxism overcome—or not—other competing forms of Marxism? How should we understand Lenin’s histori­cal contribution to Marxism, today?” Lih retranslated “Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution,” a Pravda article by Lenin published October 18, 1921, and presented his commentary as way of addressing the prompt. An audio recording of the full event is available at the above link. A condensed translation, prefaced by Lih’s commentary, follows. In Russian, the text can be found in Lenin, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii, 5th ed., 44:144-52. The full text in English can be found at

Late 1921 marked the beginning of the health troubles that eventually put an end to Lenin’s political career. Lenin was forced to abstain from direct governmental activity for long periods, returning only for a month or two in the spring and once more in the fall of 1922. The term “last writings” is usually applied to Lenin’s writings in late 1922 and early 1923, but this article from October 1921 can usefully be viewed as the first of the last writings: the first attempt by Lenin to assess what the revolution had accomplished and what still needed to be done.

In early 1921, the Soviet government had introduced the New Economic Policy, or NEP, a set of policies that officially accepted the continued existence of various capitalist institutions in Soviet Russia for the foreseeable future. Naturally these policy changes had an impact on Lenin’s later assessment of the socialist accomplishments of the revolutionary period. Nevertheless, Lenin’s deep sense of disappointment about this issue can be traced back at least to 1919 and therefore it should not be tied too closely to the changes that accompanied NEP.

The most striking feature of Lenin’s retrospective look at the October revolution after four years of hard-fought civil war is the contrast in his tone when talking about the “bourgeois-democratic” accomplishments of the Russian revolution in comparison to its accomplishments when viewed as a socialist revolution. Lenin is chipper, proud, and even boastful about the radical democratic aims of the October revolution. He stresses in particular the achievements of basic equality: peasants are regarded as full citizens, women have full legal equality, national oppression is ended, religion is no longer accorded state privileges. In all these areas, Soviet Russia has accomplished the program of earlier “bourgeois” revolutions in a more sweeping and conclusive fashion than the bourgeois revolutions themselves were able to do. In accordance with pre-war “Old Bolshevism,” Lenin argues that only a proletarian revolution could have accomplished “bourgeois democratic” aims in so sweeping a fashion. One major plank of Old Bolshevism, however, is conspicuously absent from Lenin’s litany: political freedom, as manifest in such things as freedom of the press, assembly, association, and the like.

In contrast, Lenin’s attitude toward the socialist program of the October revolution is one of grim determination. The determination is real, but so is the grimness. Lenin is defensive and even worried about the revolution’s socialist tasks, and he admits freely that real socialist accomplishments lie mostly in the future. He shows most confidence about those “socialist” accomplishments that most resemble “democratic” ones: the soviet system as a type of democracy, and pulling out of the world war. Economic transformation—“our most important and most difficult task”—is also “the one we have come least close to accomplishing.” Lenin plainly has no convincing answer in his own mind to socialist critics such as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that Bolshevik agrarian reforms had created obstacles to future socialist transformation. The strong emphasis in the section on socialist revolution is on failures, mistakes, and the long and uncertain road ahead.

Lenin is vague about exactly when, in his view, the Bolsheviks had miscalculated the chances for socialist transformation, as described in the last paragraph of Lenin’s article, below. His critique, however, makes best sense when applied to his own 1917 vision of “steps toward socialism,” as set forth in The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It and other works.

Aside from its own merits, I have chosen to retranslate this article because the Soviet-era English translation is seriously misleading in certain matters of content and tone. In contrast to that translation, I have brought out Lenin’s repeated use of the phrase “to the end” (do kontsa), since “carrying the democratic revolution to the end” was a defining goal of pre-revolutionary Old Bolshevism. In April 1917, the Old Bolsheviks who challenged Lenin claimed that Russia’s democratic revolution had not yet been carried out “to the end.” In response, Lenin had argued that the goal of carrying the democratic revolution to the end no longer made sense. He seems to have changed his mind on this point. For more on the debates of April 1917, see my article “The Ironic Triumph of Old Bolshevism” in Russian History, 38 (2011): 199–242. Further context useful for the interpretation of Lenin’s 1921 article can be found in my recently published book Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).


“Fourth Anniversary of the October Revolution”


V.I. Lenin, October 1921


The fourth anniversary of October 25 (November 7) is approaching. The farther that great day recedes from us, the more clearly we see the significance of proletarian revolution in Russia, and the more deeply we reflect upon the practical experience of our work, seen as a whole.

