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Pam C. Nogales C. and Ross Wolfe

Platypus Review 46 | May 2012

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On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full audio and video recordings of the interview can be found by clicking the above links.

Ross Wolfe: How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another—paid and unpaid labor—isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either.

RW: You compile some disturbing passages from Locke, Mandeville, and Smith in which they liken workers to horses and other beasts of burden. You also offer a selection from one of Abbé Sieyès’s private notebooks in which he refers to wage-laborers as “work machines.” Hobbes claimed that there was a sensate understanding “common to Man and Beast,” and La Mettrie famously wrote of the “machine-man.” Might this language reflect these thinkers’ encounter with British and French materialism just as easily as it might indicate deliberate dehumanization?

DL: With the dehumanization of the working class in the liberal tradition, I don’t believe that this has to do with the materialistic vision of the world. These liberal theorists, on the one hand, dehumanized the working-man, while, on the other hand, they celebrated the great humanity of the superior classes. I quote in my book a text by Sieyès, a French liberal who played a considerable role in the French Revolution, in which Sieyès dreams of the possibility of sexual relations between black men and apes in order to create a new race of slave. That is not a materialistic vision. On the contrary, it is a futuristic, idealistic, and eugenicist vision to create a new race of workers who can increase productivity but who would be forever obedient to their masters.

Pam C. Nogales C.: In the seventeenth century, at least in England, doesn’t private property become the grounds on which certain demands of liberty can be made against the order of the king? Was it merely a historical necessity that demands of liberty could only be made through this particular form of private property? Or was this already a reactionary position to take, even in the seventeenth century?

DL: I would continue to stress this entanglement of emancipation and de-emancipation. The statement according to which men have the right to think freely and convey their opinions is of course an expression of an emancipatory process. But we must add that this class of property-owners, once free of the control of the government, could impose a new regime of control over their servants and slaves. In the first phase of the bourgeois-liberal revolution, the servants were without even liberal liberty, as well. I have quoted, for instance, that the inhabitants of the workhouses were deprived of every form of liberty. The [indentured] servants who were transferred to America, they were more like slaves. They were not modern wage-laborers. For instance, Mandeville writes that the worker must attend religious services. That is, they were not free in any sense of the word. On the workhouses, I quote Bentham at length, who claimed to be a great reformer, but was truthfully a great advocate of these workhouses. He envisioned the formation of an “indigenous class” of workers born within these workhouses, who would therefore be more obedient to their masters. This has nothing to do with modern wage-workers.


Marx, arrested: Brussels, 1848. Sketch by N. Khukov, 1930s.

PN: This gets back to the question of whether or not capitalism offers new forms of freedom while simultaneously posing new problems of unfreedom. On the one hand, we live in a most unfree moment. One could highlight the historically unprecedented living conditions for the worker in the crowded tenement houses of Manchester, or point out that his employer is only interested in gaining profit and not in granting him any form of freedom. But is the formation of a working class not at the same time a historical transformation of the conception of a subject in society that has implications beyond its manifestation in its present moment? After all, the worker is not identical with his social activity. He, as a bourgeois subject, has the right to work. Does bourgeois right point beyond itself and is thus not reducible to how it immediately appears?

DL: Of course I agree with you that some theorists from the ruling class end up inspiring other classes that were not foreseen as participants in liberal right. Consider Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the slave revolution in Santo Domingo, which later became Haiti. How can we explain this great revolution? We see in France the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In the original version of this document, the Rights of Man did not include colonial peoples or the blacks. But we see Toussaint Louverture who read this proclamation and claimed these rights for the blacks, as well. And we have this great revolution as a result. This is not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, however. On the contrary, Toussaint Louverture was obliged to struggle against the French liberals of the time, who admired the conditions that obtained in the southern United States of America and strove to continue the oppression of the black slaves. In Santo Domingo, the slaveholders were at first positively impressed by the French Revolution. They thought this meant freedom from the control of the king, such that they could now freely enjoy slavery, and their property, the slaves. Toussaint Louverture drew the opposite conclusion, and thus became the organizer of one of the greatest revolutions in history.

PN: Concerning the radical inspiration for the framework you set up between Toussaint and the French Revolution, the striking thing about the Haitian Revolution is that it caused a division within France. It was not simply Toussaint versus the French liberals; the Haitian Revolution actually caused the French liberals to split and led to disarray. It raised another problem: Insofar as France could militarily continue to defend itself from counterrevolutionary forces in Europe, at this particular moment, it still depended on colonial production. It therefore seems to me that the Haitian Revolution posed the problem of the radicalism of liberalism straightforwardly and there were a number of responses. Is it possible to call Toussaint a liberal because he believed in the promises of liberalism?

DL: No! Toussaint was a Jacobin. Between the Jacobins and the liberals there was a great deal of struggle. If we read all the authors who are generally classified as liberal—for instance Constant, de Tocqueville, and so on—they spoke very strongly against Jacobinism. For these liberal authors, Jacobinism was something horrible. I don’t agree, therefore, with your claim that there was a “split” within the liberal parties of France. Jacobinism is in my interpretation a form of radicalism, because they appealed not only to the liberation of the slaves “from above,” but struggled together with the slaves in order to overthrow slavery. After the fall of the Jacobins in France, the new government began to immediately work for the restoration of slavery. The French slave-owners had acclaimed the first stage of the French Revolution, since they thought they could then freely exercise control over their slaves. After the advent of Jacobinism and the radicalization of the Revolution, the liberals went to the United States and expressed their admiration.

RW: Could you elaborate on the historical and conceptual distinction you draw between liberalism on the one hand, and radicalism on the other?

DL: Even if we conceive of radicalism as the continuation of liberalism, we should not forget that, for instance in the United States, even the formal abolition of slavery was the consequence of a terrible conflict, a war of secession. We don’t see a direct continuity between liberalism and the abolition of slavery, because this liberation was only made possible by a protracted Civil War. But Lincoln, too, was not a representative of radicalism because he never appealed to the slaves to emancipate themselves. Only in the final stage of the war of secession, in order to add more soldiers in the struggle against the South, did Lincoln agree to let some black soldiers fight.

It is another fact that in the history of liberalism, Robespierre is not considered a liberal, but a strong enemy of liberalism. In the French Revolution, it was Robespierre who abolished slavery, but only after the great revolution in Haiti. He was then compelled to recognize that slavery was over.

The author who makes the best impression on the issue of slavery is Adam Smith. Smith was for a despotic government that would forcibly abolish slavery. But Smith never thought of the slaves as catalysts of their own liberation. So on the one hand, Adam Smith condemns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we asked him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.

If we look at the history of the American continents, we can ask: Which was the most liberal country? I believe it was the U.S. But now, if we ask the question: Which was the country that had the greatest difficulty in the emancipation of the slaves? Again, it was the United States.

But if we consider the succession of emancipation in the American continents, we see Haiti first, followed by the countries of Latin America (Venezuela, Mexico, and so on), and only later the United States of America. If we read the development of the world between the United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States—after defeating Mexico, after annexing Texas—reintroduced slavery into these territories where it had already been abolished. This, in my eyes, demonstrates that we cannot consider the abolition of slavery as a consequence of liberalism.

RW: How would you account for the admiration of Marx for a figure like Lincoln, who created the conditions (through war) for the emancipation of the slaves?

DL: Of course Marx was right in his admiration for Lincoln. Lincoln was a great personality, and Marx had the merit to understand that the abolition of slavery would bring about great progress. Why do I say this? Because in utopian socialism, there were those who constructed this argument: “Yes, capitalism is slavery. Black slavery is only another form of slavery. Why should we choose between the Union and the Confederacy? We see in North and South only two different forms of slavery.” Lassalle, for instance, was of this opinion. Marx understood very well that these two different forms of slavery—wage-slavery and slavery in its most direct form—were not equivalent. The South was for the expansion of slavery.


 Marx in 1848

PN: For Marx, what was really at stake in the Civil War were the historical gains made by the bourgeois revolutions, on which any proletarian revolution would have to depend. And insofar as liberalism in its post-1848 moment had begun to undermine the promises of the bourgeois revolutions, it was no longer revolutionary. Do you think that with the relationship between Marx and the American Civil War, there was a certain promise that, insofar as slavery could be abolished, bourgeois right could potentially be radicalized?

DL: I am critical of some ideas of Marx, but not the enthusiasm with which he greeted the struggle of Lincoln or the Northern Union. In this case Marx was correct. But Marx spoke of the bourgeois revolutions as providing political emancipation. Perhaps he didn’t see the aspect of de-emancipation. We can make a comparison with the middle of the nineteenth century: the U.S. and Mexico. In Mexico, no bourgeois revolution took place. In the U.S. we must say that the American Revolution was a form of bourgeois revolution. Comparing these two countries, we see that in Mexico, slavery was abolished. In the U.S. slavery remained very strong. Why should we say that in the U.S. the political emancipation was greater than in Mexico? I don’t see why.

RW: In explaining the manifold “exclusion clauses” that restricted the application of bourgeois rights to certain privileged groups or individuals, you use the old dichotomy of the “sacred” and “profane.” According to this model, those fortunate enough to live inside the boundaries of this “sacred space” at any given moment can be said to inhabit the “community of the free,” while those who fall outside of its domain are meanwhile relegated to the “profane space” of unfreedom. Why do you associate freedom with sanctity, and unfreedom with profanity?

DL: In this religious analogy, the “sacred space” is, of course, the space that is more highly valued than any other. With liberal ideology, we see a religious attitude. But that isn’t the most important point, because even in normal language, “sacred” has a more positive meaning. Regardless of whether one is religious, when people speak of something that is “sacred,” what this means is that this thing has a particular importance.

RW: How do you account for the rise of nationalism, the role it played in carving out the “sacred space” of the “community of the free”? Nationalism goes virtually unmentioned in your account. Lost, then, is the patriotic particularity that emerged opposite Enlightenment universality at the outset of the eighteenth century. In your work on Heidegger, you draw on the sociologist Tönnies’s distinction between “society” [Gesellschaft] and “community” [Gemeinschaft] to explain the exclusivist connotations of the ideology of the national or folk community (the Volksgemeinschaft promoted by the Nazis).[1] Insofar as it displaced the spiritual energies traditionally invested in religion to that of the nation, might this be the root of the “sacred space” that you associate with the (national) “community of the free”?

