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A discussion with Richard Wolin, distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate Center, on his recent book The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s, held on May 7th, 2012, at New York University.


Third Annual Platypus International Convention

Opening plenary

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

Platypus Review 37 | July 2011

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

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

Opening remarks

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

Andrew Feenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the question Lukács addressed. He needed to show that Marxism was not related in a merely accidental manner to the thought and action of proletarians, that it is not a scientific “consciousness from without,” for which the proletariat would serve as a “passive, material basis,” but that it was essentially rooted in the life of the class. His misunderstood theories of reification and class consciousness relate to the form in which the social world is given immediately to the consciousness of all members of a capitalist society. Lukács writes that “in capitalist society reality is—immediately—the same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.” And again: “The proletariat shares with the bourgeoisie the reification of every aspect of its life.” However, the experience of reification differs depending on class situation. It is interesting that Lukács cites as evidence for this one of the few Marxian passages on alienation to which he had access. “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

step by step
not a single one
knows how
tiny steps

Lukács’s party and social praxis

Richard Westerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adorno’s “Leninism”

Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Marcuse put it in 1958, in Soviet Marxism,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q & A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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

Transcribed by Gabriel Gaster

Andrew Feenberg

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

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

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

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


Richard Westerman

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

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

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

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

[9] Ibid., 275.

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

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

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

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

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


Chris Cutrone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[24] Ibid., 72-73.

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


Public forum of the Platypus Affiliated Society



Mark Rudd
Alan Spector
Osha Neumann
Tim Wohlforth

Spencer A. Leonard

The memory of the 1960s, which has long kindled contestation and debate on the means and ends of freedom politics, is rapidly fading into the political unconscious. The election of Barack Obama and the collapse of the anti-war movement mark the end of a period that has now come full circle. After a half-century of rebellion, many old New Left-ists now call for a “new New Deal” to return to welfare-statist and authoritarian society against which the New Left rebelled. History threatens to repeat itself, this time in an even more dimly recognized and ferocious form.

“In the United States today there is no Left,” C. Wright Mills declaimed in the waning months of the 1950s, making him one of the most beloved intellectuals of his generation, “political activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities -- though formally quite free, tend to become nationalistic or commercial -- or merely private.” If Mills continues to speak to us, it is as a reminder of tasks long deferred, memories long repressed.

This panel attempts to address the current moment, in which many who participated in the moment of the New Left’s beginnings have survived a full cycle of history. Rather than a rehash of old debates or yet another nostalgia- ridden recap of the era, interventions which have ceased to offer critical perspective on the present, this panel seeks to ask the simple but fundamental question: What, if any, is significant for us today in the thwarted attempt by 1960s radicals to re-found emancipatory politics?

Co-sponsored by:
The Global Voices Lecture Program of International House, with the support of the University of Chicago Student Activities Fund


New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008.

Philip Longo

Platypus Review 28 | October 2010


WHAT WERE THE 1960S? The Left is still a bit confused. Activist and lawyer Osha Neumann, in his memoir Up Against the Wall, Motherf**ker, suggests that the 1960s not be thought of as a single coherent movement, but rather as a collection of movements gathered under the umbrella of “liberation.” The civil rights movement overlapped with the anti-war movement, but they were not fully aligned. Similarly, the politically earnest Students for a Democratic Society often came head-to-head with the counterculture and the seemingly more radical tactics of Neumann’s own group, the Motherfuckers.

Yet, despite his gesture toward distinguishing among different strands within “the sixties,” Neumann himself falls into the same trap as many New Left revisionists in documenting his time in “the movement.” The Motherfuckers participate within a mass structure of feeling, “a wet dream of possibilities” during a period of “unrelenting urgency.” Neumann’s sixties are marked not only by political struggles within the Left, but also by a kind of vague collective consciousness. This mutes Neumann’s political narrative and renders it difficult for him to disentangle particular political currents and goals from one another. Looking back, he describes the period as marked by the confluence of revolutionary movements and feelings in a “strange amalgam, [in which] the image of the revolutionary transformed by the revolution fused with acid fueled visions in which all things melted and morphed, all permanence dissolved and nothing withstood change” (162).

While Neumann’s book provides an interesting glimpse into the history of the political movements of the 1960s and a possible case study in activism, the elusiveness with which he treats “the sixties” contributes to the confusion of the book’s second part, the “notes for next time.” Rather than helping us out of the seemingly intractable dilemmas facing the post-1960s left—how do we understand the period so we can learn from it and build on it or, alternatively, discard it and move on?—Neumann’s book reenacts the Left’s ambivalence toward the decade and its failure to reconstitute an emancipatory leftist politics. Like many a 1960s memoirist, Neumann is still unsure what to make of his experience, how to disentangle history from what merely happened. Reluctant to throw the flower child out with the bathwater, Neumann, like the Left, becomes stuck in a cycle of recrimination and nostalgia.

As Neumann tells it, joining the radical activist group the Motherfuckers was part of a rebellion against his upbringing. The son of intellectual émigrés Inge and Franz Neumann who fled the Holocaust and found refuge as professors at Columbia University, Osha (originally named Thomas) grew up in the New York émigré circles occupied by other German Marxist and Frankfurt School intellectuals, like his father’s friends Herbert Marcuse and Otto Kirchheimer. When the author was 14, his father, who authored Behemoth, the classic Marxist analysis of the Nazi state, died. Shortly after, his mother married Marcuse. Growing up in the extended orbit of the Frankfurt school, Neumann writes, “I concluded that my birthright was an all encompassing theory, Marxism, which sought to determine, in each historical period, the forces which represent humanity’s hope for liberation and a just ordering of human affairs” (15).

Having the author of Eros and Civilization and One Dimensional Man for a stepfather made adolescent rebellion difficult. Still, after an admittedly apolitical tenure at Swarthmore and graduate studies in history at Yale, Neumann began to turn away from his leftist inheritance towards what he describes as the passionate embrace of sex and art. Becoming preoccupied by his own “irrational” sexual passions, Neumann saw in revolutionary activism a mirror and outlet for all that seemingly defied the rational theorizing of his parents’ circle. As he puts it, he could not reconcile “reason’s strict demands to prioritize thinking over doing with the unruly energies of my corrupt, insistent body” (17). Art, sex and activism became his rebellion against the “theoretical” bent of his family. Neumann’s rebellion, unlike that of some of his peers, was not an ideological struggle or awakening, but rather a full-throttled embrace of praxis over an irrelevant and crusty theoretical tradition.

And full-throttled it was. After dropping out of Yale and moving to the Lower East Side in Manhattan to become an artist, Neumann became involved with the Angry Arts Week against the Vietnam War in 1967. Arrested during an event where a poster of a maimed Vietnamese child was unfurled during Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he describes himself as having a “mystical experience” in jail. But rather than changing his life course, this experience seems to have confirmed the direction in which he was already heading. Chanting in jail along with his fellow demonstrators, he felt his new insight allowed him to turn his back on “rationality.” If instrumental reason could not stop the bombs in Vietnam, and had in fact created them, his jailhouse epiphany suggested that the only way to fight back was to embrace the irrational. And so he threw off the dialectic in favor of direct confrontation.

