Communist University took place August 13-20, 2011
Goldsmiths, University of London
63 Wickham Road
London SE4 1LX
Platypus Affiliated Society members presented as follows:
Friday, August 19, 10AM-12:30PM
â€¢ Spencer Leonard, "Marx's critique of political economy: proletarian socialism continuing the bourgeois revolution?"
Recommended background readings:
Background reading compiled from recent engagements between the CPGB and Platypus can be found at: /wp-content/uploads/2011/08/macnairmike_platypuscritique_may-august2011_081111.pdf or /wp-content/uploads/2011/08/cpgbcontraplatypus081111.pdf
Facebook invitation at:
Red Channels and the Platypus Affiliated Society present:
The Poverty of Student Life, a film screening and discussion
Monday, November 23, 7:30 pm - 10:30 pm @ The Brecht Forum, 451 West Street
San Francisco State: On Strike - Newsreel, 1969, 25 minutes
Community Control - Newsreel, 1969, 50 minutes
TOTAL RUNNING TIME: 75 minutes | Digital Projection
Pam C. Nogales C. of the Platypus Affiliated Society
Luz Schreiber of the Committee in Defense of the Children's Learning Center at Hunter College, and Ollin Imagination
Jitu Weusi - teacher, principal, member of the African American Teachers Association, co-founder of The East (1969-1985)
* * *
I am writing with some very brief notes on the first week of readings from Kant, his essays on "What is Enlightenment?" and "The Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View," and Benjamin Constant's essay on "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns."
We are moving somewhat non-chronologically, starting with Constant as a reading from 1819 that synthesizes Smith with Rousseau (as well as taking issue with a Rousseauian perspective that cannot address the growth of modern, capitalist society since Rousseau's time). Constant is continuing and not critiquing let alone opposing Rousseau (he is distinguishing Rousseau from the supposedly Rousseauian Jacobins, et al.).
Constant should serve to put a finer point on Smith and bring out more emphatically what is only implied -- or taken for granted -- by Smith. As I pointed out in my previous post, Smith is most emphatically in dialogue with the Rousseau of The Social Contract. So one should not get bogged down in Smith vs. Rousseau on the conception of property, in, e.g., The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, because Rousseau's conception there is polemical in a way more easily recognizable to Smith than it might be for us barbarians! Smith is in dialogue not with Rousseau's "negative" polemic in which is raised a radical image of individual freedom, but rather with Rousseau's more "positive" theory of society, and first and foremost, social freedom, the possible coherence of society in and through its transformation in freedom, in The Social Contract.
Smith's notion of modern society as exchange -- increased breadth of trade and reciprocally increased depth of division of labor -- and its self-regulating character (e.g., the "invisible hand") must be seen as Smith's interpretation and specification of what Rousseau called the "general will," i.e., society as more than the sum of its parts, capitalism as social freedom -- the freedom of society to transform and progress through transformation. Smith wants to know what makes the Rousseauian "general will" possible, and this is what drives his conception of capitalism.
-- This involved for Smith the transformation of traditional relations of space and time, e.g., relations between town and country, and new and different purposes and forms of colonization, etc., which I would want to emphasize at least as much as, e.g., the "labor theory of value," etc. Smith should not become merely a traditional Marxist avant la lettre in an analytic-categorial sense, but rather needs to be grasped as a philosopher of freedom, which is why Marx would take him seriously to begin with.
Constant, a liberal, interprets modern society in such Smithian cosmopolitan-commercial terms, as in that differences among nations were becoming more apparent than real, etc., bringing about a real cosmopolitanism of international fraternity (as against and despite the power games of statesmen, who are rightly viewed with suspicion as potential criminals against this emergent global society), and, on a more local level, the sublimation of Hobbes's "war of all against all" into the mutually developmental process of competition, etc.
The most important aspect of Constant's argument, of course, is the profound qualitative transformation of modern society, from the traditional/ancient, that he seeks to register and grasp in its implications for the transformation of politics. The transformation of the very ground for and concept of freedom is Constant's ultimate point and should not be obscured or dodged (in terms of "how he understands capitalism," etc., "ideologically" -- again, we're interested in Constant's argument from the standpoint of the philosophy of freedom); Constant gives a very straightforward and prosaic argument that Hegel will make more apparently abstrusely. Both Hegel and Constant derive their thinking about modern freedom from Rousseau and Smith -- with Hegel also coming from Kant.
Turning to Kant, the issue of freedom as transformation must be kept foremost in mind.
In "What is Enlightenment?" Kant is concerned with where freedom in this social-transformative sense is located. He is trying to specify its place and role.
Kant's peculiar use of the public-private distinction, which is wholly counter-intuitive to our colloquial commonsensical use of these terms, needs emphasis, in order to bring out what Kant is trying to say. -- As usual, one should never get hung up on the terms themselves but stay focused on how they are being used to make a specific argument, how they are serving that argument. So first we need to know what that argument actually is.
Kant is in dialogue with Rousseau at the level of the open-ended and profound, qualitative-transformative character of human freedom. (In working through this summer syllabus, when in doubt, always return to the James Miller epigraph on Rousseau I gave you as an initial guide, which will serve for all the readings this summer.)
The idea that the merely "private" use of reason is not the realm of freedom for Kant is quite difficult to wrap one's mind around, because it means going against all our commonplace assumptions of psychological predispositions.
For Kant, e.g., Obama's use of reason in exercising his duties as President counts only as the merely "private" use of reason. It is not in this capacity that Obama can act on behalf of the freedom of humanity. Rather, it is only in public discourse and debate, on behalf of further "enlightenment," that Obama can affect positively the unfolding of human freedom -- the freedom to transform humanity's own conditions. It is thus indirect.
As President, and not only as husband to his wife and father of his children, or as employee in the private sector such as being a law professor at UChicago before entering politics, Obama is not free to act in such a way as to be able to contribute to the development of human freedom, because he is a mere cog in the machine of the social order, compelled to act in the service of interests, both his own as well as others'.
For Kant, it is only as a public citizen than Obama can exercise any possible influence on free humanity. In other words, it's not in making policy decisions in his "public" role as President, but only in his speaking, as we would term it, as a "private citizen" that Obama could, for Kant, participate in the furthering of enlightenment, or what he describes as humanity's emergence from self-incurred immaturity.
This is a tremendous if not preposterous idea of Kant's, and it serves us well to consider where it comes from. It comes from Rousseau's idea of the "general will" as something more than the sum of its parts in individual wills, in which the movement of human freedom -- both individual and collective -- manifests and unfolds.
Kant is taking Rousseau's radically new conception of human freedom and specifying it as a matter of "enlightenment" and what is meant by this. The apparent peculiarity of Kant's argument (its counter-intuitive use of categories of public and private, etc.) comes from the obscurity of the desideratum of free humanity as freedom in transformation with which our radical bourgeois philosophers were wrestling as an emergent property of their world (what we take for granted and to which we have thus dulled ourselves).