DL: Regarding “sacred space” and “profane space”: I make a comparison with religion because religion proceeds in this way. Profane derives from a Latin word. Fanum was the temple or church. Profanum was what was outside the church. That is the distinction that we find already in the first phase of religious consciousness. Liberalism proceeds in the same way—we have the fanum, or temple, which is the space of the community of the free. Profanum is for the others, those outside of this space.

Why do I use this formulation for the community of the free? I don’t believe that the category of “individualism” is adequate to the description of liberal society. “Liberalism” and “individualism” are self-congratulatory categories. Why? If we consider individualism, for example, as the theory according to which every individual man or woman has the right to liberty, emancipation, and self-expression—that is not what we see in liberal society. We have spoken of the different forms of exclusion, of colonial peoples, of workingmen, and women. Therefore, this category is not correct.

RW: But is it liberal society or the national community that is free? In your study on Heidegger, you distinguish between the more universal category of “society,” the socius or Gesellschaft, and the more particular category of “community,” the communitas or Gemeinschaft. Isn’t this distinction useful here?

DL: If we consider the history of liberalism, we see on the one hand a “community of the free” that tends to be transnational. But on the other hand, we already see nationalism in this liberal society. For instance, Burke speaks of “the English people,” a people in whose “blood” there is a love of liberty. There is a celebration of the English people. The ideology of nationalism was already present in liberalism. England—though not only England—claimed to be a special nation, a nation involved in a project of liberty. Of course in the twentieth century we have a new situation, where Heidegger celebrates the German nation.

PN: Isn’t the transformation of concepts like nationalism symptomatic of a deeper problem in liberalism itself? Doesn’t the shift that takes place in 1848 indicate the conservative (and thus reactionary) transformation of the liberal tradition, because a latent conflict within bourgeois society was only now being historically manifested? Since you raised the criticism of how Marx conceived of bourgeois revolutions, I would like to talk about the relationship of liberalism to Marxism, specifically in the moment of the mid-nineteenth century. To what extent would you say that the success of a radical or Marxist conception of revolution be the negation of liberal society, and to what extent would you say that it would be the fulfillment of liberal society?

Un-rue-de-Paris-en-1871-Luce (2)

Maximilien Luce, Une rue à Paris en Mai 1871 ou La commune, oil on canvas, 222.5 cm x 151 cm, 1903–1905 (Musée d’Orsay). 

DL: One can find a new definition of liberalism and say that the October Revolution of 1917 was a liberal revolution—why not? But in normal language, the October Revolution is not considered a liberal revolution. All the liberal nations of the world opposed the Bolshevik Revolution.

Marx does not speak at any great length about liberalism. He speaks about capitalism and bourgeois societies, which claimed to be liberal. I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation. Marx makes a distinction between political emancipation and social emancipation. Social or human emancipation will be, in Marx’s eyes, the result of proletarian revolution. On the other hand, Marx says the political emancipation that is the result of bourgeois revolution represents progress.

Again, I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery. In my book I quote several contemporary U.S. historians who claim that the American Revolution was, in reality, a “counter-revolution.” Why do I quote these historians? They write that if we consider the case of the natives or the blacks, their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course the condition of the white community became much better. But I repeat: We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided. Perhaps he knew little about the conditions in America during the American Revolution. He knew the War of Secession well, but perhaps the young Marx was not familiar with the earlier history of the U.S.

Another example of the one-sidedness of the young Marx can be found in On The Jewish Question. He speaks in this text of the U.S. as a country of “accomplished political emancipation.” In this case, his counter-example is France. In France, he claimed there was discrimination based on wealth and opportunity. This discrimination was disappearing, and was now almost non-existent, in the U.S. But there was slavery in the U.S. at this time. Why should we say that the U.S. during the time of slavery had “accomplished political emancipation”?

RW: “Radicalism,” as you have been defining it, would be liberalism without exclusion. If one were to get rid of the division between the “sacred space” and “profane space,” it would just be liberalism for all. Insofar as radicalism purports to remove any distinction between those who are inside and those outside the realm of freedom, and thereby bring everyone into the “sacred space” of freedom, wouldn’t radicalism to some extent just be universal liberalism?

DL: It is impossible to universalize in this way. For instance, colonial wars were for the universalization of the condition of the white slave-owners. That was the universality proclaimed by colonialism. The universalization of liberal rights to excluded groups was not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, but resulted from forces outside liberalism. These forces were, however, in some cases inspired by certain declarations, for instance of the Rights of Men.

In speaking of the enduring legacy of liberalism, I have never said that we have nothing to learn from liberalism. There two primary components of the legacy of liberalism. First, and perhaps the most important point: Liberalism has made the distinction between “sacred space” and “profane space” that I have spoken about. But liberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community. Yes, it is only for the community of the free, but still it is of great historical importance. On this score, I counterpose liberalism to Marxism, and rule in favor of liberalism. I have criticized liberalism very strongly, but in this case I stress the greater merits of liberalism in comparison to Marxism.

Often, Marxism has spoken of the disappearance of power as such—not the limitation of power, but its disappearance—the withering of the state and so on. This vision is a messianic vision, which has played a very negative role in the history of socialism and communism. If we think that power will simply disappear, we do not feel the obligation to limit power. This vision had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union.

RW: So you believe that historical Marxism’s theorization of the eventual “abolition” of the state, or the “withering away” of the State—as Lenin, following Engels, put it—was misguided?

DL: Totally misguided!

RW: So do you feel that society can never autonomously govern itself without recourse to some sort of external entity, something like the state? Must the state always exist?

DL: I do not believe society can exist without regulation, without laws. Something must ensure obedience to the laws, and in this case the “withering away” of the state would mean the “withering away” of rights, of the rule of law. Gramsci rightly says that civil society, too, can be a form of power and domination. If we conceive the history of the United States, the most oppressive forms of domination did not take the shape of state domination, but came from civil society. The settlers in the American West independently carried out the expropriation, deportation, and even extermination in more extensive ways than the state. Sometimes, even if only partially, the federal government has tried to place limits on this phenomenon. Representing civil society as the expression of liberty—this is nonsense that has nothing to do with real Marxism.

Marx himself speaks of the despotism in the capitalist factory, which is not exercised by the state, but rather by civil society. And Marx, against this despotism, proposed the interference of the state into the private sphere of civil society. He advocated state intervention in civil society in order to limit or abolish this form of domination, in order to limit by law the duration and condition of the work in the factory.

RW: That’s the famous passage where Marx describes industrial capitalism as “anarchy in production, despotism in the workshop.” In other words, haphazard production-for-production’s-sake alongside this kind of militarized discipline of industrial labor. But insofar as Marx conceives the modern state as the expression of class domination, the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society, do you believe that a classless society is possible? Because it would seem unclear why a classless society would need a state, if the state is only there to express class domination.

DL: On the one hand, Marx speaks along the lines you just laid out. In many texts, Marx and Engels say that the state is the expression of one class’s domination over the other. But at other times, they speak of another function of the state. They write that the state functions to implement guarantees between the different individuals of the ruling class, the individual bourgeois. And I don’t understand why this second function of the state would disappear. If we have a unified mankind, in this case too there is the necessity of guarantees between individuals within this unified mankind.

Furthermore, we are not allowed to read the thesis of Marx and Engels in a simplistic way. Sometimes they speak of the “withering away” of the state. In other circumstances, however, they speak of the “withering away” in its actual political form. These two formulations are very different from one another. But in the history of the communist movement, only the first definition was present, the most simplistic definition: the “withering away” of the state as such. The other formulation is more adequate: the “withering away” of the state in terms of today’s political form.

RW: And the other great legacy of liberalism?

DL: The other great legacy of liberalism exists in its understanding of the benefits of competition. And here I am thinking of the market, too, about which I speak positively in my book. We must distinguish different forms of the market. For a long time, the market implied a form of slavery. The slaves were merchandise in the market. The market can assume very different forms. Not that the market is the most important fact. We cannot develop a post-capitalist society, at least for a long time to come, without some form of competition. And this is another great legacy that we can learn from liberalism. |P

Transcribed by Ross Wolfe

[1].Domenico Losurdo, Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West (Humanity Press, Amherst NY, 2001).

Mary Jane Jacob, Robert Pippin, and Walter Benn Michaels

Platypus Review 46 | May 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

On 31 March 2012, the Platypus Affiliated Society invited Mary Jane Jacob (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), Robert Pippin (University of Chicago), and Walter Benn Michaels (University of Illinois at Chicago) to speak on the theme of “Changes in Art and Society: A View from the Present” at the 2012 Platypus International Convention held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The complete audio and video recordings of the event are available online by clicking the above links.  The original description of the event reads as follows:

Hegel famously remarked that the task of philosophy was to “comprehend its own time in thought.” In a sense, we can extend this as the raison d'être for artistic production, albeit in a modified way: Art's task is to “comprehend its own time in form.” Yet only with the revolutionary rise of modernity can this dictum make sense. Beginning in the 18th century, art sought to register and materialize the way in which social consciousness changed alongside the developing material conditions of social life. Thus, in times of great social transformation, we also bear witness to major shifts in artistic production: The French Revolution and David, The Revolutions of 1848 and Courbet, and the Russian Revolution and Suprematism and Constructivism are three major examples. This panel focuses on the relationship between social and aesthetic transformation.

The panelists were asked several questions in order to flesh out the uneven and at times obscure relationship that art has with a society that is constantly in flux. Full video of the event can be found online at <>. What follows is an edited transcript of the event. 


Mary Jane Jacob: Terms like the avant-garde and the underpinnings of modernism are still at the heart of the motivations and activity of many artists—not necessarily in terms of style, but in terms of contributing to changing society. I would like to point to a few concepts at play: a huge part of contemporary art-making is concerned with the dematerialized, not art that is a static object traded on the marketplace; second, it often involves collaboration, which raises questions of authorship on the part of the artist, questions of voice on the part of collaborators, and questions of participation in general; and thirdly, there is a new look to the question of effectiveness in this context—not just the affect of art—and so we should ask, effectiveness to what end?

