Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
Walter Benjamin occupies a unique place in the history of modern revolutionary thought: he is the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. His thinking has therefore a distinct critical quality, which sets him apart from the dominant and “official” forms of historical materialism, and gives him a formidable methodological superiority.
This peculiarity has to do with his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of civilization and from the Jewish messianic tradition. Both elements are present in his early writings, particularly in “The Life of the Students” (1915), where he already rejects “a conception of history, whose confidence in the infinity of time only distinguishes the speed by which men and epochs roll, quicker or slower, along the track of progress”—a conception characterized by the “inconsistency, the lack of precision and force of the demands it addresses at the present”—opposing it to utopian images such as the messianic Kingdom or the French Revolution.
Benjamin’s first reference to Communism appears in 1921, in his “Critique of Violence,” where he celebrates the “devastating and on the whole justified” critique of the Parliament by the Bolsheviks and the Anarcho-syndicalists. This link between Communism and Anarchism will be an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism will to a large extent take a libertarian colour.
But it is only after 1924, when he reads Lukács’s “History and Class Consciousness” (1923), and discovers practical Communism through the beautiful eyes of Asja Lacis—a Soviet artist and political activist he met in Capri—that Marxism will become a key component of his world-view. In 1929 Benjamin still refers to Lukacs’s opus as one of the few books which remain lively and topical: “the most achieved philosophical work of the Marxist literature. Its uniqueness lies in the assurance with which it grasps in the critical situation of philosophy the critical situation of class struggle, and in the coming concrete revolution the absolute presupposition, and even the absolute implementation and the last word of theoretical knowledge. The polemic against it by the hierarchy of the Communist Party under the leadership of Deborin confirms, in its way, the scope of the book.” This commentary illustrates Benjamin’s independence of mind towards the official doctrine of Soviet Marxism—in spite of his sympathies for the USSR.
The first work where the influence of Marxism can be felt is One-way Street, written from 1923 until 1925, published in 1928. Benjamin’s former neo-romantic criticism of progress is now charged with a revolutionary Marxist tension: “if the abolition of the bourgeoisie is not completed before an almost calculable moment in economic and technical development (a moment signaled by inflation and poison-gas warfare) all is lost. Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut”. Will the proletariat be able to fulfill this historical task? The survival or destruction of “three thousand years of cultural development” depends on the answer. In opposition to the vulgar evolutionist brand of Marxism, Benjamin does not conceive the proletarian revolution as the natural or inevitable result of economic and technical progress, but as the critical interruption of an evolution leading to catastrophe.
This critical standpoint explains why his Marxism has a peculiarly pessimistic spirit—a revolutionary pessimism which has nothing to do with resigned fatalism. In his article on Surrealism from 1929—where he again tries to reconcile Anarchism and Marxism—he defines Communism as the organization of pessimism, adding ironically: “unlimited confidence only in the IG Farben and the peaceful perfectioning of the Luftwaffe.” Both institutions were soon (but after his death) to show, beyond his most pessimistic forecasts, the sinister usage which could be made of modern technology.
In 1933, as Adolf Hitler seized power, like many other Jews and antifascists, Benjamin had to leave Germany. Exiled in Paris, he survived precariously with a small stipendium from the Institute of Social Research in New York, where the Frankfurt School was exiled. During those years he worked on his unfinished project on the Parisian Arcades, while producing some remarkable Marxist essays on Baudelaire and on the “Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction” (1935).
Benjamin’s Marxism was a new and original re-interpretation of historical materialism (nourished by Romantic culture and Jewish theology) radically different from the orthodoxy of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. It should be considered as an attempt to deepen and radicalize the opposition between Marxism and bourgeois ideology, to heighten its revolutionary potential and to sharpen its critical content. This was also the aim of the Arcades project (Passagenwerk): “One can perceive as one of the methodological aims of this work to demonstrate the possibility of a historical materialism, that has annihilated in itself the idea of progress. Here is precisely where historical materialism has to dissociate itself from the bourgeois habits of thought.” Such a program did not aim at some sort of "revision" but rather, as Korsch tried to do in his own book (Karl Marx , one of Benjamin’s major sources) a return to Marx himself.
In 1939, as the war began, Benjamin was interned as an “enemy alien” by the French government. He managed to escape the internment camp, but after the German victory and occupation of France in 1940, he had to leave Paris for Marseille. In these dramatic circumstances, he wrote his last piece, the Theses on the concept of history, perhaps the most important document in revolutionary theory since Marx’s celebrated “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845).
In these few but extraordinarily dense pages, the ideology of progress—also inside the Communist movement—is criticized in its philosophical foundations, the linear and empty time, with the help of a “theological” Messianic conception of time.
A few decades after Benjamin’s death, the idea of a theology at the service of the poor in the struggle for their self-liberation, a theology intimately linked with Marxism, comes to life again, but this time in a very different cultural and historical context: the liberationist Christianity of Latin America. But there is a secret affinity between Walter Benjamin and liberation theology…
In August 1940 Benjamin tried, with a group of German antifascist refugees, to cross the French border at the Pyrenées Mountains; they were arrested by the (Franco) Spanish police, taken to the village of Port-Bou, and told they would be delivered to the French and/or German police. Benjamin preferred to commit suicide. It was his last act of protest. |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
From their canonization in the 1960s through their appropriation by postmodernism in the 1980s, the writings of the Frankfurt School have had their Marxian dimension minimized, vulgarized and ultimately ignored. Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, the only names of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory’s roster that seem to be remembered today, have instead become characterized as anything from old-timey liberals to mystical eclectics; from Left Hegelian hippies to ivory tower elitists. According to this, the standard narrative, these thinkers abandoned Marxism in the 1940s, when the continued atrocities and political unviability of the Soviet Union turned them into Cold War liberals of varied stripes.
Such narratives, which tend to claim that the deepest insights of these thinkers were accomplished in spite of their Marxism or even in the process of overcoming it, are plain wrong. From the beginning of Horkheimer’s directorship of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory in 1930 through to Adorno’s death in 1969, the goal of the Frankfurt school was to maintain the critical purchase of a Marxian social critique as it was threatened by the accelerated process of decay that the Left began in the 1920s. A look at the Institute’s early history allows us to see how the necessity of this approach came to be. In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute—half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman and Karl August Wittfogel, were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction. They understood their task as an advancement of the sciences that would prove useful in solving the problems of a Europe-wide transition into socialism, which they saw, if not as inevitable, at least as highly likely. But as fascism reared its head in Germany and throughout Europe, the younger members of the Institute saw the necessity for a different kind of Marxist Scholarship. Beyond accumulating knowledge relevant to an orthodox Marxist line, they felt the need to take the more critical and negative approach that is required for the maintenance of an integral and penetrating understanding of society during a moment of reaction. This could be described as the politically necessary transition from Marxist positive science to Critical Theory.
After the German worker’s revolution of 1918–19 had been betrayed and crushed by the Social Democrats (SPD), the early 1920s saw a period of relative stability slowly settle upon Germany. Despite the fact that further attempts by the German Communist Party (KPD) to challenge the SPD’s rule were weak and ineffective, the possibility of Europe-wide socialist revolution continued to be a topic of conversation among Leftist intelligentsia in postwar Germany. This sense of possibility seemed justified: the Soviet Union had succeeded in surviving its civil war and from a distance seemed to be on a path to successful stabilization; the KPD’s membership continued to grow in the permissive atmosphere of the Weimar Republic; and, with the exception of Italy, Fascism did not yet appear to be an immediate threat. In spite of their deep conservatism, the Social Democrats continued to hold up Marxism as their ideology, legitimizing it and thus making it into an open, officially sanctioned field of discussion.
