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Whenever approaching any phenomenon, Adorno’s procedure is one of immanent dialectical critique. The phenomenon is treated as not accidental or arbitrary but as a necessary form of appearance that points beyond itself, indicating conditions of possibility for change. It is a phenomenon of the necessity for change. The conditions of possibility for change indicated by the phenomenon in question are explored immanently, from within. The possibility for change is indicated by a phenomenon’s self-contradictions, which unfold from within itself, from its own movement, and develop from within its historical moment.

Without a socialist party, there is no class struggle, only rackets

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016

HORKHEIMER’S REMARKABLE ESSAY “On the sociology of class relations” (1943)1 is continuous with Adorno’s contemporaneous “Reflections on class theory” (1942) as well as his own “The authoritarian state” (1940/42), which similarly mark the transformation of Marx and Engels’s famous injunction in the Communist Manifesto that “history is the history of class struggles.” All of these writings were inspired by Walter Benjamin’s “On the concept of history” (AKA “Theses on the philosophy of history,” 1940), which registered history’s fundamental crisis. Instead, for Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s, history has become the history of “rackets.”2 As Horkheimer concludes his draft, parenthetically citing Marx on Hegelian methodology, “the anatomy of man is key to that of the ape:” the past is explicable from the present, in the form of clique power-politics. But this change is for Horkheimer a devolution -- regression. It stemmed from the failure of proletarian socialist revolutionary politics after 1917-19. Without Marxism, there was no class struggle.3

The significance of this change is the relation of the individual to the collective in capitalism. This affects the character of consciousness, and thus the role of theory: the critical theory of the capitalist totality -- Marxism -- is fundamentally altered. Specifically, the role of working-class political parties in developing this consciousness is evacuated. At stake is what Horkheimer later (in his 1956 conversation with Adorno translated as Towards a New Manifesto [2011]) called, simply, the “memory of socialism.” It disappears. This was Horkheimer’s primary concern, why he points out that the socialist party was not focused on fighting against exploitation, and was indeed indifferent to it. This is because exploitation does not distinguish capitalism from other epochs of history; only the potential possibility for socialism does. That is why, without socialist politics, the pre-capitalist past reasserts itself, in the form of rackets.

At the conclusion of “The authoritarian state,” Horkheimer wrote that, “with the return to the old free enterprise system, the entire horror would start again from the beginning under new management.” Regarding the specific topic stated in the title of this essay in particular, we should note Horkheimer’s unequivocal observation in “The authoritarian state” that,

“Sociological and psychological concepts are too superficial to express what has happened to revolutionaries in the last few decades: their will toward freedom has been damaged, without which neither understanding nor solidarity nor a correct relation between leader and group is conceivable.”4

If there was a “sociology of class relations” to be had, then it would be, as usual for the Frankfurt School, a “negative” and not positive phenomenon. The issue was how to grasp the significance of the original proletarian socialist revolutionary “will toward freedom” degenerating into a matter of mere “sociology” at all. We need to pay attention to the problem indicated by the “On . . .” in the title of Horkheimer’s essay. “Class” in Marx’s sense was not amenable to sociology; but “rackets” are. Sociology is about groups; but the proletariat for Marx was not a sociological group but rather a negative condition of society. The proletariat in capitalism was for Marx a negative phenomenon indicating the need for socialism. The political task of meeting that necessity was what Marx called “proletarian socialism.”

Horkheimer was in keeping with Marx on this score. As the former SYRIZA Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent (October 23, 2015) interview, Marx was not concerned with “equality” or “justice,” but “liberty” -- freedom.5 Moreover, as Varoufakis correctly observes, for Marx, capitalism is a condition of unfreedom for the capitalists and not only for the workers.6

As Marx wrote, at least as early as The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), the capitalist class is constituted as such, as a class, only in response to the demands of the workers. It treats the demands of the workers as impossible under capitalism, as a more or less criminal violation of society. It is only in meeting the political challenge of a unified capitalist class that the working class constitutes itself as a class “in itself,” not only subjectively but also objectively. For Marx, the historical turning point in this development was Chartism in England, which inaugurates the “class struggle” of the working class per se.

Only in fulfilling the task of proletarian socialism, transcending not only the workers’ (competing, racket) economic interests in capitalism but also democracy in bourgeois society, that is, coming up against the limits of liberalism, does the proletariat become a class “for itself” -- on the way to “abolishing itself” in overcoming the negative condition of society in capitalism: its politics is not about one group replacing another. But Chartism in the U.K., like the revolutions of 1848-49 on the Continent, failed. For Marx, this is the need for “revolution in permanence” (1850) indicated by the failure of the democratic revolution and of the “social republic” in 1848. This is why Adorno (1966) characterized the critical concept of “society” itself, negatively, as originating “around 1848.” The Chartists’ last act was to translate Marx and Engels’s Manifesto.7

So what, for Marx, was missing in 1848? This is key to what is missing for Horkheimer a hundred years later: an adequate political party for proletarian socialism; the means for making capitalism a political issue.

The role of the political party, specifically as non-identical with the workers' consciousness, both individually and collectively, was to actually preserve the individuality of the workers -- as well as of intellectuals! -- that is otherwise liquidated in the corporate collectives of capitalist firms, labor unions and nation-states. These rackets have replaced the world party of proletarian socialist revolution, which was itself a dialectical expression of the totality of market relations and of the otherwise chaotic disorder of the concrete conditions of the workers. For Horkheimer, workers related to the political party individually, and only as such constituted themselves as part of a class -- in revolutionary political struggle to overcome capitalism through socialism. It was not that Lenin’s party caused the liquidation of the individual, but the later travesty of “Leninism” in Stalinism was the effect of a broader and deeper socially regressive history of capitalism -- what Marx called “Bonapartism” in the 19th century -- that the 20th century authoritarian state and its concomitant “sociological” problem of political “atomization” expressed.

Liquidating the political party paves the way for conformism: individuality in society instead becomes individualism, whether of persons or corporate bodies. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly put it, “There is no such thing as society.” Not only as wish but in fact. By contrast, the party was the negative political discipline adequate to the societal crisis of liberal capitalism in self-contradiction. But for Horkheimer, now, instead positivity rules, in a direct authoritarian manner that capitalism eludes. Avoidance of the party means avoiding capitalism -- which suits the power of the rackets as such.

The problem of society’s domination by anonymous social forces was revealed by the struggle against exploitation, which demonstrated the limits of the power of the capitalists and hence the problem of and need to transform “society” as such. The “social question” dawned in the political crisis of 1848: the limits of the democratic republic. This becomes replaced by overt power relations that are mystified, by appearing to know no limits. For Horkheimer, following Lenin8, the party's struggle for socialism picked up where the struggle against exploitation reached its limits; without the party there is no struggle for socialism: no pointing beyond but only accommodating capitalism as nature -- or at least as a condition seemingly permanent to society.

This is why Horkheimer likens the ideology of organized "racket" capitalism in the 20th century to traditional civilization, by contrast with the liberal capitalism of the 19th century mediated by markets. Indeed, the problem with the rackets is that they falsify precisely the universalism of ideology, which in liberalism could be turned into a negative critique, an index of falsity. Universality is no longer claimed, so the universal condition of domination by capital is rendered occult and illegible. As Adorno put it, “The whole is the false.” Only by confronting the negative totality of capitalism politically was class struggle possible. The power-struggles of rackets do not point beyond themselves. There is no history. | P


  1. Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/horkheimer/content/pageview/6591478>. See the symposium on Horkheimer's essay with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), from which this essay is taken: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. 

  2. Horkheimer specified the concept of “rackets” in “On the sociology of class relations” as follows:
    “The concept of the racket referring to the big and to the small units struggling for as great a share as possible of the surplus value designates all such groups from the highest capitalistic bodies down to the little pressure groups working within or without the pale of the law among the most miserable strata of the population. It has arisen as a theoretical concept when, by the increasing absoluteness of the profit system the disproportion between the functions of the ruling class in production and the advantages which they draw from it became even more manifest than at the time of . . . [Marx’s] Capital.” 

  3. Rosa Luxemburg had a half-century earlier expressed this succinctly in her October 3, 1898 speech to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), that, “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle:”
    “Think about it: what really constitutes the socialist character of our whole movement? The really practical struggle falls into three categories: the trade-union struggle, the struggle for social reforms, and the struggle to democratize the capitalist state. Are these three forms of our struggle really socialism? Not at all. Take the trade-union movement first! Look at England: not only is it not socialist there, but it is in some respects an obstacle to socialism. Social reform is also emphasized by Academic Socialists, National Socialists, and similar types. And democratization is specifically bourgeois. The bourgeoisie had already inscribed democracy on its banner before we did. . . .
    “Then what is it in our day-to-day struggles that makes us a socialist party? It can only be the relation between these three practical struggles and our final goals. It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle. And by final goal we must not mean, as [Wolfgang] Heine has said, this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. . . . This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.” (Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>.)  

  4. Max Horkheimer, “The authoritarian state,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 117. 

  5. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X034u2pls3M

  6. See also Horkheimer’s “The little man and the philosophy of freedom,” in Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52. There, Horkheimer wrote that,
    “[A]lthough [the capitalists] did not themselves create the world, one cannot but suspect that they would have made it exactly as it is. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible . . . [n]ot only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.”
    Horkheimer paraphrased Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family (1845), where they wrote that,
    “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.” (Quoted in Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” part III “The standpoint of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1971], 149. Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm>.)  

  7. See David Black, “The elusive threads of historical progress: The early Chartists and the young Marx and Engels,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011 – January 2012), available on-line at: </2011/12/01/elusive-threads-of-historical-progress/>. 

  8. See Lenin's What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished "socialist" from "trade union consciousness:" "We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals." Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm>.
    Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that, "It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this Lenin sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things." Trans. Frederik van Gelder at: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_mh_grossmann_letter.html>. Original letter in German: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_MH_Grossmann_letter_DEU.pdf>. 

Ben Lewis and Tom Riley with Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

On March 31, 2012, the Platypus Affiliated Society invited Ben Lewis of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency to speak on the theme of “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy” at the 2012 Platypus International Convention held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The original description of the event reads as follows: “The occasion for this panel is, in part, Pham Binh’s recent critique of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, which was circulated on the web and published in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker, and the responses in on-going debate by Paul LeBlanc and Paul D’Amato. This panel discussion is to be focused on political tasks of the Left in the present (especially after the emergence of #Occupy) in light of the history of Marxism and Lenin’s place in it. Specifically, the present paralysis or rearguard character of the Marxist Left, as well as the preponderance of anarchist political sentiments, need to be addressed in light of Lenin’s mixed and highly contentious legacy: What is to be done with Lenin?” What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full audio recording is available online at <http://archive.org/details/LeninAndTheMarxistLeftAfteroccupy>.

Introduction

Chris Cutrone: Our third panelist, Pham Binh, had an emergency and is unable to attend. I will introduce briefly the topic for this panel, and then I will try to represent the most recent instantiation of Pham Binh’s critique of the International Socialist tradition’s—the International Socialist Organization (ISO)’s in the U.S. and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)’s in Britain—interpretation of Lenin. I am going to try to represent how Binh has articulated his interest in raising this issue in the context of #Occupy.

The title of this panel is “Lenin and the Marxist Left after #Occupy.” The occasion for this is Pham Binh’s recent critique of Tony Cliff’s multi-volumed biography of Lenin, originally written in the 1970s. This critique by Binh was circulated on the web, first on Louis Proyect’s blog The Unrepentant Marxist, and then republished in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Weekly Worker.[1] Several responses and an ongoing debate have taken place, conducted by representatives of the ISO, namely, Paul LeBlanc, a scholar of this period in the history of Marxism, and Paul D’Amato, a leading member of the ISO.

In Pham Binh’s absence, let me represent what he had to say about why he has been motivated since last summer, before the emergence of #Occupy, but also through the experience of participating in #Occupy, and, then, the quiescent period of #Occupy during the winter, to return to a project of critiquing Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, and specifically the International Socialists’ tradition of interpretation of Lenin since the 1970s. In his most recent article, he states that the question of politics, of political party, and of political form, has been raised by #Occupy. He interprets Lenin not as a vanguardist in the sectarian sense, in the sense of a political organization that acts as the vanguard for the movement; rather, he interprets Lenin as very much concerned with political form. #Occupy is, for Binh, such a political form: #Occupy is a vanguard of democratic struggle and the struggle against capitalism, to achieve socialism.

In that respect, this reinterpretation of Lenin has also found expression elsewhere, namely, Lars Lih’s retranslation and reinterpretation of What is to be Done?,[2] as well as his more recently published political biography of Lenin;[3] also, in some of the work done around the CPGB in terms of looking at Lenin’s relationship to 2nd International Marxism, the Kautskyan conception of Marxism and the party.