In 1968 Neumann joined the new underground “affinity group,” Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers, which grew out of the Angry Arts Week and Black Mask, another revolutionary artist group founded by anarchist Ben Morea. The Motherfuckers took their name from a famous line in the poem “Black People!” by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones):

You know how to get it, you can get it, no money down, no money never, money dont grow on trees no way, only whitey’s got it, makes it with a machine, to control you you cant steal nothin from a white man, he’s already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up![1]

Though the group was primarily white, drawing from the drop-outs and street kids of New York’s Lower East Side, much of their tactics and style were lifted from the Black Panthers. Describing themselves as an “affinity group devoted to liberation and revolution through any means necessary,” they adopted a stance of extreme militancy. Ideologically they were hard to pin down. If the SDS could be thought of as attempting to lay out the ideological framework for the rebellion, the Motherfuckers, lacking the patience for their hesitancy and abstract theorizing, saw themselves as the soldiers.

At times deliberately incoherent in their actions and views, the Motherfuckers understood themselves as rebelling against “The System,” a phrase that denoted “more than the economic and political institutions by which the rich wage unequal war on the poor, stealing the fruits of their labors, and despoiling the earth in the process.” In theory “The System” meant “the totality of reality as shaped by, dependent upon, and supportive of those institutions… presidents and penises, the Pentagon and our parents, desires and disaffections, torturers and toothpaste” (66). In practice, as Neumann would later admit, “The System” referred to anything that was not, or did not agree with, the Motherfuckers.

The most interesting part of the book is Neumann’s inside view of power struggles and confrontations with the Lower East Side police, the occupation of Columbia in 1968, the 1968 Chicago Convention, and the “liberation” of the Fillmore East theater, a venue for the new multi-media psychedelic rock concerts so popular at the time. In these sections, Neumann presents some astute reporting with commentary, disavowing many of the more violent and ineffectual forms of protest. Looking back, Neumann calls much of the Motherfuckers’ politics vague both in its ecumenical anti-authoritarianism and its “infantile” rebellion. To this extent the book represents Neumann’s attempt to work through the consequences of this criticism:  “It is easy to dismiss this politics as nothing more than childish tantrums, and to profess a baleful acceptance of the status quo as more ‘mature.’ It’s more difficult to disentangle, delicately, as one would a bird caught in a net, the genuinely radical and uncompromising elements in this politics from those which are self-defeating” (93).  This statement is certainly compelling, if only because it reveals the book’s greatest weakness: Neumann is unable to perform the operation he prescribes.

The memoir portion makes up the first half of the book. The second half is comprised of essays on the legacy of the 1960s, the 1999 WTO protests, and an engaging essay on the academic left’s fetishization of what it calls “theory.” Yet these “notes for next time” are suggestive at best. Other than his gradual return to an embrace of “Reason” (albeit coupled with action), Neumann offers little in his assessment of what lessons we would have to learn to follow through on the ambitions of the best 1960s radicals. Nor does he compellingly argue that such a historical critique and re-appropriation is even desirable. Rather, Neumann simply assumes that any reconstituted left must be modeled on the 1960s movements, albeit with some revisions:

We purged as an infantile aberration the extravagant imagination of unlimited possibilities that inspired our most heroic—or foolhardy—acts of disobedience. But the vision doesn’t really die. The wet dream of possibilities imagined by the counterculture of the Sixties is real, even now, as we struggle to avert an equally real nightmare: fascist regression, the triumph of unreason, the death of nature, the extinction of hope. Our flame smolders underground, waiting for the wind that will fan it back to fury. (165)

In critiquing the methods of groups like the Motherfuckers, Neumann misses a chance to take on the political ideals of the movement. In collapsing fascist regression, the triumph of unreason, the death of nature, and the extinction of hope all into one giant bogeyman, Neumann rehearses the Motherfuckers’ gesture of collapsing all sources of unfreedom or inequality into “The System. ” In short, by attacking the methods rather than the analysis of their historical situation, Neumann seems to believe that all that the Left needs in the contemporary moment is quite simply to pick up where the New Left activists left off. While decrying senseless violence and “infantile rage” Neumann clings to a sense of historical possibility that arose out of the 1960s—surely, a necessary thing today. However, by clinging so fervently to this dream deferred, Neumann becomes blinded by his own nostalgia and recriminations.

This surplus of nostalgia and recrimination is the legacy of the ineffectual left today. Another, related legacy is our current incoherent politics, unable to distinguish between “presidents and penises” or “the Pentagon and our parents”—that is, unable to effectively understand our own historical moment. We are still unable to distinguish between the various sources of unfreedom, where they intersect and where they do not. By insisting on the “The System” as the enemy and a renewed and revised activism to combat it, Neumann’s analysis, like that of the contemporary Left as a whole, leads to the type of random and ineffectual activism we ultimately regret, but at the same time cannot quite let go of. |P

[1]. “Black People!” Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed. William J. Harris (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991), 224.


Spencer Leonard with Atiya Khan

Platypus Review 24 | June 2010

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

On Thursday March 11, 2010, Platypus Review Editor-in-Chief Spencer A. Leonard interviewed the prominent 1960s radical and last National Secretary of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Mark Rudd, to discuss his recently published political memoir, Underground. In April, Leonard’s interview with Rudd, prepared in conjunction with Atiya Khan, was broadcast in two parts on “Radical Minds” on WHPK-FM 88.5 Chicago. Podcasts are available at the above link . Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

SL: I really appreciated the chapter on the SDS split in your recent book Underground. The kind of detail you go into there respecting the 1969 convention is rare. So, how would you characterize the ‘69 factional split within SDS in properly political terms—what were the parties and the lines of ideological fracture among them?

MR: My one-time ally and later opponent, Michael Klonsky, was the leader of a faction called the Revolutionary Youth Movement II. They had a slightly different line at the [last SDS conference in Chicago in 1969], but in the battle with Progressive Labor they were allied with us. In our conversation, Mike pointed out that the whole faction fight, the so-called split, happened among a very small number of people. Maybe a thousand members of SDS understood what it was about, whereas there were 99,000 more who had no idea. This faction fight between Progressive Labor on the one hand and the Revolutionary Youth Movement on the other was something happening among a very small group of people. The vast majority of both chapters and individuals in SDS were independent of the whole thing. Most were radicals in that they were opposed to the war, to racism, and, in some general way, to the system that gave us these things, though they might not have called themselves socialist. What we had in the split, however, was essentially a faction fight between different branches of Marxism-Leninism.


Surfacing from underground, Mark Rudd surrenders himself to the Manhattan District Attorney, September 14, 1977.

SL: This is what interests me. Of course, there is the mass student movement, but within it operates organized and ideologically driven politics.

MR: I just want to emphasize that this faction fight was hardly even understood by all members of SDS.

SL: Still, it has consequences even for those who do not understand it. That is the rub.