Bourgeois-Democratic Revolution in Russia

The immediate and most urgent task of the revolution in Russia was a bourgeois-democratic task, namely, to destroy the survivals of medievalism and sweep them away to the end [do kontsa], to purify Russia of this barbarism, of this shame, and to remove this immense hindrance to any kind of culture and to any kind of progress in our country. And we can justifiably take pride in having carried out this purification much more decisively, rapidly, boldly and successfully, and—from the point of view of its effect on the very depths of the mass of the narod—much more widely and deeply, than the great French Revolution over one hundred and twenty-five years ago.

The bourgeois-democratic content of the revolution means that the social relations (system, institutions) of the country are purified of medievalism, of hangovers from serfdom, of feudalism. What were the chief manifestations, survivals, remnants of serfdom in Russia up to 1917? The monarchy, the system of social estates [i.e., legally recognized differences in citizenship rights], landed proprietorship and land tenure, the status of women, religion, the oppression of nationalities. Take any one of these Augean stables, which, incidentally, all the more advanced states never really fully cleansed when they accomplished their bourgeois-democratic revolutions one hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and fifty and more years ago (1649 in England); take any of these Augean stables, and you will see that we have utterly cleansed them.

Take religion, or women’s lack of rights, or the oppression and inequality of the non-Russian nationalities. These are all problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. We have fought and are fighting religion in earnest. We have granted all the non-Russian nationalities their own republics or autonomous regions. We in Russia no longer have anything so base, mean and repellent as the lack or the inequality of rights for women, that disgusting survival of serf society and medievalism, which is being refurbished by the avaricious bourgeoisie and the dull-witted and frightened petty bourgeoisie in every other country in the world without exception.

Agrarian Reform

We left not a stone, not a brick of that ancient edifice, the social-estate system (even the most advanced countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, have not completely rid themselves of traces of this system to this day!). We tore out the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system, namely, the remnants of feudalism and serfdom in the system of landownership, to the end [do kontsa]. “One may argue” (there are plenty of littérateurs abroad—Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries—who can indulge in such arguments) as to what will result from the transformation of land relations carried out by the Great October Revolution “in the long run.” We have no desire right now to waste time on such disputes, for we are deciding this dispute, as well as a mass of connected disputes, by struggle. But the fact cannot be denied that the petty-bourgeois democrats “made a pact” [soglashalis] with the landowners, the custodians of the traditions of serfdom, for eight months, while in a few weeks we swept the landowners and all their traditions from Russian soil to the end [do kontsa].

All this goes to make up the content of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. A hundred and fifty or two hundred and fifty years ago, the progressive leaders of that revolution (or of those revolutions, if we consider each national variety of the one general type) promised to rid mankind of medieval privileges, of the inequality of women, of state privileges for one religion or another (or for the idea of religion in general), and of unequal rights for nationalities. They made promises—but they did not fulfill them. They could not fulfill them, for they were hindered by their “respect” for—the “sacred right of private property.” In our proletarian revolution, there was none of this accursed “respect” for this thrice-accursed medievalism and for the “sacred right of private property.”

Socialist Revolution in Russia

The correctness of our understanding of Marxism on this point—our estimate of the experience of former revolutions—has been completely confirmed during the last four years. We have carried the bourgeois-democratic revolution to the end [do kontsa] as nobody has done before. Completely purposively, firmly and unswervingly we are moving forward, toward the socialist revolution, knowing that it is not separated from the bourgeois-democratic revolution by a Chinese Wall, and knowing too that (in the last analysis) struggle alone will determine how far we shall move forward, what part of this unimaginably lofty task we shall accomplish, and what part of our victories we shall consolidate. Time will show. But even now we see that a tremendous amount—tremendous for this ruined, exhausted and backward country—has been done in the matter of the socialist transformation of society.


The soviet system is one of the most vivid confirmations, or manifestations, of this growing-over [pererastanie] of one revolution into another. The soviet system provides the maximum of democracy for the workers and peasants; at the same time, it marks a break with the bourgeois form of democracy and the rise of a new, epoch-making type of democracy, namely, the proletarian form of democracy, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

We do not forget for a moment that there really have been a lot of failures and mistakes and there continue to be many. How can failures and mistakes be avoided in a matter so new in world history as the creation of an unprecedented type of state system? But we have a right to be proud and we are proud that to us has fallen the good fortune to begin the building of a soviet state, to begin a new era in world history, the era of the rule of a new class.