The other point that I would make, that Binh doesn’t raise but that I think is important with respect to Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, is looking back to the 1970s, because I think it bears on the question of #Occupy. If we think about the 2008 crisis and its ramifications in similar terms to the crisis of the 1970s, then we must recognize that this Tony Cliff International Socialist tradition made a deliberate turn in the 1970s, away from how they conceived their Marxism in the 1960s as a kind of “Luxemburgism,” and shifted in the 70s to an avowed “Leninism.” Cliff himself, in taking up this multi-volume biography of Lenin in the 70s, was motivated by a renewed currency and relevance of Lenin that was widely shared. In the 1970s, there was a Marxist-Leninist turn, there was a growth of Maoism, as well as of Trotskyism; there was a “return to Leninism.” The difference in the post-2008 moment is the conspicuous absence of the currency and relevance of Lenin.

Leninism: “Irreconcilable ideological demarcation”[4]

Tom Riley: We are indeed living in peculiar times: The Marxist critique of the irrationality of production for profit is powerfully vindicated on a daily basis. “Capitalism” has become a dirty word, and the popular legitimacy of the existing social order is as low as it has ever been since the 1930s. Yet the organized Left has never been weaker in terms of numbers, influence, and the ability to project a vision of a plausible alternative to the endless horrors of the “free market.” This is clearly a very contradictory situation.

We believe that the struggle to politically rearm the Left and lay the basis for a resurgent revolutionary workers’ movement must begin by assimilating the essential lessons—both positive and negative—of the generations of militants who have preceded us. Above all this means studying the lessons of October 1917, the only successful workers’ revolution in history.

Let me begin with what I think is the bottom line: the essential precondition for the success of the Bolshevik Revolution was recognizing the necessity to split the workers’ movement. That is, for revolutionaries to organize themselves separately from opportunists, centrists, and reformists.

James P. Cannon, the best communist leader America has produced so far, contrasted Lenin’s role with two other revolutionary giants, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg:

Trotsky’s greatest error, the error which Trotsky had to recognize and overcome before he could find his way to unity with Lenin, was his insistence that the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had to unite….Lenin’s policy was vindicated in life. Lenin built a party, something that Luxemburg was not able to do with all her great abilities and talents; something that Trotsky was not able to do precisely because of his wrong estimation of the Mensheviks.[5]

Trotsky explicitly acknowledged this in the first chapter of his 1929 book, The Permanent Revolution:

I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both [Bolshevik and Menshevik] factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party.[6]

Trotsky was a bit slow to absorb that lesson. He had been in the movement a long time by 1917 when he finally came around to Leninism. But once he learned it he never forgot it. The Left Opposition, which he led and which alone upheld the political heritage of Bolshevism through the Stalinist nightmare, was built on the basis of always putting "program first."

Lenin’s conception from relatively early on was that a revolutionary organization should be composed exclusively of revolutionaries, i.e. people who understood and agreed with the Marxist program and were prepared to act in a disciplined fashion to carry it out. The famous split at the 1903 RSDLP [Russian Social Democratic Labor Party] Congress between Menshevik “softs” and Bolshevik “hards” over this question prefigured the eventual division over whether to support or overthrow Kerensky and his bourgeois provisional government in 1917.

The Leninist conception of “democratic centralism” is based on full freedom of discussion internally—including the right to modify the program and change the leadership. That is the “democratic” part. The “centralist” element involves the duty of all members to carry out the decisions of the majority—even those decisions that they personally may not agree with—until they win a majority and can change them.

Some people, including the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), who consider themselves Leninists, think it is fine for members to disagree with each other in public. The CPGB has the unique distinction of claiming the Leninist tradition while also embracing “the renegade Kautsky.” Lenin derided this kind of “broad church” approach as “swamp-building.” We agree with him, but to each their own. The comrades of the CPGB are certainly welcome to Kautsky as far as we are concerned.

Of course we are here because of the ripples caused by comrade Pham Binh’s critique of the first volume of Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin. Cliff was neither a great writer nor an outstanding historian, and his book would be of little interest except for the fact that he was the leader of the International Socialist Tendency, an organization which no one could accuse of ever putting “program first.”

Cliff deserted the Trotskyist movement in 1950 when, under the pressure of the Cold War, he refused to defend North Korea (and Red China) against military attack by the U.S. and various other imperialist powers and their vassals. For most of the next two decades the International Socialism Group (IS) was buried in Britain’s social-democratic Labour Party, during which time (in 1959) Cliff published a study of Rosa Luxemburg that provides some insight into his group’s politics at the time. Cliff applauded Luxemburg’s notion, developed prior to the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution, that somehow the working class could more or less spontaneously overthrow capitalism and wield state power without any sort of general staff to provide leadership.

For most of her active political life Luxemburg operated as the leader of a small revolutionary faction within the mass reformist German Social Democratic Party. In contrasting this model with Lenin’s, Cliff concluded: “For Marxists, in advanced industrial countries, Lenin's original position can much less serve as a guide than Rosa Luxemburg’s.”[7] By 1968, when the IS got around to reprinting the book, Lenin was more in vogue, so the offending passage was simply excised without any explanation. That is not how serious Marxists operate, but it is typical of Cliff and the political tendency he created.

While there is much to object to in Cliff’s biography of Lenin, for the most part comrade Binh and I do not share the same criticisms. I do not agree, for example, with his assertion that the original 1903 split with the Mensheviks had no particular importance. For those who may not have read his critique I will quote from it:

Cliff is like most other “Leninists” who invest the 1903 membership debate with an artificial and ahistorical significance. If Lenin did not mention the issue in his discussion on the “Principle Stages in the History of Bolshevism” in “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder written for foreign communist audiences unfamiliar with RSDLP history it could not have been a terribly important issue from his point of view.[8]

When I read this I was astounded. I could not imagine how anyone could dismiss the split with the Mensheviks so lightly. When I went back and checked Lenin’s account in Left-Wing Communism, which Binh used to back up his claim, I discovered the following passage in the fifth paragraph of the second chapter:

As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat.[9]

A little further on Lenin writes,

On the one hand, Bolshevism arose in 1903 on a very firm foundation of Marxist theory. The correctness of this revolutionary theory, and of it alone, has been proved, not only by world experience throughout the nineteenth century, but especially by the experience of the seekings and vacillations, the errors and disappointments of revolutionary thought in Russia….On the other hand, Bolshevism, which had arisen on this granite foundation of theory, went through fifteen years of practical history (1903–17) unequalled anywhere in the world in its wealth of experience.[10]

This suggests that Lenin viewed 1903 as somewhat significant.

The first section of the third chapter (which comrade Binh specifically cited) is entitled “The Years of Preparation for Revolution: 1903 to 1905.” I would like to read a few sentences from this:

Representatives of the three main classes, of the three principal political trends—the liberal-bourgeois, the petty-bourgeois-democratic (concealed behind “social-democratic” and “social-revolutionary” labels), [Here the editors of the Marxist Internet Archive comment: “The reference is to the Mensheviks (who formed the Right and opportunist wing of Social-Democracy in the R.S.D.L.P.), and to the Socialist-Revolutionaries.”] and the proletarian-revolutionary [i.e., the Bolsheviks]—anticipated and prepared the impending open class struggle by waging a most bitter struggle on issues of programme and tactics. All the issues on which the masses waged an armed struggle in 1905–07 and 1917–20 can (and should) be studied, in their embryonic form, in the press of the period.[11]

Lenin is quite clearly asserting that the fight between these three trends posed “all the issues” of the subsequent revolutionary struggles of 1905 and 1917 and that they “can (and should) be studied in their embryonic form, in the press of the period,” i.e., in the polemics against the Mensheviks that begin in 1903.

Comrade Binh is similarly mistaken in his assessment that Cliff’s treatment of Lenin’s seminal work, What is to be Done, is “unremarkable” apart from a suggestion that Lenin may have bent some of the party rules now and then for factional purposes. In fact what is “remarkable” was Cliff’s claim that Lenin’s book displayed a “mechanical juxtaposition of spontaneity and consciousness” because he asserted that through their own isolated experiences workers can only develop trade-union consciousness, which, as Lenin explains, is a form of bourgeois consciousness. This is why it is necessary to struggle to bring the workers’ movement “under the wing of the revolutionary” party. Cliff takes this as evidence that Lenin “assumed that the party had answers to all the questions that spontaneous struggle might bring forth. The blindness of the embattled many is the obverse of the omniscience of the few.”[12]

Binh may not find that “remarkable,” but I do, particularly from someone claiming to be writing some sort of manual on Leninism. Cliff’s philistine remark is an attack on the entire Bolshevik conception of the relationship between the conscious revolutionary vanguard and the mass of the “class in itself.” It is textbook anarcho/social-democratic anti-Leninism. Cliff’s organic hostility to What is to be Done? is hardly accidental: Lenin’s whole book is a polemic against opportunists who adapt their politics to whatever illusions are currently popular. Lenin called such people “tailists” and the International Socialists provide a perfect contemporary example.

When Cliff’s book first appeared, Bruce Landau, a disaffected former IS-er, published a stimulating and incisive critique in which he identified a series of critical errors by Cliff: failure to grasp Lenin’s analysis of “Economism;”[13] misrepresentation of the reasons for launching Iskra; and misreading the significance of both the 1903 split and the 1905 turn to mass worker recruitment—which Cliff mistakenly described as Lenin’s “correction” of his earlier conception of a party of professional revolutionaries.

Another work that came out around the same time, which dealt with Cliff in passing, was Lenin and the Vanguard Party by Joseph Seymour, the leading intellectual of the then-revolutionary Spartacist League. We consider this pamphlet to be an extremely valuable study of the origins and development of Bolshevism and have posted it to our website.[14]

I found Lars Lih’s commentaries on the discussions at the 1905 congress and the 1912 Prague conference to be among the more informative contributions to the discussions of Binh’s critique of Cliff. Contrary to comrade Binh, the Prague conference is generally seen as marking the point of no return for any prospect of a Bolshevik/Menshevik reunification, although, as Seymour observed:

Even before 1912, the Bolsheviks were essentially a party, rather than a faction, because Lenin would refuse to act as a disciplined minority under a Menshevik leadership. The Menshevik leaders, including Plekhanov, reciprocated this attitude. Unity with the numerically small “pro-Party” Mensheviks did not challenge Lenin’s leadership of the party as he reconstructed it at the Prague Conference.[15]

Comrade [Ben] Lewis and I briefly discussed the 1912 conference last night and I was rather surprised to discover that we could agree that, from that point onward, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks maintained separate underground apparatuses, leaderships, finances and publications (with sharply divergent political positions on most issues). The only thing they shared was a name—the RSDLP. To my mind that signifies that they constituted two separate and distinct organizations. Comrade Lewis draws a different conclusion which he will no doubt explain shortly.

Finally, I want to comment on what comrade Binh sees as the inevitability of bureaucratic degeneration in groups with a democratic-centralist organizational structure. I think he is mistaken. There have been groups which operated within that framework for decades that maintained democratic internal regimes. I would cite the American Trotskyist movement led by James P. Cannon from the 1920s to the 1960s as an example of a group that operated in an essentially democratic fashion, where dissident points of view could get a hearing and minority rights were respected. I believe there are other examples as well.

In the decade between the launch of Iskra and the 1912 conference, the Bolshevik faction evolved from a revolutionary social-democratic formation (inspired by the German social democracy led by Kautsky) into an embryonic revolutionary combat party. Along the way a few sticks were bent, some doors were slammed, voices were raised and harsh words exchanged. Lenin undoubtedly made some mistakes and got some things wrong. But he had a pretty good record of correcting his errors and probably came as close as anyone has to “combining theory and practice to perfection”—a phrase in comrade Cliff’s book that Binh found objectionable. The simple fact is that Lenin’s party succeeded where every other attempt has failed. That was no accident—and I submit that we all have a great deal to learn from that experience.

Breaking with the Cold War consensus[16]

Ben Lewis: I would like to preface my remarks with a quote that neatly sums up where we currently are in terms of the debate around the 1912 Prague conference, the 6th Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party: “Prague party conference. Bolsheviks constitute themselves an independent Marxist party….The party strengthens itself by purging its ranks of opportunist elements — that is one of the maxims of the Bolshevik Party, which is a party of a new type fundamentally different from the social democratic parties of the Second International.”[17]

Stalin and Zinoviev

Many on today’s far Left share this view. Worryingly, however, the quote is from Joseph Stalin. Moreover, this is not the Stalin of 1912, when, like all other leading Bolsheviks, he vehemently denied that they were out to constitute themselves as a single party. No, it is Stalin from his Short course of 1938, a text in which he is quite patently rewriting and falsifying the history of the RSDLP for his own particular purposes. Of course, the reason Stalin has to reinvent party history is to justify his monolithic party regime: in 1912 the Bolsheviks created a party of one faction, i.e., a party of no factions at all. Further, Stalin argues that creating such a single-faction party had always been Lenin’s plan since the RSDLP’s 2nd Congress in 1903. While on occasion the Bolsheviks had sought rapprochement and even unity with the Mensheviks and others, essentially this was a kind of trick, a concealment of the Bolsheviks’ true aims and a way of influencing (duping?) the supporters of such groups—or at least that was what this version drives us to conclude. Never mind the fact that Lenin had a Menshevik chairing the Prague conference!