MR: There are a lot of rubs. We felt we were the heirs to the great tradition of 20th century revolutionary communism and that these battles—between [Che Guevara’s] foco theory and the primacy of national liberation, or between dogmatic Maoism and the primacy of the working class line—we felt that all of this stuff was extraordinarily important because it was the culmination of a century-long struggle that would end in the defeat and downfall of US imperialism and of the monopoly capitalism that undergirded it. We didn’t understand that we were really at the tail end of this whole business.

SL: One remarkable thing about the 1960s is that it was experienced as a kind of political high water mark and, for so many involved, a time of dramatic radicalization; however, when we look back, the 1960s seems more like the time when the Left entered into terminal decline.

MR: Yes. We made the fundamental mistake of believing that the war in Vietnam was the beginning of the end for US imperialism. We did not understand how deep American power went both economically and militarily. In retrospect, the military defeat in Vietnam was little more than a blip in the history of US imperialism. It was not the beginning of the end. Our group—which became Weatherman but which at the time of the split was known as Revolutionary Youth Movement I, adhering to what was called the Weatherman paper—thought that Che’s strategy was a prediction of the future, which was to “create two, three, many Vietnams.” We expected many more military defeats for US imperialism in the later part of the 20th century. We did not understand there was only one Vietnam which itself hardly mattered because the Vietnam War was not globally strategic. The Middle East, for example, is much more strategically located than is Southeast Asia. So yes, the United States was defeated militarily and forced to end its occupation of South Vietnam, but Vietnam never served as a model for any other revolution. In the 1980s, Noam Chomsky developed a line according to which the United States actually won the war in Vietnam in the sense that their only goal was to defeat a revolution that could serve as a model for others. After the United States completely destroyed North and South Vietnam, just devastating the country as a whole, then it could no longer serve as a model. Even though we and our puppet government in South Vietnam were forced out, even so we won the war because after that, nobody else wanted to get their country destroyed by the United States for attempting socialist revolution.

SL: And Chomsky’s thesis calls into question the triumphal image that the anti-war movement concocted for itself?

MR: I would differentiate between the anti-war movement and the anti-imperialist movement. In our case, we had discovered imperialism. When I got to Columbia University in 1965 David Gilbert was already talking about imperialism and leading a study within SDS. This work culminated in a pamphlet called “U.S. Imperialism” by David Gilbert and David Loud, through which we learned that the United States had engaged in innumerable interventions around the world and that Vietnam was just one of these. We also studied The Monthly Review, John Gerassi, and David Horowitz’s book Free World Colossus. The conclusion we drew was that national liberation movements throughout the world and, internally, within the United States were actually poised to defeat American imperialism. That understanding became the ideological basis of the Weatherman faction.

SL: I want to return to this and to the kind of “Marxism-Leninism” it represented. But first, I would like to take us back a bit. In Underground you discuss the roots of the split within SDS nationally and within your own chapter at Columbia. There you show how the split at Columbia was not isolated, but paralleled splits taking place on other campuses. I am interested in your perspective on the split within the chapter at Columbia between what was known as the Praxis Axis (which I understand to be more of an organization-building and consciousness-raising politics) and your own Action Faction.

MR: Here you are talking about a split among the SDS regulars. There was also a split between the regulars and the Progressive Labor Party which was ultimately reproduced in the split at the last national convention of SDS in June of 1969.
Among the SDS regulars at Columbia there were two tendencies. The Praxis Axis was composed primarily of older graduate students and people who oftentimes were red diaper babies, i.e. they were children of communists, socialists, and labor people. They had an organizing perspective according to which you build your base over a long period of time and, if everything turns out well, you will eventually have enough strength to act. It might be more accurate to call this a base-building or organizing tendency. And then along came kids like myself. Influenced by Cuba, we seized upon the idea that action galvanized mass support. This was kind of backwards in one way and vanguardist in another. It was backwards according to the organizing model of building a base first. But I must have sensed intuitively the potential of that spring of 1968 at Columbia after the Tet Offensive, the abdication of LBJ, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, because the base was already built. A lot of people at that time began to reconsider their own relationship to the war and to racism, so that when a few people acted, support appeared as if out of nowhere. So, what started with the demonstration of about 150 people at the end of March grew by April 23rd to 500 people. Then, with the occupation [of a campus building] the next day that support mushroomed to over a thousand people in the buildings. By taking action we took advantage of the support that had been developed through years of organizing.

SL: But, at that time, the success of the dramatic building occupations was viewed as a vindication of your Action Faction’s tactics over those of the Praxis Axis. But now you are saying that this was a misreading of the situation, because it was really their tactics that were responsible for the success of your actions.

MR: Yes. Militancy and confrontation maybe could be thought of as a strategy, but basically it was a series of confrontational tactics. The overall strategy was education plus confrontation plus personal relationship-building. But at the time we misread it completely. We took the Columbia Revolt of April and May 1968 to be a vindication of Che’s foco theory (i.e. the theory that a small group takes action and the masses join in once they see that guerilla warfare can work). That was a theory promulgated by the Cuban Communist Party in 1967 and 1968 and we lapped it up. Our Action Faction tendency and mentality fit in with the foco theory. At one point I made a speech quoted by Todd Gitlin in his book[1] in which I am reported as saying, “organizing is another word for going slow.” I did not want organizing. I wanted speed and confrontation and militancy. After Columbia, however, almost every single application of this non-strategy of confrontation and militancy resulted in defeat and failed to build the movement.

SL: But it was the perception that those tactics had succeeded that catapulted you to a position of national leadership in SDS in 1968?

MR: Absolutely. It is bizarre but it has resonances and echoes even now, forty years later. No amount of actual testing of the ideas could deter us from believing that we were right. For example, in June of 1969, after the last national convention, when I was elected national secretary and Weatherman took over the SDS National Office as well as some regional offices, we called for an action in Chicago. We called it the National Action but later the press called it “Days of Rage” and the name stuck. In June we had about 500 people organizing for the Days of Rage, but when the time came only about 300 people showed up. But we just blew off the experience of going from 500 down to 300. We said to ourselves, “oh well, what we are doing is right. It is very tough to find people who will actually take on fighting the state and building a revolutionary army, so our small numbers only mean that we are right and we have to keep going.” You would think the fact that we had de-organized from 500 down to 300 would have told us something. The problem was idealism: We thought that our ideas were right and we held to those ideas, despite the fact that the only proof we had of our ideas was that we held them.

But everybody was idealist. Klonsky’s Revolutionary Youth Movement II went to the workers to build a revolutionary communist party and some people spent 10 or 20 years doing that only to have nothing come of it. Similarly, the Maoist Progressive Labor Party sought to build the worker-student alliance by uniting students with workers, because “ultimately the workers will make the revolution,” because “it’s a class question,” and because “the proletariat is the revolutionary class in society.” How did they know? Marx and Engels wrote it in 1848. Then there was the idea that the Black Panthers were the revolutionary vanguard. How did we know this? SDS said so. But what was our proof? Well, there has to be a vanguard and they were talking about revolution, picking up the gun, and chanting “Off the pig!” That must make them truly revolutionary.
Of course, the right wing has its own form of idealism. They say, “the United States is the greatest power the world has ever seen and can impose its view on the world.” No amount of data can prove such a claim. So now it is seven years later and we are embroiled in two wars, both based on right-wing idealism.