It was in this environment that Felix Weil, a young graduate of the Frankfurt University who, at age 20, had fought with the workers during the revolution of 1919, began to use his great inherited wealth to finance initiatives for Marxist theoretical discussion. Having written his dissertation on ‘the essence and methods of socialization’, financially supported Left wing artists such as George Grosz and taken part in the social circle around KPD members Klara Zetkin and Paul Frolich, his joking self description as a “Salon Bolshevik” was not far from the truth. One of the initiatives he financially supported was the “First Marxist Workweek,” a retreat at a hotel on the edge of the Thuringian Forest in which more than two dozen Marxist intellectuals, most of them affiliated with the KPD, gathered to discuss the latest works by Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács, respectively “Marxism and Philosophy,” and the seminal “History and Class Consciousness.” Among the attendants were Korsch and Lukács themselves, Horkheimer, Zetkin, and economist Friedrich Pollock. As it turned out, thanks to Weil’s efforts, this gathering could retrospectively be seen as the first “seminar” of what would become the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory, since throughout the next decade most of its participants would become affiliated with the Institute in some function or another.
After the “Workweek” the time seemed appropriate to go forward with Weil’s project for “an institutionalization of Marxist discussion beyond the confines of middle class academia or the narrow mindedness of the communist party.” After successfully convincing the ministry of culture of the necessity of an institute for the study of sociology connected to the University of Frankfurt but independent from it, Weil’s first instinct was to appoint the director position to either Lukács or Korsch. But this proved impossible. The largely conservative professorship and administration of the University of Frankfurt—already up in arms about the study of sociology, which was to them “mere socialism”—would have strongly opposed the admittance of such politically active communists as faculty. Under these considerations, Weil was obliged to offer the directorship to Karl Grünberg, a senior Marxist economist from the University of Vienna. Grünberg had been affiliated with Austrian Social Democracy for more than a decade and had once made plans to create a social research institute with the notorious SPD theoretician Karl Kautsky at its head. At the end of 1923, once Grünberg was chosen as the director, construction of the Institute’s building on the Frankfurt University campus began.
Grünberg’s address at the inauguration of the Institute paints an optimistic picture of a world already in an inevitable transition to a freer society:
“There are pessimists who stand horrified and amazed in the midst of the ruins which the process of change brings with it…They see the ruins not just as the ruins of their own world, but of the world as such. . . . in contrast with the pessimists there are the optimists…Supported by historical experience, they see, instead of a decaying form of culture, another, more highly developed one approaching. . . . [These] people, whose numbers and influence are constantly growing, do not merely believe, wish and hope, but are firmly scientifically convinced that the emerging order will be a socialist one, that we are in the midst of the transition from capitalism to socialism and are advancing towards the latter with gathering speed.”
Grünberg’s Marxism stemmed from precisely this worldview. For him, the transition to socialism was only a matter of time and “scientific” certainty:
“It is found that the driving pressure of the material interests which are systematically at work in economic life, and their collision one with another, produce a regular progression from lesser to greater perfection. And just as, from the point of view of the materialist conception of history every single expression of the life of society is a reflection of the current form of economic life, so equally, all history—except in primitive conditions—appears to be a series of class struggles.”
This kind of mechanistic view of history would be precisely the kind of Marxism that later members of the Frankfurt Institute such as Adorno, Benjamin and Marcuse would turn their backs on. For them, as well as for earlier Hegelian Marxists such as Lukács and Korsch, Dialectical Materialism was not the science that predicted the automatic transformation of society. It was instead a kind of critical consciousness that emanated from within the contradictory character of society that pointed to the possibility of overcoming those very contradictions. But to see Grünberg’s traditional, mechanistic Marxism as mere wrong-headedness or as a quaint artifact of the times would be to not do it justice historically. The political situation at the time seemed to indicate that a transformation of the social order was coming. It was not necessary to be affiliated to a particular party to see the recent European revolutions and the formation of the Communist Third International as the harbingers of a new era of an all out battle between capitalism and socialism—a battle out of which socialism might very well emerge victorious. In this historical period, before the series of defeats the Left suffered throughout the majority of the 20th century, to think that the simply “more advanced” character of one social system would automatically replace the current, crisis ridden one might not have been as obviously over-optimistic as it appears today.
This worldview was the reason the research of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research during these years included little reference to the quintessential recurring themes of the Frankfurt School as we remember it today: aesthetic theory, German idealism, and Freudian psychoanalysis. This set of theoretical tools would have seemed, from the perspective of Grünberg’s “optimism,” irrelevant: his mechanistic Marxism, affirmed by history’s concurrent unfolding, would have taken them as tools of bourgeois enlightenment made obsolete by Marxist theory, which needed only to be put in practice to render this kind of enlightenment wholly obsolete. This was an attitude that, at this point, only the Hegelian Marxists Lukács and Korsch had explicitly warned against. Quoting Marx’s dictum, “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized,” Korsch had criticized theoreticians of the Second International for their assumption that “scientific Marxism” had effectively superseded philosophy—a criticism that could have very well been applied to Grünberg.
It was in the spirit of this “optimistic” traditional, mechanistic Marxism that the Institute began to output its large amount of research. A look at the titles of some of these projects shows a picture of the extent to which the Institute understood its task as the collection of empirical research within the framework of revolutionary politics: The Law of Accumulation and Collapse of the Capitalist System by Henryk Grossman; Experiments in the Planned Economy in the Soviet Union, 1917–1927 by Friedrich Pollock; The Economy and Society of China by Karl Wittfogel; The Theory of the Capitalist Agrarian Crisis: a Contribution to the Explanation of Structural Changes in American Agriculture by Julian Gumperz.
By the late 20s, with such research underway, the Institute was in fact shaping up to become what Weil had wanted it to be from the very beginning: a “foundation similar to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow—equipped with a staff of professors and students, with libraries and archives”—an institute which would be worthy of one day being “presented to a [soon to come] German Social republic.” On the one hand, the Institute’s endowment was large enough and on the other, its curriculum independent enough from the conservative Frankfurt University, that it could give ample and exclusive sponsorship to young Marxist graduate students, from mainstream Communist Party members to Trotskyists. Its facilities housed a library of more than 37,000 volumes and an archive of historical documents on the German labor movement and the Revolution of 1918–19, a collection whose focus and scope were one of a kind. Weil and Grünberg had created an institution that saw its present academic role as only a preparation for its real role: the center for the social sciences in a post-revolutionary Germany.
But the revolution never came. In fact, the political situation was taking a sharp turn to the Right. From 1926 on, it became a common practice of hostile conservative forces within the university and the government to dig up the communist past of Institute affiliates, such as Weil and Grossman, as a way to rile up dissent against them. This was made easier when in 1930, the Weimar administration, in its last struggle to maintain stability in a country that had become politically polarized into Communist and Nazi camps, made it illegal for people on the governments payroll to belong to either of these parties. Finally, in the same year’s election the Nazi party won a majority in parliament. Left wing students of the Frankfurt University, including some graduate students affiliated with the Institute, had to organize security contingents after Nazi youth began demonstrating at the university gates. Such defensive tactics could offer only temporary protection. The election of Hitler as chancellor was only two years away.
In 1930, two years after a stroke left Grünberg unable to continue his work at the helm of the Institute, Horkheimer replaced him as director. He shared none of his predecessors “scientific” optimism. In view of the threat that the rising tide of Nazism presented to an academic institution run by Jewish Marxists, Horkheimer transferred the Institute’s finances to Switzerland and set the stage for flight. Horkheimer’s inaugral speech was very different from the one Grünberg gave only seven years before. He spoke, not of an unstoppable thrust towards socialism, but instead referred to the necessity for a backward glance, an accounting for the failure of the emancipation that had only a few years ago seemed just around the corner. He did this by proposing a look at the roots of Marxian Critical Theory, the enlightenment philosophies of Kant and Hegel, together with an approach to empirical sociology informed by Freudian psychoanalysis and focused on mass psychology. For Horkheimer the traditional Marxist economics of Grünberg, Grossman and Wittfogel were no longer able to explain the shape the world was beginning to take.