What is this "humanity?" It is not the sum total of human beings, but rather the human social (meaning, for moderns, global-cosmopolitan) collective's transcendental character, or more than the sum of its parts (hence taking for granted Rousseau's account of the "general will").
Kant's "Cosmopolitan History" is a great and wonderful precursor and point-for-point program for Hegel's subsequent philosophy of history, which is also followed by Marx and by Marxist politics. -- We seek to continue to pursue the "revolution" of which Kant speaks in his "Cosmopolitan History."
The barbarism of our era can only read Kant with a debunking, jaundiced eye, and ignore what they can read right before them in this bracing text.
Kant is very clear here, for instance that if a world of a cosmopolitan civil society is not achieved then Rousseau's negative opinion of civilization (as polemical mien) and relatively positive estimation of "noble savagery" would be (perversely, against Rousseau's actual intentions) vindicated. This is what Benjamin will call the "go-for-broke game of history." History has become a task, to make civilization worthwhile by transcending its history in freedom -- in the freedom that civilization both evinces and whose open-ended possibilities it furthers.
We are back to Rousseau's account of humanity's unlimited "perfectibility" as that which ails us, but also what tasks us with transformation in freedom, and makes that task capable of fulfillment.
Smith, Kant and Constant, following Rousseau, want to know what about modern society allows this, and thus want to further our consciousness of it, as part and parcel of our practical achievement of it: theirs is the radical project of enlightenment in the service of freedom.
The reading group schedule with links to the readings for the summer has been posted at:
Platypus Marxist reading group summer 2009, June 28 - August 16
Radical bourgeois philosophy: Kant-Hegel-Nietzsche
We will address the greater context for Marx and Marxism through the issue of bourgeois radicalism in philosophy in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Discussion will emerge by working through the development from Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche, but also by reference to the Rousseauian aftermath, and the emergence of the modern society of capital, as registered by liberals such as Adam Smith and Benjamin Constant.
"The principle of freedom and its corollary, 'perfectibility,' . . . suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless. . . . Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseauâ€™s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared. . . . As Hegel put it, 'The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.' "
-- James Miller (author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, 2000), Introduction to Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett, 1992)
* * *
The readings are mostly linked to HTML web text sources; a few are PDFs that I've scanned or are available on the web.
But I would encourage the following book purchases which will make matters much simpler:
- Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Hackett: ISBN 0872201503)
- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (Univ. Chicago: ISBN 0226763749)
- Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Hackett: ISBN 087220166X)
- Kant, Perpetual Peace (etc.) (Hackett: ISBN 0915145472)
- Kant, Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: ISBN 0521654084)
- Hegel, Intro to Philosophy of History (Hackett: ISBN 0872200566)
- Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Hackett: ISBN: 0915144948)
- Nietzsche, Basic Writings (Modern Library: ISBN 0679783393)
* * *
Notes on the readings
I'd like to write some notes to you now about beginning this reading group mini-course with Rousseau.
The schedule is such that the reading for the 2nd week of Rousseau is much shorter than for the 1st. This will allow for a comprehensive discussion of both texts by Rousseau at the 2nd session. So I will address, first, Robert Pippin's short 2003 essay in response to the forum in the journal Critical Inquiry "On Critical Theory," and then address both Rousseau texts, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, and The Social Contract.
Pippin takes us through a history of modern philosophy, and distinguishes roughly 2 periods (though he does not explicitly do so): 1.) Kant-Hegel, the turn of the 18-19th Centuries; and 2.) 19th Century, post-Hegelian philosophy. He describes this turn as follows:
"the modern form of life coming into view after the middle of the nineteenth century or so was in some basic way unacceptable, unaffirmable, pathological even, certainly ugly. (A â€œrecoilâ€ most dramatically first obvious much earlier, in Rousseau.) To cut to the chase: it then became obvious how difficult it would be to theorize, as it is now put, this gap, or absence or lack in this new, comprehensive form of life. No appeal to an underlying, unrealized human nature (Feuerbach, the early Marx) was possible (if one truly took Kantâ€™s critical results to heart and abstained from Marxâ€™s neo-Aristotelian essentialism); no appeal to an independent moral criterion was possible (after the historicizing Hegel); and the idea of an underlying historical teleology, such that what was â€œmissingâ€ was what was â€œnot yet actual,â€ but being realized, began to seem a metaphysical regression."
Leaving aside Pippin's misunderstanding of (the early) Marx (as "neo-Aristotelian essentialism"), obviously the question of 1848 is raised by Pippin (Pippin describes the crisis coming "after the middle of the 19th Century," not only with Marx, but also Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, et al.).
So, we have, on the one hand, "Kant (or the Kantian moment), as the hinge on which something quite new in the history of philosophy and social and perhaps aesthetic theory swings open." And we have the crisis of the 19th Century circa 1848. And Rousseau prefigures both (but, in Pippin's account, Rousseau is more associated with the "recoil" or "revulsion" from modernity).
Pippin laments the fact that after 1848, "the idea of an underlying historical teleology, such that what was â€œmissingâ€ was what was â€œnot yet actual,â€ but being realized, began to seem a metaphysical regression." Obviously, he doesn't think that Hegel really is subject to such a critique (of metaphysical regression). So, then the question becomes, what is meant by "what is missing" as something "not yet actual, but being realized?"
Here, I'd like to point to my essay on "Capital in History: the need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left" (2008), which addresses the issue of the broader historical context for capital as social modernity:
For, broadly speaking, in trying to address Kant-Hegel-Nietzsche, we are addressing the emergence and crisis of modern, "bourgeois" society, the preconditions of the constitution of capital in the bourgeois revolutions, which Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel and Constant address, and the manifestation of the crisis of capital with the industrial revolution and the global crisis of the 1840s leading to the revolutions of 1848, from which Marx originates, and its aftermath, which Nietzsche addresses.
Understanding capital as a transitional condition of social history, the end of pre-history and the threshold of true human history as freedom, is paramount, here.
This understanding is largely missing in Pippin, of course (though it is indicated, however cryptically, in the last line from Pippin I highlighted, above). But it is indicated in Rousseau, with whom is inaugurated, paradoxically, both a radical conception of freedom (see the James Miller epigraph, above) and a negative "recoil" to the history of civilization.
Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
The most important thing to emphasize and use to frame Rousseau is the issue of the history of civilization itself, what is motivating Rousseau's imagination of an originary "state of nature" to which the "noble savage" (e.g., Native Americans) seem closer for Rousseau than their more "civilized" European brethren.
The question is, why is Rousseau motivated, as virtually no one before him, to imagine the "loss" involved in the birth of civilization, or the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled agricultural civilization? Why does the entire history of civilization come into such radical question for Rousseau?