SL: But theoretical differences, such as they were, were nevertheless at the heart of the factional struggles inside SDS. Here you are dismissing all ideology as
“idealism.” But is not “idealism” of this sort unavoidable, even necessary, especially on the Left?

MR: Well, it is and it is not. For example, Marxism has been so discredited now by the 21st century that there are only a tiny handful of young Marxists. The dominant ideology is anarchism among students and young activists. They are anti-state, of course, but in terms of strategy everything is reduced to self-expression, the need to express opposition to the state by wearing bandanas, breaking windows, and fighting cops.

SL: When you see these young anarchists, to what extent do you see them as your political offspring? How much do you find them romanticizing you and Weatherman in ways that you now find uncomfortable?

MR: It makes me very uncomfortable. The only value of the Weather Underground, it seems to me, is to learn what not to do. So when I see people making the same damn mistake, it upsets me. Last week I was in Pittsburgh and was arguing with some young people there who were involved in the G20 demonstrations back in September. They were a tiny faction of the six or eight thousand people there. About 200 of them wanted to march without a permit. They wanted to wear bandanas, and to show their militancy. They would not abide by the general agreement of nonviolence. So what I see is the need these people have to express their opposition rather than to think strategically about what will build the movement. This is the error we made. We went from organizing, which was essentially what built Columbia SDS, to swallowing an entire theoretical framework about revolution and anti-imperialism, militancy and support for the Third World, revolutionary solidarity, etc., all of which we took in the direction of self-expression. With the Days of Rage we believed that if by fighting the cops we showed people how militant and serious we were they would join us. But that does not build a movement. Today’s anarchists are making the same mistake.

What type of organizing did SDS engage in when you first joined the organization? How did it differ?

MR: It was talk. It was relation-building. It involved education. It involved engagement with people who did not think like us, but might be won over. So we would sit down and talk and find out what they thought about the war in Vietnam or about racism and tell them what we thought to see if there was any common ground. Such organizing took place over a long period of time—I am talking two to four years—and it paid off in the April 1968 confrontation. For instance, when I was a freshman at Columbia, studying in my dorm, David Gilbert, who was a senior and the chairman of the Independent Committee on Vietnam, a predecessor of the Columbia SDS chapter, comes knocking on my door. He was out organizing dorms, talking with people about the war and about racism.

Every day SDS had a table set up on campus. People would walk by and we would engage them in discussion about the war. I recently ran into somebody who remembers the brilliant arguments David made debating a ROTC guy in front of the SDS table. There was a lot of engagement with people rather than mere demonstrations of how deeply we felt about the war.

SL: So if we think about that in terms of its historical roots, some people in SDS were red diaper babies who inherited notions of base-building organization from the Communist Party. There were also streams coming out of the labor movement. So, to what extent do you think that these organizational strategies that people were improvising in SDS in the mid-1960s were actually new?

MR: We were the direct heirs of the Civil Rights and labor movement. The model for organizing came to us directly from those movements. The graduate students at Columbia had been in the south with SNCC, for example, and had learned organizing with Miss Ella Baker in Mississippi. To the extent that the anti-war movement grew, it was because of this organizing. I think that the mistake was believing after the Columbia Revolt that our self-expression politics, our confrontational politics, our hyper-militancy was what won people over. Certainly after Columbia it all failed. So my book is really the story of good organizing, SDS, followed by bad organizing, Weatherman, followed by no organizing at all, the Weather Underground. A friend of mine calls the Weather Underground “existential politics.” A bomb here and a bomb there—this was our form of self-expression.

What I have discovered in the last few years talking with students on college campuses is that, however well intentioned, they have no conception of organizing. They think the anti-Vietnam War movement happened spontaneously. It was a good idea so people came together and protested. They have never heard of SNCC or Ella Baker, and have scarcely heard of Saul Alinsky. They have no notion that a movement must have a growth strategy. When in the March of 2003 millions of people went out to the streets, they thought this would stop the war. After all, they had demonstrated their feelings on the subject. But that is not what a movement is. Historically, that is not what built all the great social and political movements in this country. For that, one must look to the secret American tradition, the one of real organizing.

I find that young people are trying to get back to that tradition and to figure it out. They are reading Barbara Ransby’s excellent Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement or Charles M. Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom about SNCC’s operations in one town in Mississippi, to which Payne returns to talk to everybody who was involved to discover what was their method of organizing? The answer Payne gives is that it had to do with building strong relationships and leadership development at the base level. SNCC adapted this model from the practices of Southern black churches. It was led by women and was highly democratic. This is stuff that needs rediscovering. I have dedicated myself to helping people figure this stuff out now.

SL: On the subject of the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left was, so to speak, galvanized by that struggle and yet still, at the time of your politicization in 1965 the student left, including SDS, remained tacitly divided along racial lines. This strikes me as very bizarre, this whole idea of the white left and the black left. Why wasn’t the Left already integrated? And since it wasn’t, why was this not a primary goal in the second half of the 1960s?

MR: The Black Power movement that emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, specifically from SNCC, hit organizations like SDS very hard. It was very difficult to understand how to function within this new idea of black self-determination and black separatism. It was like a punch to the gut. At the same time, it was very radical. We knew we had to understand Black Power. We could not whine, off on the sideline, and say “gee, all we want is an integrated organization and non-violence.” We had to understand what they were saying. They could not function in the same organization with white people because white people dominated because of internalized superiority or racism. The critique that Black Power made was enormous and, in a way, it drove us over the edge. This was especially true with the Black Panthers, because they seemed as if they were solving the problem for us by being both a Black Power organization and socialist. They recognized that there was both a class aspect and a racial aspect to oppression. So white leftists jumped on the Black Panthers’ bandwagon as a group we could ally with and work with. Meanwhile, the Panthers were getting smashed by the police and by the feds, murdered, literally murdered, and they needed support. So we served a function for them. This was especially true because the base they had built up in places like Oakland and Chicago, and to some extent New York, was evaporating. Black people didn’t want to die and to be involved with the Panthers was almost suicidal. In fact, that was the title of Huey P. Newton’s autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide. Running around with guns and chanting “Off the pig!” meant that the feds and the local police were going to kill you. And that’s what happened.

SL: So is it fair to say you inherited this split, derived from the Civil Rights Movement’s failure to radically transform American society through integration?

MR: No. It seemed to us that integration was played out. Black Power superseded both it and non-violence. The Black Power elements were much more radical in understanding the depth of the system, the depravity of the system, and in demanding self-determination. We wanted to be out there with them and the way to do this was to adopt a “revolutionary solidarity” line. This is what became the justification for the Weather Underground: We were to be a white fighting force in support of black revolution. To this day some of my old comrades still believe in this.
This is something rarely discussed anymore. Certainly, it hasn’t been analyzed. Still it is rare to find anyone who critiques Black Power or the implications of the slogan, “By any means necessary!” I now feel that non-violence was not at all played out. People were tired of getting attacked by the police and by racists and there was a desire to fight back, but the approach taken by the Panthers was ultimately a losing strategy.