Imperialist War

Ever more clearly, more distinctly, more inevitably does the grim truth arise before the millions and millions who are pondering the causes of the recent war and of the approaching future war: It is impossible to escape imperialist war, and the imperialist peace which inevitably engenders imperialist war—it is impossible to escape that hell, except by Bolshevik struggle and Bolshevik revolution.

This first victory is not yet the final victory, and it was achieved by our October Revolution at the price of incredible difficulties and hardships, at the price of unprecedented suffering, accompanied by a series of serious failures and mistakes on our part. Without failures and mistakes, how could a single backward narod be expected to achieve victory over the imperialist wars of the most powerful and most developed countries of the world! We have begun this job. It is not important which proletarians of which nation will carry this business to the end [do kontsa], nor when (at what date and time) they do it. The essential thing is that the ice has been broken, the road is open, the way has been shown.

Transformation of the Economy

Lastly, our most important and most difficult task, the one we have come least close to accomplishing: economic construction, the laying of economic foundations for the new, socialist edifice on the site of the demolished feudal edifice and the semi-demolished capitalist edifice. In this most important and most difficult business, we have sustained more failures than anywhere else, more mistakes than anywhere else. How could anyone expect that a task so new to the world could be begun without failures and without mistakes! But we have begun it. We shall continue it.

Borne along on the crest of the wave of enthusiasm, rousing first the political and then the military enthusiasm of the narod, we calculated on relying directly on this enthusiasm to accomplish economic tasks that were just as grand as our military and general political ones. We calculated—or perhaps it would be truer to say that we presumed without adequate calculation—on using the commands of the proletarian state to arrange state production and state distribution of products in communist style in a country of small peasant farms. Life has revealed our mistake. |P

Timothy Hall

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the 2011 Left Forum, held at Pace University in NYC between March 18-21, Platypus hosted a conversation on “Lukács’s Marxism.” Panelists Timothy Bewes (Brown University), Jeremy Cohan (Platypus), Timothy Hall (University of East London, U.K.), and Marco Torres (Platypus) were asked to address, “Who was Lukács? Critic of reification, founder of Hegelian Marxism, Critical Theory, Western Marxism? Or: philosopher of Bolshevism, apologist for Leninism, romantic socialist, voluntarist idealist, terrorist revolutionary? Lukács is usually read as an interpreter rather than a dedicated follower of Marxism, leaving Lukács's particular contribution obscure. Lukács was most original -- and influential -- when he accepted the presuppositions of Marxism, the political practice and theory of revolution, in earnest, from 1919-25, in History and Class Consciousness and associated works -- however Lukács himself may have disavowed them subsequently. What can we make of Lukács's legacy today, his investigation and elaboration of the problematic of Marxism, and what are the essential issues potentially raised for our time?” An audio recording is available at the above link. The article that follows is a modified version of Timothy Hall’s opening remarks.

1. Is there a revolutionary subject today? Is there, in other words, a subject capable of challenging the status quo; of challenging society as a whole characterised by universal commodity relations? If so who is this subject and how does it stand towards the class subject of classical Marxist theory?

For a variety of reasons, both intellectual and political, such questions have begun to be asked with increasing regularity today. Not the least of these is the seismic events in the Arab states beginning with the revolution in Tunisia last January and followed by the revolution in Egypt. These events have reignited debates about the possibility of revolutionary action and called into question the assumption that we are not living through revolutionary times. Prior to this, however, the resurgence of interest, since the mid-nineties, in modernity and modernism in the humanities and social sciences (and a corresponding waning of interest in post-modernist discourses) has created a more conducive intellectual environment for posing these questions.

There is a growing consensus on the Left that it is not enough to theorize “subjection/subjectivization” in ever greater detail while neglecting to theorize political practice or action. The notion that an individual politics of style could substitute for a substantive discussion of political practice, as was once advanced, is no longer compelling. My focus will be on the tradition I am most familiar with: the tradition deriving from Hegelian Marxism and the critical social theory developed by the Frankfurt School. What emerges from a consideration of this tradition are a range of debates on the character of the political subject; on the relations between idealism and materialism; and on the role of class in politics with a broader significance.