Lars Lih has also dug up an extremely revealing comment by Zinoviev a few years earlier. In 1933, looking back to 1912, Zinoviev wrote: “I don’t know why the records of the Prague conference have not yet been published. I think they’ve survived and, I’m pretty sure, in quite detailed form.”[18] (These comments were not published at the time.)

The records of the Prague conference of 1912 did not emerge until 1982, when the academic historian, Carter Elwood, discussed them in an article entitled “The art of calling a party conference.” Looking back, we can obviously answer Zinoviev’s question: Publishing the records would have completely undermined the Stalinist myth. And we all know what informed these attempts to reinvent Bolshevik history: Three years later Zinoviev was murdered in cold blood.

Interestingly, according to Lars Lih, Elwood’s 1982 analysis, as well as that of his recent book, The Non-Geometric Lenin, overlap with the Stalinist falsification thesis. Perhaps this should be of little surprise. For Elwood, after all, there are two kinds of Lenin: the human being who liked hiking through the mountains and enjoyed a glass of beer afterwards, and the geometric Lenin—that is to say, the cold, factional operator, the calculator and political manipulator. Thus, as is often the case with Lenin studies, a cozy consensus emerges between bourgeois academic historians and the far left: What Lars Lih has deemed the “academic” and “activist” interpretations of Lenin.

For academic historians, many of whom were nicely funded by the Hoover Institute for their troubles, this interpretation of events proves that Lenin was a liar and manipulator. For the Left—particularly the Stalinists—it proves that Lenin was an unrivalled leader and skilled “stick-bender,” as Tony Cliff might have put it. I think that recent scholarship, not just from Lars, but from others locating Lenin’s views in the context of Second International Marxism, is helping us to move beyond such a cultish Lenin. But, as I shall argue, I also think that the left has not quite taken on board some of the new insights and understandings. This is also true of 1912, although it would seem that the ball has started to roll.

Why does this matter?

Some might think that agonizing over the exact course of events at a conference that took place just over a century ago is of little relevance to the tasks of the Left today. Fiddling while Rome, or Athens, burns. But Marxism is, or should be, deeply historical. Getting out of the mess the far left is currently in, or at least thinking about how to get out of that mess, requires a rigorous interpretation of our own history—warts and all.

It is undoubtedly the case that we still live in the gloomy shadow of what passed itself off as "communism" and "socialism" in the 20th century. This is not only true of how the majority of people perceive our movement today, but also of our own ideas and alternatives. The 20th century saw an enormous defeat for the working class movement internationally, and this has manifested itself in a crisis of working class politics. We must confront this crisis openly, boldly, and honestly—the only way we can seek to rearticulate the political project of Marxism as a viable alternative to capitalist decline.

Yet some of the material that is being uncovered in the course of the discussion on 1912 is revealing. In many ways those of us who call ourselves “Bolsheviks,” “Leninists,” and “Trotskyists” do so on the basis of a cold war caricature, a Stalinoid misrepresentation of the organization that was able to lead the masses to power in 1917. Given the subordinate position of the working class in society, and the general confusion that surrounds us as a result of our defeats and setbacks, perhaps this is no surprise.

Yet such a conception of “Bolshevism” directly feeds into some of the real, concrete problems we face today, not least in the proliferation of competing sect regimes and outfits. Stalinists and Maoists, for example, can justify the existence of their monolithic organizations on the basis of Stalin’s arguments about 1903 and 1912. Similarly, many Trotskyist groups will deploy such arguments as a way of clamping down on public dissent and factionalizing—witness, for example, how comrades on the Left usually refer to internal discussion and debate. Apparently, most left groups have a very healthy internal regime. But how would anybody on the Left, let alone in the working class more generally, know unless they join?

The necessary concomitant of this form of so-called “Bolshevik” organization is splits, disillusionment, and fragmentation, not partyist unity. Moreover, the slight resurgence in anarcho-libertarian ideas recently can be partly explained by the existence of bureaucratic centralist regimes claiming the mantle of “Bolshevism.” If that is “Bolshevism,” so many anarchists reason, then we want nothing to do with it. Again, the result is further fragmentation and strategic disorientation/valorization of spontaneous struggle, as opposed to political strategy.

Basing ourselves on this kind of toy-town Bolshevism, the Left today is rendered near impotent in the face of enormous historical tasks and challenges. We cannot seriously unite anyone because we cannot unite ourselves. There are various forms of latent and actual resistance against the effects of the capitalist crisis, but at present we are collectively failing to offer anything viable, practical, or inspirational.

More fundamentally, the question of the party form, the kind of party regimes we fight for and organize around today, cannot be separated from the kind of society we are trying to build, the way we conceive working class rule. For us in the CPGB, revolution must be the conscious act of the majority of the population, aware of what they are doing, why they are doing it, and able to organize if that plan is not sufficiently being carried out or being undermined. The degeneration of the Bolshevik Party, along with the retreat and defeat of the Russian Revolution itself, underlines this basic point. In order to rule, the working class needs democracy at all levels of society. It certainly could not exercise political power through the kind of bureaucratic centralist regimes that are features of the Left and held up as “Bolshevism.” Hence the importance of this discussion: it is certainly not a “waste of ink.”

Moving forward

As I mentioned before, recent scholarship has taken some great strides in terms of understanding the history and evolution of Lenin and the Bolsheviks: firstly with 1903 and now with 1912. Many on the Left have quite rightly applauded the efforts of those like Lars Lih. But I think we have not taken on board what implications these insights have for our own practice. For example, when I watched the Socialist Workers Party’s John Molyneux debate Lars at Marxism back in 2008, I heard Molyneux say something along the lines of “This is a great book for students of Russian history who want to prove that Lenin does not lead to Stalin, but cannot quote a non-academic source like Tony Cliff.”[19]

But, while Molyneux may not think so, we are gradually beginning to understand the context of the emergence of Bolshevism—namely in the Second International—and we are beginning to see that Bolshevism was a mass phenomenon, aimed at merging the workers’ movement with a program for society as a whole, not just for issues directly affecting the working class. Fundamentally, this meant fighting for the “light and air” of political freedom, leading other classes to challenge for state power. The class unity required for such a momentous task was based around the acceptance of a Marxist program, not agreement. This was a crucial distinction, and informed the partyist democracy which the Bolsheviks upheld. Unity did not, as in many left groups today, revolve around philosophical or historical agreement, but political commitment: Unity in action and freedom of discussion.

This led to robust political debate and discussion both between the competing factions of the RSDLP and within the Bolshevik faction itself: Electoral tactics, the national question, the question of a second revolution in April 1917 etc., are all noteworthy examples. This conception of the party is often portrayed as one “of the whole class,” but this is just a tired repetition of arguments made back in 1977–78 by Joseph Seymour in his Lenin and the Vanguard Party. This view implies that anybody could be allowed into a revolutionary party, and that this was the major flaw of so-called “Second International Marxism.”

But this is simply untenable—it was the program that decided. For example, the Second International was formed on the basis that all those who rejected class political action, like the syndicalists, were automatically ruled out. Moreover, those who broke with the basic programmatic outlook of the Second International were expelled, e.g., the “governmental socialist,” Alexandre Millerand. The Bund was excluded from the RSDLP, etc. Membership of the party was not open to everyone. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that we wish to win as many to our banner as possible. But the problem is that it is simply impossible to unite millions in the kind of bureaucratic centralist organizations that characterize most left groups—where membership is often predicated on particular historical positions, like the class nature of the USSR, etc.

Although the dating and particular motives vary depending on the particular organization and dogma, most of today’s far left is convinced that Lenin and his comrades ultimately broke with the guiding programmatic and strategic pillars of the Second International. But—and it gets a little tiresome to repeat this—it was Kautsky and his supporters who broke with, reneged on, the outlook they had helped to shape (note the linguistic connection between “renegade” and “renege”).

I will finish with another Zinoviev quote which might help to clear things up for those who are still in doubt. The quote comes following the ignominious collapse of the Second International: “We are not renouncing the entire history of the Second International. We are not renouncing what was Marxist in it….In the last years of the Second International’s existence, the opportunists and the ‘center’ obtained a majority over the Marxists. But, in spite of everything, a revolutionary Marxist tendency always existed in the Second International. And we are not renouncing its legacy for one minute.”[20]

Nor should we. Moreover, we should note that the attempt to create a gulf between the Second International and the later “party of a new type” is something that sets in later, with the retreat of the Russian Revolution and the attendant problems—not exclusively, but primarily, with the Stalin school of falsification on party history. To the best of my knowledge, the concept of a “party of a new type” is not Lenin’s. Fundamentally, such a perspective bears the fingerprints of Stalin, as does the common interpretation of Prague 1912. If Stalinism was one of the key subjective obstacles to the formation of working class politics in the 20th century, then similar perspectives cannot exactly provide a strong starting point for working class politics in the 21st.

Responses

CC: Tom, it sounds like you are characterizing Binh’s criticism of Cliff as coming in some way from the right, so that Binh’s critique of Cliff is worse even than Cliff himself. Also, with respect to democratic centralism and the SWP/US as a model, could you get into some concrete examples of a healthy Marxist party with democratic centralism in the later history, after the Bolsheviks under Lenin?

Ben, could you address, and this relates to the substance of what Tom was raising, the difference between splits and purges? How might we think about splits in the history of Marxism in terms of transformation? Because some of your discussion had to do with problematizing characterizations of breaks, emphasizing lines of continuity, and it seems to me that we might think about transformation rather than breaks.

TR: I don’t know comrade Binh, but it does seem there’s a whiff of anti-Leninism in his critique, and his criticisms of Cliff are not very substantial. I’ve tried to suggest this with reference to his claims that 1903 is insignificant and his further claim that Lenin viewed it the same way. The very thing he cites as proof that it’s not important, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, is a text in which Lenin not only mentions 1903 but he says there that it prepared the way for the success of the October Revolution.

Do I think the comrade is somewhat to the right of Cliff? Well, if Cliff says that 1903, the initial break with the Mensheviks, is important and lays out at least some of the case for that, then certainly he’s correct. If Binh says it’s not important, it’s not so much right as uninformed, but it’s hard for me to know. Certainly Binh’s project, that the whole Left should get together and join #Occupy, to form one giant party, puts him a little bit to the right of comrade Lewis here, who presumably doesn’t want to include everyone in one group. D’Amato’s response to this, if you put Stalinists, social democrats, people who want to vote for the Democratic Party, and people who never want to vote for the Democratic Party, if you put them all in the same group you’re not going to have a very effective operational group. It’s an obvious point. I just think Comrade Binh lacks experience. Anyone who has been in a serious Left organization has heard from people, when they are out on the campus or at the factory, “All you small groups, you should all get together! Why aren’t you all together?” Comrade Lewis thinks this is a good criticism. We think there’s good reason why people aren’t together. There is a reason why Bob Avakian has not fused with Platypus.

I think it’s good what Lars Lih is doing. I have not read all of it, but certainly any investigation is good. It is quite possible that Carter Elwood has written a good book. I was unaware of it and I appreciate your bringing it up. There’s a lot of good bourgeois historiography. Leopold Haimson wrote a book in 1955 that was more or less commissioned by the American government so they could figure out what Bolshevism was in order to better combat it, still it is an excellent book. He of course concluded that 1903 had a certain significance!

As for the history of the SWP: There’s a French turn, and Cannon had fused with [A.J.] Muste, and they were going to make the turn towards the SP. Hugo Oehler, who was a very talented mass worker and a very important Cannonite cadre, one of their leading working class organizers, led a factional fight that led to a third or at least a quarter of the group splitting, arguing, in effect, that they should stay out of the SP just as Lenin broke with the 2nd International for good reason, they killed Luxemburg, etc. It is the same with the [Max] Shachtman split: Can the Soviet Union be defended -- is it not a degenerated workers’ state or not? The same thing with [Alex] Goldman and [Felix] Morrow in 1946 and with [Bert] Cochran and [George] Clarke in the early 1950s. Cannon, like Lenin, had a reputation for “door-slamming.” Lenin was not going to have his hands tied by the Mensheviks telling him what he could and couldn’t do.