SL: Did you read Harold Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual when it came out?

MR: I did not, but I should have.

SL: That book, which emerged out of Harlem in 1967, criticized both the limitations of the integrationist movement and black nationalism. It viewed the latter as an unfortunate symptom of failure, not as a way forward. You’re saying that, retrospectively at least, you’re sympathetic to that view?

MR: Was Black Power a winning strategy?

SL: No. I agree that black nationalism was a dead end for the left. But it is remarkable to hear you saying it.

MR: When I say this publicly people scream, “Racist!”

SL: Let’s go back and talk more about what Marxism meant to the Weather Underground. How did this ideology concocted from equal parts Regis Debray, Che Guevara, and Ho Chi Minh represent a form of Marxism? What sort of emancipation from, or analysis of, capitalism did it offer? After all, one can think of Marxism as a politics of the working-class in the core capitalist countries; but you guys completely turned that on its head so that national liberation and the defeat of racism became the primary content of the terms
“freedom” and “emancipation,” or even “socialism.” Beyond the defeat of American racism and imperialism, did socialism as you understood it really involve any fundamental transformation?

MR: For us, white skin privilege translated into American national privilege, so that all Americans were privileged economically because of the empire, which is true, incidentally. Almost the poorest person here lives better than most people in Africa. The depredations of capitalism have been exported to the Third World; the two-dollar-a-day wage shows up in our cheap goods at Wal-Mart. So, I do not think that what we were saying is totally wrong. On the other hand, we have to finance and produce manpower for wars to keep the thing going. So, there is tremendous stress and exploitation that takes place at home because of the militarist system.

But there is no simple remedy to this problem. Whether you think the Third World is going to bring down imperialism or you think workers in the United States are going to bring down imperialism, none of it works. It is all in the realm of idealism or even religion. Marxism is very nice as a tool with which to analyze the workings of a class society and I think that we could use a little bit more of it to understand stuff like the current economic meltdown. But if we want to know what is going to happen, Marxism doesn’t work. The Third World did not rise up against US imperialism. The workers have nowhere risen up against the capitalist class. I have become anti-ideological. We just have to muddle along.

SL: To me, calling national liberation in the Third World and decolonization the realization of leftist political aims seems almost a mockery when we look at the prevailing poverty, degradation, and political corruption.

MR: The corruption especially. Vijay Prashad in his book, The Darker Nations, provides a fabulous analysis of the defeat of national liberation at the hands of the new elite that rose up everywhere. National liberation as the antidote to imperialism was an illusion. I have friends who died for this illusion and other friends who are in prison for it, probably for the rest of their lives. Some are still fully committed to the illusion of national liberation. I hate to tell you this, but I am a liberal democrat.

SL: If what liberal democrats do is critically reflect on political experience, then I am all for them. As regards the 1960s, one just hears the usual, “Well, the man was too big and too strong, but we tried our best.” If we try to think the full depth of this problem, we have to ask ourselves, How we can imagine leftist politics as ever leading to anything but despair and disillusionment?

MR: I have been thinking a lot about this and have come to the conclusion that there is a potential progressive majority in this country, but only a progressive majority and not a revolutionary one. It has to be organized around simple ideas like the government as the embodiment of the national collectivity that has some responsibility for people, for the wellbeing of people and of the planet. This is simple, 18th century liberal stuff. Now what we have is a complete and total political and ideological victory of free market individualism and militarism. We have to combat it with the notion that there is such a thing as the collectivity and that the government has a responsibility for the wellbeing of people and of the planet. That is about as far as I can go.

SL: In the German context, when the student movement emerged there in the 1960s, the Marxist intellectual Theodor Adorno called into question the movement’s leftist character and said, in essence, “These young people really seek only the narcissistic satisfaction to be achieved by direct action. They are not really interested in or capable of transforming the circumstances that generate the discontent.” He thus took a critical position against what he saw as the authoritarianism rampant on the New Left in Europe. To what extent do you think authoritarianism was a factor both in your own particular political experience and on the American left as a whole in the 1960s?

MR: I think the popularity of Marxism-Leninism is a good gauge of that. Marxism-Leninism is essentially an authoritarian organizational strategy. It says, “Our little group knows best. We have the truth and we are going to impose it on everybody.” And of course, the New Left wound up in the 1970s as a giant mix of Marxist-Leninist groupuscules. There is the authoritarian tendency, the idea that we know best about everything. To me it is reappearing in the kids in Pittsburgh who want to wear bandanas and march without a permit. They said, “Well, we know better than everybody else because we have the truth. We understand how terrible the system is. You are just a liberal and don’t understand.”

SL: What about the exclusive preoccupation with action? To my mind, this is what historically ties today’s anarchists to the Weathermen. In both cases reflection has determined that the problem is reflection. It is almost a theoretical anti-theory, or an intellectual anti-intellectualism.

MR: That could be, but that was not our problem. Our problem was too much of both, too much belief in the propaganda of the deed and too much belief that national liberation was going to defeat US imperialism. So we had the worst of both worlds. We had the action plus the ideology. There has to be some way of testing the truth of ideas. The best I can figure out is growth of the movement, numbers. If you count how many people are at a demonstration and then, a year later, you count again and discover that your numbers have gone up, you are probably on the right track. If they have not, you are probably not.

SL: How do you know that the movement that is growing is the movement you want?

MR: You don’t. Nobody can know. You just blunder along. That is why I am for non-violence, because at least you are adopting strategies and tactics that do not do irreversible damage. In my experience, almost everything I ever did that I thought it was going to turn out one way turned out another. That is why I am a liberal, because hopefully liberals kill fewer people than radicals. I am for nobody killing anybody else, and that includes governments, terrorists, and communists, though, of course, there are not that many of those left in the world anymore. |P

Transcribed by Brian Worley

[1]. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987).


A panel discussion held on May 29, 2010 at the second Platypus International Convention at SAIC.

Panelists: Greg Gabrellas, Pam C. Nogales C., Spencer Leonard

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the rise of a new militancy and sectarianism on the Left. Whether in the case of the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Gay Liberation Front, or many other currents on the Left, developments from that time did much to shape the New Left's legacy as it comes down to the present. This panel seeks to move beyond the usual antinomies of unity versus fragmentation and idealism versus sectarianism that typically shape the discussion of the political trajectories of the period. Instead, it will attempt to grasp these turn of the decade developments as the results of long-standing problems inherited and confronted, yet ultimately abandoned and left unresolved by the New Left.


A talk given by Platypus member Chris Cutrone at Loyola University, on April 21st, 2010.

The German Marxist critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno (1903-69) is known, along with his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, for the critique of mid-20th century art and culture. What is less well understood is the specific character of Adorno's Marxism, how his political perspective related to his philosophical concerns. This workshop will address several aspects of Adorno's Marxism that relate to his critique of Leftist politics, in both periods of his early and late life, in the Old Left (1920s-40s) and New Left (1960s), and how Adorno remains relevant to issues and problems of Leftist politics today.