A number of responses to the question of the existence and identity of the subject can be discerned in this tradition. Each could be considered to be a response to the theory of proletarian praxis developed by Lukács in History and Class Consciousness (1923). In this work Lukács affirms the existence of such a subject and identifies it as the proletariat. The particular status of the proletariat in the capitalist productive process enables it to solve the riddle of the commodity and recreate the social world in its own (free) image. Defences of this view can be found in Horkheimer’s work from the 1930’s, Castoriadis at various points in his career, and in the Hegel-fortified Marx outlined by Gillian Rose in Hegel Contra Sociology (1982).

The first response originating in the middle and late period of the Frankfurt School is that there is no such subject today; that historically there was such a subject – the proletariat – but that, for a variety of reasons, it has vanished from the political scene. According to this view all that remains is the possibility of radical insights into the social whole but without the corresponding possibility of radical social transformation. This roughly approximates Adorno’s position, specifically the critical status he accords artworks in modernity. It also includes those attempts to recover an ethics from Adorno’s aesthetic theory such as that developed by Jay Bernstein in Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics (2001).

Another view is that the whole problem of the subject was misconstrued by the Marxist tradition. For this tradition the idea that capitalist society is antagonistic because of class conflict is fundamentally wrong-headed. This gives rise to the erroneous idea that the subject of modernity is the proletariat. This view has been defended by Moishe Postone in Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1993) but is also taken up by Marxists that follow Postone’s lead in according centrality to the value-form in critical social theory.

While both the first and the second position concur in holding that there is no political subject today, they do so for contrasting reasons. For the second the very notion of a subject of history is mistaken. Insofar as we can speak of a subject in this sense it is capital itself. Such a “subject,” however, is anything but revolutionary and hardly qualifies as a subject at all on account of the fact that it is destined to remain unconscious and “blind.” [1] For the first, by contrast, the disappearance of the macrological subject is historical. It marks the transition between liberal and late capitalism. This is to say: at a certain point such a subject was the bearer or revolutionary overcoming but is no longer.

Which view is correct? Has the political subject become historically obsolete or was it a fateful misconception on the part of the Marxian tradition? In my view the former is closer to the truth. I will try to show this by way of a critique of the latter view specifically as this is articulated in Postone’s seminal work from 1993. What I’m going to suggest is that:

i. The charge of ‘productivism’ levelled at the Hegelian Marxist tradition – that the category of labor is treated as a transhistorical category and that as a consequence such theories cannot account for their own self-possibility – is not borne out.

ii. While Postone shares the desire for an immanent theory with Hegelian Marxism, he is prevented from realising this because he dispenses with the categories of subjectivity, class and totality.

2. Postone’s critique of Hegelian Marxism is largely carried out in Part I. of Time, Labor, and Social Domination(1993). The basic thrust of his reading of Marx’s theory of capitalism is to see it “less as a theory of forms of exploitation and domination within modern society, and more as a critical social theory of the nature of modernity itself.” [2] However, before Marxism can aspire to becoming a critical theory, able to account for its own theoretical self-possibility, it has first to expunge its dogmatic assumptions. Principal amongst these is the idea that labor represents a transhistorical constitutive power lying at the base of all social formations. While, for Postone, the early Marx of the 1844 Manuscripts and the German Ideology subscribed to this view the late Marx of Capital (1867) comes to reject it. For the late Marx: “the notion that labor constitutes the social world and is the source of all wealth does not refer to society in general but to capitalist, or modern society alone.” [3] Whereas for the early Marx emancipation from capitalism involves the realisation of the essential, laboring subject (species being) for the late Marx it takes the form of an emancipation from the self-generating and self-valorizing system that is capitalism.

Hegelian Marxism is closer to the young Marx’s view. In History and Class Consciousness (1923) Lukács attempts a materialist appropriation of Hegel’s concept of Geist. According to Postone, Lukács rejected Hegel’s concept of Geist as mystified, but held onto to its identical form: the self-moving substance that is subject becomes the proletariat as identical subject-object of history. For Postone the problem with this approach is that it repeats the error of the young Marx in essentializing the productive subject. Rather than view this as a historically mediated reality particular to capitalist society it becomes instead the constitutive source of all history. In this, Lukács doesn’t simply repeat the error of the young Marx but compounds it by giving credence to the idea that history has a subject.