-- Because the emergence of the modern, "bourgeois" society Rousseau is registering in the 18th Century seems to be both the "perfection" of the civilization that preceded it, and to open radically new possibilities. This paradox and ambivalence is what is motivating Rousseau's investigation of human nature and freedom.
Rousseau, The Social Contract
Rousseau's Social Contract is a trickier text to tackle, because it appears in many respects to be the very opposite of the anarchic individualism Rousseau seems to champion in the Discourse on Inequality.
But this is only apparent, and is really an artifact of the 1960s New Left, which found the 2nd Discourse (on Inequality) more sympathetic in its "anarchist" negativity than The Social Contract, despite and indeed because the latter text was much more inspirational for the bourgeois radicals of the American and French Revolutions.
The key category for Rousseau's Social Contract is the "general will."
While it might appear to be some totalitarian collectivism, modeled after the ancient "democratic" polity of Athens, etc., it was actually Rousseau's (admittedly obscure) attempt to grasp modern society's dynamic of individual and collective freedom.
Rousseau's radical idea was that the freedom of the individual member of society found its actual ground and possibility in the freedom of the social collectivity. The individual owes his freedom to society. (This seems radically opposed to his account of the loss of freedom due to civilization found in the 2nd Discourse.)
What Rousseau is trying to address is the phenomenon of social freedom. Rousseau's category of the "general will," which he explicitly emphasizes is not the mere sum of individual wills or their average, but is in fact more than the sum of its parts, is meant to do more than reconcile the individual and society, but rather demonstrate the actual transcending of both the individuals and the empirical social collective they comprise. The "more than the sum of its parts" aspect of society is for Rousseau key to grounding the collective efforts of social individuals as subject to change and progress in freedom. (What Rousseau is saying about society is of course really only about modern society, of which Rousseau himself might not have been so clear.) This is going to be very important to Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations can thus be considered in extended dialogue with Rousseau. -- And for Hegel!
* * *
Philosophical constitution of modernity
I want to make a controversial claim, which is that capital (as Marx understood it) has a dimension of "philosophical" constitution. In other words, just as capital has a political constitution, through the liberal-democratic "bourgeois" revolutions, that, had they not taken place, would have prevented the constitution of capital, so it goes that without certain developments in the realm of "philosophy" capital would not have found its historical constitution. (This also goes for the "scientific revolution" and the Protestant Reformation, which might be considered important components of the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment in the 17th-18th Centuries.)
The point is that ideas and intellectual production matter. The alternative is to too try to find, e.g., Rousseau and Kant already expressing the "commodity form" in thought, etc., which, while true to a certain degree, also begs the question of their importance, and tends to involve an impoverished notion of "ideology," as merely "reflecting" social conditions, etc. But thinking should not be so disenchanted. Thinking is not secondary but (just as) primary (and consequential as physical action may be).
The point would be, rather, to find in canonical thinkers of modernity, e.g., Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Hegel, et al., forms of thought in which thinkers as subjects participate and act (thinking as doing) that are "bound up with" social-historical developments. Retrospectively, we can't help but find these thinkers to be expressing something "ideological" about the modern society of capital. But, more importantly, we need to be able to recognize that the influence of their thought is part of what made modernity happen. These thinkers were themselves (in their thought, an active) part of the transformation in which they were bound up. Modernity took place in their thinking. -- They were revolutionary thinkers.
Forms of thought matter. Failure to think is as important and consequential as thinking in certain ways can be complicit or compromised. Thinking is part of historical transformation. Thinking has the character of both a means of emancipation and an obstacle to this.
* * *
On postmodernism and regression
I would like to say something about the issue of "postmodernism" as raised by Pippin.
Although postmodernism still flies in sclerotic academia, its time is long since past.
What makes Platypus possible is the definite end of postmodernism (as well as the concomitant exhaustion of the 1960s "New Left").
What that means is that it needs to be emphasized that certain problems have been with us a very long time, now. That is Pippin's point. Postmodernism was the latest attempt to try to go beyond Kant (or "beyond Hegel and Nietzsche" as a book from the 1990s by a scholar of the Frankfurt School puts it), while clearly falling below Kant (and Rousseau!).
The point is that even if Marx were wrong, Hegel and Nietzsche would be right. And even if Hegel and Nietzsche were wrong, Kant would be right. And even if Kant were wrong, Rousseau would be right.
What this means is that the regression we diagnose has its positive dimension, which is the regained saliency of earlier thought's ability to critique the present. Not only have we fallen below Marx and so need to revisit him, but we've fallen below the radical bourgeois philosophers of revolution, and so need to revisit them. We need to revisit what Marx took for granted in order to be able to grasp his attempt to critique and get beyond them.
So postmodernism is actually more dated than are Rousseau and Kant (let alone Marx!). Just because aged academics (or their younger sycophants) don't realize this doesn't change the fact that this is indeed the case. It's not for nothing that towards the end of his life Foucault imagined that he had been trying to carry on the Kantian project all along (or, that Rosalind Krauss embraced Kant at the end, etc.). Kant is the beginning and the end, so to speak. The attempts to get beyond Kant have been of mixed success: Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. Hegel is closest to Kant; as Adorno put it, Hegel is Kant "come into his own." Marx and Nietzsche express the crisis of bourgeois society. Everything since them has either at best reiterated their problematic, or avoided it in a regression to a pre-Kantian perspective. That is Pippin's point.
Reply to Chicago Political Workshop, Chris Cutrone, and Principia Dialectica
Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: Andrew Kliman | Filed under: Organization, Philosophy | Tags: concreteness, plagiarism, Postone |
On plagiarism, Postone, and â€œtheâ€ present
May 27, 2009
1. First, I want to respond to the charge that I plagiarize Moishe Postone, by categorically denying it. When, last July, Sean of Principia Dialectica put forward the allegation of plagiarism (using somewhat different words), I tried to overlook it. I thought that the charge wouldnâ€™t be taken seriously, given that Sean left it wholly unsubstantiated. But now I see that the charge has indeed been taken seriously, repeated, and perhaps implicitly endorsed, by the Chicago Political Workshop, in a posting two days ago.[Principia Dialectica allegation of plagiarism of Postone by Kliman:]
That Sean first encounters some idea in Postone, and then encounters a somewhat similar idea when he hears Kliman, tells us something about the process of Seanâ€™s intellectual development. It tells us nothing about the process of development of the ideas. It is not evidence of plagiarism.
But as far as I can see, when Sean alleges that â€œPostoneâ€™s book is having a much more profound effect onâ€ Kliman than he is â€œprepared to admit,â€ and that at â€œKlimanâ€™s talk in London it was evident that Postoneâ€™s influence had rubbed off â€¦ although â€¦ he was loathe to admit it,â€ the case against me rests wholly on the sequence in which Sean personally encountered the ideas.