Here are a few examples. In the 1990s, Christopher Sperandio and Simon Grennan worked with the Chicago Confectioner’s Union at a Nestlé plant to design their own candy bar, including a memorable advertising campaign. The candy bar was sold in stores. Just last night, I was driving south on Halsted; the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has changed so dramatically since 1993, when Daniel J. Martinez did a major public intervention there. For all of the 20th century the Maxwell Street Market was a center of a kind of open commerce; then UIC and the city joined forces to make it a campus village. So Martinez’s peoples’ plaza—he knew these redevelopment plans would come in 15–20 years—harkened back to labor events staged in that area, like the McCormick Reaper Strike or the Haymarket riot, along with world events throughout history. The Chicago collaborative HAHA worked on AIDS awareness in their project Flood, teaching kids at once about hydroponics and safe sex, but also coming to a deeper understanding of the epidemic, with each of some 50 members working during the course of the project within the larger AIDS healthcare network. In West Town, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s worked with youth to deconstruct their own images in the media and take control of creating their own images in neighborhood-based forms of presentation, culminating in a huge, 75-monitor video installation along an entire residential block. While the artwork was temporary, it permanently exists in the form of the organization Street Level Youth Media, now about to celebrate its twentieth year.


From 1992 to 1995 the art group Haha cultivated a hydroponic garden, with a focus on nutritional vegetables and therapeutic herbs, in a Chicago storefront.

Though drawn from Chicago, these examples participate in a worldwide movement of artists whose practice consists in taking action into their own hands—sometimes as gestures, sometimes as provocations—in an Alinskian drive to create permanent change. In Puerto Rico, for instance, when the government was about to do away with what they considered a squatters’ village in the mountains, Chemi Rosado painted everyone’s house green so that the community would blend in with the mountain. Kamin Lertchaiprasert and Rirkrit Tiravanija, an alum of SAIC, founded the Land Project in Chiang Mai, Thailand, as a kind of experimental studio for artists, designers, but also for developing bio-gas and other kinds of alternative energy engineering, while, at the same time, farming a rice field with a nearby community that has been devastated by AIDS. Or consider Artway of Thinking, a collective that will be with SAIC this summer, whose projects are often funded by the EU. One project looked at seafarers’ plight around the world and particularly in their homeland of Mestre, Venice. In response to this multi-layered, multi-year art project, a number of actions took place that led to change, among them the creation of two agencies dedicated to services for seafarers and new, more equitable policies regarding access when they are at port. Another one of their projects involved working with 13 provincial governments in Italy to change the law so that people can work legally in Italy while seeking asylum.

We are initiating a research project at SAIC on artists’ social practices in Chicago. My hope is that in the next few years we will explore the relationship between art and social change as it has been practiced in this city and intersects with the thinking and actions here since 1900.

Robert Pippin: The people I look to for help understanding the fate of art in bourgeois society are Kant, Schiller, Schelling, Hegel, the Schlegel brothers, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Adorno, Marcuse, and Heidegger.

The historical events—the simple facts—that define the social reality of the present are not much in dispute. Most count the September 15, 2008 collapse of the massive investment bank, Lehman Brothers—what is sometimes, quite revealingly, referred to as “letting Lehman fail”—as the signal event. It was followed by the nationalization of Fanny May and Freddie Mac, in the hastily conceived, 700 million dollar bailout. With that came the sudden and deep freezing of the international credit markets, the near total ruin of the economy of Iceland, the bankruptcy of Latvia, the destruction, in a little over a year, of what is estimated to be 50 trillion dollars in assets. All of this is well known, but still not well understood. In fact we seem to be drifting rapidly, as if inexorably, back into the same form of finance capitalism that produced the crisis in the first place.

Because these events have not produced even a roughly agreed-upon explanation, their significance remains unclear. The idea that global capitalism may have finally reached its long predicted death spiral is plausible: It appears unable to grow at rates that will provide minimal stability (usually estimated at around 3 percent) and unable to find any novel way to sustain itself without such growth, and all of this for various reasons having to do with unmanageable periodic liquidity crises and the inability of national governments, especially the U.S., to debt-finance its way out of such a crisis, hemmed in by domestic conservatives, foreign creditors, and the massive size of the current deficit—the U.S. has been borrowing at the rate of about 2 billion dollars a day for many years now. That ever more obviously dire consequences will result from our reliance on polluting technology to promote the rapid but deadly modernization that would insure markets for the excess liquidity—or that there may not even be sufficient space on the globe for such expansion—is, I think, a depressingly persuasive argument. And it is persuasively made, by David Harvey in The Enigma of Capital, for instance, whose account I am relying on.

But our question today concerns changes in art and society, and, presumably, the implications for the production and appreciation of art works in the current situation, understood as a now perhaps unending crisis in financial markets, with its attendant high unemployment, right-wing populism, and hyper-dogmatic religious enthusiasms that, in the U.S. at least, seem to be the first manifestation of dangerous, perhaps permanent political instability. Asking about art in this context seems necessary, yet almost impossible to think about.

The category “art” still takes in everything from folk art to commercialized pop art (music, television), to extremely expensive gallery art for an ever-smaller and richer elite, to highly academicized art music (each piece of which is performed, I am told, an average of once), to ambitious and not-so-ambitious graphic novels, to self-consciously avant-garde installation art, and so on. I don’t know how to begin to get a handle on the issue except by ascending to a high altitude and talking about the “present” in much broader terms than those sketched above. Specifically, by talking about the present in terms of the situation of bourgeois society, after the basic institutions necessary for that society began to come into view in the mid-19th century and afterwards, many aspects of which were the subjects of realist and modernist art. I mean by this the establishment of a domain of privacy created mostly by the bourgeois nuclear family; the establishment of the political public sphere; the reconstruction of marriage around the romantic love of partners, eventually equal partners who chose their own mates; what was so famously, and what still should be called, the fetishization of commodities; the establishment of mass consumer societies based in nation-states; and the increasing reliance on technology to produce the expansion and growth necessary to sustain competitive market societies.

I will assume that many of these aspects are well known and uncontroversial. But at that altitude, we can also say something equally abstract and, at such a level, a bit banal, about art. If we accept that in earlier forms of Western societies, works of great artistic genius were possible—a highly contested claim—then it has become a commonplace to say that the form of life coming into view in Paris and London in the mid-19th century made the production and appreciation of art of that quality, or at least the consensual recognition of such art, much more difficult. Perhaps there might be such art, but the importance of there being such art, its significance, would have changed radically and would have been greatly reduced. Something like this might have been Hegel’s position, which was the first to claim that in modern bourgeois societies, the greatness of art had become a thing of the past. For others, the social institution of art was eventually unable, after the failure of the heroic resistance of high modernism, to resist its commercialization, commodification, and eventual trivialization in the likes of Damien Hirst or Dan Flavin.

Pharmacy 1992 by Damien Hirst born 1965

Damien Hirst, Pharmacy, glass, faced particle board, painted medium density fiberboard, beech and ramin woods, dowels, aluminum, pharmaceutical packaging; dimensions variable, 1992 (Tate Modern).

I don’t mean to refer to anything much about the implications of the commodity form of value, as such, but to another, deeper problem. The production of art works—let us say, easel paintings—inevitably assumes the possibility of some shareable and non-discursive but primarily sensible, affective, form of intelligibility. If there isn’t such a distinct form, there isn’t art. Moreover, under the historical assumptions about meaning influentially insisted on by Hegel, the conventions necessary for such assumptions to be reasonable change over time. At some basic level, we need to understand that change before we can understand the possibilities of its specific modalities, like aesthetic modalities of shareable meaning.

These same considerations are in play in other bodily incorporations of meaning, for instance in the bodily movements we count as actions. There is some kind of crisis if actions taken by agents to be of certain types are not taken to be such actions by many others. Rousseau began an account of those conditions and their implications: Modern societies had created novel and profoundly deep forms of dependencies, in a novel and profoundly deep way—most famously, but not exclusively, the dependencies that result from ever more divided, specialized, and thus alienated labor. To make Rousseau’s long story short, this situation created a great social pressure for ignoring, for suppressing via conformism, for rendering invisible by various means the vast social inequalities that such unequal positions of dependence and relative independence would inevitably produce. This is the situation that would later be intelligibly called “dialectical.” The social relations and fundamental inequalities of modern capitalism greatly weakens the possibility of common conventions that could be shared in meaningfully fulfilling ways; rather, these sorts of tensions tended to be anaesthetized by a conformity-inducing redirection of human desire to what everyone else desired.

From Hegel to Adorno, the realm of the aesthetic has been called the realm of the negative—that which is not expressible in discursive articulation and so possibly resistant to those processes of conformism. For Hegel, “negative” did not mean unintelligible, but involved bearing truth in its own way, preserving some distinct mode of genuinely shareable meaning, or at least an aspiration for genuinely shareable meaning. The first expression of the crisis of aesthetic modernism was such negativity: the diminishing credibility of the traditional aesthetic forms that had previously made possible such sensible mutual recognition. The painterly conventions of illusionism, perspective, sculptural modeling to evoke solidity, or the traditions of genre, the nude, the ideal—these are all refused, all at once, in Manet’s Olympia, for example. Aesthetic intelligibility would from now on be immensely more difficult because continued reliance upon such conventions came to evoke conformism, a kind of enforced traditionalism, in the face of the looming possibility that prior assumptions about shareability of meaning were becoming irrelevant.

The events of 2008 have not changed any of this, and have added, as an even more effective conformity-inducing phenomenon, a shared mood—namely, deep anxiety—and the kind of neurotic, racist hysteria we see in the Tea Party movement. What we should expect is, at the very least, something very simple: that the occurrence of great art—art that means in a way that escapes the kind of social conventions necessary for a mass consumer society to sustain the conditions of its own survival, but still manages to embody a kind of shareable meaning not anticipated and normalized by such conventions—will be extremely rare. Perhaps so extremely rare as to be acknowledgeable and appreciated only many years after its appearance.


Dan Flavin, “monument” 1 for V. Tatlin, fluorescent lights and metal fixtures, 8’ x 23 1/8” x 4 1/2” (243.8 x 58.7 x 10.8 cm), 1964 (Museum of Modern Art).