For this reason Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness throws a long shadow over the development of Marxist thought in the 20th Century in Postone’s view. Not only is it responsible for the fiction of a meta-historical subject but also for the notion that totality represents a normative value for critical theory. In this regard the self-totalizing character of proletarian practice fatefully mimics the self-totalizing, auto-generating logic of capital itself. Consequently instead of casting resistance to social domination in terms antithetical to this—i.e. as interrupting forestalling or arresting the logic of totality—it unwittingly exacerbates it. As Postone writes: “an institutionally totalizing form of politics should be interpreted as an expression of the political coordination of capital as the totality, subject to its constraints and imperatives rather than the overcoming of capital. The abolition of totality would, then, allow for the possible constitution of very different, non-totalizing, forms of the political coordination and regulation of society.” [4]

What form would such a politics take and what would its relation be to class? Postone begins to develop this in Part III of Time, Labor, and Social Domination. In Postone’s view, the schema that has dominated Marxism (including Hegelian Marxism) is the forces of production/relations of production schema. Yet the development of the former does not lead in the direction that Marxists have traditionally thought:

As industrial production becomes fully developed [the] productive powers of the social whole become greater than the combined skills, labor and experience of the collective worker. They are socially general, the accumulated knowledge and power of humanity constituting itself as such in alienated form; they cannot adequately be apprehended as the objectified powers of the proletariat. “Dead labor,” to use Marx’s term, is no longer the objectification of “living labor” alone; it has become the objectification of historical time. [5]

The suggestion here is that productive forces develop to a point beyond where it is possible to view the instituted world as the objectified power of the proletariat. Yet there is no missed moment here, for Postone, where a class politics was potentially adequate to the world but is no longer. Rather this development was intrinsic to the logic of capital. This implies that both the proletariat and capitalist class are bound to capital and that emancipation takes the form of the abolition of the proletariat and the labor it performs. [6] There is then no re-configuration of class politics in Postone’s view. There is no sense in which a set of class- related oppositional strategies might be thought as challenging the status quo. Rather the overcoming of capital should be conceived as the “peoples’s re-appropriation of socially general capacities that are not ultimately grounded in the working class.” [7]

3. To summarise Postone’s critique of Hegelian Marxism: the latter is “productivist” in holding that labor constitutes the social world and is the origin of all wealth. This is only the case in capitalist societies, however, not societies in general. From this rises the notion of the subject of history in Hegelian Marxism, that is, of a subject capable of recovering its agency from its alienated form and re-instituting society in its own image. But, for Postone, such an assessment plays into the hands of the totalizing logic of capital instead of opposing it. In contrast to the class subject of classical Marxism he proposes the anti-totalising practice of the people.

Leaving to one side for the moment the alternative vision of political subjectivity that Postone proposes I will focus on the charge of productivism and dogmatism in Hegelian Marxism. The charge of “productivism” fails, in my view, to take account of the difference between the “total social process” and the reproduction of capitalist relations of production in the Hegelian Marxist tradition. In the former social practices serve to reproduce existing social relations. Yet there is nothing inherently reductive about this position. Cultural, political, and legal practices no less than economic practices, serve to reproduce the status quo and do so primarily, not in a secondary and derivative way. For this reason the approach could be characterised as “productivist” but social practices in general do the producing not simply human labor.

Moreover one could draw a line around these practices and describe them as bourgeois or class-related. This would be fine as long as class is not defined in a reductive way in relation to ownership of the means of production. Class for Lukács, for example, relates to an array of practices serving to produce and reproduce existing social relations, only some of which are economic. Thus for Lukács cultural practices like journalism or science serve to reproduce social relations irrespective of the specific intentions of any particular practitioner. They do this through their form not by conferring a specious universality on capitalist relations of production. What is reified writes Lukács in relation to journalism is subjectivity itself:

[it is] knowledge, temperament and powers of expression that are reduced to an abstract mechanism functioning autonomously and divorced both from the personality of their owner and from the material and concrete nature of the subject matter in hand. [8]

Journalism as a practice is restricted in respect of its critical insight by the fact that as a reification of subjectivity it reproduces existing relations of production. Public opinion forms an objective system – “an abstract mechanism functioning autonomously.” This system allows for a range of ‘different’ opinions—a Melanie Philips, a Toby Young, a Laurie Penny, and a Polly Toynbee. But since the very practice is predicated on a far reaching reification, it is powerless to interrupt reified social reality.