For the record: My understanding of capital(ism) and Marxâ€™s critique of it were pretty much fully formed by or before 1988, when I completed my Ph.D. at the age of 33. The key thinker who influenced my views on these matters was Marx himself. (It is strange, indeed, to allege that I appropriate Postone without acknowledgement when his Time, Labor, and Social Domination is not a primary text, but an interpretation of a work to which we both have access, Marxâ€™s Capital!)
My views were also deeply influenced by the work of Raya Dunayevskaya, and there were lesser influencesâ€”such as I. I. Rubin and various authors of the 1970s and 1980s who discussed â€œabstract laborâ€ and â€œvalue-form.â€
I read Postoneâ€™s Time, Labor, and Social Domination in the mid 1990s, but it did not make a strong impression on me, for three reasons: (a) my views were already well formed; (b) much of Postoneâ€™s argument was not new to me, since it was quite similar to things developed in the â€œabstract laborâ€ and â€œvalue-formâ€ discussions of 10-20 years before (as Chris Arthur noted in his mid-1990s review of Postoneâ€™s book in Capital and Class); and (c) Postoneâ€™s view of abstract and concrete labor is so different from Marxâ€™s, and his exegetical interpretation of Marxâ€™s concepts of abstract and concrete labor is so wrong, that I didnâ€™t find his book particularly helpful in order to further develop my own thinking.
But what have I said that sounds so Postone-like to Sean (and perhaps also the Chicago Political Workshop)? Iâ€™m guessing it is the following: â€œIn his talk Kliman spelt out in a clear manner that value â€“ as the mediator of human relations â€“ is the subject that needs to be overcome if we are all to move towards creating a fully human society.â€
Well, I arrived at this perspective by studying the work of Dunayevskaya (principally from Marxism and Freedom and from her writings of the 1940s which argued that the USSR was a state-capitalist society because the law of value operated there), and then from Marx himself, when I re-studied Capital in light of her interpretation. Hereâ€™s something Ted McGlone and I wrote about this issue that was published in 1988â€”i.e., well before the appearance of Postoneâ€™s book:[R]adical economistsâ€™ views on value theory have seemingly crystallized into two main approaches, characterised by de Vroey (1982) as the `technologicalâ€™ and `socialâ€™ paradigms. As students of a third, humanist problematic, we hope in this paper to create a dialogue with proponents of other approaches â€¦. Our own view is neither â€˜technicistâ€™ nor market-oriented, but a production-centred value theory of labour . In short, we take capitalist technological relations themselves to be social relations, class relations of dead to living labour in production . `[L]abour is expressed in valueâ€™ because `the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the oppositeâ€™ (Marx, 1977 : 174-75) . We do not de-emphasise the quantitative aspect of Marxâ€™s value theory, however; this paper, for instance, attaches great importance to the aggregate equalities which obtain in Marxâ€™s transformation procedure.â€ [pp. 56-57 of Andrew Kliman and Ted McGlone, â€œThe Transformation Non-Problem and the Non-Transformation Problem,â€ Capital and Class 35, Autumn 1988]
I request that a link to the above response be published wherever the allegation appears that I appropriate Postone without acknowledgement, and that the allegation itself be withdrawn.
2. I am pleased that the Chicago Political Workshop and I agree that â€œthose on the left who treat all attempts to understand the political economy of capitalism as rank economismâ€ should be taken to task. I hope that this can be the beginning of a fruitful dialogue.
3. The Chicago Political Workshop writes, â€œIt is our sense that Klimanâ€™s work thus far is inadequate to his own charge, but that he is right that understanding capitalism is essential to overcoming it.â€ Okay, Iâ€™ll bite: why is my work thus far inadequate to my own charge? (And what exactly does this meanâ€”what charge, exactly?) Iâ€™m not trying to pick a fight here; Iâ€™m always seeking to improve my work. And maybe there are different views here about the kinds of things that need to be developed, which would then be a potentially fruitful topic for discussion.
4. In response to the Chicago Political Workshop post, Chris Cutrone engaged some of the issues yesterday. It is not clear to me whether Chris is criticizing me, and if so, why. But his posting can be read as one that links me to â€œtraditional Marxismâ€â€”â€œInstead, it becomes a matter of one form of analysis (Postone) as better than another (Kliman, et al., or, as Postone puts it, â€˜traditional Marxismâ€™)â€â€”and to an alleged call for â€œfor some new empirical *economic* analysis of present-day capitalismâ€ to the exclusion of other analyses and inquires.[Chris Cutrone response to the Chicago Political Workshop:]
Again, Iâ€™m not sure of Chrisâ€™s intent, so Iâ€™ll just discuss this possible reading. The â€œtraditional Marxismâ€ notion is strange and ill-informed. What is â€œtraditional Marxismâ€ about the Marxist-Humanism developed by Raya Dunayevskaya, which the Marxist-Humanist Initiative is now attempting to renew organizationally? She was no traditional Marxist in the eyes of the traditional Marxists who turned her into an un-person (the historical-literary allusion is intentional). What is â€œtraditional Marxismâ€ about the temporal single-system interpretation of Marxâ€™s value theory, the proponents of which, myself included, have been turned into un-persons (the historical-literary allusion is intentional) by the traditional Marxist value theorists?
As for the alleged call for â€œfor some new empirical *economic* analysis of present-day capitalismâ€ to the exclusion of other analyses and inquiries, I have no affinity with it. I am not calling for people to come down on one side or the other of a rigid, binary, either/or choice between â€œeconomicsâ€ and everything else. I think the notion that we have to pick and choose is ridiculous.
Unfortunately, Chris doesnâ€™t agree that it is ridiculous. For reasons that are unclear to me, he presents the options open to us as a rigid either/or choice: â€œAs if the reproduction of capital is primarily a matter of *economics* (and not politics, culture, or ideology)!â€ Why do we have to choose? Canâ€™t it be a matter of all four? And why the word â€œprimarilyâ€? This seems to suggest that there must be a hierarchy of determinants thatâ€™s the same in all cases, and that â€œeconomicsâ€ is separate fromâ€“if not indeed opposed toâ€“politics, culture, and ideology, rather than all of them being mutually constituting moments of one total process.
The need to choose also seems to be implicit in the following phrases of Chrisâ€™s: â€œTHE problem of capitalismâ€ and â€œTHE problem of capitalâ€ (my caps). I donâ€™t really understand these phrases, but Iâ€™m skeptical of the reduction of a very complex set of processes to one â€œproblemâ€â€”THE problem. But note that if thereâ€™s just one problem, then itâ€™s more plausible that thereâ€™s just one best approach to THE problem, and thus it becomes more plausible that we have to choose THE best approach.