The regression in political consciousness that had taken place, since the failure of the German revolution of 1918, culminated in the popularity and electoral success of the Nazi party. Horkheimer’s pessimism, shared by younger members of the Institute such as Marcuse and Adorno, was a recognition of this fact. To some critics, the pessimistic turn towards theory that the Frankfurt School took in the 1930s represents a cowardly abandonment of revolutionary orthodoxy towards a safe liberalism; to most of its advocates as the fortunate correcting of the more “dogmatic” aspects of orthodoxy. And yet, seen in this historical context, it was neither. It was instead the result of an immeasurable political failure. Kant, Hegel, Durkheim, Freud—the enlightenment the Frankfurt School’s brand of Marxism revisited, having once seemed a fait accompli to be safely filed away as a past victory, was now in danger of being negated, forgotten, neutralized. If Grünberg’s brand of orthodoxy once dictated the obsolescence of this kind of enlightenment, the political events of 1933 had been such a giant step backwards that it was now forward thinking orthodoxy that had become unable to grasp the present. This is what Adorno meant when he began his own retrospective summation, “Negative Dialectics” in 1966, with a melancholy inversion of Marx’s dictum: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
The Platypus Affiliated Society in Chicago, in coordination with several chapters of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Chicago (at the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbia College, Chicago) organized a public forum on “40 years of 1968: the problematic drama of the past in the present,” scheduled for the evening of Thursday, May 8 downtown at the School of the Art Institute. Invited panelists included Bill Ayers and Mike Klonsky, of the historic SDS and its Revolutionary Youth Movement, and currently active in the Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS). But these two panelists withdrew and the forum was canceled, as we will explain.
The motivation for the forum was the need to work through the very mixed and confusing legacy of the 1960s New Left. For instance, the new SDS, founded in 2006, has found it difficult to discern whether it takes its inspiration from the historic SDS in its early instantiation in the optimism of participation in the Civil Rights Movement, The Port Huron Statement, ERAP (the Economic Research and Action Project, funded by the United Auto Workers), or whether it is fated to pick up precisely where the preceding SDS left off, with the frustration at the on-going Vietnam War and manifest futility of anti-war protests, the Days of Rage, the insularism of division and break up, and transformation of a key faction of its leadership into the terrorist Weather Underground after 1968. 1968 seemed an important turning point. So a critical-retrospective appraisal of the trajectory of the 1960s by those who actually lived through it and still claimed its legacy seemed to be in order, and we looked forward to hearing what might be said.
The forum was prepared by a several-month long series of film screening-discussions hosted by SDS chapters and allies at various Chicago schools of Columbia Revolt 1968, Finally Got the News (1970, on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers/Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement), Brother Outsider: the Bayard Rustin Story (2003), The Weather Underground (2002), and Rebels with a Cause (2000, on the 1960s SDS), and readings and discussions of documents from the period collected in anthologies by Carl Oglesby (The New Left Reader, 1969), Massimo Teodori (The New Left, 1969) and Harold Jacobs (Weatherman, 1970), and contemporary histories by Irwin Unger (The Movement, 1974) and Kirkpatrick Sale (SDS, 1973).
But, at the last minute, several days before the forum, Mike Klonsky and Bill Ayers withdrew, causing the forum to be canceled: Klonsky made a noisy e-mail protest; Ayers gave a polite excuse. Ayers is a current subject of controversy for the Obama Presidential campaign for his participation in Weather Underground terrorism; in the 1970s Klonsky was the leader of the communist movement in the U.S. officially recognized by the People’s Republic of China.
The following is a response written by members of the Platypus Historians Group who helped prepare the forum. Appended below this response are the original forum description and questions for discussion circulated to the panelists.
Requiem for the ’60s
The youthful (then, pre-) Marxist German literary critic, historian and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote at age 21 in 1913, during the ennui of the terminal crisis of modern European civilization, but just before the advent of its apocalypse in 1914, that “experience” is an ambiguous concept, especially from the standpoint of youth. As an admonition in the mouths of one’s elders, “experience” means not merely a caution against the folly of youth, but the message that “it’s all been tried already—and failed,” which, to Benjamin’s rebellious mind, poorly conceals the conclusion that “life is meaningless.” Benjamin found this deference to past experience intolerable, and so should we.
The aggression of ancestors in frustration at their failures is found in their insistence that those who come after them live according to the supposed lessons of their experience. (For instance, we are supposed to learn that because they failed to overcome their own racism that we must accept as they did the late-1960s turn to Black Power separatist politics, and that, according to this enduring ‘60s-era sensibility, a critique of such politics must somehow mean opposition to black liberation.) But this then negates the very concept of “experience.” It seems to maintain the meaningfulness of the past, but only at the expense of the present and future. Actually, it allows for neither.
Benjamin wrote (after Baudelaire and Proust) that “what is passing takes on the character of an image.” But an image cannot be disputed by rational argument but only obliterated—even if only under the dust of ages. The 1960s New Left insists on retaining its image-character, which might however indeed reveal that the politics of this period and its legacy belong definitively to the past. The enduring image of the ‘60s is a challenge to the present, to not remain spellbound by its power but to chart our own—new—experience for the present and future. For those of us who have been born only after 1968, this becomes not only an imperative but a simple necessity, for us to live through our own struggles and not relive those of our predecessors, however we might learn from them.
The present apparent inability to treat the 1960s as history finds its expression in various forms in this year marking 40 years of 1968, not least in the symbolism of the U.S. Presidential campaigns: McCain’s candidacy offers the possibility of continuing the seemingly never-ending battle against the Nixon administration, Clinton offers the continued wisdom of post-’60s political cynicism with nostalgia for the 1990s when the 1960s generation found prosperous maturity, and Obama is regarded uncomfortably with both hope and fear as the “inexperienced” “youthful” upstart who promises—symbolically—to put the ‘60s behind us, after two administrations of Boomers. But is it yet too early, or already too late for this requiem for the 1960s? For young people today the experience of the ‘60s is not only past but history.
There are two questions that remain for further consideration: Whether there are present and future social-political possibilities not circumscribed by the history and further trajectory of the thoughts and actions of the 1960s New Left; and whether it is possible to critique and overcome this history of our inherited present.
The answer that the ‘60s generation would seem to want to give us to both questions is: No. But perhaps this is because they can’t abide that the real answer might be Yes.
The Platypus Affiliated Society and new Students for a Democratic Society present a public forum on:
40 years of 1968: The problematic drama of the past in the present
Karl Marx wrote in 1852 that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), and complained of the rehearsal of past historical dramas in the politics of his day. Marx cited Hegel that “great world-historic facts and personages appear twice,” but added “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
More than 150 years after Marx the traditions of the world-historic moment of 1968 prove a problematic legacy. What is to be learned, both positively and negatively, from the 1960s New Left? How has the “New” Left grown old? And can it be redeemed? In what ways must we reconsider and depart from this legacy in order to have an effective Left for today and the future? How can we avoid becoming trapped in the ruins of the political movements that have preceded us?
Join us for a panel discussion and audience Q&A, with distinguished veterans of the 1960s New Left, as we reflect critically upon the social and political necessities of the present and the obstacles to an adequate emancipatory imagination expressed in the inappropriate masks of the ‘60s we continue to wear in contemporary politics.—What would it mean today, more than a generation after the 1960s, to start in the 21st Century what Marx demanded of the 19th Century, to take our poetry from the future?
Bill Ayers, former SDS, Revolutionary Youth Movement, Weather Underground
Chris Cutrone, Platypus
Atiya Khan, Platypus
Mike Klonsky, former SDS, Revolutionary Youth Movement, October League
Prexy Nesbitt, former Columbia University Student, Afro-American Society during 1968 strike
(Moderator: James Vaughn, Platypus)
Questions for panelists:
For all of the following questions for which this is appropriate, please consider the question in two dimensions:
(1) What did you think then (i.e., in 1968); and (2) What do you think now?