Recommended background readings:

Max Horkheimer, "The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom" (1926)

Adorno, "Imaginative Excesses" (1944)

Adorno, "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis" (1969)

Adorno, "Resignation" (1969)

Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, correspondence on the German New Left (1969)

Cosponsored by Pi Sigma Tau, STAND, and SAF.

Transcript in Platypus Review #37:


Juliet Mitchell: "I don't think anti-psychiatrists such as Laing and Cooper saw the schizophrenic as the madman telling the truth. What we had were two sets of rigidity, we had the pathological dimension of psychosis in paranoia, schizophrenia: delusions -- which are delusions, let's face it. But then we had the normative delusions of an acceptable psychotic status quo, which is what our political world very often is. For me, the question is whether the person who is suffering from the extreme pathological dimension of psychosis can find sufficient freedom to not need that refuge, whether he or she is able to come with a critique of the normative psychosis of the political social world."

There is never a psychopathology without the social context

An interview with Juliet Mitchell

British feminist and psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell talks to Cogito about her role in the British New Left in the 1960s. Mitchell was at the centre of the movement: as editorial board member of the New Left Review, as participant in Third World and anti-psychiatry movements, and as co-organizer of grassroots initiatives, including the "Anti-University", founded on the steps of Shoreditch Church in East London. Here, Mitchell outlines her intellectual trajectory from her early Marxism, to feminism of the mid-1960s, and to psychoanalysis in the 1970s.

E. Efe Çakmak: As one of the most influential figures of second-wave feminism and contemporary psychoanalytic theory, you have emphasized that your reading of Freud was "initially triggered by the hostility of American feminism to Freud". I also remember that you once spoke about your childhood memories of Wilhelm Reich, which went back to the 1940s. I am curious to hear what you feel about the origins of your thought today. How do you feel about Reich, for example?

Juliet Mitchell: I go back and situate myself in the 1960s, even in the childhood of the 1940s before that, immediately after the Second World War. I was in a communal school where my mother taught -- a very progressive, radical school called Summerhill in England. I was born in New Zealand, really by accident of the war. My parents were in Canada; my mother went on to take a research science job in New Zealand when war broke out. She didn't want to go; she wanted to stay in Canada. But the person she exchanged in the fellowship research programme was already on the high seas. So she went on and I was born there. Everybody thought the war would be short, but it wasn't. She felt very isolated. We lived in a German Jewish refugee community in Christchurch, which, I think, remained terribly important to me. The Jewish community in Christchurch, as I understand it now, was very interesting. Karl Popper had been there, for example, and he kept all the other Jewish refugees out of everything. I think it was a sort of European enclave. My mother didn't like being isolated; we came back to England in nine weeks in a boat in 1944, not knowing which way we were going. The Japanese were still at war, and we were a convoy on our way. The ship behind us was blown up, our ship was blown up on its way back. Three and a half, I had to do the lifeboat drill, getting my panic suit, turning on my red light, and climbing into lifeboats. Such are my early memories.

Anyway, we made it back to England, and the only thing my mother found out returning to England was evacuation of small children from the centres of cities. She wanted to make sure that I would not be sent away. So she became a schoolteacher, which meant she kept me with her. It was a school in North London, which was dominated by left-wing anarchists. Reich was just part of the air we breathed.

EEC: Reich was in the United States then, wasn't he?

JM: Yes, Reich was there by then. Norway forbade him, and then he went there. He was still seen as a political figure. He was quite an important person for left-wing anarchists after the war; but I don't remember thinking about that in the 1950s, which was a very different era. He came up again in the 1960s, with the student movement in Germany. A lot of his early works were reprinted by the SDS in Germany. And when I came to think about psychoanalysis, it was in the 1960s. I came in an environment where nobody would be interested in psychoanalysis, because that would have been bourgeois.

Going back to the 1940s, I had a job when I was eleven years old, looking after three children under the age of three -- twins and a girl of eighteen months. Their mother was trained to be a psychoanalyst. I was very interested in what she was doing. Her husband was the discoverer of interferon, which was a major scientific breakthrough. I was rather impressed by them when I was eleven years old. Maybe they had an influence.

The 1950s was such an enclosed sort of time. It is hard to express how freeing anything felt in the 1960s, and how the 1940s felt retrospectively. In the 1950s most teenagers were incredibly restricted by conventional narrow gender definitions. It began to break out with Teddy Boys and rockers in the late 1950s. Until then it really did feel like a straightjacket sort of existence. I remember my first years as a student, we were camping in Scotland. By then we were interested in the existentialism of Sartre and de Beauvoir. I wanted to buy The Second Sex, de Beauvoir's book, and went to the closest bookshop. I was asked to leave the bookshop, because it was regarded as pornography. The 1950s were like that. People now ask me about the 1960s, if there was a real sexual revolution. My answer is that certain things had changed and certain things were dramatically different from the past, particularly everyday instances.

Anyway, my first degree was in English literature, I loved English literature. But I didn't finish my PhD because when I was twenty-one I found a job lecturing in English literature at Leeds University in Northern England.

EEC: I am not sure whether it is popular among your readers today, but I remember reading an early article of yours on William Golding!

JM: William Golding? Published in New Left Review in about 1962, I think. That's when we were scraping the barrel, I was part of the team for New Left Review. We were really writing the journal ourselves, we had taken it over from the earlier group, which involved Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel, Dennis Bart, and before them, E. P. Thompson. Perry Anderson and I were married around that period, too. I was working in Leeds and we were living in London. This is about a five-hour train ride. Leeds was the stronghold of the on-the-ground political work, of the old Left embedded in the English working class and the Workers Education Movement. I knew the older generation of people, and I was some sort of bridge between Leeds and the "New Left" of London. The younger group had been seen by the older as totally continental. We were indeed very influenced by existentialism. E. P. Thompson told us off for "tree-top Marxism", for not having our feet on the ground. What we were trying to bring in was theory. We of course we had respect for the wonderful British historians and thinkers such as Raymond Williams, but they were ultimately suffering from British empiricism. We wanted to bring in continental theory, basically. That was the splitting point. I felt rather in two worlds, namely the pragmatism of the north of England and the theory of London and Paris.

And women came in that context. I remember I wrote on Doris Lessing as well as William Golding. I suppose psychoanalysis did come through Frantz Fanon, and Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre's attacks, which were very informed attacks, not just antagonisms. They knew why they didn't support psychoanalysis, why they didn't agree with it.

And we were extremely interested in the Third World. Many people went to work in Ghana. This would look like the hope of the future, independence in Algeria, and independence struggles in the world in general.

And then, because we were writing the magazine ourselves at this point, people started to write articles for it on special topics of our choice. There was a meeting point, for example Raphael Samuel wrote a wonderful piece about housing in Scotland. Thompson, Mann, and Anderson all had debates. People were getting embedded in Third World struggles. People went out and spent time researching what was happening and its political meaning, the major activists who were struggling in countries like Ghana, Algeria, and so on. People actually went to live there for a year or more and wrote very substantial articles. I joined Perry to write an article on Brazil, on Portuguese colonialism and the Portuguese empire. This was the sort of interest. We were discussing issues that didn't obviously fit into conventional terms of orthodox Marxism. We were influenced by Althusser, and that got us onto Lacan. We published Althusser's Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan in the mid-1960s, I think, quite early, this introduced Lacan into English culture. At that point, I decided not to work on the Third World any more, because the Third World here on our doorstep was women. Women who had not really been accounted for within Marxist theory.