And then Chris says, â€œWe do indeed need an adequate analysis of our contemporary situation. Platypus chooses, quite deliberately, to analyze the present in terms of history, the present as the accumulation of a history of unresolved problems on the Left.â€ I have no problem with analyzing â€œthe present as the accumulation of a history of unresolved problems on the Left.â€ Thatâ€™s also what Dunayevskaya did, again and again, and itâ€™s what my comrades and I in Marxist-Humanist Initiative are trying to do today.
But here again, Chris burdens us with a dubious â€œtheâ€: â€œanalyze THE present in terms of history â€¦ a history of unresolved problems on the Leftâ€ (my caps). The only sense I can make of this is that Chris means that Platypus chooses, quite deliberately , to ignore any dimension of â€œtheâ€ present that canâ€™t be sliced and diced so as to fit the Procrustean bed of â€œa history of unresolved problems on the Left.â€ For surely, to take just one key example, the current NON-reproduction of capitalâ€”the current economic (and therefore political, cultural, and ideological) crisisâ€”is a significant aspect of â€œthe problem of capitalâ€ today, an important aspect of â€œthe present.â€ But there just ainâ€™t no way that one can fruitfully discuss it â€œas the accumulation of a history of unresolved problems on the Left.â€ Unless one wants to just ignore this significant dimension of â€œthe present,â€ I think it would be more useful to seriously study the theories of value and crisis in Capital and the daily news in the financial press.
Chris writes, â€œWhereas Marx critiqued the bourgeois philosophy and political-economy of the heroic period (of Kant and Hegel and Adam Smith and David Ricardo, et al.) and the ideology of his contemporary socialist â€œLeftâ€ (of Proudhon, et al.) â€¦ we in Platypus start with the problematic consciousness on the present-day â€œLeftâ€ and its historical roots, what the present â€œLeftâ€ has abandoned as being symptomatic of its fatal problems.â€ Again, I have no trouble with subjecting to scrutiny â€œthe problematic consciousnessâ€ of the contemporary Left. But Chrisâ€™s historical analogy suffers, I think, from an insufficient appreciation of the Kantian sense in which Marx â€œcritiquedâ€ political economy. It was a critique not just of ideology and philosophy and economic thought, but a critique of the conditions needed for them to existâ€”a critique of the mode of production and corresponding social formation upon which this ideology and philosophy and economic thought arise, and which make them possible.
Now, Iâ€™m not saying that the consciousness of the Left needs to be understood by deriving it from the vicissitudes of the mode of production. Iâ€™m just saying that critique in the sense of Marxâ€™s phrase â€œruthless critique of all that existsâ€ is not a critique of â€œconsciousnessâ€ detached from all else.
Chrisâ€™s rigid binary emerges the most clearly, however, in the following: â€œThe spirit of Marx today is not to be found in the immanent-ideology critique of the New York Times columns of Paul Krugman et al., let alone an analysis of â€˜economicâ€™ phenomena, BUT RATHER in the political and â€˜philosophical,â€™ cultural and psychological critique of the supposed (but actually pseudo-) â€˜Left,â€™ and its critical recognition as the product of a *regression* in theory and practice since the time of Marx and the best Marxistsâ€ (my caps). Again, I have nothing against looking at the issue that Chris wants to look at, but whatâ€™s this â€œbut ratherâ€ about? Why do we need to choose? And is it really in â€œthe spirit of Marxâ€ to ignore the worst economic crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, possibly soon to become the worst slump since the 1930sâ€”or maybe worse? No, of course it isnâ€™t. Thatâ€™s absurd. One matter â€œof consciousnessâ€ continues to intrigue and trouble me: the effort to declare that thereâ€™s one best way of looking and thinking, and that it is the same best way for everything. This effort, as I suggested above, goes hand in hand with a stringent reduction of complex processes and phenomena to single unitsâ€”â€œtheâ€ problem of capital, â€œtheâ€ present.
Chris Cutrone did not invent this approach. Iâ€™ve encountered it again and again among critical-theory-type folks, Western Marxists, whatever. For instance, at a New York book party for my book, Reclaiming Marxâ€™s â€œCapitalâ€: A refutation of the myth of inconsistency, Bertell Ollman kept counterposing his way of approaching Capital (as a discussion of alienation) to mine (which is evidently to focus narrowly on the myth of inconsistency, or on â€œeconomicsâ€â€”because, if I write a book about the myth of inconsistency, then, well, obviously, thatâ€™s how I approach Capital !). I just as insistently kept repeating that there was no need to chooseâ€”pointing out the cheese and focaccia that we had as refreshments at the event, I kept reminding the audience, â€œyou can have cheese AND focacciaâ€â€”but Ollman would have none of it.
This got me to thinking: Why would anyone want to defend the importance of alienation to Capital by dismissing the issue of Capitalâ€™s internal inconsistency and by dismissing a defense of its internal consistency?
And how could anyone think that he was actually defending Marxâ€™s discussion of alienation by projecting the attitude that the logical consistency of what Marx wrote is unimportant?!
So I came up with the following conjecture: The tendency toward rigid, totalizing either/or oppositions flows from a relativist or perspectivist position that has infected Western Marxism. As we all know, there are different ways of looking at and thinking about the world. But relativists and perspectivists go further. They claim that these different ways of looking and thinking are the ultimate determinants of the conclusions at which we arrive. In other words, they claim that, in the end, oneâ€™s perspective dominates over any input from logic and factsâ€”or that what counts as facts and logic, too, is determined by oneâ€™s perspective.
If that is so, then there are no â€œexternalâ€ facts and logic that determine the results of any inquiry. All results depend on the perspective one adopts, and the adoption of a perspective is just a matter of choiceâ€”no â€œexternalâ€ facts or logic induce one choice rather than another. So what becomes paramount is not to investigate the phenomena and answer the questions, but to struggle over the choice of perspective. Since the perspective determines the results, the hegemony of THE RIGHT way of looking and thinking is all important. And since there are no â€œexternalâ€ facts or logic that would allow us to say that this method might be helpful to answering this kind of question, while that method might be appropriate to the investigation of that problem, thereâ€™s a strong tendency to TOTALIZE the struggle for the hegemony of oneâ€™s perspective. If one accepts that oneâ€™s perspective is partial, one is accepting the legitimacy of a different perspective, and since there are no â€œexternalâ€ facts and logic that would determine the boundaries of either perspectiveâ€”this is appropriate for exploring the crisis of the Left, thatâ€™s appropriate for explaining the current economic crisis, etc.â€”there is just an interminable turf battle, ranging over the entire turf. So in order that oneâ€™s perspective not be globally defeated by an alien perspective, one must struggle for the global defeat of the alien perspective.