1. What was the historical heritage of the preceding, “Old” Left (of the 1920s-30s)? Why was a “new” Left necessary in the 1960s? What inspired and informed this “new” Left?—What events, movements, thinkers?
2. Why did separatist politics (according to, e.g., race, gender, and sexuality, Black Power, feminism, gay liberation, etc.) become so salient by the late ‘60s? Why was it necessary, if so, to organize separately?—How did ideas of “self-determination” affect and inform politics in the 1960s?
Despite such separatism, how was the common “movement” understood? What, if anything, was the basis for the unity of the “movement?” (Why, do you think, did all these various diverse aspects of the move ment emerge at roughly the same time, by the late ‘60s?)
3. Why was the labor movement seen more as part of the problem rather than as part of any potential solutions to social and political problems in the 1960s? (For example, the 1960s Students for a Democratic Society broke up in 1969 over attempts to create a “worker-student alli- ance,” with those resisting this orientation striking off on the basis of the “revolutionary” character of “youth.”)
How, if in any ways, was the labor movement part of the problem? What about the role of labor today? Do we need a “worker-student alliance” today? If so, why not then, or did it turn out to have been necessary, after all?
4. How was the U.S. role in the war in Vietnam understood in relation to other social and political issues?
What were the differences between the early and late ‘ 60s movement, e.g., from the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-war movement? What impacts did this shift of focus have on the possibilities for progressive politics?
5. It is said that those of you participating in the 1960s movement(s) thought you could have changed the world. How was this change imagined? What kind of trans formation would have been involved? What was thought to have been necessary and possible? How and why, do you think, did your attempts to change the world fail? Or did they succeed? How do we now stand as regards such demand for change? What lessons can be learned from this demand and its success or failure?
How, in your estimation, has the world changed since the 1960s? How does your sense of such change inform your thinking now, both retrospectively about what happened then, and about the world as it stands and what might be necessary to change it today? |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
Persepolis is a film that does not take itself seriously enough. This is not a comment on the unadorned animation style. Nor am I referring to the narrative of the protagonist: a story of a girl raised in a left-wing milieu that succeeds in arousing quite a bit of empathy in the audience. It is the film’s treatment of depoliticization as a fait accompli and its persistent retreat to the safety of the personal that make it a fascinating symptom of politics today. Read politically, Persepolis is a trenchant, if unreflective, look into the fate of contemporary political life.
Co-directed by the creator of the graphic novel on which the film was based, Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is a wonderful combination of autobiography and political history. Marjane grows up in Iran and, as a young girl, seems to have the “heart of a radical.” At first an innocent supporter of the Shah, little Marjane changes her tune after a lecture by her parents, left-wing intellectuals both and supporters of socialist revolution. The film tarries in the excitement of the revolutionary moment for a good while and introduces us to Marjane’s grandmother, whose husband was a notorious communist, and her uncle, who had been jailed for 13 years under the Shah and released at this moment of change. The Iranian intellectuals are thrilled by a sense of the emancipatory possibilities of the Iranian Revolution, and as spectators we experience this excitement through the mind of the young girl, whose active imagination shapes the film stylistically.
As the revolution goes on, the film is forthright and quite affective in facing the intense sense of disappointment that arises among this group when the Revolution brings not emancipation, but perhaps worse enslavement. This is brought home in a number of ways: the constant atmosphere of fear created by bombs dropping from Iraq on one side and “morality police” on the other; the increased idiocy of the propagandistic school lessons Marjane receives; and the demand by the revolutionary authorities that women be veiled—an obligation so frustrating to the female protagonists of the film that whenever they can, they doff their headgear with satisfaction. Perhaps the most powerful is the final execution of Marjane’s uncle, a communist who held out hope for the ability of the people to seize control of their destinies until the very end.
What does one do after one has renounced “the future”? What happens when emancipation becomes impossible? One drifts alone through history; one faces the anomie and depoliticization that marks the rest of the film. Marjane begins listening to banned music such as punk rock in school and then travels to Vienna and joins a young nihilist crowd. She finds this all trifling (at one point she yells at the nihilists that her uncle actually died for something real). She goes in and out of several love affairs, but cannot be satisfied with running to Europe. So she returns to Iran—to face depression, a bad marriage, and a generally self-absorbed life. When Marjane sics a policeman on an innocent as a joke, her grandmother remonstrates her in the name of her ancestors. Yet at the close of the film the grandmother has died, silencing the last voice that may still have believed in that radical future beyond a half-hearted compromise with the rotten present.
The loss of the sense of possibility that occurs after the hopes of the Revolution have been dashed is felt deeply on all levels of the film. The story slackens; the episodes become more interchangeable. The heroine seems to find herself more and more “pushed” in given directions—as if the failure of a revolutionary moment had condemned those with the highest hope for it to a downward spiral of neurosis. One can read Persepolis as a coming-of-age tale, wherein Marjane learns to temper the “revolutionary” enthusiasm of childhood and the “nihilistic” selfishness of adolescence with the “quietly resigned” wisdom of adulthood. Yet this reading treats the politics of the film as mere background. The great interest of the film lies in how it can relate failed moments of political possibility and a certain kind of subjectivity—Marjane becomes horribly banalized by the end of political hope.
Now, I began this review with the claim that Persepolis does not take itself seriously enough. What Persepolis lacks is an awareness of how well it shows, by its changes in personal and aesthetic registers, the way in which Marjane’s possibilities as a person are denuded by the lost hope of political change. This may ultimately be due to the lack of any significant narration—the “present-day Marjane’s” reflections are too much bound up in this failure to offer us an outside-point on which we can stand and survey the destruction wrought on her person. It is too easy to see the film as no more than a touching story about growing up under oppression and about one person’s life and increasing acceptance of how much she can “actually” accomplish. The movie lends itself to sentimentalism because of the naïve reverence for Marjane and her family that its first-person perspective encourages.
Yet the film deserves to be read more symptomatically. Marjane concretizes the “post-political” malaise of the person who cannot come to terms with political failure and uses self-absorption as an escape-route from facing this failure. She is the perfect child of the 80s and 90s. Persepolis manages to effectively traverse a moment of political possibility and the sorrier and sorrier state of its subject before, during, and after that moment and its failure. The film offers the Left a mirror to itself and the sources of its own immobility—its inability to admit that it failed. It is up to us to critique what this mirror shows. |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
The contours of the present day Middle East have been shaped by a mid -20th century triptych of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The first panel in this triptych is the “Holocaust” (“Shoah” in Hebrew, “Khurbn” in Yiddish) the systematic murder of approximately two-thirds of European Jewry by the Nazis in 1941–1945. The second panel is the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the Zionists in 1947–1949, the “Nakba,” and the third panel which does not have a commonly accepted name is the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Mizrachi Jews from Arab countries, most of whom ended up in Israel where they strengthened the Zionist state in crucial ways even though frequently they encountered racial discrimination there at the hands of Ashkenazi Jews. Each of these catastrophes was both a product of the failure of the Left and paved the way for further defeats.
Before the Holocaust, Zionism, despite persistent and rising anti-Semitism throughout most of Europe, was distinctly a minority movement among European Jews, who for the most part trusted to liberalism and varieties of socialism and communism to beat back the rising tide of barbarism. On a per capita basis, more than any other Europeans, European Jews played central roles in the European Left. The triumph of Zionism is centrally and tragically predicated on the failure of the European Left to stop Hitler. Palestinians have become the secondary victims of this failure.
Secondly, the failure within Mandate Palestine, to develop an anti-Zionist politics on a progressive basis meant that just and necessary struggle of Palestinians against Zionism and British Imperialism took on a communalist character which in the face of military defeat by the Yishuv in 1947–1949, led to the Nakba.
Thirdly, the retaliatory expulsions and persecution of Mizrachi Jews strengthened Zionism both materially and ideologically: materially, by greatly fortifying Israel’s demographic base; ideologically, by appearing to confirm that Jews could not live in peace as minorities in the Arab world. If the Palestinians are the secondary victims of the disaster that overtook European Jews, Mizrachi Jews were in a sense the tertiary victims.