It is interesting that it was Sartre who suggested de Beauvoir look at women. She hadn't thought about the subject before. They weren't coming from Marxism. If you think that Sartre wrote on Jews, Fanon on blacks, you could have introduced women's issues as well.

Existentialism is very open towards topics which were not class-based subjects such as Jews, blacks, or women. Marxism was not. A lot of us then gradually began to move out of the leftwing groups, and to see ourselves as Marxists who wanted to join up with feminism, the term we once absolutely denounced as "bourgeois deviation". We were calling this liberation, not emancipation, which was again a bourgeois concept. That was beginning to meet up with the liberationist movement, which was rising around situationists.

People like myself, coming from a Marxist background, found that orthodox class analysis wouldn't work for women. We were trying to look elsewhere. We were, of course, looking at existentialism through teenage years, early adulthood. It was Simone de Beauvoir's good theory, and it was probably one of the best single theories we have on woman or gender, when we have women on our agenda.

That was beginning to be met by the student movement, emerging at the same time. We were all involved in it. I was one of the founding members of the Anti-University of London in the late 1960s. Then I was working with anti-psychiatry people, Laing, Cooper, and so on. New Left Review published the first Laing. Then we published his series of articles on the critique of the family. It was a coming together of radical directions. The anti-psychiatrists were using existentialism; they translated Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason. With the anti-psychiatry people, we started the Anti-University on the steps of Shoreditch church in the east end of London. That's where I organized seminars with women, one of the first of the women's groups as a political group in the late 1960s. That was a very interesting group we had. We had a journalist from Sweden, some housewives with young children from South London, a couple of liberationist people and a couple of students. One of the people in this class inherited two thousand pounds, and she was going to put it towards a refuge for women, because violence against women was quite a topic. I persuaded her to put the money into a bookshop instead, so she opened a very good bookshop in Camden Town called Compendium Books, which became a very important alternative political bookshop. I certainly felt guilty afterwards, but other people raised money for refuges, anyway. I wanted a good bookshop. There were no good political bookshops around.

Political for us in the 1960s was such an inclusive concept, it meant radical, critical change, whether in the psychological field, the governmental field, the world field, and so on. It could be Red Brigades, it could be situationists. There was a lot of sectarian infighting. But sectarian infighting is a mark of tolerance in a funny way. It means you actually know that everybody is there. It was unlike the political field of the 1950s, which really did feel like being in a straightjacket.

I had my first article in New Left Review in 1966. My first book, Woman's Estate, which used that article, was published by Penguin Books in 1972. I had to get Penguin to withdraw the first couple of thousand from the bookshops, because they put one of our demonstrations on the cover -- but they hadn't realized that there was a banner of the Women's Liberation Front, the ultra sectarian Maoist women's group. And I was absolutely one of their most outspoken opponents. And a lot of the time we thought positively about the Cultural Revolution in China. We learned our lesson: don't think of popular revolutions unless you know them very well.

When it comes to sectarianism, people not on the Left never understood that argument is actually the lifeblood of politics. The problem is when people stop arguing.

By the time I'd written "Women: the Longest Revolution", in response to the Third World within one's own country, my question was, what were women, not being a class or race, doing here? "Oppression" was the word we used instead of "exploitation", because exploitation has a specific Marxist meaning as taking the surplus. And oppression was a catchy term used for Third World struggles and women as well.

"Women: the Longest Revolution" surveyed what was on Babel and Engels, also using Althusser as a framework. Because what was important to Althusser about women was in the last instance the economic: getting an independence from ideological state apparatuses, so women obviously get both into ideology and into economics. Althusser was rearranging the Marxist map, which was very helpful.

The book wasn't Althusserian in the political sense as much as in using the structures that he set up. Althusserian journals were coming out by friends of mine such as Ben Brewster. They were very specific in Althusserian politics. I was using the Althusserian argument rather than a platform.

After I finished "Women: the Longest Revolution", I noticed there was something missing from it. What it does is look at forestructures in which women are inserted. You can't find out anything about women. You couldn't, for example, find out how girls did in exams. A woman on a census was either her father's daughter or her husband's wife. Women were hidden from history. Where you could find women was within the family.

In the meantime, sociology was on the rise. There were big educational changes in England, including the introduction by the Wilson government of comprehensive education, expansion of universities. The article argues that "In all this literature, you can only find women as embedded in a family. Let's dismantle that and find out what women are doing in a family." Women are producing children. Caring for children. Providing a sexual relationship. And those three structures are surrounded by economy.

After I finished it I very much felt that I wanted to ask for another identifier, which was ideology. Woman is so much a part of it: there is no woman outside the ideology of woman. I had to think about that. When I thought about ideology, I started to look at psychology. That's how I moved. At the same time, one of the radical groups was anti-psychiatry. It used Freud quite critically, but not as much as the existentialists did.

I remember by then I moved from teaching English literature in Leeds University to be nearer to London where Perry and I were living, I moved to Reading University, where Perry also published some of his books. There I remember the wife of a young colleague, a very political young guy. We were part of the young teachers at universities; we were actually part of the student movement as well.

I remember the wife. She had an absolutely catastrophic delusion of breakdown at its maximum. She was working in Manchester. The head of my department was a very interesting man. He was very fond of her husband. She would just be put into a psychiatric hospital and drugged. Instead, he paid for her to come in a private car, absolutely mad, screaming, delusional, crazy. So a car went to fetch her to bring her down to Reading, where there was a sympathetic young practitioner, who first injected her, because she was trying to jump out of the window. He sedated her. Then her husband and I took her down to London to people working in anti-psychiatry. They found her a room in one of their hostels. There was somebody around for her all the time. She never had any drugs. They just let her sit quietly in a room, doing what she wanted to. She was calm, actually. She came out the other end fine. She did go through something. She was facing paranoid schizophrenia, she would have died, without a doubt. She would have been heavily medicated, probably given some CT. There was something in it. People may want to go back at some point and look at anti-psychiatry literature.

EEC: And your reading of Freud, that was "initially triggered by the hostility of American feminism to Freud"?

JM: So my own analysis of woman, which was taken up by Betty Friedan's book on feminism, published in 1964. In the States, the women's movement was beginning. I went to the States in 1964. I went to the foundation of Betty Friedan's movement, National Organization of Woman, which was the first organized women's movement. I met with groups of people who did very similar things to what we were doing in London. Marxist groups about women, Marxist-feminist groups... There were incredible prohibitions on woman's sexuality. Women weren't supposed to have any sexual enjoyment; vaginal orgasm seemed the only thing you should have. There was a big vote against that. And the beginning of very strong lesbian part of the women's movement in the US.

Freud was always at the nub of the attacks. From the freeing sexuality part, it moved to seeing Freud as this arch-patriarch. There were feminist calendars and diaries with Freud's head on a dartboard with a dart through his eye. That was Freud the arch-patriarch.