Let me touch on a few points Comrade Lewis raised. On “the party of a new type:” The party that Lenin organized was different than the model of 2nd International. In the 2nd International the conception was “the party of the whole class.” Those elements of the working class which were not socialists or revolutionary on this view were holdovers, petty bourgeois fragments, people who had not been fully incorporated into the working class. That’s not true of the Leninst party. Lenin’s party-organizational conception, in its maturity, is premised on the notion that there’s a section of the class that is corrupted by imperialism and welded to the interests of the imperialists. That is the labor aristocracy, the agency of the capitalists in the workers movement. Lenin argued that you do not want those people in the party. You want the revolutionary elements, the revolutionary vanguard, which can then extend its influence over as many workers as possible. You do not want opportunists, social chauvinists, or social imperialists in the vanguard. That is a party of a new type and not a party of the whole class.

The Comintern, i.e., the international organization that is set up after the October Revolution to split the 2nd International and build revolutionary organizations all over the world, had an organizational model which is the organizational model I just described, not the organizational model Comrade Lewis describes. That was Bolshevik practice. They felt the best way for American Communists to organize themselves was not to put all of their differences out in the public so they could be ridiculed by the Chicago Tribune, Fox News, and any other backward elements in the working class, but rather they should dispute questions of revolutionary theory between themselves. So I have to say that Comrade Lewis is mistaken, a revisionist, because comrade Lewis insists that we have to support the likes of the Avakianites and I am saying we should not.

Finally, on 1912: In the year 1912 there are two organizations, two leaderships, two underground networks, two lines. That is, in effect, the point of no return for the RSDLP. Lenin makes an offer. He contacts every underground organization in Russia and invites them to the conference. At the time, there were some Menshevik underground organizations, though mostly the Mensheviks were doing legal, above-ground work. These latter Lenin called the liquidators and they were not invited. But there were Mensheviks invited and some of them came. This was Lenin’s attempt to reach out to the healthy elements of the Mensheviks and to separate them from the leadership. He was interested in the Mensheviks who were actually running the risks in the underground. Lenin thought, “They should be in our party. If they had a few deviationist ideas, we can work that out.” Lenin was quite happy to have a minority of people who didn’t necessarily agree on everything. What he didn’t want was to be in an organization where people wanted to have unity with the capitalists.

BL: A lot of this is just setting up a straw man. On “the party of the whole class:” The SPD was not the party of the whole class. That is Seymourism. That’s a standard misconception that goes back to Lenin and the Vanguard Party. What did the SPD do? It excluded syndicalists! The Second International was founded on the basis that the anarchists were excluded. It actually, at several points, debated with, and, indeed, threw people out of its ranks who broke the programmatic outlines that the International adopted. Millerand in 1898 becomes part of a French capitalist government, for which he is expelled. In the 1890s debates with the German (SPD) right, Kautsky puts forth motions to expel people like farmers, it’s not just everybody in the same class get them together in the party, it’s the program, it’s the acceptance of the program and its strategic vision. It’s not based on “Do you agree with the first four conferences of the Comintern, and that the Soviet Union is a degenerate workers state, and that Cannon was right against Shachtman?” No, it was a question of program in the here and now, one of programmatic political commitment. That’s what Lenin took from the SPD.

On “Left-Wing” Communism: The generation of the self-conception of Bolshevik organization actually sets in earlier and Lenin bears some responsibility for it. Still, “Left-Wing” Communism is the first time where Lenin says that the 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik split was of fundamental significance. Pham Binh is right insofar as in none of his writings up until this point does Lenin talk about “the Bolshevik Party.” The only references in his Collected Works to “the Bolshevik Party” are actually inserted by the editors afterwards. We have to get our heads around that. So, in 1920 the Bolsheviks under the pressures of the Civil War and all that had happened, do have to change their organization, and to come up with a model that they did export. I did a book on German Social Democracy and the 21 conditions. The 21 conditions were basically, “Purge yourself of the opportunists and reformists and organize on that basis.” I defend those conditions under the circumstances they then faced. The problem we have is that is being generalized as a political method in order to combat opportunism and right-wing ideas. That is not going to get us anywhere.

What the Bolsheviks did and the SPD did not do (and this is why it is a different organization and why Kautsky failed), is that they did not openly attack the right. If you look at the mass strike discussion around 1906 you get the sense that the German center, the orthodox Marxist wing, were not willing to go and say, “Actually [Karl] Legien and the people he’s in deals with, they are bastards and they are going to sell you out.” With the Bolsheviks they did not insist on organizational separation, at least until later on. What they did was to have head-on ideological warfare, but that’s factional. Yes, there are Mensheviks and Bolsheviks with separate press, separate organizations, but those were factions. The Party we should be aiming for will bring together factions. It is not simply, “Let’s get together with Bob Avakian.” It’s on a higher and more fundamentally political level than that. To take the IBT: We have said to you on several occasions in Britain, “You should join us as a faction. You will have the right to change the leadership of the organization, change the politics of the organization, etc.” If we cannot get together and have out our political difference in this way, we are failing. We are miserably putting up with this stupid situation which is based on the notion that “We are pure and we must continue as an organization. The revolution will come and we will win.” It is nonsense. That’s the fundamental lesson that we should draw from history. Factions were a healthy part of the RSDLP. Open political struggle was part of it. That was why you had separate leaderships, separate finances, etc. They were factions.

On purges and splits, 1920 is an absolutely justified split, but there is also sometimes what Adorno called a “negative dialectics” in splits, in the sense that both sides come out worse. There is a difference between transformation and breaks. It is not that the Bolsheviks just did the same thing that they said in 1903. They actually added to their strategy. They took on board what had happened. But they did have a fundamental strategy, which was the merger of socialism and the workers movement, the minimum and maximum program, democratic revolution to the end, and mass party organization on all levels of society. That’s the ABC of Second International Marxism and that is what took the Russian working class to power in 1917. It was Bukharin the maximalist who was saying, let’s rubbish the minimum program now that we are in power and Lenin who says don’t be stupid, we need the minimum program because we might lose power.

On Leopold Haimson, I agree with you by the way, The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries is one of the rich treasures in Cold War historiography. The problem I have—Lars Lih makes the point—is that when it comes to Lenin, all historiographical standards do not apply.

Q&A

While the radical left are experts in putting out visionary programs, splitting, finding, and forging revolutionary leadership, the fact is that they are leading no one anywhere. Might one of the reasons for this be that even those orthodox defenders, against Stalin, have in fact adopted a rigid concept of Leninism, of what Lenin did? Is that a possibility?

BL: Broadly speaking, yes. I think even the most formally anti-Stalinist currents have sleepwalked into Stalinoid forms of organization.

Would you say that Binh’s article, what its failings, is right about Occupy? That the Left is unable to adequately account for the dynamism of Occupy mired as it is in its attempt forge revolutionary leadership.

BL: It is incumbent on the Left to get its act together and unite on a serious basis, not on a Stalinist or Avakian basis, but with a viable vision that we can take to Occupy and to the working class more generally. Lenin built a party out of the wreckage of all these local groups, some with crazy ideas, and forged them on a higher level. Now, Occupy might stay or go, but that is also our task.

Korsch draws out how Marxism itself is a phenomenon of the emergence of the proletariat, so in what relationship does something like an organized Marxist party stand to the working class? How can those historical disputes of the Second International actually have bearing for us?

TR: I think that it is quite possible if you are serious about wanting to be able to see a Left which is able to wield significant influence and actually able to combat austerity programs. What we need to do is to at least think our way through how we got into the situation we are in now. I think that Stalinism is an enormous part of that, and an aspect of Stalinism of course is Maoism. Earlier today, Mike Ely said that we should be in a different place than we are now. He said this speaking as someone my vintage, and I felt I knew what he meant.

Forty years ago, we had demonstrations of up to one million people that I attended against the war in Vietnam, and this was ongoing. Thousands, tens of thousands of young leftists went into factories to get in touch with workers, maybe a total of ten thousand in the United States and North America so that they can go and proselytize, in stupid sort of ways that didn’t have a big impact. But you know there was a real attempt to carry things out, and the New Left of course didn’t begin at this, it began as “oh, to hell with all this bullshit.” But, after a while and in many attempts and false starts, we collectively worked our way back around to realizing we actually we needed to take seriously this thing about organizing, we needed to be organized, we needed, probably, eventually many of us came to the conclusion, reluctantly, that we had to become Leninists again, and that we had to go to the working class. But, because of the configuration of world politics at that point it appeared that Mao was our leader. Mao told us to fight U.S. imperialism resolutely, smash revisionism. So everybody tried to carry out Mao’s dictums. Consider the example of the United Front against imperialism, which sought to find the progressive element of the U.S. ruling class, to unite against the imperialist element, and stated that “China’s line is our line.” That is where the Avakianites started. Eventually the Chinese said, “You know what, if you are truly loyal, truly loyal, you will dissolve your organizations and you will renounce communism.” Because they didn’t want an international “Maoism.” So most of the Maoist groups went out of business shortly thereafter. The Avakianites, to their credit, did not. So what does that tell us? What that tells us is that there was a large opportunity, potentially, in the 1960s and early 1970s that was squandered, because people didn’t actually work out the experience that had preceded them. I think we are in a similar situation now. Occupy is more primitive in many ways, but more sophisticated in some ways than the New Left was. I don’t think it’s likely—I certainly hope—that Occupy continues to ferment and do some exciting things. I think that lots of things are possible, but without understanding the past we will not conquer the future.

BL: I am going to start where you finished off. I made the point yesterday about the historical situation we currently find ourselves in and we certainly do live in the shadow, the negative legacy, of what went before. So my starting point in that sense is history: We have to look back to at what we built in order to rebuild. And that really pertains to your question, what does a partyist project, what relationship does it have to the here and now, to Occupy, to society more generally in this very difficult period? And I think the answer on one level is very simple and on the other level slightly more complex. The simple level is that we need to rebuild the working class movement at more or less from scratch. We can do that: We see that from the history, the positive impact that unity has had on the working class movement, the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, a very small organization in relation to France, Germany, Italy, had a massive impact on class organization and the trade union struggle. In 1875, in Germany, they actually went out and built the trade unions from the organization that was formed. We also need to educate again, the level of Marxist education across the board at the moment is very, very low because it is not taken seriously. People in left-wing groups are treated as leaflet fodder. They are not taught to actually think and take seriously Marxist theory, to articulate their differences. I do think we need a cultural revolution on the Left. And with that, then you can actually seriously think about doing—at least coming to terms with—some of the enormous challenges that come our way.

One of the passages that I find interesting and thoughtful in Lenin and the Vanguard Party is where Seymour asks, “Why didn’t Marxists from the 1860s to the 1900s try to form parties of the Leninist type?” He gives an economist response and I wonder what you think the answer is to this puzzle. On the question of what changed circumstances meant for Lenin’s formulation, I wonder whether in fact Lenin’s position from 1903–1914 or 1917 really doesn’t represent an intermediate step, because he didn’t fully break with the left-wing of the Second International until World War I? Moreover should they have done so before the crisis of 1914? As an aside Ben, as I think about this, I obviously think that the CPGB as a project has much more in common with Platypus than the IBT.

BL: I disagree.

TR: 1860s–1910: That’s an interesting span to speculate about. There was a lot of experience that had to be achieved before certain things that we take for granted. There was, for instance, the experience of the Paris Commune, which was enormous, and changed Marx’s view of how socialist revolution would take place. Also, it maybe made it clear that there was real potential in a fairly immediate prospect, if things had been done right. On the other hand, everything was done wrong, for if there’s ever an argument for an organization that had an idea of what it was doing, it was the Paris Commune, which had really no Marxists participating in it. It was a mélange of left liberals, radicals, greens, and everything else.

BL: Greens?

TR: Well, the equivalent: Proudhonists. There was also the development of capitalism itself. In the 1860s we don’t have imperialism, in a sense there’s the British Empire and the colonies, but capitalist development is intersected by the Leninist organizational form in ways that was not applicable earlier.

What about Engels in the 1890s?

TR: Of course there is the First International that Marx participates in and the lesson there is that you cannot include everybody—the CPGB goes that far. I recognize that the 2nd International didn’t take absolutely everybody, but when Seymour says party of the whole class, the conception was that working class should have a party, and that there would be a workers party that would include the whole class. That was not Lenin’s conception! His conception is that there is a section of the working class that is bought off, corrupted, and the party should not attempt to include the whole class, it should be the organized revolutionary vanguard of the class putting the program first. First you define the program then you recruit to it. This is not applicable to very, very small groups that say, “we’re the party, join us.” There needs to be a political struggle for clarity. If you look at the development of Trotskyism in the United States, for example, you find that Musteites brought something that that the Cannonites previoulsy lacked. On 1903-1914, I think the short answer to that is that Lenin’s practice went beyond his theory, essentially. That’s often going to be the case when we encounter new phenomenon, new problems if we are able to grope our way towards a solution. Sometimes looking back on it you theorize it rather than look at a problem, come up with a correct answer and then implement that. You try to do that, but in the course of doing that you’re going to retrospectively check it back. That’s the whole point about 1912. What we’re saying, what Seymour says, and what most bourgeois historians, and everybody else says, is that after that there’s only a name in common. There are two separate organizations, there are two separate programs, at that point they are roughly similar sized, in the next two years the Bolsheviks were four times the size of the Mensheviks because they had a different orientation, not to act within the legal limits allowed by the tsar, but to act illegally and to go and make trouble for the tsar. It turned out that a lot of workers preferred that, so the Bolsheviks grew faster than the Mensheviks as a result.