A hundred years ago, none of these catastrophes could have been foreseen. They happened not because of “human evil” but because of a series of defeats of the Left. It is important to commemorate and to mourn, but it is even more important to understand. Against all forms of nationalist chauvinism, racism, and religious obscurantism, Platypus upholds the ideals of socialist internationalism. Zionism arose as a reaction to anti-Semitism and claimed to offer the oppressed Jews of Europe freedom and dignity but instead it has only resulted in turning the Jews into the oppressors of another people, and Israel at 60 is a garrison state. There is probably no country in the world where Jews live in greater physical danger.
But Palestinian nationalism has also clearly reached a dead end in both its Fatah and Hamas variants. Neither the endless “peace process” nor Katyusha rockets shot by Islamic fundamentalists at working-class Israeli towns point towards an emancipatory politics. Platypus agrees with Lenin as he put it that Marxism is incompatible with “even the most refined nationalism” and solidarity with the victims of national oppression must not be confused with supporting the nationalism of the oppressed. (Zionism and Jewish history provide the classic warning in this respect! We must resist the emotional blackmail that equates natural sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust with support for Zionism and natural sympathy for the victims of the Nakba and continuing Zionist oppression with support for Palestinian nationalism.) Furthermore, we emphatically emphasize along with our Enlightenment predecessors that any emancipatory politics must be resolutely secular. The triumph of a practical godlessness in politics is one of the great victories of the Enlightenment. To struggle against Zionism and Imperialism under the banner of Islam is a recipe for catastrophe and it will be a disaster for the Left if it allows its own struggle against Zionism and Imperialism to cause it to become mere cheerleaders for Islamist “resistance.”
Another world is possible. But it is first necessary to tell the truth about where we are and how we got here. Platypus seeks to provoke such conversations on the Left. |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
A paradox confronts American environmentalists, according to James Gustave Speth, the Dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: “We now have a flourishing environmental movement, a proliferating number of organisations, more and more money going into this, decades now of environmental legislation and programs, at all levels of government, and the environment keeps going downhill.”
The contradiction, according to Speth, results from the U.S. environmental movement focusing too narrowly on working “within the system.” They lobby, litigate and educate the public to the neglect of an “equally powerful effort to change the system itself.” “We haven’t challenged corporate power and the domination of wealth in our political process, we haven’t… challenged the deep subsidisation of environmental destruction… we haven’t challenged growth itself, we certainly haven’t challenged our own hyperventilating lifestyles.”
The environmental movement, he continues, must move beyond the victories of the 1970s that led to technocratic environmental regulation. It needs to go from being “basically… an inside the Beltway business” towards an “environmental movement that is far more committed to building grassroots political power. We need a real movement and we need to get real political about it.”
A major task of this grassroots political movement is to exert the pressure necessary to transform capitalism towards an ecologically sustainable end. Capitalism, according to Speth, presently cannot reproduce itself without concurrently increasing the level of economic activity. This activity, he maintains, can be “less or more environmentally destructive,” but ultimately undermines sustainable development. “This is the core of the problem. We have a system that is very successful at creating economic growth and this economic growth is inherently destructive and is overwhelming our efforts at environmental clean-up and environmental management.”
The crushing current of capitalist production, however, is one that Speth suggests can be mitigated. Prices can be adjusted to be “environmentally honest” through market-oriented instruments such as emission cap and trade permits. Growth can be tempered by shifting the focus away from traditional statistics that exclusively measure growth, such as Gross Domestic Product, towards ones that measure progress towards sustainability, such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. Finally, the legal structure of large trans-national firms can be recast to make them responsive to environmental and social imperatives. “The corporations should be governed with the participation of all of the stakeholders in the corporation and not just the people elected by… the shareholders… this would change the dynamics of the corporations fundamentally. It would make the corporation a lot more open to protecting local communities where they live and work, it would make them a lot more responsible and responsive to environmental concerns… it would not be a constant war to maximize profits.” He even briefly situates his programme within an earlier revolutionary tradition: “We must dramatically change the publicly traded, limited liability global corporation just as previous generations set out to eliminate or control the monarchy”.
Ironically it was the Nineteenth Century European revolutions to “eliminate or control the monarchy” that primarily enabled the age of industrial capitalism. These capitalist social relations were far more productive and dynamic than the feudal relations that were overthrown. This dynamism and productivity, however, is interwoven with contradictions. The current environmental crisis highlights this contradictory character. Capitalism is not only generative of the blind runaway development that causes the damage, but also of a science which can quantify the damage and model scenarios for its mitigation, cultural currents that redefine use-values to include environmental parameters and even price mechanisms that warn capitalists of ecological constraints on productivity. Ultimately, our ability to both cause and recognise the problem is a product of capital. Dr. Speth’s renewed call to “eliminate or control the monarchy” arises from a growing gap between “how things are” (worsening environmental conditions) and “how things ought to be” (awareness of the possibility of solutions). This gap not only results in crisis, it also provides the revolutionary germ for transcending capitalism and, as such, the possibility of directly dealing with environmental problems. Crises, however, have been historically averted not by revolution, but by policies of reform. The ultimate goal of these reformisms is not the overcoming of capitalism, but rather, to make the necessary changes for it to persist. Unwittingly, by not confronting the fundamental logic of capitalism, reformism provides the basis for renewed contradictions and crisis.
Dr. Speth’s programme, in this sense, is not revolutionary, but reformist. Instead of fundamentally trying to reshape society in an ecologically sustainable way, as he frames his goal at the beginning of the interview, he brackets this transformation within the confines of capitalist production. Like the reformers of the past, he searches for the steps necessary to renew capitalist accumulation in the face of this latest looming crisis.
There are already a number of mechanisms to renew profitability in the face of environmental degradation. Speth provides an example of such a mechanism in his interview. Previous to the 1970s acid emissions grew in-step with economic activity in industrialised countries. Using a combination of stringent regulations (1970s) and a sulphur dioxide cap and trade emission trading system (1990s) the ratio of sulphur dioxide/GDP fell among U.S. firms by an average rate of 9% per year (1970–2000). The environmental crisis of acid rain, consequently, had the effect of encouraging capitalists to adapt and determine new ways of accumulating capital. These new ways increased profitability in spite of mitigation costs. The reproduction of capitalism in this non-polluting form, consequently, acted to restore profitability.
Harriett Friedmann points out “Just as a “coalition of enlightened capitalists, middle-class reformers and militant labor movements brought us not socialism but welfare capitalism” so the coalition of environmental, consumer and fair-trade movements promised not a reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity, but green capitalism.” Speth’s reformed capitalism is still capitalism and, as such, it is subjected to the contradictions inherent in all historic forms of capitalism. These contradictions invariably sew the seeds for new and varied crises. A good illustration of the self-perpetuating nature of reformism, and one that is of pressing relevance to the environmental movement, is the string of crises that have plagued agricultural production from the outset of industrial capitalism.
The rapid urbanisation of Britain during the Industrial Revolution resulted in a disastrous rise in food prices. Instead of confronting capitalist production directly, British liberals resolved the crisis indirectly by eliminating agricultural tariffs. The European Diaspora in the Americas and Oceania responded to the opened market and increased their production of food. European capital tied these distant agricultural areas together in a network of railways and shipping fleets. By 1873 this network caused regional wheat prices to converge into a world market. This market expanded considerably and by 1929 its production had increased almost six-fold.
While the reforms of the first food crisis achieved the goal of reducing food costs in the urban industrialised core, it also created the basis for a renewed crisis. This new crisis had a different appearance. Perhaps the most devastating manifestation was the sudden drop in prices that resulted from overproduction coupled with intense international competition. Between 1925 and 1935 prices dropped steeply by two thirds and this undermined the profitability of most farmers.