Walter Benn Michaels: Maggie Nelson’s collection of poems, Jane: A Murder, centers on the murder of Nelson’s aunt Jane in 1969, four years before Nelson herself was born. At the time, and for a long while after, it was thought that Jane’s death was one of what were thought to be the “Michigan murders”: seven young women killed in Washtenaw county, Michigan, over a period of two years. In 1970 a man was arrested and convicted for what turned out to be the last of the murders. The assumption was that he had probably killed Jane. And Jane itself, the book, is written on that theory. As the book was going to the press, however, Nelson learned that a different man had been arrested for Jane’s murder. Her next book, The Red Parts, is about the trial and conviction of that man. Edgar Allen Poe makes an appearance in The Red Parts. Watching a TV show about the murder of a “beautiful Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga,” Nelson was taken aback to hear someone on the show explain his obsession with this crime by referring to Poe, who “once declared the death of a beautiful woman to be the most poetic topic in the world.” But while Poe was only incidental for The Red Parts, he is central to Jane.

One way that Nelson imagines this centrality is as a critique of Poe’s sexual poetic, which she suggests in an interview is an example of what she calls the ethically unsound practice of treating beautiful women as if their lives were “more grievable,” because somehow more valuable, than others. Hence it matters to her that Jane, unlike the Peace Corps volunteer, was not particularly beautiful. Indeed, she puts Jane’s picture on the cover of the book at least partially to prove it. But the picture plays another role as well, one that matches the other interest Nelson has in Poe. As she tells the interviewer, Poe made this comment in his Philosophy of Composition while describing, with what seems to be at least some glibness, how to make the perfect poem. The ambition to make the perfect poem—which is, she says, also a part of her book Jane—is not easily dismissed. The idea that a woman ought to be beautiful is one thing, the idea that a work of art ought to be perfect is another, and the idea that the beauty of a work of art is its perfection is something else. Nelson herself insists on this difference. A poem near the end of Jane begins, “Does it matter if I tell you now that Jane was not beautiful?” It goes on to describe Jane, her skin, white and chalky, her eyes set close together. It ends with a description of Nelson’s favorite photo of Jane, her face half bleached out, and the point is no longer that Jane is not beautiful, but that the picture is beautiful. The poem’s last words are, “the whole picture is beautiful.” The beauty of the photo is made out of someone who is not beautiful. More precisely, the kind of beauty the photo attains has nothing to do with the kind of beauty that the person in the photo might or might not have. This is emphasized by the insistence that it is the “whole picture” that is beautiful; the invocation of the whole calls attention in particular to the form of the work of art, to its ambition to be perfect, in a way that no person can ever be. We might say that just as the photograph of Jane must be made beautiful even though its subject is not, the poem Jane must be made into a whole even though the occasion of its production, Jane’s death, is loss.

There is a difference between the question of whether the person needs to be beautiful and the question of whether the poem ought to be perfect. This difference might plausibly be understood as the difference between a set of ethical or even political concerns, and a set of aesthetic ones. For example, the question of whether some lives are or should be more grievable than others might be understood as political in a way that the question of the possible beauty or perfection of the work of art is not. But this opposition, emptying the aesthetic of the political, is certainly not one that Nelson would herself accept, and in fact we might better understand the politics of the grievable as opposed, not to a set of aesthetic concerns, but to another politics, for which the question of grievability would not arise, or at least would not be primary. Similarly, we might understand the aesthetic of perfection as opposed, not to the political as such, but to another aesthetic, distinguished by its repudiation of the commitments that accompany the entire intellectual apparatus of perfection.

In photography, the most brilliant and influential exponent of the aesthetic of the grievable would be Roland Barthes, for whom the most important thing about the photograph, the punctum, was the element that shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces the beholder. That is why the most important photograph in Barthes’ wonderful book about photography, Camera Lucida, is the one we do not see, as it is not in the book: the picture of Barthes’ mother. The reason we do not see it is that it would not pierce us; she is his mother, not ours. For us, he says, “It would be nothing but an indifferent picture.” When Nelson reproduces the photo of Jane, she is going against both Barthes’ practice—Jane was her aunt, not ours, but she includes the photograph—as well as his theory. It is the picture defined in terms of its internal relations, face and torso against the sky, and thus turned into a whole, that Nelson finds beautiful. It is, in other words, the picture disconnected from the interest its beholders might have in a beautiful Jane, or even a Jane they might be drawn by the poem to grieve for. For Barthes, our indifference to his mother makes her picture not worth reproducing, but our indifference to Maggie Nelson’s aunt is the desired response. It is precisely the imagination of the beholder’s indifference to the person Jane that marks the ambition to achieve perfection in the poem Jane. If the aesthetic of the whole is thus the aesthetic of indifference, the politics it evokes is also, I want to suggest, a politics of indifference: namely, indifference to worries about whether beautiful women should be more grievable than others, or whether anyone should be more grievable than anyone else.

The question of Jane’s beauty and the critique of the idea that it should matter belong, as Nelson herself suggests, to a feminist politics, and more generally to what she calls the cultural moment of the triple liberation of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement. These represent liberations from the idea that the lives of white people, straight people, men, are more grievable than others’. The refusal of these hierarchies, the refusal of the hierarchy of grievability, is in Nancy Fraser’s useful shorthand “the politics of recognition,” a politics that is given further specificity by the distinction Fraser makes between recognition and redistribution. This distinction is not itself an opposition, of course; there is no logical contradiction between recognition and redistribution, no reason why a politics seeking to eliminate or minimize class difference could not collaborate with a politics seeking to respect racial and sexual difference. But in practice, beginning in the 1970s, there has been no such collaboration. On the contrary, in the years during which the triple liberations had become central, not only to progressive politics, but also in varying degrees to American society itself, economic inequality of the kind that would be addressed by redistribution, rather than recognition, has radically increased. The increase in inequality, the increased immiseration of the American working and non-working classes, Black, White, Chicano, and Asian, is a phenomenon that does not date to 2008, but on the contrary dates to somewhere between 1969 and 1974 or 1975.

One way to understand the differing fates of recognition, its increasing centrality in redistribution, its increasing marginality, might be just a question of emphasis. In its commitment to social justice, the Left has, for various reasons, focused on issues of identity but not on issues of class for the past generation, at least. Part of the utility of the concept of neoliberalism, if we accept its periodization as primarily a phenomenon of the mid-1970s, is that it helps us see what is misleading about that way of putting the point. It helps us to see instead that the commitment to anti-discrimination at the heart of liberal politics is also at the heart of neoliberal economics, and has been ever since Gary Becker argued that an employer’s racism could only add to his labor costs since, for example, the refusal to hire black labor increased the cost of white labor. Following this line, virtually all neoclassical economists understand racism, sexism, and heterosexism as obstacles to success in competitive markets. This argument about efficiency has been doubled by an ethical argument against preferring one prospective employee over another on the basis of any characteristic not relevant to doing the job. That is, economic commitment to the primacy of markets has been accompanied by an economic and ethical commitment to equality of access to those markets. Thus, far from opposing neoliberalism, the commitment to anti-discrimination is foundational for it. This is not to say that anti-discrimination is always or sufficiently defended in all cases, but only that sexism and racism, and increasingly all inequalities of access to markets, like homophobia, are understood abstractly to be both unproductive and wrong. Inequalities actually produced by those markets, unlike inequalities of access to them, are not understood by neoliberal economics to be wrong. By this I mean just that the increasing economic inequalities of neoliberal societies are a problem for neoliberalism only insofar as they are raced or gendered. Those critics whose way of protesting economic inequality consists precisely in focusing on disparities between men and women or Black and White—think of every complaint about the disproportionate poverty of minorities, every complaint about the glass ceiling—are defending the ideals of neoliberalism, not criticizing them. They are protesting the ways in which the raced and gendered subject has been classed; they are not protesting class itself. Another way to put this is just to say that racism and sexism are liberalism today functioning badly; when it is working well, you get economic inequality, which has nothing to do with our feelings of whose lives are more or less grievable.

Just as an alternative to the aesthetics of the grievable is an aesthetics of indifference, the alternative to a politics of the grievable is a politics of indifference. That is, inasmuch as the goal was to minimize inequality, what a class politics requires is redistribution of wealth without regard to the race and gender of the beneficiaries, without regard to whether we see them as inferior, without regard to our regard itself. That is why today it is only as form that art does class. Produced by capitalism, rather than racism or sexism, poverty is independent of how we feel about or see the poor, just as the formal unity in the photograph Jane is independent of how we feel about the person Jane. In fact, that independence is the very meaning of the photograph’s unity, of its being a whole. It is in this context that the ambition to produce a perfect work of art has taken on a political meaning and that it has the particular political meaning it has. For the perfect work is one that, asserting the difference between it and the world, asserts its autonomy, an autonomy that in our period may be understood as above all autonomy from—here thematized as indifference to—its reader or beholder. It is the production of the work of art’s difference from the world that counts as the work it does in the world.


Professor Pippin, I wonder where a figure like Hölderlin fits in your narrative and, with him, the Romantic notion of the possibility of the transcendent? It seems to me that the crisis of art in modern bourgeois society is also tied to the crisis of religion. Secondly, do the panelists see a parallel between the high modernist aesthetic and what one might call a high modernist politics, which aimed at the abolition of capitalism? In what ways does this differ from a postmodernist aesthetic?

RP: Hölderlin is usually taken to represent a moment of rejection of the emergent forms of civil society that were visible in the early 19th century. He is seen in terms of a nostalgic retreat driven by a deep sense of the fragmentation, disunity, alienation, and anomie of modern life. That is the traditional and perhaps typical reading. A different reading would hinge on a very difficult issue: the politics and the cultural valence of the aesthetic ideal of the beautiful. I say this because Hölderlin certainly represents the last fluorescence of an approach that attributed real philosophical depth to the Beautiful. That approach would begin to evaporate after the 1820s–1830s, in the last gasp of the German Romantic Movement. Central to that approach was the conviction that the possibility of the presentation and experience of the beautiful intimates an actual harmony between the fundamental disunifications of modern society, between sensibility and intellect, reason, understanding, and so forth. One way of answering your question is just to say that something like the historical fate of Hölderlin, tied as it was to aspiration of the beautiful, had something to do with the fate of the beautiful, which in the modernist movement ceased to have the same credibility as an aesthetic ideal as it did for the Romantics.