Should we decide that there is no ‘honor’ to be had in journalism and turn our hand instead to the professions of law, public administration or even an academic career we would soon discover that there is no honor to be had here either. For Lukács if we look at the practice of science we discover that

the more intricate a modern science becomes and the better it understands itself methodologically, the more resolutely it will turn its back on the ontological problems of its own sphere of influence and eliminate them from the realm where it has achieved some insight. [9]

The fact that science is implicated in specialization and social fragmentation means that it is unable to interrupt this reality. Science as cultural activity (and philosophy as second order reflection on this) produces and reproduces the status quo by exploring and deepening the nomological structure of the social world.

To summarise: for Lukács and the Frankfurt School it is not labor that produces and reproduces existing relations but social practices in general, that is, our economic, legal, political and cultural practices broadly understood. Whilst these do serve to produce and reproduce the status quo, notwithstanding the conscious intentions of those participating in them, to suggest as Postone does, that this ontologizes labor as the essential human activity is simply not correct. Neither is the Hegelian Marxist approach debarred from accounting for its self-possibility. Working practices like a host of other social practices are historically specific and have no application outside the social world they serve to reproduce.

4. However, Postone isn’t simply wrong about the Hegelian Marxist tradition. His own conception of critical social theory is seriously skewed as a consequence. For in his rush to dispense with what he regards as discredited categories of subjectivity, class, and totality he ends up undermining any basis for interrupting the cycle of social relations.

Everything turns for Postone on a fateful misreading of Hegel that Marx himself would only address in his later writings. This is on the interpretation and demystification of the Hegelian subject. For Hegel, the subject is transpersonal. In the Phenomenology of Spirit he demonstrates how even the most subjective awareness of the world presupposes a “shape of spirit” or concrete socio-historical world. Central to this demonstration was the concept of intersubjective recognition that makes its appearance in Chapter IV, the famous master/slave dialectic. Hegel’s strategy is to show how conceptions of the subject (e.g. the individual as the bearer of abstract rights or the moral subject acting in accordance with the dictates of conscience) are not immediate subjective positions but the results or outcomes of historical struggles for recognition. According to Postone, Marx initially appropriated this model of subjectivity but gave it a materialist twist by replacing spirit with labor. For the early Marx it was the productivity of labor – not Spirit – that one needed to turn to make sense of forms and institutions of the bourgeois world that appeared immediate and natural.

For Postone, Marx changes his mind about Hegel as he comes to prepare for the writing of Capital (1867). Instead of looking to Hegel to provide a theory of subjectivity, albeit it in inverted form, he sees his work particularly the Science of Logic as a prescient attempt to work through the logic of capital. Famously, Hegel claims to have transcended the subjective standpoint in the Science of Logic and there is no reference to subjective experience in the work. However, this sea change in Marx’s relation to Hegel went unnoticed for the most part by the Marxian tradition particularly by Lukács who sought to supplement the critique of capital with a theory of revolutionary subjectivity the resources for which were to be found in Marx’s early writings.

The ramifications of this were profound. To begin with the entire project of supplementing Marx’s critique of capital with a theory of subjectivity was misguided. It set Marxism on the pathway of identifying a meta-historical subject; it misconstrued the nature of social domination in capitalist societies (not the domination of one class over another but fundamentally impersonal); it wrongly defined the task of critical social theory as the attempt to distinguish itself from idealism. What Hegel anticipated - and Marx saw - was the distinctive ontology of capitalism - its existence as a “real abstraction.” The obsession evidenced in Hegelian Marxism, in distinguishing between an idealist and an authentically materialist approach missed the point: the real world had become an abstraction. For Postone, Hegel’s insight lay in grasping this. The unstinting attempt to expunge the idealism from Hegel’s dialectic inevitably lost sight of this. For by insisting that capitalist domination was at bottom class domination, the fundamental character of the former was misrecognised.

5. These are complicated claims that require a book length study to disentangle. The following remarks should suffice to show that Postone’s reading of the Hegelian legacy in Marx is at the very least problematic.

To begin with if, as I have suggested, Postone’s interpretation of Hegelian Marxism is inadequate what are the implications of this for the position that he seeks to defend? Lukács in fact shares Postone’s aim of developing a critical – i.e. wholly immanent – social theory. He also shares Postone’s concern to develop a non-reductive Marxism. The seeming advantage of Lukács’s approach, however, is that he does not have to throw the concepts of mediation, class, and totality overboard to do this.