In the real world (and in intellectual endeavors where getting real results, not just panache, matters), no one thinks like this. We donâ€™t wipe our butts with spatulas; we donâ€™t cook with toilet paper; and we donâ€™t ask which one we primarily need in order to grapple with â€œtheâ€ problem of daily living. Thank goodness.[Chris Cutrone replied:]
1 comment: Chris Cutrone said at 11:15 pm on May 27th, 2009:
I agree that there is no question of plagiarism of Postone by Kliman. I think Principia Dialecticaâ€™s argument is tendentious, at best.
Similarly, I must admit to giving a rather one-sided polemical argument in my critique of the Chicago Political Workshop.
I was arguing against an economic-determinist approach. If I were to put it dialectically, I would say, following Marx, that one needs to inquire into the philosophical underpinnings of the economy as much as one might need to interrogate the political-economic conditions of thought.
I agree that a Kantian approach is appropriate, i.e., inquiring into conditions of possibility [inquiring into the conditions of possibility for capitalism].
So I would not want to be mistaken for giving an either/or view of economics vs. philosophy, etc.
On the other hand, I would stand by the formulation of a question of â€œtheâ€ problem of capital. For the totalizing process of capital is not a matter of an apparent static heterogeneity, as if there is no difference at any moment (there is), but rather how the concrete and particular play out over time (and this in a complicated way).
And so I would not chalk up emancipatory potential to such difference, which I see as potentially (and usually) contributing precisely to the reproduction of capital, rather than its overcoming over time.
I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a matter of adopting a (single) perspective, but rather, looking back over history, there was a trajectory from Marx to Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky that brought to a head the crisis (for humanity, in a historical sense) of capital, which has been abandoned since then. In other words, I think the contradiction of capital was manifested by historical revolutionary Marxism, rather than the latter just responding to it. I think -- and itâ€™s Platypusâ€™s point of departure -- that the history of the Left is the history of capital brought to its highest expression. This history offers us a potential perspective, perhaps not the only one, but the best one, or, more accurately, the most necessary one that is available.
In the words of Sebastian Haffner, author of Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-19, this history illuminates the present -- reveals it in definite relief -- like a piercing laser beam.
* * *
P.S. I would encourage everyone interested to review my exchange with the Marxist Humanist Peter Hudis in the Platypus Review on capital in history:
My original article:
Peter Hudis reply:
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 naÃ¯ve 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."
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."
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."
I am writing with some brief notes on Trotsky's Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the 4th International, AKA the Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution (1938).
Trotsky and the phenomenon of Trotskyism was and remains a highly controversial political and historical phenomenon, but one to which one's reaction is highly symptomatic and indicative.
We in Platypus regard Trotsky as the "last man standing" of what we call 2nd International radicalism, and thus treat the "Trotskyism" of the 1930s as the final remaining strand of this earlier revolutionary Marxist politics.
The tragic character of Trotskyism is well articulated by Trotsky's biographer Isaac Deutscher, who regarded Trotsky's decision to found a 4th International as tragically mistaken, but inevitable given Trotsky's character. Thus the tragic character of the historical figure of Trotsky and of the history through which he lived are identified with each other.
But, as Trotsky himself put it, if his 4th Intl. project was unviable, then this would place the entire revolutionary Marxist project, and Marxism itself, not only as a political tendency but also as an analysis of modern society, in doubt.
Just as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in the Junius pamphlet of 1915 that with the collapse of the 2nd Intl. in WWI the entire history of the modern workers' movement stood in doubt, Trotsky said the same of the crisis of communism that took place with triumph of Stalinism and the success of fascism in the 1930s. For it is not only a matter of making good on past gains, but rather the character of those "gains" themselves. As Luxemburg pointed out about the phenomenon of "revisionism" of Bernstein et al. in the 1890s-1900s, that they were reacting to the advanced problems of Marxism's own success and retreating to a moribund liberalism, Trotsky pointed out that Stalinism was a reaction to the advanced problems of "Bolshevism," what tasks had been revealed by the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. Without advance, retreat is inevitable. Without victory there must be defeat, and defeat has its unavoidable costs. The challenge was to make sense of the defeat and not to rationalize it, nor, as the Stalinists did, to call defeat "victory." Trotsky is the figure who resisted this attempt to ward off reality with wishful thinking. This is the standing challenge Trotsky makes to subsequent generations of (the degeneration of) the Left.
On the other hand, Stalinism was a recrudescence and retreat to social-democratic reformism with the failure of the international revolution that had opened in 1917 in Russia and 1918-19 in Germany, 1919 in Hungary and Italy, etc. The problem of "revisionist" reformism that had confronted Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky in the pre-WWI period recurred with the Stalinization of international communism in the 1920s-30s.
So what is meant by "Stalinism?" Simply put, it was the adaptation to defeat. It was not the personal manipulations of a pathological dictator, Stalin, but rather the overall political phenomenon of ideological-theoretical and practical-political disarray that came with the failure of the revolution.
Trotsky attempted to stem the tide of such practical disarray and intellectual confusion, and so was accused by the Stalinists, social democrats and liberals of being either "ultra-Leftist" or reactionary-Right wing, or, as it was put in the Great Purge Trials, "Trotskyist-fascist wreckers."
It should be borne in mind that the Purge Trials of the late 1930s, which were carried out under the mandate of purging "Trotskyism," were tolerated and accepted by liberals in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere. It was only later, with the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, that the liberal fellow travelers of Stalinism, discovered retrospectively, the "totalitarian" character of Soviet Communism.
Not merely Stalin as a dictator, but rather the deeper phenomena of adaptation and opportunism were the enemies of the Left that Trotsky sought to confront, both in the interest of practical political success of revolutionary Marxism, and for theoretical-ideological clarification.
A seldom remarked-upon fact is that the Mensheviks eventually embraced the Bolshevik Revolution -- but only retrospectively. In the early 1920s they convened and accepted the retroactive "historical legitimacy" of the October Revolution, after the Bolsheviks prevailed in the Civil War in which the Mensheviks had opposed them.
This "acceptance" of the October Revolution paved the way for many Mensheviks to join the expanded Russian Communist Party in the 1920s, when it was massively expanded (through what were called "Lenin levies"). An irony of history -- but one fully explicable from Trotsky's point of view -- is that the lead prosecutor in the Purge Trials of the late 1930s was a former Menshevik. By the 1930s, the Bolshevik Revolution became acceptable to liberals and social democrats precisely in its Stalinized form. This is because of the opportunism in practical and ideological adaptation in theory they all, Stalinists, social democratic reformists, and liberals, shared in common.
Only Trotsky and his small group of collaborators resisted this, just as only a handful of 2nd Intl. radicals had resisted the opportunist collapse of 2nd Intl. Marxism.