If what you say is true and one presupposition, acknowledged or not, of high modernism is complete non-complicity with the commodification essential to capitalism, then you have to ask what the position of refusal is supposed to entail. If you believe that there is at bottom no reformable moment internal to late capitalism, what do you do, as an intellectual, if there is no longer the Party? That is, after all, the situation that begins to emerge after the failure of the German Revolution in 1918, and intensifies in subsequent moments—the dates 1939, 1956, 1968, 1989, and others stand out. If you’re an intellectual who believes that there is no internally reformable trajectory visible in modern capitalism, what does the rejectionist stand that you attribute to high modernism actually entail, politically? That is a question for which no one has a good answer, really.

MJ: Can I just ask, are there other artists here in the room? It is unfortunate in panels like this that there is often not a full sense of what contemporary artists are doing, what work they are making. What are their motivations, ethical stances, and commitment to change? Instead, some here are working from a historical position. At the same time, we need to have a pre-modern, a pre-museum, a pre-market sense of what we mean when we say the word “art,” and how some essential reasons for making art still function for artists in society today. As with the examples I pointed to earlier, the actual practice of many artists today seeks join art with life, even to dissolve any such barrier. This has been such an important theme in modernism and essentially in all art.

I want to read something from Foucault that articulates my disappointment in the inability to locate our discussions in what artists today are actually doing. Foucault says, appropriately, “What strikes me is the fact that in our society art has become something that is related only to objects and not to individuals or to life. That art is something that is specialized or done by experts who are artists, but couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should a lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”

But my co-panelists’ presentations still address art as objects, when what Foucault points to is what many artists are dealing with now, which often doesn’t involve art objects at all—at least in the traditional sense—much less worrying about how individual art objects will perform in the market.

WBM: Foucault has been very influential, but actually is one of the early exponents and defenders of neoliberalism. Post-modernism is and has been the more or less official culture of neoliberalism. No doubt, post-modernism is in some sense an avant-garde, but the idea that it has been a politically useful avant-garde is completely mistaken, in my opinion.

I think it is important to go back to the question that Robert was raising, a question I don’t have an answer to, but which is highly significant: He said art, great art, at this moment is going to be rare, and that sounds right. On the other hand I’m very much struck by the fact that there has been a kind of renewal in the last decade, and I think it’s probably above all in photography.

MJ: To clarify, there is the work of art that you’re referring to, which is done by the artist, and then there is also the work of the artist. Not all artists make works of art, per se. Being such a capitalist society, we unfortunately have fewer outlets for artists to be doing that kind of work, because such work doesn’t necessarily involve the creation of a discrete “product.” Moreover, a great deal of art today does not seem interested in participating in the discourse around the question, “What is great art?”

If art offers a way of understanding the possibility for freedom in modern life, characterized by free labor and free love, and if the difficulty of discerning great art in the present speaks to conditions of conformity that affect us all, how do you see the art and artists you have referenced as offering us a real hope of an emancipated future? To what extent do you feel confident in their present transcendent capacity to shed light on the possibilities of our moment?

MJ: Back to the notion of context, an aesthetic object might give us a sense of freedom, but what happens on our way to even having an experience with that art object? How are we free to even have experience and what do we understand experience to be? When we pay 18 dollars to get into the Art Institute, we enter it knowing that accessing these objects is worth a certain amount. How does this affect our experience of the object? I am interested in artists like Seamus McGuinness who spent five years working with a psychiatrist in Ireland developing the Visual Arts Autopsy to change policies, procedures, and laws within that country, addressing its post-Catholic crisis and the stigmatisms around suicide. The more-than-one-hundred families’ participation in those aesthetic moments of the Visual Arts Autopsy gave them an enormous sense of freedom, agency, and chances for personal change, as well as coming together to institute change.

RP: One important distinction seems to transcend the notion of produced works of art that could be or could resist being commodities, and your life as a work of art. I think the immediate question that one needs to ask, which I would argue is inevitable once the entire category of art is invoked, is not what it would take to make your life a work of art, but what it would mean to make it a successful work of art? There has to be a difference between attempting to make your life a work of art and failing, and attempting and succeeding. Perhaps there is another difference, in succeeding very well. The thing I’ve tried to argue very briefly today is that the possibilities of successful art are actually not self-definable by the artist. This has something to do with the issue of the avant-garde, but it also—more fundamentally, I’d argue—depends on shareable conditions for the possibility of non-discursive but nonetheless articulable meaning in a community at a given time. Art has a particular modality of rendering things intelligible. It is non-discursive and it is largely sensible and affective, even as it lends itself to certain forms of discursive articulation. The reliance of artwork of a historical period on various conventional conditions for the possibility of such shareability seems to me inevitable. It is at least conceivable that at certain stages of history it might be reasonable to think that the conditions for such shareability have been so distorted and degraded that it’s very unlikely that anything other than the minimal satisfactions of the conditions of art would prevail.

Art addresses itself to us as individuals, whereas politics by necessity addresses us in some sense as a collective, as humanity as such. I felt like the tension between those two issues, the relationship between the individual and the collective as addressees of art and politics, came out in different ways in each of the talks. Good politics doesn’t assume that the state of humanity in the present is the only possible state of humanity; does good art assume the same?

About the materialist account of art, I would say that art is an object not simply in the sense that it is a thing the artist has made, a “product,” but also in terms of what we might call the “social being” in the work. It seems like an artist can’t really get around the commodity form of the art object today, given that the predominant form of production today is commodity production. In this context, the socially engaged art practices I’ve seen recently seem driven to eliminate metaphor as a way of communicating, and so the art relies on this direct, one-to-one relationship between itself and the audience. A lot of it is about getting across a “message”—usually, a message concerning the lack of and need for services that the state once provided, but no longer does. On the other hand, with a Hegelian account of art, I feel like there is a problem the degree to which it posits a type of artist who doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but who simply gives form to things that don’t really quite have a form. Such an account seems to imply that it may be better that the artist is completely unaware of what he’s doing, so that later on it’s available for and completely open to interpretation. In such an account, how would it be even theoretically possible for an artist to self-consciously produce a work that’s adequate to the material conditions we live in?

MJ: Metaphor is something that creates possibility for shared experience, I think. But we also have to look at process. An artist’s process can be deeply invested within a place or within a constituency with people, with their activities. Process can look like the back-and-forth dialogue of permissions and checkpoints as a work develops, as with McGuinness’s project.  The work of art also offers possibilities for reflection, and sharing that reflection. Our own, individual interpretation of a work of art, both deepens our relationship with the work and becomes the basis for communicative possibility—moving us, as Dewey would say, to the art’s ultimate ends of participation and communication. Your own life that you draw upon for such communication is your experience. You don’t necessarily need the art history, or other information; you just need to be aware, remain present in the experience. I’m interested in the possibility of works of art as this kind of mode of social communication.

WBM: If we think about art and politics in terms of the history of art, the question being raised is, what does it mean to make great works of art? Foucault has that well-known remark, which is that people ordinarily know what they do and why they do it; what they don’t know is, what does what they do, do? I think the artist has a pretty good idea of what he or she is doing in making these works—there is the sense of trying to make something like the perfect work of art, with an insistence on form. What I am suggesting is that there is a certain kind of work today that has both the capacity to produce major works of art and the capacity to produce an interesting, significant critique of our contemporary moment and that, in the main, these are not works of art that as their point take up the business of trying to help people. These are works of art that are produced as an attempt to make great works of art.

MJ: The fact that artists don’t know what the work does comes directly as a definition of art. I don’t think it is controversial to say that art involves both a creative act on the part of the artist and a re-creative act on the part of the viewer, and that those are more or less equal ends. The work of art is not finished when the artist finishes with it.

RP: The “German idea” is that works of art, as works of art, are essentially liberationist: They are connected deeply with the aspiration for the realization for freedom. What that means is an enormous and very thorny issue, but one that has come to the surface several times in our discussion. The idea that there could be a sensible embodiment of an intended meaning that is uniquely sensible, but shareable, evokes a resolution of the central modern antimony concerning freedom: We are corporeal, spacio-temporal objects, and at the same time we are subjects. With respect to our discussion today, the idea is that art preserves the possibility of this unity, as a kind of anticipation of its full realization, and this anticipation consists in the moment of actual sensible embodiment of an intended meaning in the artwork. The reason it’s supposed to be a moment of potential liberation is that the circulation and shareability of that meaning is in some way to be viewed, can be viewed, as the expression of free and equal subjects in a communicative relation of a sort that isn’t in the interest of anyone. Stating it so baldly makes it seem naïve, perhaps. This wouldn’t mean that art would not involve ideas, nor does it mean that the artist must remain ignorant of those ideas. However, I do think it is hard to imagine how art made—“in advance,” so to speak—specifically in service of certain ideas, could serve the ideal of freedom that this framework articulates. Nor is this freedom art points to, in this conception, simply the occasion for the individual to explore his or her own psyche; it is not the freedom that self-expression, per se, can express. This aspect I’ve tried to draw attention to, this shareability without the interests of anyone being served by the regime of shareability, is the aspiration that art embodies just by being art.

The discussion of the German idealist notion of freedom makes me wonder about fascism: Can great art be reactionary?

RP: I think of art as a normative term. That is, fascist art is not art; it’s just a façon de parler to call it art. It doesn’t achieve the conditions of art, so it’s not art. But then, of course, you would raise the question: How do you distinguish between bad art and good art? To put it most radically, there’s no such thing as bad art. Rather, that art which doesn’t achieve the condition of art, is not art.