The more well-known symbol of this crisis, however, was the ecological catastrophe of the “Dust Bowl”. Unlike the scientific focus on long-term soil fertility of the earlier English High Farming, the new era of Diasporic-Colonial farmers ploughed perennial grasslands down without an understanding of how to prevent chronic soil erosion. Within two generations, consequently, North American farms turned their highly productive soil into a wasteland.
The farm crisis of 1925–1935 was addressed in the U.S. by the New Deal reforms that supported beleaguered farmers through government purchases of surplus commodities. This form was replicated after the war by other advanced capitalist countries. Although this policy stabilised farm incomes it had the unintended consequence of subsidising the overproduction of food in advanced capitalist countries, which in turn, depressed production in developing countries. Furthermore, productivity was restored not by returning to High English Farming practices, but by a value maximizing assemblage of industrially-produced inputs, including machinery, agro-chemicals and genetically-improved seeds.
The continued failure to deal with the commodity nature of agricultural production resulted in a renewed food crisis in 1974, in the midst of a period of immense global economic turbulence. Falling profitability of U.S. manufacturers coupled with escalating national balance of payment deficits forced the U.S. to deal with its accumulated food surplus. A massive Soviet-American grain deal in 1972 and 1973 provided the U.S. an opportunity to sell off its massive surplus for needed hard currency. Consequently the reliably abundant U.S. food surplus was suddenly unavailable to developing countries and prices for grains and oilseeds tripled. Furthermore, the crisis precipitated the abandonment of the post-war Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, which essentially enabled the freer movement of international capital, and consequently, the expansion of trans-national corporations. Corporate dominance, therefore, has more to do with the failure of an earlier reformist policy to deal with the financial instability that plagued the 1930s than, as Dr. Speth asserts, an unfortunate corporate legal structure. From this perspective, the increasing influence of corporate actors in determining agricultural development, from genetically modified crops to monoculture, must ultimately be understood as a historic failure of an earlier reformism rather than a property inherent of corporations per se.
The solution to the food crisis of 1974 was to work towards an international agreement on agricultural trade. We are presently witnessing the failure of this solution, as international food prices again sore in 2008. High food prices were the genesis of the original reforms in 1846 and yet, after three major international food crises, reformist policies have only deepened the problem. The failure to arrive at an international agreement on agricultural trade at the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round has set the stage for the latest reformist attempt to deal with the food crisis. Private capitals have seized on the failure of multilateral agricultural negotiations to establish their own international food standards. These standards have enabled the development of two internationally differentiated food streams: one stream for affluent consumers providing high quality food grown with environmentally sustainable practices and fair-trade labor, while another stream supplies the remainder of humanity with the opposite.
Herein lays a deeper problem with reforming capitalism and one that drives at the heart of the paradox identified by Speth at the beginning of his interview: why in the face of a looming environmental crisis does a mass movement of “common concern” fail to act? The constant cycle of reformism and crisis suggests that an underlying dynamic is directing events rather than the actions of political movements. In the absence of an international politics of the Left, contemporary politics are unable to fully confront or resolve crises and are, thus, understandably disempowering. While the instruments of reform (eg. cap and trade emission trading system, redesigning corporate legal structures) have the capacity to avert crisis, they focus on these “means” at the expense of seriously considering the “ends,” or more specifically, the “reorganization of society around the central value of enhancing ecosystem integrity.” Speth’s “ends” are all mediated indirectly through capitalism. It is this indirect path, I believe, that has made environmental politics resemble more a “will-less football” than the necessary and engaged mass movement that it needs to be. |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
I would like to respond to Chris Cutrone’s article, "Review: Angela Davis 'How does change happen?'" from the March 2008 issue #3. I agree with Cutrone’s general sentiment that we as a country have failed to productively engage the problem of race, and that an honest critique of capitalism is pretty much absent from American politics. However, one does not necessarily follow the other. I disagree that a discussion of capitalism must necessarily displace a discussion of race, a term which Cutrone disrespectfully frames in quotation marks and describes as a “distraction” and “inadequate category.” I appreciate that perhaps therein lies a desire to transcend racism, but the tone of the article make it seem as if Cutrone wants the rest of us to somehow just wake up and get over race so we can talk about the “real” meat of the issue, capitalism. I do agree that the language of race is often counterproductive, complicated by centuries of taboos, underlying resentments, outward hostility, and fear. However, to further marginalize an already difficult subject strikes me as counterproductive, and quite frankly, a bit lazy.
Cutrone mentions in his article that (non-white) race is often just code for poverty, but is it not the other way around as well? When politicians talk about pursuing criminals in the “inner city” and cutting off “welfare mothers,” are they not pandering to fear and resentment towards people of color, and the assumption that non-whites are in poverty? It is certainly true that not all low-income people are brown, but in a nation (and even a world) where so many of our citizens face poverty because they are brown, any useful critique of capitalism must also incorporate discourse on race. I believe that a lack of such discourse is why people of color often balk at the thought of organizing around race-ambivalent or race-neutral philosophies such as Marxism or Anarchism versus organizing around racial identity, even when they have anti-capitalist beliefs.
We must remember that many of the canonical Marxist philosophers were white and were products of much more racially homogeneous societies than ours, and as such, held significant privilege not to think about race if they didn’t want to. Is it possible that they could not have foreseen how concepts of race and class would affect one another other in a country founded by waves of immigrants from around the world, many of whom were (and continue to be) used as disposable labor?
One can argue to an extent that race is a construct. Furthermore, it is a construct that, within a capitalist context, is often employed to justify class-based oppression, exploitation of labor, and imperialism. But however constructed we may believe race to be, it would be disingenuous, and even irresponsible, to pretend that it is not worth discussing. If I walk down the street and get beaten up by a gang of, say, working-class white kids because I am brown, it is just that—I have not been “beaten up” because I am “brown,” and I certainly haven’t been beaten up for being poor.
The anger, resentment and violence brought about by the victims and perpetrators of racism is real, and to that effect we all must do real work to eradicate it, not just hope that it will be spirited away by sprinkling some scare quotes around the issue. The problem of race affects us deeply on a subconscious level, and it is going to be hard to unlearn. Activists in positions of power and privilege must allow people of color the space to define race and racism on their terms, while educating themselves on why and how organizing tactics and philosophies that neglect race (and other facets of identity) so often fail to build successful coalitions. Those affected by racism must also realize that while organizing around racial identity can be a useful tool, we must also act across lines of gender, sexuality, nationality, and class. We need to be open to radical and critical philosophy, especially with regards to analyzing capitalism’s role in our struggle. We must remember not to confuse our aspirations for equality and justice with an amassing of individual power, prestige or wealth—or we will once again be forced look back in a few generations and realize that our achievements are “not the victory for which we have struggled.”
—Aay Preston-Myint, Chicago, IL, April 17, 2008
Chris Cutrone responds:
Black people are not poor because they are black—any more than white people are poor because they are white. Poverty and resulting social disempowerment of black people have been rationalized on the basis of anti-black racist assumptions, and poverty among black people has been successfully isolated—“ghettoized”—and so defused as a social-political issue. Welfare programs were eliminated, while most recipients were white, by reference to the idea that society had tried to help poor people for a generation but to no avail, they just cannot be helped, but must be left to sink or swim on their own. Racism played a role in sanctioning such atrocity, but this does not mean that black poverty is caused by racism. Poverty is a structural problem of American society that will not be overcome short of overcoming capitalism. As long as this structural poverty exists without an adequate anticapitalist politics to combat it, racism will take the place of the proper recognition of the social nature of the problem, and thus prevent the politics necessary to overcome it.