BL: Seymour is consistent with the bourgeois scholarship, but Cliff’s discussion of 1903, as Lars [Lih] has shown in terms of What is to be Done?, is also taken from Menshevik or pro-bourgeois sources and that is not a crime. There are riches in bourgeois history. But I do think that we need to break with the caricature that’s being presented. For a lot on the Left and the Cold War warriors there is no doubt that Lenin was a manipulator. If that is the case, then “Sorry, Lenin, I’m not a leninist, you’re a liar and a manipulator.”

So what’s changed since 1860? You did get Marx and Engels sitting in Engels’s living room writing the Parti Ouvrier in 1878, minimum and maximum program, just for a Trotskyist current. They did contribute as much as possible to mass Marxist parties at that time. The SPD was obviously the breakthrough. Engels did his bit as well. I think one of the real seeds of fault in the SPD is that they actually did not take seriously the democratic republic as a form of working class rule. Engels takes that up in a very good text, the Critique of the Erfurt Program, in 1891. In that text, he says that this was a major flaw. We’ve got some wonderful demands, armed people, elected judges, but what does it all mean, what does it all culminate in? Lenin, in the 2nd Congress, to something Plekhanov said, said the SPD consciously adapted to opportunism from the start: They didn’t include the Dictatorship of the Proletariat/democratic republic in their demands.

On neo-Kautskyism: We have to locate the serious flaws in Kautskyism and how they are reflected in some ways in Lenin. Kautsky’s understanding of the state, and I’m doing a lot of work on that at the moment, is flawed in my humble opinion. So you say I have a neo-Kautskyan position on the party question, but I’d say I have a neo-Leninist position on the party question because that’s what Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks looked to. That was their model. There’s a lovely quote in 1912—again, for people in doubt about what Lenin’s aims were he’s talking about how to organize in the June 3rd (or July 3rd?) regime. He writes an article after Prague saying the model we should be looking to is how the SPD organized under the Bismarck anti-socialist laws. So even in 1912 he’s saying this is a model party, you know the red postal service, and all of that stuff.

I think the only way we can become mass is to break with the organizational, bureaucratic form, which is a mini-representation of the dictates of the labor bureaucracy, actually, that stifles open political debate and culture and forces comrades into fits. You join the Left, you have a disagreement, what are you going to do? Literally, how are you going to win the working class, the great unwashed masses that are corrupted by bourgeois? You have to split, and unless we can break with that, comrades—this is the fundamental point whether you agree with my particular take on Kautsky and all the rest of it, the fundamental point we organize in the most stupid, pathetic of fashions. We cannot unite ourselves, let alone the millions of people, the millions of people we need to win to our banner to change the world. Marx and Engels’s contribution to their understanding of socialism is the victory of democracy, the conscious act of the overwhelming majority. We’re not going to get anywhere near that if we continue to base ourselves on quite frankly fairy tale understandings of Bolshevism, which are tainted by the past. We need to break with that fundamentally and only then can we seriously think about—it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fun, particularly. I don’t think Iskra in the 1890s and early 1900s, particularly in illegality and under tsarist repression was particularly the easiest political climate to operate in, but they did it because they were serious politicians who wanted a political party. And I don’t think the Left is serious at the moment about a political party. It contents itself with being silly little groups that actually have very little influence on anything and the danger exists that we disappear up our own backsides, to use a lovely little English phrase, and simply become millenarian sect. Why are we here? I have put forward some explanation—I’m not saying I have the answers, but unless we break with the models we’ve inherited, which are anti-working class, which are forms of manifestation of the labor bureaucracies, we will not go anywhere. I think the fundamental thing that I’m doing with my research and political work is looking back to these things in order to move forward. Bolshevism is rich in history and has some wonderful lessons that we can draw on to move forward. Otherwise, I could join the IBT tomorrow, but I’d disagree with them on something.

TR: No, you couldn’t.

BL: Exactly. It’s frankly childish and not up to the task thrown our way today, in this period. |P

Transcribed by Brian C. Worley


[1]. Pham Binh’s articles are “Mangling the Party of Lenin,” Weekly Worker 899 (February 2, 2012), available online at: <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004702>, and “Wanting to Get Lenin Wrong,” Weekly Worker 907 (March 29, 2012), available online at <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004775>. A longer version of the latter, including its second half, on #Occupy, is titled, “Over a Cliff and into Occupy with Lenin,” and can be found online at: <http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/over-a-cliff-and-into-occupy-with-lenin/>.

[2]. Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: “What is to be Done?” in Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008).

[3]. Lars T. Lih, Lenin (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).[[3]]

[4]. Originally published online at: <http://www.bolshevik.org/statements/ibt_20120603_chicago_lenin_debate.htm>.

[5]. James P. Cannon, “Again: On ‘Unity with the Shachtmanites’,” The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century,” ed. Les Evans (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), 139.

[6]. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1931 [1930]).  Available online at <http://marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/index.htm>.

[7]. Tony Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London: Socialist Review Publishing Company 1969 [1959]). Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1969/rosalux/note.htm>.

[8]. Binh, “Mangling the Party of Lenin.”

[9]. Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” in Collected Works Vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964 [1920]). Emphasis added. Available online at <http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/index.htm>.

[10]. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism.” Emphasis added.

[11]. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism.” Emphasis added.

[12]. Tony Cliff, “Lenin 1893-1914: Building the Party, vol. 1,” (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002 [1975]), 62.

[13]. Bruce Landau, “Lenin and the Bolshevik Party: A Reply to Tony Cliff and the International Socialists,” Available online at <http://links.org.au/node/2711>.

[14]. Josesph Seymour, “Lenin and the Vanguard Party,” originally published in Workers Vanguard in 1978–1979, available online at <http://www.bolshevik.org/Pamphlets/LeninVanguard/LVP%200.htm>.

[15]. Seymour, “Lenin and the Vanguard Party.”

[16]. Originally published in Weekly Worker 908 (April 5, 2012). Available online at: <http://cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004788>.

[17]. Joseph Stalin, Kratkii kurs, (1938). Emphasis added. Quoted in Lars T. Lih, The Non-Geometric Elwood (forthcoming). Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1939/x01/ch04.htm>.

[18]. Grigory Zinoviev, Izvestiia TsK KPSS, No. 5 (1989), 196.

[19]. See Molyneux’s review of Lars T. Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ In Context, available online at <http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.co.uk/2006/11/lihs-lenin-review-of-lars-t-lih-lenin.html>.

[20]. Quoted in J. Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Pathfinder, 1984), 105.

Spencer Leonard

Platypus Review 34 | April 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]

On January 31, 2011, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Mel Rothenberg, author of The Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR to discuss the theoretical underpinnings of American Maoism in the 1970s. The interview was aired on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago, on February 1. What follows is a revised and edited transcript of the interview.

Spencer Leonard: Last December the Platypus Review published an interview I conducted with a former comrade of yours, Max Elbaum. There I discussed the emergence, by the late 1960s, of the widespread impulse within the New Left towards reconstituting the Communist movement in the United States. Being older than Elbaum and having participated in the New Left as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] in Chicago from 1961 onwards, you have a different perspective than him on the motivations behind the New Communist Movement [NCM]. What determined your joining a Marxist organization in the 1960s and how representative do you think your experience was? What do you take to be the continuities, both ideological and organizational, between the New Left and the NCM?

Mel Rothenberg: To answer that I have to say a bit about my background. It’s important because it’s shared with many others.

Like many of us in the New Left, I was a “red diaper baby.” We were the children of socialist activists, working class by and large, mostly in the two great movements of the “united front” of the late thirties and forties: the labor movement and the anti-fascist coalition. Those informed the experience of our parents. And as we learned at our parents’ knee, this fostered in us certain political perspectives, viewpoints, and orientations; one was to the labor movement and the working class, the other towards the threat to the working class movement posed by fascism.

Also I came of age in the McCarthy period. This wasn’t purely a question of oppression—our parents were often harassed and oppressed, we were not because we were young. Still, the period of McCarthyism marked a great disillusionment among a broad layer of the Left with Stalin and the bureaucratic and the police-state aspects of the Soviet Union. My father had been a labor organizer and a mid level CP cadre who had become disillusioned with the CP prior to Khrushchev’s revelations but had never totally broken his connection with his comrades. He greatly influenced my views. I don’t recall being totally shocked by Khrushchev’s speech. Mainly it confirmed in me my father’s doubts.

In consequence, throughout the early fifties many of us were politically passive. We were trapped in an ideological bind between Marxism and disillusionment with the Soviet Union. What brought us out of this were the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. These drew us back into political activism and created the New Left. The New Left reflected well our politics at the time, which were radical, social-democratic and interested in popular mobilization while eschewing hard Marxist ideology.

Two experiences of that era stand out. The first was in the summer of 1964 when the radical wing of the Civil Rights movement, having undertaken a massive mobilization of black voters, was rebuffed by the Democratic National Convention. Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were blocked from expelling that state’s racist delegation. The second key moment was the break in that year of Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] from the Democratic Party on the issue of the war. Many in the movement, even Martin Luther King, were moving in a similar direction, but SDS broke from “part of the way with LBJ” to an anti-Democratic Party position. This was painful because Johnson had been a progressive Democrat, responsive to the demands of the Civil Rights movement.

Two new perspectives emerged in this period. One was a strong identification with the revolutionary nationalism emerging within the militant wing of the African-American movement—Black Power impacted us very much. This also was painful because it involved the withdrawal of us white radicals from the center of SNCC and other leading militant civil rights groups. The other was anti-imperialism occasioned by the anti-war movement. These drew us beyond social-democratic, reformist politics. We sought a more radical, deeper break with the dominant system. This was the bridge between the New Left and the NCM.

SL: Turning towards Maoism by the late 1960s, you joined the Chicago-based Sojourner Truth Organization [STO] in which you were active for some years before eventually splitting with its leadership in the mid-70s. What about the STO appealed to you at that time? Why did the New Left’s turn toward Marxism manifest to such a large degree in a turn toward Maoism? What sort of reports did you have of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China and how did they affect your way of thinking?

The-Peoples-Art-Publishing-House-1971-300x201

"All peoples of the world come together in solidarity to smash American imperialism, Soviet revisionism, and all adversaries of the Revolution!" Image printed in China, 1971, by the People's Fine Art Publishing House.

MR: Maoism combined the trends that had become dominant among the American New Left. They identified with revolutionary nationalism. This was also true of Vietnam, Cuba, etc., but China was the leading force. Moreover, they combined anti-imperialism with this. China became a leading voice of anti-imperialism in this country. Finally, there was a kind of left populism attached to this, anti-bureaucratism, a kind of Marxist participatory democracy or spontaneism. These corresponded to our disenchantment with the Soviet Union.

As for the Cultural Revolution, we understood it as both a necessity to avoid the restoration of capitalism in China as had happened in the Soviet Union, and as a means to lift the level of mass consciousness and to ensure thereby that revolutionary Marxism remained in command. By combining the Marxist tradition with these other elements I have mentioned, Maoism was a way back to Marxism for those of us who had drifted away from it in the fifties.

SL: How was it that you and others came to form a faction against the leadership of the STO and were eventually expelled? Did you already at that time harbor misgivings towards Maoism?

MR: The STO was, broadly, a Maoist organization, but it had its peculiarities. It didn’t look to China very much. It was the two central doctrines that defined it as an organization that both made it appealing and ultimately caused it to fail. The first was the “white skin privilege” doctrine that argued that the major task of American communist revolutionaries who wanted to mobilize the working class lay in getting white workers to repudiate the privileges derived from their skin color in order to forge unity between white and black workers. White workers therefore had to be made to understand that they were privileged because of racism and they had to abandon those privileges. Black workers, from this perspective, were the true revolutionary vanguard because they had the least to lose in the revolution.

The second defining STO doctrine was that trade unions had become bureaucratic and reactionary. They were organs of capitalism. What was needed was independent worker organization. This idea was taken from Gramsci, who developed it in his initial period of activism in Turin before the First World War. The leaders of STO argued that we were in a similar position to the Turin’s workers movement when it was moving beyond social-democratic reformism and class collaboration to a period of intense class struggle that would challenge the very foundations of bourgeois rule. For us to make a similar transition we had to transcend trade union hegemony over the working class.