WBM: Many of the major modernist poets of the first half of the 20th century completely understood themselves as fascists. Ezra Pound would only be the most obvious example. We could think of this as a discrepancy between Pound’s aesthetic commitments—that is, the kind of art he thought he was trying to make—and his political commitments. However, he himself was entirely convinced. Indeed, many lines in the cantos do explicitly profess sentiments that could only be attributed to Italian fascism. If you’re going to say that it can’t be great art if it’s fascist then you are going to have to say either Pound’s Cantos suck—which is a very implausible claim for anybody who is interested in the history of poetry—or you’re going to have to say that the thing that makes them great art somehow disconnects them from the fascism that they themselves profess. There is no question, moreover, that fascism had a profound aesthetic component; however, it does not follow from this acknowledgment that there are therefore great works of fascist art.

MJ: This, too, is a question in the design field. What is good design? One could conceivably create a very well-designed crematorium in a Nazi death camp. So we come to a question of values and ends. I think we work from personal values, which come about in terms of our position and our perspective within society. Those are things that form personal ethics and larger civic ethics. Those have everything to do with making art, making design, and living life.

WBM: Indeed, it raises the question of the relevance of the artist’s ethics, and even of the artist’s politics, to the politics of the work of art. I am skeptical of the idea that people’s political intentions and political motives have much to do with the politics of the works of art they produce. However, their aesthetic intentions, their aesthetic motives, have a great deal to do with their politics. |P

Transcribed by Carolyn Graham and Divya Menon Kohn

Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd

Platypus Review 46 | May 2012


Last winter, on their radio show Radical Minds on WHPK-FM Chicago, Spencer A. Leonard and Watson Ladd interviewed Ben Lewis, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and co-author and translator, together with Lars T. Lih, of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011). The interview originally was broadcast on December 6, 2011. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.


Spencer Leonard: Please give a brief overview of Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle.


 Zinoviev and Martov: Head to Head in Halle (2011)

Ben Lewis: The book makes available in English a remarkable moment in the history of the European socialist movement—the debate at the October 1920 Halle Congress of the German Independent Social Democrats (USPD). The USPD had then around 700,000 members. It was bitterly divided over the new Soviet government, the Communist International, and the nature of the German revolution and the tasks it then faced.The split that resulted at this congress, as part of the drive to form parties affiliated to the Third International, created the new, United Communist Party (VKPD). It was a pivotal moment.

When I first came across the material, it struck me how apposite some of the discussions and debates were to mass revolutionary unity in today’s world – seeking to overcome crippling divisions and fragmentation through uncompromising political struggle. My collaborator in this project Lars Lih and I have contextualized and translated the speeches of the Bolshevik leader Grigory Zinoviev, who spoke for around four hours, and his Menshevik opponent Julius Martov. This Congress provides an almost unparalleled insight into the self-understanding both of the Bolsheviks and the “left” Mensheviks, as well as their supporters in the German workers’ movement. The main purpose of the book, then, is to make available a debate that has been largely overlooked or forgotten. Grasping the shades and nuances of opinion at the congress, as well as the strengths and limitations of the strategic outlines advanced on both sides, is intended as a modest contribution to the sort of debates that we on the left urgently need today.

SL: What were some of the circumstances that led to the altered landscape of the German Left in the aftermath of World War I, and in particular from 1917-1921? How had the outbreak of war itself precipitated a crisis in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and, indeed, international socialism? In the introduction to the book you write, “The war and the passing of political power into the hands of the military command can be partly understood as the ruling class’s challenge to the worker’s movement. The tragedy is that the SPD was unable to rise to that challenge” (11). How did the SPD’s 1914 vote to support the Kaiser’s war ramify through the war years? How and to what extent did the working class come to recognize the consequences of that vote, of that ongoing support, and of the leadership for responsible for them? How did it lead to the crack-up of some of the most important party leaders in Germany?

BL:  In spite of its strategic disorientation and fractious nature, the German workers’ movement was enormously powerful, and its importance can be traced back to the successes of SPD in the period between the 1880s and 1914. His criticisms of its programme and its lack of republicanism notwithstanding, Marx’s friend and political legatee, Friedrich Engels, could barely contain his delight at the organization’s seemingly inexorable rise. In contrast to the “parties”on today’s far Left, this party had genuine mass influence and roots. It was not so much a political party as it was another way of life devoted to the political, cultural, and social development and empowerment of the working class. It ran women’s groups, cycling clubs, party universities and schools, churned out hundreds of newspapers, weekly theoretical journals, “special interest” magazines discussing cycling, the role of socialist academics, and even gymnastics! By 1912 the SPD had become the biggest party in Germany, with 110 Reichstag seats and 28 percent of the popular vote.

But as the party grew, so too did the gulf between its revolutionary theory and the daily practice of putting out newspapers, organizing in trade unions, and winning elections. The goal of socialism was increasingly relegated to Sunday speeches, party congresses, annual festivals, and educational events. Many party trade union leaders and functionaries, increasingly cut off from the control of the party membership, saw no further than higher wages and better conditions. Reichstag deputies aimed for minor reforms and parliamentary deals. In other words, the labor bureaucracy was gaining ground, and it found theoretical expression in the writings of the revisionist Eduard Bernstein. His writings of the late 1890s challenged the self-understanding of Marxism, as it derived from Marx and Engels, who in their lifetimes had thought him their star pupil.

Seen in that light, we can begin to understand the enormous shock felt by those who, while aware of the dangers of revisionism, had placed great hope in this movement when, on August 4, 1914, the SPD voted for war credits. Reading his copy of the Times, Lenin threw it on the floor and refused to believe the news. He could not fathom that a party of such promise had thus capitulated to the Kaiser state, though this is effectively what happened.


L: Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; R: Paul Levi

However, it is worth noting as well that, right from the outset, many went along with this on the assumption that it was just some kind of aberration. The idea was that the party had temporarily lost its way. Karl Liebknecht, for example, who is held up quite rightly as a hero of internationalism, voted with the leadership on that fateful day. He voted for the war credits with the view that the party could be won over again to a principled opposition to imperialist war, in opposition, that is, to the interests of one’s own national state. After all, he thought, precisely such an opposition had been codified in many resolutions of the Second International. But the direct consequence of the Burgfrieden [Civil Peace] that the SPD had concluded with the military high command was an enormous clampdown on opposition to the war inside the SPD itself. The resulting political repression took different forms, ranging from a clampdown on party democracy to the SPD daily, Vorwärts, printing declarations from the German High Command threatening to shut down the publication if it broached the sensitive issue of class struggle. Indeed, Vorwärts was censored on several occasions for making the mildest of criticisms about bread distribution and other things during the war.

After the 1914 crisis, opposition emerged slowly. The party leadership and the state clamped down on the radical internationalist wing that upheld the resolutions and politics of the International. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were those most obviously involved in that activity. Yet they and their supporters were marginal. The most significant movement of opposition came from those parliamentary deputies who, like Liebknecht, had expressed doubts in private, but had at the time of the August 4th voted to put the unity of the party first. They gradually consolidated themselves into a vociferous and well known opposition, exploiting their position in parliament to speak out against the territorial annexations as the war dragged on. They exposed the horrific reality of the war as it became more and more fully manifest. This activity gave rise eventually to the USPD, which crystallized around the leadership of people like Hugo Haase. Interestingly, this new grouping accused the SPD of having abandoned its 1891 Erfurt programme. But the opposition went beyond the parliamentary delegation and the politics of its leading members to include figures such as Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Right from the start, people moved to distance themselves from the official SPD position, which had effectively become one of open collusion with the Kaiser state. Overcoming this huge shock and defeat for the workers’ movement internationally, and rebuilding that movement anew, became for them the order of the day.

SL: So one faction of the SPD supported the war outright while the rest staked out different positions over the course of the war years? Give us a sense of the timeline and the trajectory of the far Left, and of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, in particular.

BL: The birth of the USPD was not the decision to split. It was rather a decision by the party leadership to expel 33 parliamentary deputies who, in 1916, voted against further war credits. After being thus expelled from parliament, they were kicked out of the party in early 1917. The sharp increase in opposition to the war began in Germany in 1917-1918, as, of course, the war effort faltered unmistakably.

The founding congress of the USPD took place against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Hugo Haase referred to it at that time as the “light from the east.” The whole of this process, from 1917 through to Halle in October of 1920, must be seen as deriving from the impulse given by the Russian Revolution. The great events in Russia and the transformation of the Eastern front hammered home and exacerbated contradictions already latent within the German workers’ movement.

SL: Originally, the war had been sold to the German workers as a war against Russian barbarism, correct?

BL: Exactly! There is a quote from Kautsky, in which he says, “nowhere is the cause of socialism so advanced as in the land of the illiterates,” meaning Russia. When people in Germany began to recognize the truth of this, made manifest in the Russian Revolution, it had enormous ramifications. There was a burgeoning opposition to the war and, of course, at the same time conditions in Germany were deteriorating rapidly. Increasingly, the popularity of Soviets and the idea that we need to form worker’s councils grew. More and more, advanced workers wanted to “do what the Russians did.” That led to further strains on the USPD. People like Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein had joined only with the greatest of reluctance, expecting the project to fail because of the involvement of Spartacus Group, the “ultra Leftists” Luxemburg and Liebknecht. They went along with it to secure peace, with the idea that they would deal with the ultra Left later.

The most principled opposition, the Spartacus Group, was also the most marginal. Their struggle was a principled attempt to turn the imperialist war into civil war, i.e., to convert the war into an opportunity for the working class to seize power. In the run up to the fall of the Kaiser and the defeat of Germany, such questions had been posed. It was no longer just a question of solidarity with Russia, but of what to do given the collapse of the state. Given the confusion that still prevails in some quarters on this, it is worth once again stressing that the Spartacist approach was rooted in official policy of the Second International. For example, following an amendment by Luxemburg and Lenin, the 1907 Stuttgart International Congress had pledged to “utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.”

SL: The SPD under the pre-war theoretical leadership of Karl Kautsky upheld the unity of working class forces. Their watchword was one class, one party. As you have stressed, in the pre-war years this party was quite impressive in its press, its instructional and recreational institutions, its electoral capacity, and its organizational strength generally. Yet, after the war we see the SPD splintering in multiple directions. And from the Communist perspective the purpose of the Halle conference was to affect the split of the USPD. So, let’s address the question of unity and splitting. What were some of the problems with unity going into the war? How did the SPD turn out to be something very different from what some had imagined it to be? How did a belated—or premature, depending on how you look at it—splinter lead to the isolation of the Spartacists and the defeat of the 1919 uprising, events that form the immediate background to the Halle Congress?