To take the example of class: Lukács and the subsequent theorists of the Frankfurt School would surely have agreed with Postone’s insistence on the impersonal form of modern social domination. It is doubtful, however, that they would have agreed that experience of class domination rests on a productivist fallacy. Surely the point of the approach Lukács innovated was that class-based forms of domination were always mediated by the illusion of the commodity form. It isn’t that class domination does not exist. Nor is it the case that class politics does not exist. The point is that a class-based politics comes up short: that in failing to interrupt the total social process it fails also to throw off the yoke of class domination. In fairness to Postone, he would not deny the existence of class domination/politics. However, he is always struggling to account for this having asserted that the proletariat are as much a part of the logic of capital as the capitalist class is.

There is another possibility here however: we might agree that the Hegelian Marxist approach is not reductive and yet still insist on its adherence to productivist models. We could, for example, accept that social practices (not human labor) reproduce the status quo and still insist that Lukács and others set too much store in the capacity of the subject to overcome its alienated objective form. Adorno’s insistence, against Lukács, in Negative Dialectics (1966) that there was a part of the object that wasn’t reducible to subject seems representative of this view. [10] Adorno’s strategy, here and elsewhere, appears not to involve the wholesale junking of Hegelian Marxist categories. On the contrary, he appears rather to insist on a change of emphasis away from the subject and the category of mediation and towards the object and the “category” of immediacy. Thus concepts like mediation and totality are still deployed in negative dialectics but in the service of the immediate – of what will not allow (without falsification) of discursive elaboration. [11]

However, the same approach is not adopted by Postone in Time, Labor, and Social Domination. His own conception of the subject (the people) is abstractly opposed to the self-generating and self-valorizing totality in an undialectical fashion. At best this looks like a re-inscription of the Lukács’s problematic of the subject as Neil Larsen has recently argued. [12] At worst “the people” appears to respond to ethical imperatives every bit as unmediated as the postmodern counterparts that Postone is looking to distance himself from.

Finally we should surely be wary of any attempt to relate Marxist inspired critical theory to a work as odd as Hegel’s Science of Logic. If we hesitate with many “left-Hegelians” in moving to the realm of “science” in which the “merely” subjective standpoint is overcome, what are the implications of this for the concept of capital that Postone is attempting to defend? Postone would insist here that we need to radically review our understanding of Hegel’s project. Rather than attempting to re-write Kant’s transcendental deduction we should instead think of Hegel as engaging, in an approximate way, with the impersonal form of modern social domination. For me, however, it is unclear how Postone’s position in Time, Labour, and Social Domination is significantly different from a range of neo-structuralist positions in which subjectivity is seen as dispersed across power structures in society. Rather than read the Hegelian legacy in this way I would favour a return to Gillian Rose’s proposal to question the fundamental difference between the productivity of spirit and the productivity of labor, or more precisely, to question the fundamental importance that Marxists have traditionally given to this distinction. [13] For if social institutions are viewed as the result of socio-historical work, rather than human labor, the charge of “productivism” begins to look less urgent.

6. To return briefly to the question with which I started: what are the possibilities for a class politics today? In my view there certainly is class politics today but without revolutionary potential. Whilst this cannot be discounted, it is important not to underestimate the extent to which any such movement is already deformed, from the inside and the outside, by the universality of the commodity. |P

[1] Moishe Postone, Time, Labor and Social Domination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 77.

[2] Ibid.,4.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid., 79-80.

[5] Ibid.,356.

[6] Ibid.,357.

[7] Ibid.,357.

[8] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. R. Livingstone,(London: Merlin, 1971[1923]), 100.

[9] Ibid., 104

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton, (London: Routledge, 1973), 192.

[11] See Timothy Hall, “Reification, Materialism & Praxis: Adorno’s critique of Lukács,” Telos Vol. 145, Summer 2011.

[12] Neil Larsen, “Lukács sans Proletariat, or Can History and Class Consciousness be Re-historicised,” in Georg Lukács: The Fundamental Dissonance of Existence, eds. T. Bewes and T.Hall (New York: Continuum Press, 2011).

[13] See chapter 6 of Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology (London: Athlone, 1981).