Those two doctrines distinguished the STO on the Left. And as an organization they were serious, not least when it came to working class organizing. They were never a large organization but almost all their cadres worked in industry. I was one of the few that was not actually a factory worker and I was only allowed to join because I knew Mike Goldfield, who was already in and was working in a factory. They made an exception for me, but I was always somewhat marginal for that reason.

By the mid-1970s a number of us began to see the limitations of the organization’s positions. For instance, “white skin privilege” was not, unsurprisingly, a position around which it was easy to organize white workers. After all, workers are uninterested in giving up what little they have because they supposedly haven’t earned it. It also led to fights with unions that were not healthy. We opposed the union leadership not on broad democratic grounds by demanding more honest and effective unions, but simply the on the grounds that unions were by their nature compromised organizations. This too did not sit well with politically conscious workers.

SL: Your criticisms of both of these two STO lines were given added salience at the time by an upsurge of union activity?

MR: The seventies were indeed a period of working class militancy. There was the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit (DRUM) led by black workers with whom we had some connection. African-American workers had begun to form caucuses in unions and in certain plants. Also among the miners, steelworkers, and others there were oppositional caucuses critical of the union leaderships.

As for the STO’s Maoism, it was reflected in a kind of syndicalism, pushing for spontaneous workers’ uprisings. Our image of the Cultural Revolution as a series of actions where the workers took over the factory and met to discuss at great length topics such as bourgeois degeneration fit with our own syndicalist spirit. Still, our ties with Maoism were relatively superficial as opposed to other groups.

SL: When you finally broke with Maoism it took the rather dramatic form of a book-length refutation of the Maoist line that defined the Three Worlds Theory that appealed to so many. This was the claim that capitalism had been restored in the USSR, that it was engaged in a kind of imperialism. You have since referred to the book you wrote refuting this position, The Myth of Capitalism Reborn, co-written with Michael Goldfield, as a “settling [of] accounts with [my] Maoist past.”[1] Explain the capitalist restoration thesis and the attraction it exerted on your generation.

Gang-of-Four-propaganda-217x300

"Throw Out the Wang-Zhang-Jiang-Yao Anti-Party Clique!" Anti-Gang of Four poster from the late 1970s.

MR: The Chinese position was that a new bourgeoisie had developed in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev. They had gained control over the Communist Party (CPSU) to restore capitalism in a kind of bloodless coup. When China broke with the USSR and entered into a tacit alliance with the West it declared the Soviet Union the main enemy. They needed a theoretical reason why they would side with a capitalist power against a socialist power. Their initial assertion was that the USSR, through great power chauvinism, had adopted social-imperialism. This was followed by the deeper claim that the USSR had degenerated to a fully capitalist state. The order of this supposed development was important and shrewdly articulated because the initial claim played into the growing anti-imperialist sentiment around the world, and in particular to the growing Maoist movement in the U.S. The emphasis on social-imperialism initiated the sharp break with the traditional communist movement at the hottest flashpoint of conflict. Finally, the declaration that capitalism had been fully restored in the USSR made the break total and irreversible.

The theoretical basis of their analysis was very opportunistic and superficial. It followed a split that, in hindsight, was driven by nationalism and geo-political power conflict. The Chinese had a legitimate fear that the Soviet policy of peaceful coexistence with imperialism was designed to isolate them internationally. They also had legitimate concerns about how well the Soviet industrialization strategy would work in their conditions. Instead of developing a line to confront these real problems they tried to develop a position that would thrust China into the leadership of what they saw as a growing international communist movement critical of the Soviet Union, while at the same time justifying the cynical anti-Soviet alliance with the U.S. There was absolutely no chance of realizing these two contradictory aims. The smarter Chinese leaders must have known this. But, of course, the western Maoist movement lapped this stuff up, embracing this thesis with more enthusiasm than the Chinese ever did.

SL: Is this related to the narrative you gave before about the long experience of the New Left?

MR: We were trying to settle accounts with the Communist Party and the Old Left. By 1968, the developments in France in May, and the role the Communist Party played in them, not to mention the invasion of Czechoslovakia, gave added impetus to people already prepared to embrace this position. As a line, it was simple and direct, and many simply accepted it. It allowed them to silence their doubts as to why the New Left and the working class weren’t hand in hand everywhere in the world. What eventually prompted some of us to break with it in the mid-seventies were mainly the actions of the Chinese themselves, particularly in Angola. There, after the collapse of the fascist regime in Portugal and their abandonment of their erstwhile colonies, the Chinese opposed the left government to support Jonas Savimbi and UNITA, whereas the Soviets supported the opposition through their Cuban allies. The Chinese also supported the Shah of Iran, refusing to endorse the movement against him, in consequence of which a broad layer of Maoists began to question Chinese leadership. But Mike [Goldfield] and I explored the actual theoretical basis of the capitalist restoration thesis. Our initial substantive theoretical criticism was that the Chinese position implied that, though they couldn’t point to an actual capitalist class, there was a collective capitalism in the Soviet Union, that the bureaucracy constituted a capitalist collective leading the country back to capitalism. We felt this was incompatible with a Marxist conception of capitalism, which intrinsically involves competition among capitalists. You couldn’t have capitalism without capitalist competition, which was part of the essence of capitalism. This insight initiated our thoroughgoing critique of the thesis of the restoration of capitalism in the USSR.

In this country a single Maoist theoretician was most influential. This was Martin Nicolaus, the translator of the Grundrisse. Nicolaus was a theoretically sophisticated Marxist who joined the October League, which in turn eventually entered the CP(M-L), one of two major Maoist groups in this country along with the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). He elaborated the capitalist restoration line in a number of articles in the 1970s, in which he tried to remain a kind of classical Marxist, but our own belief was that to do so required significant distortions of Soviet reality. For instance, on Nicolaus’s view, Khrushchev had imposed nothing short of a “regime of economic terrorism” on the working class through privatizations, semi-privatizations, and the development of a kind of wholesale market. Economic planning had been covertly undermined and enterprise managers had emerged as effective owners of the means of production. Thus they constituted a new, if legally unacknowledged, capitalist class. On the basis of isolated instances and sketchy data, he also argued that unemployment existed on a large scale in the USSR on account of the re-commodification of labor. Because Nicolaus argued that capitalism’s restoration was an ongoing economic process, he was compelled to exaggerate the social upheaval it occasioned in the form of unemployment, slowdowns and strikes, firings, and the imposition of stricter labor discipline.

SL: So, Nicolaus was addressing and perhaps rationalizing the exigencies of the situation. Because China had been aligned with Stalin until his death, the USSR must have been a revolutionary socialist society till then. Accordingly, even though workers in the Soviet Union were actually enjoying by the 1960s substantially increased levels of consumption, more amenities, social security, education, benefits, etc., Nicolaus nevertheless had to describe that situation in terms of the restoration of capitalism. Was that the tension you pressed Nicolaus on?

MR: Yes. Nicolaus identified as a sign of capitalist restoration any leisure or consumer goods the workers enjoyed, as well as any social differentiation, which, of course, also existed under Stalin. To do this he had to distort the facts.

SL: You also argued in the book that Charles Bettelheim had to change the idea of what capitalism is in order to advance the capitalist restoration thesis. For Bettelheim, not only was capitalism compatible with “state ownership of the means of production, of central planning, and of other economic features commonly thought to be socialist,” but, rather than one of the necessary preconditions for the achievement of socialism, the suspension or abolition of private property and the market in the USSR served somehow only to obscure the perpetuation of capitalism. The Soviet Union therefore represented a post-bourgeois form of capitalism. While defenders of the USSR argued, “look, there are no capitalists making money in this market, so it is not capitalism,” Bettelheim replied, “but capitalism does not require that.” What was Bettelheim trying to get at with this counter-intuitive mode of arguing and what was the critical issue at stake in your criticism of him?

MR: As the head of the Franco-Chinese Friendship Association, Charles Bettelheim was the leading French Maoist thinker of the time. He didn’t resort to distorting the facts. Unlike Nicolaus, he was a real expert on the Soviet Union. But arguing the restoration thesis demanded that he fundamentally alter Marxist theory.

Bettelheim accepted the position Mao enunciated in his left turn, when he was promoting the Cultural Revolution, that the key to building socialism turned on the line the party espoused. If it espoused a proletarian line, the revolution was advancing toward socialism. If it espoused a bourgeois line, no matter what the reality, the society was moving back to capitalism. For this reason, he did not view the restoration of capitalism in the USSR as a gradual process in the manner of Nicolaus. Whereas Nicolaus saw it as beginning with Stalin’s death in 1953 and culminating in Kosygin’s economic reforms of 1965, for Bettelheim, it was Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Party Conference in 1956 that was decisive. The leadership’s plan, line, and practice determined the political nature of society in the transition to socialism. The argument was not so much that capitalism had been restored but that the process of its overcoming had been halted by the leadership. Even the theoretical question of whether or not labor is a commodity was a matter of the prevailing political line. If the workers are working to advance socialism, it is not a commodity; if they are not, it is. The crucial issue was why the workers are working. Bettelheim did not look for the immediate abolition of wages. He did expect, however, that socialist workers’ primary motivation was to “build the society,” which he thought was happening in China. Bourgeois right and the value form were thus to be overcome politically. The claim, bolstered by a certain romantic conception of the Cultural Revolution, was that Chinese workers were engaged in ongoing struggles to increase their control over the instruments of production. By comparison, mundane considerations such as workers’ material consumption, labor conditions, or the overall economic level were secondary. This is a species of voluntarism still runs through a lot of the Left, not only Maoism.

SL: This goes back to the picture you gave before of Chinese factory workers holding political discussions late into the night during the Cultural Revolution. The essence of Marxism for Maoists hinged, it seems, on constant re-politicization, enthusiasm, and mobilization. Rather than raising the question of how you can build socialism in a peasant country, it really became about political process. Emancipation in this context looks like one long university sit-in.

MR: Exactly! That was in fact what many Maoists believed. Facts did not really matter. One could not argue against Maoism on a purely factual basis. We took aim at that. We also proposed a theory of transition, one not so different from that of the leading Trotskyist thinker Ernest Mandel. In fact, Mandel wrote us a letter saying that he admired our book. At any rate, the main importance of the book was our argument against Bettelheim.

Drawing on the Grundrisse, Bettelheim centered his argument on the value form, arguing that under communism labor time will no longer be the measure of wealth. In that state, the economy will be so developed and automated that the production of all the material needs of life will take only a small percentage of collective human time and energy. From this perspective, commodity production, and thus the reproduction of capitalism, could not simply be equated with private production for profit. As long as labor remained the measure of value and was appropriated as surplus value by a ruling elite, capitalism continued to dominate. Thus, in the USSR, capitalism took a non-market, non-private-property-based form. State ownership of the means of production, central planning, and other economic features of the USSR normally associated with socialism, actually masked the existence of capitalism. Though there was nothing resembling a labor market, labor was subordinated to the production of value, and value operated socially as the measure of wealth. Obviously, such arguments were intended to relativize the significance of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of state power and of the economic changes wrought by the October Revolution. But it is difficult to understand how, on the ground of what Marx calls “bourgeois right” (which Marx acknowledges will continue to prevail during the transition to socialism), the value form, as its fundamental expression, would not also persist, particularly given the stalling of the world revolution. Overcoming the value form and harnessing the full liberating capacity of science and automation to achieve a society of genuinely human wealth is a goal that no Marxist would dispute. What Bettelheim demanded was that this be achieved, or almost achieved, early in the transition to socialism. Otherwise, the society inevitably collapses back into capitalism.

Beyond these theoretical issues, the basic political question is whether or not we have something necessary to learn from understanding the Soviet experience and its ultimate failure to reach its goals. The approaches of Nicolaus and Bettelheim are ultimately dead ends in this respect. I would contend that the Left cannot advance out of its current impasse until this question is addressed more squarely and with greater honesty than many seem inclined to do today. The sort of unspoken consensus on the Left that it is better to forget and bury the Soviet experience, and move on to a more emancipatory vision of socialism, won’t work. To overcome the past, you must face it.

SL: In an article in the January 2011 issue of Science & Society, you argue against a certain conception of “worker control of the means of production,” which, as you point out, can mean a number of things. There you argue that many who demand workers’ control of the means of production are actually demanding that “workers in each enterprise collectively determine what is produced, how much is produced, and how it is produced,” and that this is not Marxist.[2] How does this represent an attempt to short-circuit the specifically political aspect of overcoming bourgeois right, and thus a kind of repeat of the Bettelheimian Maoism you criticized in your book?