I started thinking that there must be something in it. I suppose we have a habit of thinking the opposite. It sounds pretentious to say "dialectically", but what I always found valuable about any aspect of Marxism was dialectic materialism. I would still defend dialectic materialism in some sense. It makes a lot of sense to me still. I'm probably absolutely off the planet saying that, but anyway.

So, as a habit of mind, if people are making a noise about somebody being absolutely the intellectual opposition, the thing that we must all attack, you begin to think there must be something in that for them to be bothering.

Visiting the US, I was still teaching. So, during the summer vacation, I went into the library, which I had used since I was 17 and adored. We had a network of people who used to work in that library. It was a very important intellectual centre, closed down. I went there just to read what Freud had had to say about women. I went there in June and came back in September, having read all his twenty three volumes of work. I just got completely fascinated.

I thought, this is where you could add a social analysis of sexuality to a wider social analysis of economy, social actions, classes, etc. Through psychology, you could get to ideology. Psychology and ideology are extremely close. How we think of what we are, how we think ourselves in the world is an ideological question. This is also what psychology is, how we think ourselves, particularly unconsciously. We don't wake up every morning and think, "Uh, God, I'm a man, uh God, I'm a woman." We know it without thinking about it, at a pre-conscious, but also deeply unconscious level. But how? This question takes us to the unconscious knowledge of gender.

So, I wrote Woman's Estate, it was an adaptation of the "Women: the Longest Revolution" article. At the end, it was saying we must think about using psychoanalysis for ideology. After that, I left the university and went freelance, got some money in advance from the publisher, money for me to live a couple of years so I could write a book. In the synopsis I said the book would be a "social history of the feminine"; that is how I got his money. A friend of mine had said, "double your needs, because you will get half," and I did. Then I wrote Psychoanalysis and Feminism -- so it had been commissioned as a book on the feminine, it was meant to be a sort of history of sociology of the feminine, the publisher got a different book than he bought. But he was extremely generous and nice, didn't mind at all. Donkey's years later I found the original synopsis, the commissioned book was really completely different.

There have been all sorts of ways in cultural studies where psychoanalysis has been used wonderfully. Something in me wanted to know the material from which it derived. I was always interested in the critical views of psychoanalysis. You know, I have been accused of defending Freud. It was not completely true. My project has always been within the critical views of psychoanalysis, nowhere else. But you have to criticize something in relation with the material you are using. And I wanted to use it in relation to the material from which psychoanalysis arose: men or women; people's psyche: the unconscious itself, in people.

Bülent Somay: And from the late 1970s onwards, you wore two hats at the same time; one being psychoanalyst and the other feminist. But how can these two positions, one a member of the social movement for emancipation and/or social change, and the other of a healer working in an extremely intimate environment, be reconciled?

JM: I went into psychoanalysis from feminism, from the sexual side and the political side. My questions for psychoanalysis were from politics, such as whether psychoanalysis could help understand the position of women. I've written articles and published other things on psychoanalysis for feminist newspapers in England.

It was only after that I wanted to take my research further; I needed to have a material base that the theory has derived from. Then I trained as a psychoanalyst, coming from the political spectrum.

I never really saw these two divided in the way you are presenting in your question. The project has always been defined in the other way. After all, Freud was quite explicit that there is no distinction between the individual as individual and the individual as social being. We are always and nothing but social. The unconscious, the field of psychoanalysis, is absolutely and necessarily social. So you may look at the social through some individual context. But because what you see is the social, we can use that material gathered from the individual to take further questions or further interpretations of the social. And the other way around, if you are going to look at the individual who has got a clinical problem, there is always a social context. There is never a psychopathology without the social context.

Practically speaking, they are of course different enterprises. It's private, working with an individual in a clinical context, because it has to be absolutely confidential. So the practice is obviously different, while the material theory combines very well, using the individual to understand the social and the social to understand the individual. That's what the whole notion of the unconscious is. It's not Jung's elective unconscious, it's Freud's social unconscious, that the mind is the body, the mind is somatic in everybody. Though you will have different individual histories, what we are looking at is in fact what holds us together, the dynamic, what we have in common.

I think what leads us to senses of two different worlds in the sense of individual is actually the nature of the society we live in. We take it for granted that the social is versus individual and vice versa. The individualism of capitalist society is such that we always tend to think of the individual as "not social". Therefore, we always tend to see the person with problems as an individual with individual psychopathology, and disregard the social problem. But in fact it's impossible. It has to be one and the same thing.

BS: As a feminist, your call to your fellow women is "Do not submit, subvert, change, change the world". But as a psychoanalyst, working with an individual, suffering comes because of the inability to cope with the existing order. You try to facilitate the social harmony, and eventually, submission. Is there a way to avoid this seemingly contradictory situation?

JM: I think it's seemingly rather than deeply contradictory. There is no way that I would be interested in helping somebody to cope with an impossible or difficult situation. What they might want to do is to find a way to change the situation by having some changes within themselves. But I wouldn't want them to change themselves to fit the situation in any sense. Supposing someone is not dysfunctional, ie they can work, they can have sexual relationships, friendships, love relations, and so on.

What I would be hoping for is an openness to find out what the person knows about himself, and what he or she doesn't know. When they know it, when they find out what it is, then, in a sense, he or she can choose how to use what he or she found: to choose, not to adapt. This is not a word that features in Freudian psychology. But to see how one can change oneself as well as how he or she can change the world is the problem. I think in both fields, what one is looking towards is "change", not "adaptation". Change of the individual is interpreted as adaptation to status quo -- but no, we should be changing both.

BS: Do you think psychosis as a complete or significantly partial refusal to submit to the symbolic order is psychoanalyzeable? Can there be a middle way, between the psychotic's way of refusing to submit and our trying to subvert the symbolic order?

JM: My present work is very much on the area of normalization of psychotic processes. In that normalization, what you have often got is actually the very rigid social order as well as rigid personality. So, it's not a question whether psychoanalysis can work with it or not. I think it can, but I think we haven't got a full understanding of psychosis yet. I think we understood its pathological dimension, not the normative dimension. We can ask whether psychopathology of the psychotic is really a subversion of the symbolic order or embattled rigid position from which the person cannot move either to subvert the symbolic order or to conform to it.

I don't think anti-psychiatrists such as Laing and Cooper saw the schizophrenic as the madman telling the truth. What we had were two sets of rigidity, we had the pathological dimension of psychosis in paranoia, schizophrenia: delusions -- which are delusions, let's face it. But then we had the normative delusions of an acceptable psychotic status quo, which is what our political world very often is. For me, the question is whether the person who is suffering from the extreme pathological dimension of psychosis can find sufficient freedom to not need that refuge, whether he or she is able to come with a critique of the normative psychosis of the political social world.


Friday, January 23rd, 2009
New York University Sociology Department
Puck Building
295 Lafayette st. 4th FL
New York, NY 10012


Friday, January 23rd, 2009
New York University Sociology Department
Puck Building
295 Lafayette st. 4th FL
New York, NY 10012