Trotsky has a great discussion of "splinters and pioneers" in his 1938 letters to the Partisan Review on "Art and Politics in Our Epoch:"
"Not a single progressive idea has begun with a 'mass base,' otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses -- if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as 'splinters' of older movements. In the beginning, Christianity was only a 'splinter' of Judaism; Protestantism a 'splinter' of Catholicism, that is to say decayed Christianity. The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a 'splinter' of the Hegelian Left. The Communist International germinated during the war from the 'splinters' of the Social Democratic International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These 'splinters' did not suffer from anemia; on the contrary, they carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.
"In very much the same way, to repeat, a progressive movement occurs in art. When an artistic tendency has exhausted its creative resources, creative 'splinters' separate from it, which are able to look at the world with new eyes. The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative 'mass base,' the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or 'anemic splintersâ€š' But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong -- and life passes them by."
The challenge is to redeem Trotsky's project of resisting the destruction of Marxism, which was not accomplished by subsequent generations of "Trotskyists" -- and could only be accomplished by making the revolution. This goes for Lenin and Luxemburg as well. And this includes Marx.
The critical theory of Adorno, Benjamin, Lukacs, Korsch, et al., is ultimately meaningless without the revolution. It will not only prove to be the case that their work has come to be meaningless, but that it was always ever meaningless. The unfolding of history without making good on the intellectual insights and practical gains of the past makes all those past efforts worthless.
Only through our own efforts can we make such struggling-in-suffering of the past to have (had) any value. This is the ultimate meaning of Trotsky. For today the entire history of humanity stands in doubt -- as it has since Marx's time. This is what the threat of regression and barbarism means: in Benjamin's words, "even the dead are not safe."
-- As Richard pointed out in his presentation at the Dialectics of Defeat panel we did at the Left Forum NYC in April, this is the fundamental affinity of Benjamin and Adorno with Trotsky, the "secret, unfulfilled history of the 20th Century" that Platypus seeks to redeem. And if we don't do it, no one else will.
But first we must be clear what we are trying to redeem so that we can grasp what redeeming it will mean, and what the deepest stakes of such redemption are that continue to task us in the present.
When we read something like Trotsky's Transitional Programme, like Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto, don't we want to fulfill and satisfy its demands? -- If so, we need to try to understand why and how we would do so.
So it is not a matter of Trotskyism having failed, but rather why we would have wanted it to have succeeded, and what Trotsky's delayed success, as Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx's, would mean for us today.
I am writing with some notes on our readings from Luxemburg and Trotsky on the Bolshevik Revolution and the greater revolutionary crisis of 1917-19.
I will discuss the relation of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky in the revolutionary period under consideration.
Our recent discussions of 1917-19 has taken 2 parts, Luxemburg's Spartacus writings from the German Revolution of 1918, and now Trotsky on The Lessons of October (1924) and Luxemburg's writing on the Bolshevik Revolution and its trajectory, "The Russian Tragedy" (1918) and her final writing before being murdered by counterrevolutionaries, "Order Reigns in Berlin" (1919).
Rather provocatively, I would say that I am entirely happy to approach the Bolshevik Revolution exclusively through Luxemburg's eyes. Her well known pamphlet on The Russian Revolution (1918), which she wrote while in prison, smuggled out, but asked her comrades Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi to destroy when she was released because she found certain of its formulations to be in error regarding actual events, re-writing and publishing her critique of the Bolsheviks' policies in the Russian Revolution in the text we read, "The Russian Tragedy," is misleading in a variety of respects. The reason more people read her unpublished and personally repudiated pamphlet instead of her actually published article is because Luxemburg has been abused in opposition to Lenin and Trotsky.
Another text we could read by Luxemburg from late 1918, which is available on marxists.org, is titled "German Bolshevism," and thus leaves no doubt of her close identification with the Bolsheviks' revolutionary project, whatever critiques she might have had of certain actions and policies of the Lenin and Trotsky:
Furthermore I would go so far as to say that Lenin and Trotsky would have hardly disagreed with what Luxemburg was saying in "The Russian Tragedy" (or in The Russian Revolution pamphlet, for that matter), but would only dispute certain points.
The history of the posthumous publication of the subsequently more widely read Luxemburg pamphlet on The Russian Revolution is disreputable and needs to be kept in mind when considering the actual nature and character of whatever criticisms of the Bolsheviks Luxemburg had.
Paul Levi published Luxemburg's pamphlet in an attempt to embarrass the Bolsheviks/Russian Communist Party in the 3rd International when Levi departed from the German Communist Party over a proposed attempt to seize power in 1920. Lenin replied to Levi's publication of Luxemburg's pamphlet as follows, and this bears upon the discussion of the political "party question" in Trotsky's Lessons of October:
"The process of transforming the old type of European parliamentary party -- which in fact is reformist and only slightly tinted with revolutionary colours -- into a new type of party, into a genuinely revolutionary, genuinely Communist Party, is an extremely arduous one. This is demonstrated most clearly, perhaps, by the example of France. The process of changing the type of Party work in everyday life, of getting it out of the humdrum channel; the process of converting the Party into the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat without permitting it to become divorced from the masses, but, on the contrary, by linking it more and more closely with them, imbuing them with revolutionary consciousness and rousing them for the revolutionary struggle, is a very difficult, but most important one. If the European Communists do not take advantage of the intervals (probably very short) between the periods of particularly acute revolutionary battles -- such as took place in many capitalist countries of Europe and America in 1921 and the beginning of 1922 -- for the purpose of bringing about this fundamental, internal, profound reorganisation of the whole structure of their Parties and of their work, they will be committing the gravest of crimes. Fortunately, there is no reason to fear this. The quiet, steady, calm, not very rapid, but profound work of creating genuine Communist Parties, genuine revolutionary vanguards of the proletariat, has begun and is proceeding in Europe and America. . . .
"Paul Levi now wants to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie -- and, consequently, of its agents, the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals -- by republishing precisely those writings of Rosa Luxemburg in which she was wrong. We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a good old Russian fable: 'Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles.' Rosa Luxemburg was mistaken on the question of the independence of Poland; she was mistaken in 1903 in her appraisal of Menshevism; she was mistaken on the theory of the accumulation of capital; she was mistaken in July 1914, when, together with Plekhanov, Vandervelde, Kautsky and others, she advocated unity between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; she was mistaken in what she wrote in prison in 1918 (she corrected most of these mistakes at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919 after she was released). But in spite of her mistakes she was -- and remains for us -- an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German Communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. 'Since August 4, 1914 German Social-Democracy has been a stinking corpse' -- this statement will make Rosa Luxemburg's name famous in the history of the international working class movement. And, of course, in the backyard of the working-class movement, among the dung heaps, hens like Paul Levi, Scheidemann, Kautsky and all that fraternity will cackle over the mistakes committed by the great Communist. To every man his own."