MR: There are two aspects to this. One is Maoism’s influence on Bettelheim, and the other is a certain Trotskyist tradition visible today in groups like Solidarity, who have a kind of syndicalist approach and see democracy in the plant as the key site of struggle. That tradition goes back to anarchism and syndicalism of various sorts. It is a very attractive view because it allows one to entertain the prospect of socialism in one factory. It makes the achieving of socialism more manageable. There is some of this in Argentine syndicalism. You achieve workers’ control factory by factory. Once you do it in every factory, you have socialism. It attempts to address problems of alienation, autonomy, and democracy at the level of the individual factory. This is very tempting in a period when the Left lacks political organization, or even substantial political influence. It also has a certain demagogical appeal, in that organizing at the point of production makes it easier to talk to workers about socialism. It is easy to talk about how stupid the boss is and say, “We can run this place much better and fairer. We could get more production. We wouldn’t have to deal with these foremen and bosses who are just parasites.” This kind of thing is, of course, popular among workers, especially when they are angry. It is easy to agitate around. It’s a very deep tradition on the Left, one the Maoist legacy plays into. Labor Notes and Solidarity are two groups coming out of this tradition that do serious work organizing in factories. I don't agree with it, but it is not a settled issue among Marxists.

SL: Trotskyism is obviously the tradition that insisted upon understanding the fraught political significance of the Soviet Union in terms of its historical character. In rejecting the Maoist line of capitalist restoration in the USSR, and describing the Soviet Union instead in terms of “process” and “protracted transition,” you arguably came close to a Trotskyist position, as Mandel’s approving letter seems to imply. How conscious were you and Goldfield, in the mid-1970s, of this? Were you actively reading Trotskyist works? If so, why did you never contemplate joining a Trotskyist organization, whether in the 1960s or later?

MR: My perspective is a little different from Goldfield’s. Both of us read a lot of Mandel’s works. Clearly we were influenced by his analysis, which goes back to Trotsky. But my problem with Trotskyism was twofold. First, the Trotskyist groups I knew to be doing serious work in plants and factories, groups like Solidarity, had what I have called a syndicalist orientation. I respected what they were doing, in terms of organizing workers. But the syndicalism was, nonetheless, always a problem for me. They had in fact adopted a more nuanced version of the position STO adopted toward trade unions. They were active in trade unions, but they would always form an oppositional bloc, refusing to work with the existing leadership. They would never work with them, as a matter of principle, considering them to be irredeemably corrupt and compromised. I felt that this was an ineffective way to organize workers.

SL: A Marxist position, in your view, entails intersecting workers in their own organizations that serve as their schools of politics?

MR: Right. The Marxist position requires working with trade unions. There may be corrupt or even tyrannical leaders, whom one would oppose, but in a way that respects that there is a structure and a leadership. The workers can choose a better leadership, but that involves a complex struggle. One cannot simply dismiss the existing leadership on the grounds that they are a bunch of corrupt opportunists and we have to do something totally different. This was an important political point against at least a certain wing of Trotskyism.

My problem with the other wing of Trotskyism, represented by groups like the ISO, is that they do not believe in the United Front. For me, the way to build a movement for socialism is to build a multi-class historic bloc. This does not mean that every class has the same role, or the same leadership, but it will include the middle class intelligentsia and many skilled professionals, the sort of people required to manage a modern industrial society. This is a protracted process. Trotskyists do not really believe in this and have a purely proletarian position. Their view is that you go in and you try to rile up the working class. It is like the old Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) line, “a single match can start a prairie fire.” Excite the working class to rebellion and then parachute in as a vanguard. Take over the leadership once the working class has attained a certain level of combativeness, then lead it toward revolution. That strategy has never worked.

SL: In your recent Science & Society article you write, “One of the great and sad lessons of the Soviet experience is that after 70 years of uninterrupted communist rule, the Soviet Union rather easily and quickly reverted back to a deformed but thoroughly capitalist society. The roots of the socialist order turned out to be weak and shallow.”[3] How does this relate to your understanding of the wider collapse of the Left? After all, haven’t the roots of the socialist project proved weak and shallow worldwide? Does the Soviet experience not raise the question of the self-defeat of the Left?

MR: This is the key question. We are not going to get a serious Left until we confront the collapse of the Soviet Union. Broadly speaking, three explanations are usually offered. The first is basically the capitalist view, which is that any kind of socialism is incompatible with modern industrial society. It can't work, and didn't. The second position, which is the position of much of the old Communist Party Left, is that the conditions were just too harsh. The Soviet regime was born in the midst of crisis; there was a civil war, then there was famine; there were attacks from the outside; there was a second world war. We faced the continual hostility of the capitalist world and the working class of Russia was too backward to rise the to occasion. So, we had the right approach, but ran into a series of insuperable obstacles. There is a certain amount of truth to this, but I don't think it an adequate explanation. For one thing, the conditions in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, when they held power, were much harsher than in the 1980s when they lost power. So the collapse was not directly rooted in the harsh conditions of people, or the hostility of the capitalist world.

My explanation would say that they went about it the wrong way. Building a socialist society cannot occur primarily through a party state, which is what they did in the Soviet Union. The motive force was the party apparatus, and the entire project of building socialism was concentrated in it. The masses of people were told to shut up and work, and leave the socialism question to the party. That was the dominant position and practice in the Soviet Union. But socialism cannot be built by a political apparatus, which inevitably stagnates, has its own parochial interests, preoccupies itself with its own retention of power, and cannot in itself lead this kind of project. You need to have, as Gramsci put it, a historic social bloc committed to the socialist project that is much broader then a party-state apparatus. There are of course difficult questions of class relations, the hegemony of the working class, governance of the state, the structure and nature of a political party representing a broad social bloc, involvement in electoral and more revolutionary forms of struggle, etc., all of which can only be resolved over a long period of practice and struggle. In the Soviet experiment they tried to short-circuit these issues through the dictatorship of the party-state apparatus. It ultimately precipitated their failure. |P

Transcribed by Alex Gonopolskiy and Ryan Hardy


[1]. Mel Rothenberg, “Some Lessons from the Failed Transition to Socialism,” Science & Society 75:1 (January 2011): 114.

[2]. Ibid., 118.

[3]. Ibid., 117.

Posted below are two videos from the day-long symposium, What is Critique?, held on November 20th, 2010, at Parsons, the New School for Design, New York. The first video is from the afternoon panel, The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices. This panel consisted of Tom Butter, Simone Douglas, and James Elkins; it was moderated by Laurie Rojas. The second video is documentation of the evening panel, The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today. The panel consisted of J.M. Bernstein, Chris Cutrone, Lydia Goehr, and Gregg Horowitz; it was moderated by Chris Mansour. Both videos can also be found at http://streamingculture.parsons.edu/the-art-critique-its-history-theories-and-practices/.

The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices

The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today

What is Critique? was a day-long symposium that consisted of two panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students and investigated the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day focused on the nature and function of art critiques as a form of criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day was a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and reception. More information can be found at http://newyork.platypus1917.org/critique/.

The Platypus Affiliated Society presents
30 Years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: The Tragedy of the Left
6:00pm Sunday, September 13, 2009
at The Brecht Forum 451 West St New York, NY

Chris Cutrone KARL KORSCH'S SEMINAL ESSAY on “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) is a historical treatment of the problem from Marx and Engels’s time through the 2nd International to the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of 1917–19 in Russia, Germany and beyond. More specifically, Korsch took up the development and vicissitudes of the relation between theory and practice in the history of Marxism, which he considered the “philosophical” problem of Marxism. Korsch, like Georg Lukács and the thinkers in Frankfurt School critical theory, was inspired by the “subjective” aspect of Marxism exemplified by Lenin's irreducible role in the October Revolution. Korsch was subsequently denounced as a “professor” in the Communist International and quit the movement, embracing council communism and shunning Marxian theory, writing an "Anti-Critique" in 1930 that critiqued Marxism as such, and by 1950 actively seeking to liquidate the difference between Marxian and anarchist approaches. In so doing, Korsch succumbed to what Adorno termed “identity thinking.” By assuming the identity of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness in the workers’ movement, Korsch abandoned his prior discernment and critical grasp of their persistent antagonism in any purported politics of emancipation.

I am writing with some very brief notes on Adorno's last writings from 1968-69, the "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis," "Resignation," "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? (AKA "Is Marx Obsolete?")," and the Adorno-Marcuse correspondence of 1969.

The center of Adorno's critique of the 1960s New Left was their romantic opposition to capitalism, found, for example, in their desideratum of the unity of theory and practice. Rather, Adorno asserted the progressive-emancipatory aspect of the separation of theory and practice.

As Adorno put it, in the "Marginalia,"

"If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake -- except for the mature Marx."

As Korsch put it in our earlier reading, "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923),

"As scientific socialism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels remains the inclusive whole of a theory of social revolution . . . a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. . . . The difference [now] is that the various components of [what for Marx and Engels was] the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice are further separated out. . . . The umbilical cord has been broken."

What is important to note in the above passage from Korsch is that the unity of theory and practice is not being asserted as the norm, but rather their interrelation/interconnection, something quite different. The "umbilical cord" becoming "broken" means not that theory and practice have become separated, merely, but that they are no longer being interrelated properly. Theory and practice remain different things.

The following passage from Adorno's Negative Dialectics (1966), from a section titled "Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism," describes well Adorno's conception of the theory-practice problem as a historical one, in which past moments (in modern history/the history of the Left) have a non-linear relation to the present:

"The objection has been raised that, because of its immanently critical and theoretical character, the turn to [the] nonidentity [of social being and consciousness] is an insignificant nuance of Neo-Hegelianism or of the historically obsolete Hegelian Left -- as if Marxian criticism of philosophy were a dispensation from it. . . . Yet whereas theory succumbed . . . practice became non-conceptual, a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of; it became the prey of power. . . . The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. They thus endorse the course of the world -- defying which is the idea of theory alone. . . . If [one] resists oblivion -- if he resists the universally demanded sacrifice of a once-gained freedom of consciousness -- he will not preach a Restoration in the field of intellectual history. The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that 'world history is the world tribunal'. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations."

Korsch's "Marxism and Philosophy" also poses this complex, non-linear historical temporality of the problem of theory and practice:

"'[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence' [Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)]. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch."

Adorno's point, following Korsch, is that earlier formulations of the problem of emancipatory theory and practice could and indeed did "supersede present relations," or, as Adorno put it elsewhere (in "Sexual Taboos and the Law Today," 1962),

"The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago -- and usually better the first time around."

Adorno is, in his late writings, continuing the ruminations of Korsch and Lukacs on what Korsch called the "crisis of Marxism" in which the crisis of capital necessarily expressed itself by the time of world war and revolution 1914-19. Precisely what Lukacs and Korsch subsequently forgot, after their seminal writings of 1923 we read, Adorno remembered, that the Marxian project was characterized fundamentally by awareness of the problem of theory and practice. Instead, Korsch and Lukacs later fell victim to what Adorno calls "identity [or "reconciliation"] thinking;" like other "vulgar Marxists" they assumed the coincidence of social being and consciousness, rather than the dialectic of the two.

Adorno's problem is somewhat different from what Korsch and Lukacs sought to address. Whereas they had to contemplate the self-contradictory character of both social being and consciousness under capital, expressed precisely in the attempt to overcome capital in theory and practice, Adorno had to try to address the degradation -- the regression -- of both critical theory and social-political practice.

The dual, simultaneously linear and recursive temporality of capital means that, as Korsch had put it, the development and transformation of the Marxian point of departure necessarily takes the form of a "return to Marx," the attempt to get back to an "original, pure Marxism" (of Marx and Engels themselves). Such "return" is both actual and illusory.

Adorno seeks to address his own return to Marx in ways that are self-conscious of this paradox. Hence, in "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?," also known as "Is Marx Obsolete?" (1968), Adorno answers that Marx is both permanently relevant this side of emancipation from capital, and obsolete in the sense that the problem of capital necessarily appears differently than it did to Marx. Adorno's point is that it is only via Marx that one can overcome the obsolescence of Marx.

Lukacs had already broached this paradox when he offered that one could potentially disagree with all of Marx's conclusions and still return Marx's "method." But this is a dialectical conception in Lukacs and Adorno because of course method and conclusion cannot really be separated. But they can appear to be separated and opposed, and necessarily so. Means and ends can appear to be at odds. The point is to work through this separation -- not only this, but worked through on the very basis of this separation.

The paradox is that, as Lukacs put it, a "radical change in perspective is not possible on the soil of bourgeois society," or, that, with Marxism, "it would appear that nothing has changed."

All that can be done is to advance the dialectic -- and crisis -- of capital, the degree to which this has been critically recognized. And this must necessarily take the form of advancing the dialectical crisis of Marxism, in both theory and practice.

As Adorno put it, in a 1935 letter to Benjamin,

"The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness. . . . [P]erfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria."