BL: The Halle Congress is about splitting, but it is equally about unity. It revolves around the rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of advanced German workers into a single organization. Still, the question is pertinent. At the time they did have to confront the issue of what was the SPD and how did it operate?

There are a number of reasons why the Spartacus opposition was marginal. Some of these relate to what I said about what the nature of the opposition to the war. Writing in Die Kommunistische Internationale, Karl Radek made the point that many workers were reluctant to oppose the war by way mass demonstrations and strikes because of the way that the state, given the politics of “civil peace,” dealt with the most radical demonstrations, i.e., those who disrupted peace at home were conscripted. Opposing the war was risky. The USPD bore the scars of this, which is why it took mainly a parliamentary form.

Before the war, Luxemburg, of course, was known as a radical, but she lacked a unique voice and public faction in the party.The Kautsky center, by contrast, had a lot of the press and commanded significant, visible support. This becomes particularly salient after the 1910 breach between Kautsky and Luxemburg. Kautsky’s tendency—with all its problems, particularly on the question of the state and the refusal to openly struggle against the trade union bureaucracy—became dominant.

The relative marginalization of the Spartacus Group also led it into some dubious tactical and strategic judgements. For example, the decision to split from the USPD to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in December 1918 was premised on the idea that if they stayed in the same organization with those who had just taken part in the provisional government that had cracked down on popular demonstrations, this would constitute “disloyalty” to the revolution. So, the Spartacus Group and KPD were isolated in 1918-19. The USPD, by contrast, had by 1920 grown into a real force. At one point it attracted 200,000 new members within a single three month period. And this growth was at the SPD’s expense. Because the KPD wanted to split, they were isolated. So, on the question of splitting and unity, it was a tactical consideration in terms of timing and on what basis. As the insightful German Communist leader, Paul Levi, made clear at the Second Congress of the Third International, there was a sense in which the KPD was both too late and also too early. Certainly, they had had little impact on the ranks of the USPD and the worker’s movement more generally. Only with Halle in 1920 is there a real mass split towards Communist party-ism.


A cartoon commenting on the Halle Congress, "Whether you look to the right or left, you see an Independent cleft."

SL: The post-war German government was formed by the rightists of the SPD, the representatives of the trade union bureaucracy. Eventually they helped to put down the revolution. Explain how the crisis of the Left in this period eventually resulted in this situation whereby one fraction of the working class engaged in open civil war against another.

BL: It is difficult to get our heads around exactly what happened. Certainly, the SPD came into power and crushed the revolution both at home and abroad. And, given the organization they come from, this is difficult to fathom. The problem comes (and this is clearly evident in 1914) when the majority of a Marxist political organization commits both programmatically and strategically to the preservation of the imperial state and the existing constitution.

To understand the dynamics that led to this, we have to remember that, at least initially, the SPD-USPD provisional government was able to bring about real reforms in the post-Kaiser state. They had brought peace, of a sort. There was an eight-hour day, suffrage was extended to women and anyone over 20, etc. There was a “republic,” although certainly not the kind of republic envisioned by Marxist republicanism, even by the Kautsky of 1905 in his 1905 classic Republic and Social Democracy in France![1] These reforms may appear insignificant to us, but they were extremely important in the context of post-war dissolution and decay. So it was not simply that the new regime were murderous bastards, though, of course, they were that. But they were murderous bastards who brought about real reforms and counterpose their gradualist “sensible” approach to that of “Bolshevik putschism” and the risk of German living standards declining to those of the young Soviet state.

The 1918 provisional government essentially reflected the SPD’s understanding of socialism. This “socialism” was envisioned as arriving within the framework of the old constitutional order. It was based on the old pillars of the state bureaucracy and the military high command. So, for example, even though they formed a new “socialist” government, none of the commissars actually held ministerial posts. Most of the old ministries continued under the old appointees. One of the more ridiculous examples of this is when, the SPD sent the once great Marxist theoretician, Karl Kautsky, to watch over the affairs of the German Foreign Ministry, which was led by hated reactionary Wilhelm Solf. At the time, the Ministry was not only positioning troops to hold back the revolution at home, but also keeping troops in Eastern Europe where they did deals with the entente to hold back the Russian Revolution. Kautsky was, of course, meant to supervise (and, presumably, reverse) this. But, instead, Solf packed him off to the Ministry’s archives to investigate the causes of World War I! This, of course, was worthwhile in its way, and Kautsky wrote interesting things on the subject. But it exemplifies how the core pillars of the state apparatus remained intact. They were not, as Marx and Engels spoke of, smashed, but were allowed to continue.

The SPD understood itself as a caretaker government, gaining some concessions for the working class until such time as “order” was restored. In this period, a number of deals were signed between leading German industrialists and the trade unions. Politically, the SPD held the view that socialism could be introduced through the existing constitution. This is quite clearly nonsense, but anyone who challenged this view was subject to repression, as with the attack of General Lequis on the People’s Naval Division in Berlin in December of 1918. (Lequis was infamous for his implementation of Germany imperialist policy in South-West Africa, not least the suppression of the Herero uprising of 1904.)

Watson Ladd: The debate over the possibility of introducing socialism through the existing order goes back to the revisionist dispute in which Kautsky and Luxemburg together sided against Bernstein. How, in the decade or so after the revisionist debate, did the shift occur whereby many in the SPD, who had considered themselves followers of the “revolutionary” Kautsky, came to adopt the very position they once opposed?

BL: It is difficult to locate. Because so many have dismissed the writings of Kautsky not only after his renegacy, but also from the earlier period when, as Lenin remarked, Kautsky “wrote as a Marxist”; our understanding of this pivotal figure remains inadequate. We have to trace the development of Kautsky’s understanding of working class rule. If you go back to the polemics he and Luxemburg led against the revisionists, they both followed Marx and Engels in arguing that you could not just take over the existing state structure, but that these had to be smashed and subordinated to the will of the masses, and that a state must be made along the lines of the Paris Commune.[2] I have mentioned Kautsky’s 1905 Republic and Social Democracy in France, which is excellent. Still, it mainly focuses on the negative critique of French millenarianism and the illusions it bred in the bourgeois Third Republic.

My CPGB comrade Mike Macnair has convincingly argued that Kautsky’s conception of working class rule had always been problematic, even when his texts were the gold standard of international Social Democracy.[3] Macnair argues that Kautsky held the existence of a state bureaucracy and the bourgeois “rule of law” to be necessary in any modern state, whether bourgeois or proletarian. But the main problem with Kautsky stems from his commitment to the unity at all costs of the party with the trade union bureaucracy.[4]

This said, there are discontinuities between Kautsky the orthodox revolutionary Marxist and Kautsky the renegade. It is thus interesting to compare a text like Republic and Social Democracy in France with his later texts like Guidelines for a Socialist Action Program, which he penned in January 1919, just days before Luxemburg was murdered.[5]

After 1914, Kautsky plays quite a rascally game, if you will, with many of the concepts he once defended, such as the democratic republic. He applies them dishonestly, gutting them of the revolutionary content they had in Marx, Engels, and his own earlier writings. In 1918-19 he uses the concept of the democratic republic to justify the SPD/USPD government. At this time, he is a member of the USPD, though looking for some sort of rapprochement with the SPD. This, perhaps, helps to explain his agenda, to some extent. But tracing exactly where it came from is more problematic. It’s something I have committed myself to studying for at least a couple more years. Certainly, the Kautsky of 1919 is a watery image of the Kautsky of 1904-05.

SL: The fundamental issue at Halle was affiliation to the Third International and fusion with the KPD. How did both the Bolshevik Revolution and the failed Spartacist uprising of 1918-19 bear upon the debate?

BL: In the aftermath of the Second Congress of the Third International, the USPD after the Halle Congress essentially placed itself in the tradition of mass, openly Communist parties that no longer called themselves social democratic. The party modeled itself on Russian Bolshevism and attempted to apply the lessons of the Russian Revolution to Germany. This struggle for Communist organization was a protracted one, and went far beyond the disputes at Halle. As Lenin and Paul Levi recognized, the way to form a mass organization was to unite the vanguard of the class. This meant taking seriously the existing organizations such as the trade unions in general (dominated by Social Democrats) and the USPD membership in particular.

There were splits to the left in the young KPD, composed of people who did not want anything to do with the USPD rank and file. They thought the USPD was radically compromised after the experience of the SPD/USPD government, for example. There were also splits to the right. It wasn’t just Kautsky who was looking for rapprochement with the SPD. In February 1919 Bernstein established a center for socialist unification, which lasted for about a month. He also tried for a time to hold dual membership in the SPD and USPD. When that didn’t work out, he rejoined the SPD. So, the whole period between the opening of the German Revolution and the unity created in October 1920 is marked by the discussions that informed the original splits: What is the attitude towards war and towards the entente? Should we rebuild the Second International on a reformed basis? Do we split altogether to form a Third International?

It is worth noting the (understandable) mistrust that divided the USPD and the KPD. They had a fractious history and both sides were skeptical of each other. Nonetheless, following the formation of the Third International in March 1919, there emerged a growing, increasingly influential left wing in the USPD that looked to Moscow and thus came into increasing contact with the KPD leadership. The Russian Revolution itself was the impulse for unity, as it was in many other countries.


Title page of Lenin's 'Der „Radikalismus“ die Kinderkrankheit des Kommunismus', known in English as '"Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder,' 1920.

SL: You have referred to the Second Congress of the Third international. There, of course, Lenin’s Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was distributed to the delegates. Against the background of Lenin’s attempt to reorient the Left after the tumultuous years of 1917-19, what was the burden of Gregory Zinoviev’s intervention at Halle? What had he come to Germany to say?

BL: Halle is the first congress where the Third International’s “Twenty-One Conditions” are debated by a mass socialist organization in Europe. These were the conditions for admittance into the International. The reasoning behind them was that, unlike in the First Congress where there were only a handful of people (some who came at great cost), the Second Congress received support and interest from mass socialist parties worldwide. There were many requests for affiliation. Zinoviev was adamant that such organizations were not simply to be absorbed into Comintern as they were. This was the role of the conditions.