History and politics
Those thinkers and actors in a certain anticapitalist critical-theoretical and revolutionary political tradition, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno et al., did not emerge out of a hyper-racialized social context like the U.S. The depth and meaning of anti-black racism in the U.S. is peculiar to its history; it is not a matter of ethnocentrism, national oppression, or any other form of cultural chauvinism, etc. Despite (or perhaps because) Marx did not share the concrete social context of such a racist society as the U.S., he recognized very clearly the stakes of the American Civil War against slavery that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded” (Capital, 1867), a formulation that remains unsurpassed. Black Americans are American, as American as any “white” American could possibly claim to be. At the same time, the history of anti-black racist oppression is inseparable from the development of capitalism. And, historically, socialism has been the most consistently anti-racist form of politics.
It was not any supposed lack of awareness or insensitivity to the issue of racism that caused black radicals of the “Old” Left in the 1920s–30s such as Claude McKay and Paul Robeson, inspired to Communist politics by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to have failed to articulate a “black” power ethos or practical political principle, but because this would have cut against the grain of their actual progressive-emancipatory politics. These figures were not lacking in black “pride” or political militancy, but they were part of the truly heroic (and truly tragic) history of radicalism of the early 20th Century that now lies obscured behind the more recent history of the 1960s and the aftermath of its failures (which were more farcical than tragic). As Davis pointed out in her Jan. 24 lecture I reviewed, the real historical background and basis for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s was the earlier “cross-racial” organizing of workers, in the South—where it meant risking one’s life, white or black—as well as in the North, in the 1920s–30s, when it was actually much more difficult to do this than it would have been in the 1960s, but which the “Left” of the ‘60s failed to even try to do, rationalizing their failure with separatist Black Power ideology.
The late-’60s Black Power turn was the result of the failures and frustrations of the limitations of the liberal integrationist politics of Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, et al. But this was not because King et al. were somehow lacking in “black” consciousness—as was scurrilously implied by Malcolm X with his famous “house nigger”-”field nigger” rhetoric—but because the practical politics of liberal-reformist integrationism could not address adequately the issue of capitalism, though King et al. were concerned with labor issues (the 1963 March on Washington was “for jobs and freedom”). Coming as we do today after the manifest inadequacies and failures of the policy reforms of the Civil Rights era, we can fall victim to naturalizing the logic of the Black Power turn of the late ‘60s and think of it and the attitudes we inherit from it as some kind of necessary stage. But this would be a mistake, and not only because the Black Power turn was not a turn to the Left, but rather to the Right—the Black Power turn was a conservative recoil, an adaptation to defeat and dashed expectations, a lowering of horizons that involved the unwarranted assumption of the intractability of white racism—a sin much worse on the part of the “white” radicals who embraced this perspective than perhaps for the black radicals who articulated it.
More importantly, we can and must say today, more than 40 years later, that post-Black Power politics has obviously failed—and much more miserably than the Civil Rights Movement—to improve the social conditions for black people in the U.S.—as Adolph Reed, who I cited in my review of Davis, for one, has written about extensively, for instance in “Black Particularity Reconsidered” (AKA “The ‘Black Revolution’ and the Reconstitution of Domination,” 1979/86), pointing out the highly detrimental effects of “posing as politics.”—But whereas earlier black radicals of the 1920s-30s moved on from the charlatanry of Marcus Garvey et al. to the liberal, radical and socialist politics of W. E. B. Du Bois et al., the “politics” informed by the ‘60s-’70s “New Left” regressed backwards along the same path, to Ron Karenga inventing holidays like Kwanzaa, etc., by the 1980s even rehabilitating Booker T. Washington’s avowedly conservative notions of “self-help” and waxing nostalgic for the “black community” of the segregated conditions of the Jim Crow era (see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., et al.), and affirming “black culture” as already constituting a valid political realm of “everyday acts of resistance” (see Robin D. G. Kelley et al.)—all the results of political failures on the “Left.” As Bayard Rustin pointed out at the advent of the Black Power turn, “Passionate self-assertion can be a mask for accommodation” (quoted in John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: the life and times of Bayard Rustin, Free Press, 2003, p. 475).
So this is not a matter of whether one chooses to prioritize “race” over “class,” etc., but rather how one understands the problem of racism and how capitalism is understood as a context within which changes in social problems like racism (becoming better or worse) take place. Capitalism is a global social system that determines the value and employment of human activity (or “labor”) and its reproduction in ways over which people have remained relatively powerless as individual and social agents. Capitalism is the reason why there is such a thing as “disposable” labor, why human beings as potential laborers are subject to being “disposed of,” and all the social consequences of this. So both social categories of “race” and socioeconomic “class” find their conditions of greater social context in the dynamics and historical changes of capital. (This is also true of issues of gender and sexuality. See the potentially seminal but largely neglected essays by Juliet Mitchell, “Women: the Longest Revolution,” 1966; and John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” 1983.)
Not simply “race” and “class,” but racism and capitalism and how they are related need to be addressed by any purportedly social emancipatory politics. The ways the “Left” has tried—or failed to try, and found excuse from trying—to address the problems of racism (as one would need to do in organizing the working class) since the 1960s have been worse than inadequate, and have turned into ideological distractions and political dead ends, bogged down in a host of pseudo-problems (that, for instance, Barack Obama was able to identify in his speech—against the desperate last gasp of racist politics by the Clintons et al.), whereas, according to Rustin’s critique of the Black Power turn, “the real cause of racial injustice . . . is not bad attitudes but bad social conditions” (“The Failure of Black Separatism,” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1970). Without a practical political focus on capitalism, the social conditions for racism will remain unaddressed, and racism and the problems affecting black people and others can continue.
“Race” is a pseudo-biological category that deserves to be placed in quotation marks because it is not “real;” it is not to be naturalized and taken for granted as a point of departure, but rather needs to be attacked as the very thing to be overcome. An anti-racist politics, a politics opposed to any form of racism, cannot just assume “race” from the start without becoming confused and confounded.
Black “racial” identity is a negative not a positive value and cannot be rehabilitated or inverted for it has only ever meant degradation. We ought not to forget that anti-black racist sentiment—the disqualification of individuals rationalized by reference to their blackness—is just as prevalent among blacks as among whites and other groups in the U.S.
As Frantz Fanon put it very succinctly over 50 years ago, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), “What is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact,” “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white,” and “The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.” We ought not to forget this.
Because we all share a social destiny in capitalism, one which we must work through and overcome in order to undermine the social conditions of possibility for racism (which are modern in nature), as Fanon also said, perhaps most outrageously, “Long ago the black man admitted the unarguable superiority of the white man, and all his efforts are aimed at achieving a white existence.”—I strongly encourage all those interested in the possibility of overcoming racist oppression to read closely and ponder and internalize deeply the theses in the Introduction and Conclusion of Fanon’s brilliant and profound book.
“Sickness and madness”
The world might not have been very ready to overcome capitalism up to now, but it has been more than ready to overcome racism, and so there’s no reason to resign ourselves to it or treat it as more of an obstacle than it need be. The persistence of racism—including the accommodation of it on the “Left”—is the surest sign of the barbarism of our times. And so “racial” consciousness can be nothing other than debilitating and fundamentally depoliticizing. As the late Malcolm X characterized his regrets about his participation in the black nationalist Nation of Islam,
“[I] remember the time [when a] white college girl came into the restaurant who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying. . . . Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years. That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I’m glad to be free of them.” (Interview with Gordon Parks, 1965)
It’s incumbent upon us on the “Left” to try to root out and eliminate such “sickness and madness” as completely as possible, for it is nothing other than an obstacle to social emancipation or even the possibility of reform.
As the psychoanalyst Fanon pointed out, such “race” consciousness is an expression of wounded narcissism, a traumatic fixation on the past, and resulting paranoia, problematic for a healthy reality principle, and maintaining the past in the present at the expense of the future.
Identifying one’s political consciousness and practice as racially “black”—or “white”—is, as Fanon put it, citing the German Idealist philosophical tradition, an evasion and abdication of working through the “pathology of freedom,” work that must be based on the “refusal to accept the present as definitive.” |P
Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008
The new Mayday magazine (UK) and Platypus have been in dialogue on the issues of anarchism and Marxism and the state of the "Left" today in light of history. (Please see "Organization, political action, history and consciousness" by Chris Cutrone for Platypus, and "Half-time Team Talk" by Trevor Bark for Mayday, in issues #2, February 2008, and #4, April-May 2008, respectively.)