It was precisely this advancement through crisis, through bringing forms of necessary misrecognition to critical self-awareness while advancing their practical problems, that had been taken up by Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky (in the revisionist dispute and the subsequent crisis of war and revolution 1914-19, i.e., in that Luxemburg et al. recognized the revisionist reformism of Bernstein et al. as a necessary outcome of the growth of Marxism as a political movement), that was abdicated and abandoned in the early 20th Century, with social democratic reformism (i.e., the succumbing to the essence of reformist Marxist revisionism even by the stalwarts of "orthodoxy" such as Kautsky), Stalinism (the degeneration of "Leninism" into a variety of the same) and the disintegration of "Trotskyism" in the wake of Trotsky. (Trotsky's "Leninism" amounts to his recognition of the necessity of a split in Marxism as the result of -- as bound up with -- the advancement of Marxism in practical politics and theoretical consciousness.)

Adorno recognized this degradation and disintegration, aborting and avoiding the crisis and potential advancement of Marxism in theory and practice, as a problem of regression.

The crisis of capital has been expressed as the crisis in Marxism. The problem is that the significance of the crisis of Marxism has not been recognized as the necessary form of appearance of the crisis of capital. Instead, Marxism has been either abandoned/rejected -- or "upheld" and banalized -- as if Marxism itself had not become (had not always been) self-contradictory. Marxism, whether as critical theory or practical politics, necessarily becomes "vulgarized" (ceases to be itself) if it is experienced as naïve consciousness rather than being recognized with at least some reflexive self-awareness as a dialectical problem of consciousness.

Adorno ends his final essay, on "Resignation" (1969), with rumination on "thinking." On the one hand, Adorno recognizes that what is thought can be forgotten and lost, and, on the other hand, Adorno recognizes that what was once thought can be thought again, that thought has as its medium the universal, but only in a critical sense. The universal -- capital -- remains to be critically recognized. Hence the thought of its critical recognition remains possible. We can recognize the thought that was once thought. We can read Adorno -- and Benjamin, Lukacs, Korsch, Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx -- and still recognize the problems of our own thinking about the issue of capital. The question is how we explain this continued recognition to ourselves. This prompts the further thought of theory and practice.

But this thought of the relation of theory and practice threatens to fall short if it does not take the form of how Adorno closes his "Marginalia," that "[practice] appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what it being criticized. . . . This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows."

Marxism is both true and untrue; the question is how one recognizes its truth and untruth, and the necessity of its being both.

Platypus seeks both to refound and continue and to transform Marxian critical theory and political practice through the self-consciousness of the limits and necessity of Marxism as the limits and necessity of capital. We seek, theoretically, to make out the crisis of Marxism as the crisis of capital, in consciousness of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it was recognized once before, in the revolutionary moment of 1917-19, and, conversely, practically, to make the crisis of capital take the form of the crisis of proletarian socialism, in the social-political practice of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it had been, however abortively, once or twice before, what Adorno, following Benjamin, Lukacs and Korsch, contemplated about the limits and failure of the revolution of 1917-19, following what Marx had spent the rest of his life -- in theory and practice -- contemplating about 1848.

I am writing with some brief notes on Adorno's 1942 essay "Reflections on Class Theory."

Another writing by Adorno we read in the group, "Imaginative Excesses," the final section of the aphorisms orphaned from Minima Moralia (1944-47), published in New Left Review as "Messages in a Bottle," Adorno addresses the division and necessary unity of "workers and intellectuals."

http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/adorno_imaginativeexcesses.pdf

One passage in particular should be emphasized, that

"Those schooled in dialectical theory are reluctant to indulge in positive images of the proper society, of its members, even of those who would accomplish it. Past traces deter them; in retrospect, all social utopias since Plato's merge in a dismal resemblance to what they were devised against. The leap into the future, clean over the conditions of the present, lands in the past. In other words: ends and means cannot be formulated in isolation from each other. Dialectics will have no truck with the maxim that the former justify the latter, no matter how close it seems to come to the doctrine of the ruse of reason or, for that matter, the subordination of individual spontaneity to party discipline. The belief that the blind play of means could be summarily displaced by the sovereignty of rational ends was bourgeois utopianism. It is the antithesis of means and ends itself that should be criticized. Both are reified in bourgeois thinking, the ends as 'ideas' the sterility of which lies in their powerlessness to be externalized, such unrealizability being craftily passed off as implicit in absoluteness; means as 'data' of mere, meaningless existence, to be sorted out, according to their effectiveness or lack of it, into anything whatever, but devoid of reason in themselves. This petrified antithesis holds good for the world that produced it, but not for the effort to change it. Solidarity can call on us to subordinate not only individual interests but even our better insight. Conversely, violence, manipulation and devious tactics compromise the end they claim to serve, and thereby dwindle to no more than means. Hence the precariousness of any statement about those on whom the transformation depends. Because means and ends are actually divided, the subjects of the breakthrough cannot be thought of as an unmediated unity of the two. No more, however, can the division be perpetuated in theory by the expectation that they might be either simply bearers of the end or else unmitigated means. The dissident wholly governed by the end is today in any case so thoroughly despised by friend and foe as an 'idealist' and daydreamer, that one is more inclined to impute redemptive powers to his eccentricity than to reaffirm his impotence as impotent. Certainly, however, no more faith can be placed in those equated with the means; the subjectless beings whom historical wrong has robbed of the strength to right it, adapted to technology and unemployment, conforming and squalid, hard to distinguish from the wind-jackets of fascism: their actual state disclaims the idea that puts its trust in them."

http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/adorno_imaginativeexcesses.pdf

In "Reflections on Class Theory," which is in extended dialogue with Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," and related to Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-written with Horkheimer, Adorno uses the categories "old" and "new" vs. the "different" to express the critique of "progress" that is the hallmark of bourgeois thinking about history. But precisely this "bourgeois" character needs to be explicated.

When Adorno states, for example, that the "new is the old in distress or state of need" and that the "new is the same old thing," but contrasts this with the possibility of the "new and different," as opposed to the "new and the same," Adorno is expressing the dialectic of capital.

The era of the modern society of capital or "bourgeois society" can be subdivided into two broad periods, that of its "bourgeois" emergence, and that of its "proletarian" crisis and potential overcoming. So the proletarian is the bourgeois, but in "distress" and in "need" of self-overcoming.

The supplemental reading, Marx and Engels's 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, has 3 key catch-phrases to be borne in mind: "History is the history of class struggle;" "All that is solid melts into air;" and "Workers of the world unite!" How these three tropes are articulated determines (whether and) how one understands the coherence of the Marxian point of departure.

The footnote added later by Engels, that "history is the history of class struggle" is only true in terms of "recorded/[written] history," i.e., the history of civilization, should be taken as the frame in which "history" is understood, i.e., not archaeological history. This casts the question of "pre-history" in a specific light: the ambivalent way in which the entire history of civilization is rendered "pre-historical" by capital. If the bourgeois thinkers are correct that capital is the "end of history," then all of history will have become pre-history in the sense of being proto-bourgeois. As Adorno put it (elsewhere), history may not be the story of progress in freedom, but there is a straight line between the slingshot and the H-bomb.

Marx asks the question of whether capital could be transitional to a higher form of freedom that would render all of history "pre-historical" in the reverse sense, that capital would be the culmination and end of humanity's prehistory, and overcoming capital would initiate humanity's real history. Marx's point -- the project of his politics -- is to render capital pre-historical.

Adorno's question, posed in the darkest hour of the 20th Century, is whether the regression of capitalism has rendered history, not the history of class struggle, but of monopolies, gangs and rackets. This is because he sees the failure of the proletarian socialist revolution as entailing the regression of "bourgeois" subjectivity, or, as he puts it elsewhere, the failure of socialism undermines liberalism as well. The stakes of the proletarian struggle for socialism encompass the historical significance of the entire bourgeois epoch, whether capital represented emancipation at all or not, whether it was something new -- a new potential for humanity -- or turned out to be the "same old thing."

This is where the importance of the Platypus history of the Left finds its purchase, why the entire modern period can only be understood coherently, in what Hegel would call history that can be raised to a philosophical level, can only be told as the history of (potential) emancipation, can only be told as the history of the emergence -- and crisis -- of the Left. The unresolved crisis of the Left, which finds itself expressed in terms of the relation between the proletariat and communism, is the source of humanity's suffering. This is because communism expresses the problematic of the revolt of the Third Estate in its highest (and what Adorno calls "distressed") form. Was the bourgeois revolution an act of usurpation by a new exploiting class, or was it an emancipatory act? This is the question posed in the bourgeois era that Marx seeks to answer in the "proletarian" period of the bourgeois era that follows the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the politics of the workers' movement as the "class struggle" of the proletariat for the simultaneous fulfillment and abolition of bourgeois society.

The question is whether the proletariat can make itself into the last exploited class in history, whether the proletariat can allow the potential of capital to overcome and transcend the history of civilization as one of class exploitation. Marx's conception of class struggle in history is a utopian and not empirical one.

Adorno, following Benjamin, asks the question of what the 20th Century "mass society" simultaneous phenomena of the "bourgeoisification of the proletariat" and "proletarianization of the bourgeoisie" signifies in terms of the Marxian prognosis, which was formulated in the 19th Century "liberal" era of capitalism. Benjamin and Adorno emphasized the continuity in the change from capitalism's 19th-20th Century forms. -- Benjamin, in the Arcades Project, for instance, finds the roots of the 20th Century forms already in the 19th Century, especially after 1848.

Adorno's question relates to whether 20th Century capitalism made obsolete Marx's conception in the sense of being "post-bourgeois." Adorno's response to this problem, posed by anti-Marxist "sociology," is that 20th Century society remained "bourgeois" by virtue of its being "proletarian." Adorno, following Benjamin, recovered Marx's historical understanding of class, that "bourgeois" and "proletarian" referred not to sociological but historical realities. "Proletarian" society (of the late 19th and 20th Centuries) was "bourgeois" society in distress and need of self-overcoming.

In this sense, the "particular" interest that falsely "universalizes" itself in bourgeois thought, refers to the historical problematic of capital, the projection of the self-understanding of bourgeois subjectivity onto all prior history and as a historical limit.

The divided nature of workers' subjectivity, between "bourgeois" and "proletarian" interest, which Lukacs had already noted, following Marx, points to the problem of "bourgeois" subjectivity overcoming itself through the political project of proletarian socialism, which would be mounted on the basis of "bourgeois right," i.e., the rights of labor, posed at both the individual and collective level.

The problem is that the "bourgeois consciousness" within which the workers remain ensnared threaten to always make their class struggles merely reconstitutive and never transcending of capital. The proletarian revolution remains a bourgeois revolution, or revolution within capital, it remains the recurrence of the "old" in the "new," and the foreclosure of the possibility of "different," of transcending capital.

This is the source of the necessity of the Marxian point of departure of historical consciousness -- why Adorno's "Reflections on Class Theory" becomes a rumination on history rather than empirical "sociological" realities. For the possibility of an adequate historical consciousness in critical theory and emancipatory political practice seems to have become divided between intellectuals and workers as divided aspects of bourgeois subjectivity in extremis. As Adorno put it in "Imaginative Excesses,"

"The class division of society is also maintained by those who oppose class society: following the schematic division of physical and mental labour, they split themselves up into workers and intellectuals. This division cripples the practice which is called for. It cannot be arbitrarily set aside. But while those professionally concerned with things of the mind are themselves turned more and more into technicians, the growing opacity of capitalist mass society makes an association between intellectuals who still are such, with workers who still know themselves to be such, more timely than thirty years ago. At that time such unity was compromised by free-wheeling bourgeois of the liberal professions, who were shut out by industry and tried to gain influence by left-wing bustlings. The community of workers of head and hand had a soothing sound, and the proletariat rightly sniffed out, in the spiritual leadership commended . . . a subterfuge to bring the class struggle under control by just such spiritualization. Today, when the concept of the proletariat, unshaken in its economic essence, is so occluded by technology that in the greatest industrial country [the U.S.] there can be no question of proletarian class-consciousness, the role of intellectuals would no longer be to alert the torpid to their most obvious interests, but to strip the veil from the eyes of the wise-guys, the illusion that capitalism, which makes them its temporary beneficiaries, is based on anything other than their exploitation and oppression. The deluded workers are directly dependent on those who can still just see and tell of their delusion. Their hatred of intellectuals has changed accordingly. It has aligned itself to the prevailing commonsense views. The masses no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals. Only if the extremes come together will humanity survive."

http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/adorno_imaginativeexcesses.pdf

Historical transformations in social-political context Chris Cutrone We in Platypus have anticipated, since our inception in 2006, the possibility of a "return to Marx," and have sought to inform the terms in which this might take place. We have sought the re-opening of historical issues on the Left with the intention of their fundamental recon­sideration, taking nothing for granted, so that we could definitively close the books on stale "debates" in which the "Left" has remained stuck for more than a genera­tion, since at least the 1960s. Given the confusion reign­ing on the "Left" today, the urgency for this is evident.