Of course, not engaging the USPD as a way of winning over to Comintern 800,000 workers, “badly led as they are,” would be the worst sort of posturing. “Under no circumstances … would this congress permit intellectual dishonesty, nor will it make the slightest concessions on principle,” Zinoviev remarked. Organizing in the same party with forces who wavered on the cardinal questions addressed in the Twenty-one Conditions would risk another collapse from within like in Germany or Hungary. Moreover, given the extremity of the situation, there was no time for patient political debate. Soviet Russia was suffering under blockade. Delegates at the Second Congress were following the course of the Soviet-Polish war on a map. Miklós Horthy’s troops ran wild in Hungary, massacring working class activists of all political affiliations. The Finnish counter-revolution had, with the complicity of the German SPD, butchered a substantial amount of the Finnish working class. The British government was funding anybody and everybody set on occupying Moscow and Petrograd. In such circumstances, centrist forces only paying lip service to the cause had to be broken with. Kautsky is called out. Zinoviev was saying, “You must break with these people. Given the tasks we face, we cannot be in the same organization with them. We need clarity.” The Twenty-one Conditions were not some kind of communist baptism. Zinoviev understood that it was possible to accept 5,000 conditions and still remain a Kautskyite!

Zinoviev and the Comintern represented a clear commitment to continuing the revolution across Europe. When he arrived at Halle in 1920, he was a highly respected Bolshevik leader. He was held up as a model in that sense, and rightly so. The USPD right got Julius Martov to speak for them. He was likewise extremely well known and nopolitical lightweight.

This is Zinoviev from his four hour speech:

Menshevism or reformism is an international phenomenon. You see it in Russia, Germany, France, Italy, in America, everywhere. Comrades, it was said here, “Well, would it not be better to join together in one front against the bourgeoisie?” Certainly that would be very good and desirable. Yet unfortunately that is still impossible. The situation is the following: The working class is already strong enough that, if we are tightly united and openly fight for communism, we can bring the bourgeoisie to its knees. If the workers are still slaves, then this is because we have still not stripped off the legacy of rotten ideology from our ranks. When the working class becomes intellectually emancipated, then there is no force in the world which would dare to fight against it. (119)

The point Zinoviev is making is for the broad unity of the working class, but only on the basis of a shared commitment to the working class taking power. That was the role of the Twenty-one Conditions that Zinoviev defended in Halle. He illustrates the point saying, “If you have an army of 800 people, 200 of whom are useless and lazy, it’s better to have a disciplined army of only 600.” Perhaps this is problematic in the context of today’s left, but, certainly, it made sense at the time.

SL: What came out of the Halle Congress? To what extent did Zinoviev, the Bolsheviks, and their comrades in Germany, achieve what they set out to do?

BL: The work that Zinoviev and the left USPD put in paid off. Zinoviev does express some reservation at the end of his speech. He says that a split has been achieved, that a rapprochement of hundreds of thousands of workers has been realized within a United Communist Party (VKPD), but there is still a long way to go to win the majority of the working class.

If we want to talk of ghosts that haunt the German workers’ movement, right from 1918 onwards, it is that fundamental lesson: Revolution can only be made on the basis of a conscious majority. Despite the wonderful achievement of Halle, with some 375,000-400,000 people united around the VKPD, following the “March Action” of 1921, the party was almost in ruins. The action was an application of Comintern’s new “theory of the offensive” developed by, among others, Béla Kun and Zinoviev himself. The KPD called a general strike and, following a small local uprising led by the anarchist-influenced Max Hölz, called on the whole of the German working class to arm itself in support of this uprising. They misjudged the mood of the masses and the uprising remained confined to a minority movement in a single part of Germany. When the masses failed to heed the call, the party even used artificial means to incite mass sentiment. When workers refused to strike in the Krupp works for example, unemployed workers sympathetic to the KPD were sent in to physically drive them out. Several hundred workers were killed in the ensuing repression and the KPD lost about half of its membership. Whatever good intentions and hopes lay behind the March Action, it was one of the main factors behind the marginalization of the Communists and the failure of the German working class movement more generally. Some of Zinoviev’s rhetoric at Halle about “going on the offensive” can certainly be seen as foreshadowing such actions.

There is a kind of paradox here. On the one hand, the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution, and the Third International brought together revolutionary forces into a single organization, instigating and cementing its unity. But given the overriding needs of the Russian Resolution to expand in the face of its enormous problems, an unnecessary attempt to seize power was pushed through. It was not challenged by the German leadership and this led to disaster. Zinoviev must bear some responsibility for this. The positive and enduring lesson to be drawn from Halle, what must be separated from the experience of March 1921 (because they are distinct), is the coming into being of a mass communist force as part of the revolutionary wave unleashed by the October Revolution.

SL: You make some provocative comments in the book concerning the current state of the study of history as well as the current state of intellectualism, more broadly. Why is it important for us on the Left to be concerned with our history? Why can’t we simply let the dead bury the dead? Why can’t we just set aside these endless and inevitably controversial discussions about the past? Why is the Left driven back to a reconsideration of its past over and over again? What role does research play?

BL: One thing Bertell Ollman said about the book, is that while the subject may seem esoteric, the arguments on both sides have proved relevant to every debate on the Left since. Of course, many of the problems discussed at Halle had already been discussed before, under different conditions.

We do have a very rich tradition, not just in terms of the workers’ movement, but in history more generally, which we can draw upon, learn from, and, hopefully, build on. It is a cliché, but nevertheless true that those who do not study the errors of history are condemned to repeat them. That is the first thing to be said.

Marxism’s strength is that it is profoundly historical. It does not allow itself to be exhausted by the existing parameters of society. But, for Marxism, the content and dynamics of history are both susceptible to human knowledge and subject to human practice. As such Marxism attempts to locate our position within human history more generally. So hindsight is extremely important. But—that said—history, for all its treasures and riches, is also open to manifold interpretation. This is a real problem. I think some of the ways in which the Left understands its own history at the moment, given the defeats it has been through, is quite problematic.

To this day Marxist historical research is tainted by Stalinism and what I call the “Cold Warrior consensus.” There was a certain overlap between historians funded by the Kremlin and those funded by the Hoover Institute. This is seen rather clearly in the recent Lenin debate.[6] It is no exaggeration to say that my friend and co-author Lars T.Lih is breaking up the terms of this consensus.

One of the problems we have is that so many documents, records, and articles remain either untranslated, or have been subjected to Soviet doctoring. So while we can all read Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, and Stalin in English, we often cannot read who they are arguing against and why. We do not get the whole picture.

The result, fully in line with the “cult of Lenin,” is one that sees Bolshevism as the product of “big men” who concoct and deliver the revolutionary message from on high. But this obscures Bolshevism as a mass political phenomenon that trained inspiring leaders because it has an inspiring project and a robust, healthy democratic culture. Read, for example, the recent Historical Materialism anthology on permanent revolution to see just what made those like Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc., “great”—the high level of debate and polemic that unfolded in the International.[7]

That is the importance of publishing Martov alongside Zinoviev. We want to let the arguments speak for themselves. For me, simply saying “I’m with Lenin against Kautsky” or “I’m with Luxemburg against whomever,” is insufficient historically. It does not allow us to appropriate the riches of history. In many ways it is a trap.

SL: In some ways, it is history that divides the Left more than anything else. The landscape of current groups and sectarian organizations is the product of an endlessly contentious history. At one point in your introduction, you say that you hope the book will “stimulate discussion in reviews and left meetings, on internet forums, etc.” (32). Can you talk about the kinds of discussions that need to take place on the Left today? Can you reflect on working through the history of the Left today and the relationship of research to that problem?

BL: There are now several reviews of the book available to read,[8] and several more are planned. That is excellent, and at some point I hope to write a response to some of the points that have been raised.

On history, I agree that it is divisive. History should not unite the Left. This is where we reach the limits of history. Unfortunately, a lot of Left groups today are not based primarily on any agreement about today, but on certain historical positions, such as the nature of the Soviet Union, the continuing relevance of Trotsky’s Transitional Program, etc. These to me are dead ends in terms of political unity. Nonetheless, history can inform and enrich our understanding of the world today. That is what its role must be.

Political unity must be based on political ideas and a political program for the here and now. That does not mean that we forget and ignore or even downplay real historical divisions and different interpretations of key events. We live in history, and to move forward we have to look back.

The Left is divided because it is based on a very narrow view of all the bad things of the Third International, like the banning of factions, as opposed to the good lessons to be drawn, like the need for open discussion, the need for democracy, the need for ideas to unite around. At Halle, Zinoviev spoke for four and a half hours, Rudolf Hilferding for three, and Martov for an least an hour. The unity achieved was not just thrown together. It was the product of rigorous discussion and polemics around the fundamentals of Marxist political strategy. |P

Transcribed by Pac Pobric

[1]. I have translated the first three parts of this seven part series. The whole series will soon be published in a book. The three parts can be accessed online at: <>; <> and <>

[2]. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “1872 Preface to the Communist Manifesto,” available at <>

[3]. Mike Macnair, “Representation, not Referendums,” available online at: <>

[4]. For an excellent discussion of the tension between the unions and the SPD, see Daniel F. Gaido, “Archive Marxism and the Union Bureaucracy,” Historical Materialism 16.3: 115-136. It is also worth noting that the understanding of the democratic republic as the “form of the dictatorship of the proletariat” did not actually find expression in the party’s Erfurt programme. This was the main point raised in Friedrich Engels’s 1891 “Critique of the Erfurt Programme.”

[5]. My translation and introduction to this text can be read at <> and <> respectively.

[6]. A collection of links in the recent debate on Phan Binh’s critique of Tony Cliff on Lenin, can be found here: <>. An expanded version of a talk delivered by Ben Lewis on this debate is available at: <>. A transcript of the complete discussion of this debate in which Lewis participated at the 2012 Platypus International Convention is forthcoming in the Platypus Review.

[7]. Daniel F.Gaido and Richard B. Day, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

[8]. E.Haberkern, Solidarity, <>; Socialist Standard  <>; and Francis King, Twentieth Century Communism, <>.