Principia Dialectica, another new British journal, also has taken note of Platypus (see "Weird gonzo leftoid journal," April 15, 2008), specifically with our interview of Moishe Postone on "Marx after Marxism" (in issue #3, March 2008).
In their note of us, Principia Dialectica cites our interview with Postone to say that "Postone's reflections on Lukács are certainly bracing, and enough to challenge any cryogenically frozen leftoid stuck in 1917." Platypus raises the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which Lukács regarded as follows:
"Only the Russian Revolution really opened a window to the future; the fall of Czarism brought a glimpse of it, and with the collapse of capitalism it appeared in full view. At the time our knowledge of the facts and the principles underlying them was of the slightest and very unreliable. Despite this we saw -- at last! at last! -- a way for mankind to escape from war and capitalism." (1967 Preface to History and Class Consciousness)
But Platypus raises Bolshevism and its historical moment less as a rallying cry than as a question and problem. 1917 should be followed not by an exclamation point but a question mark, but one that has not lost its saliency but only become a more profound enigma in subsequent history. What was to Lukács and others of the time a brief glimpse of emancipatory potential has only become more obscure, but without becoming any less penetrating.
-- But today the danger is not being frozen in 1917 but rather 1968.
Principia Dialectica distributed the leaflet "Let the dead bury the dead!" at the May '68 Jamboree at Conway Hall in London on May 10, 2008. This leaflet uses a great deal of Platypus rhetoric, on the "fossilized" and undead character of today's "Left," on anarchism being an enduring "bad conscience" of the failures of Marxism, etc., and involves not only this plagiarism but an unacknowledged response to our statements on the necessary return to the history of the revolutionary Marxist tradition. At the same time, this leaflet rehearses precisely those aspects of a non-/anti-Marxian and/or "anarchist" approach we have addressed previously in our articles in dialogue with Mayday.
The problem with this Principia Dialectica statement is that it has no cognizance of the issue of historical regression. Necessarily, this involves a non-dialectical and non-immanent understanding of capitalism as a "system," resulting in an insistence on an (historically impossible) "outside" of capitalism. -- Regarding the announcement appended below their leaflet, for a meeting on "What is value, and how to destroy it?," the point, following Marx, is not to "destroy" (the social) "value" (of capital and proletarian labor), but rather to realize and overcome it on its own basis, and so would mean redeeming the very great sacrifices humanity has already made -- and continues to make -- in the history of capitalism.
Corollary to the one-sided view of and opposition to "value" (and what it means socially) is an unjustified yet assumed progressive view of history. This is unwarranted especially in light of the state of the "Left" today, 40 years after 1968, which has not shown any progress. -- Otherwise, why call the "Leftist" commemoration of 1968 that Principia Dialectica picketed with its leaflet, a "wake" conducted by "embalmed" "mummies?" But, like all anarchism, Principia Dialectica has no (need for a) theory of history (of capital).
An incoherent view of capitalism and its recent history both underlies and results from the leaflet's ambivalent salute and adieu to 1968. As Moishe Postone has pointed out (in his 2006 article on "Theorizing the Contemporary World: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey"), the combined and equally inappropriate triumphalism and melancholy of post-1968 politics results from the undigested character of the Marxist tradition from which the 1960s "New" Left sought to depart:
"[T]he emancipatory potential of general social coordination [i.e., Marxist "planning"] . . . should [not] be dismissed. But that potential can only be realized when it is associated with the historical overcoming of capital, the core of our form of social life. . . . Without such an analysis of capital, however, one that is not restricted to the mode of distribution, but that can, nevertheless, address the emancipatory impulses expressed by traditional Marxism . . . our conceptions of emancipation will continue to oscillate between a homogenizing general (whether effected via the market or the state) and particularism, an oscillation that replicates the dualistic forms of commodity and capital themselves."
As such, the Principia Dialectica leaflet commemorating 1968 is a symptom of what Postone calls the post-1960s postmodernist politics of "premature post-capitalism," which imagines that the necessity for proletarian labor in mediating the conditions of modern social life and its potential emancipatory transformation has already been overcome in practice, however ripe its overcoming has been historically in theory.
As Lars Lih has pointed out (in his essay "Lenin and the Great Awakening," in the conference anthology Lenin Reloaded, 2007), the reconsideration of history for an anticapitalist politics adequate to our time would mean indeed redeeming and realizing what Principia Dialectica disdainfully calls "proletarian Messianism." -- Precisely Walter Benjamin's understanding of the historical significance of such "Messianism," and its negative philosophy of history in the period of defeat and regression on the Left after 1917-19, provides the necessary guiding insight for such redemption. As Theodor W. Adorno interpreted Benjamin, "The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all [historical] things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of [their potential] redemption" ("Finale," Minima Moralia, 1944-47).
Rather than attempts at redeeming the modern (and still on-going) history of the industrial proletariat, and realizing and fulfilling -- and going beyond -- this necessity of what Marx called proletarian self-transcendence/self-abolition (Aufhebung), however, the "Left" has (ever since 1917-19, but especially after 1968) regressed behind this task. This is why the revolutionary Marxism of 2nd International radicalism of Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, et al. -- as well as the thought and politics of Marx himself -- can still "flash up" as a historical image that haunts us and won't go away, despite all efforts at exorcism by varieties of "post-Marxism."
The very problematic history of the Marxist revolutionary "tradition" -- as well as of the modern workers movement -- requires redemption. And this is not simply desirable or possible, but actually unavoidably necessary.
Historical "anarchism" and its various offspring (e.g., Situationism) remain the deserved forms of the "bad conscience" of the failures of historical ("traditional") Marxism, but anarchism is nevertheless a symptomatic regression to pre-Marxian socialism (of Proudhon et al.).
Marxism was not a mistaken detour because it failed historically. Rather, the continued recrudescence of anarchism proves in a certain sense that a reconstitution of the Marxian point of departure remains necessary. A revisiting -- and "repetition" -- of the Marxian critique of (pre-Marxian as well as post-Marx-ist) socialism is in order. -- As Adorno put it (in "Resignation," 1969), the return of anarchism "is that of a ghost," which however "does not invalidate the [Marxian] critique" of it.
For Adorno, anarchism manifested "the impatience with theory." Ironically, such impatience with theory is corollary to the dismissal of the industrial proletariat as "Subject" of human emancipation (through its self-transformation and overcoming). This dismissal is seen in the Principia Dialectica celebration of the "happy unemployed" and the calls to "never work ever" and thus (try to) remain "outside" the "system." But as the historical Marxian critique of "actually existing socialism" -- and the history of capitalism to date -- has shown, there is no secure let alone emancipated state outside of capitalism that has been possible. Capitalism will be overcome from within (its own historical logic), or not at all.
As Adorno put it (in "Imaginative Excesses," orphaned from Minima Moralia), "Only if the extremes [of the theoretically armed revolutionary intellectuals, and the industrial working class] come together will humanity survive." -- Platypus is noted -- and attacked -- for being on the one hand too intellectual and on the other hand too committed to a proletarian path to social emancipation beyond capital. Thus our indication of this dual necessity of theory and practice finds its critical affirmation -- even when our project remains unacknowledged rather than singled out by our interlocutors.
The history of the failed Marxian attempted departures from symptomatic socialism (from Marx's departure from Proudhon, to Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Lukács's departure from the politics of 2nd International Social Democracy and its "vulgar Marxism," to Trotsky and the Frankfurt School's departures from Stalinized 3rd International Communism) still tasks us, but not as ritual invocation devoid of the actual content of historical self-understanding, but only as this history allows for its critical apprehension -- in the critique of the present and how we got here. |P