In particular, Luxemburg's seemingly eloquently impassioned defense of "democracy" against the Bolsheviks' supposed suppression in The Russian Revolution is not reiterated by her in her published article on "The Russian Tragedy." This is because she changed her estimation of the significance of the Bolsheviks' dispersal of the Constituent Assembly, which she no longer judged to be an undemocratic move. Moreover, she opposed calls for a Constituent Assembly in the German Revolution, which she regarded as counterrevolutionary, and instead adopted the Bolsheviks' slogan of "all power to the [workers' councils/soviets]!" She explicitly stated in her correspondence that she felt her criticism of the Bolsheviks' supposed violation of democracy had been due to the misrepresentation and distortion of events in the German journalism to which she had access while imprisoned. Hence her opinion changed in light of actual events, both as reported from Russia, and in the context of the revolutionary trajectory of 1917-18/19.
Luxemburg's critique of the Bolsheviks in her writings on the Russian Revolution is centered on a couple of questions: 1.) the peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk; 2.) and the sanctioning of the break-up of the land into small private-property plots by the peasants. She considered these, as the Bolsheviks themselves did, to be concessions made of necessity and under duress, but thought the Bolsheviks conceded too much. So these were disagreements of judgment over tactical issues and not differences in principle. Luxemburg's disagreements with Lenin and Trotsky did not go beyond those disagreements that existed within the Bolshevik/Russian Communist Party itself, and this important truth needs to be borne in mind. Aspects of such questions relate to the problem of the relation of "bourgeois-democratic" demands to the revolutionary anticapitalist politics of proletarian socialism as understood by Marxists (which I will address, below, on the evolution of Trotsky's conception of "permanent revolution" about which we read in his 1906 pamphlet Results and Prospects, and the political convergence of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917).
Trotsky's writing on The Lessons of October (1924) focuses on just those differences that manifested among the Bolsheviks on the eve and in the event of the October 1917 Revolution in which they overthrew the Provisional Government in Russia.
Trotsky's publication of The Lessons of October in 1924 (which was an introduction to the publication of his speeches from 1917) initiated what was known at the time as the "literary debate," over the historiography of the Bolshevik Revolution. This was important in the first case because of the failure of the revolutions outside Russia that had taken place in the wake of the October Revolution, in Germany and Hungary (and in working class social-revolutionary actions in Italy, etc.).
In calling attention to the Bolsheviks' own self-understanding of the October Revolution and its significance, before, during and after the event, Trotsky echoes the concerns of what Lenin wrote previously in "Left-Wing" Communism -- An Infantile Disorder (1920), in the first section, "In What Sense we can Speak of the International Significance of the Russian Revolution:"
"In the first months after the proletariat in Russia had won political power (October 25 [November 7], 1917), it might have seemed that the enormous difference between backward Russia and the advanced countries of Western Europe would lead to the proletarian revolution in the latter countries bearing very little resemblance to ours. We now possess quite considerable international experience, which shows very definitely that certain fundamental features of our revolution have a significance that is not local, or peculiarly national, or Russian alone, but international. I am not speaking here of international significance in the broad sense of the term: not merely several but all the primary features of our revolution, and many of its secondary features, are of international significance in the meaning of its effect: on all countries. I am speaking of it in the narrowest sense of the word, taking international significance to mean the international validity or the historical inevitability of a repetition, on an international scale, of what has taken place in our country. It must be admitted that certain fundamental features of our revolution do possess that significance.
"It would, of course, be grossly erroneous to exaggerate this truth and to extend it beyond certain fundamental features of our revolution. It would also be erroneous to lose sight of the fact that, soon after the victory of the proletarian revolution in at least one of the advanced countries, a sharp change will probably come about: Russia will cease to be the model and will once again become a backward country (in the "Soviet" and the socialist sense).
"At the present moment in history, however, it is the Russian model that reveals to all countries something -- and something highly significant -- of their near and inevitable future. Advanced workers in all lands have long realised this; more often than not, they have grasped it with their revolutionary class instinct rather than realised it. Herein lies the international "significance" (in the narrow sense of the word) of Soviet power, and of the fundamentals of Bolshevik theory and tactics. The "revolutionary" leaders of the Second International, such as Kautsky in Germany and Otto Bauer and Friedrich Adler in Austria, have failed to understand this, which is why they have proved to be reactionaries and advocates of the worst kind of opportunism and social treachery."
As Luxemburg wrote, in "The Russian Tragedy,"
"The awkward position that the Bolsheviks are in today, however, is, together with most of their mistakes, a consequence of basic insolubility of the problem posed to them by he international, above all the German, proletariat. To carry out the dictatorship of the proletariat and a socialist revolution in a single country surrounded by reactionary imperialist rule and in the fury of the bloodiest world war in human history -- that is squaring the circle. Any socialist party would have to fail in this task and perish -- whether or not it made self-renunciation the guiding star of its policies.
"We would like to see the spineless jelly-fish, the moaners, the [Mensheviks] Axelrods, Dans, Grigoryanz or whatever their name are, who, mouths frothing, sing their plaintive song against the Bolsheviks in foreign lands. And -- just look! -- they have found a sympathetic ear in such heroes as . . . Bernstein and Kautsky; we would like to see these Germans in the Bolsheviks' place! All their superior understanding would rapidly exhaust itself in an alliance with the Milyukovs in domestic policy and with the Entente in foreign policy; to this would be added a conscious renunciation of all socialist reforms, or even of any move in this direction, in domestic policy -- all this due to the conscious eunuch wisdom that says Russia is an agricultural country and Russian capitalism is not adequately cooked."
Despite attempts to make her out to be so, Luxemburg was no Menshevik. She was a Bolshevik, in all the ways that count. This is why she joined the Bolsheviks in forming the 3rd, Communist International. What Kautsky, like the Mensheviks, feared and hated about the Bolshevik Revolution was that it advanced the necessity of revolution, it unleashed a revolutionary process that needed to be fulfilled successfully in order to avoid worse results: it made the choice of "socialism or barbarism" a practical reality.
Luxemburg embraced the Bolshevik Revolution because of the pressure of revolutionary necessity it applied to Germany. But the revolution that resulted in Germany failed, and Luxemburg and her comrades were killed -- in Kautsky's hypocritical view, which deemed the revolution in both Russia and Germany as "premature," this was because, like the Bolsheviks, Luxemburg had recklessly played with fire in calling for workers' revolution in Germany in 1918-19.
* * *
The question of what could and should be learned from the experience of the Bolsheviks in 1917 was of primary importance and yet had been glossed by the Bolsheviks themselves. As Trotsky put it at the beginning of The Lessons of October, in "We Must Study the October Revolution:"
"We met with success in the October Revolution, but the October Revolution has met with little success in our press. Up to the present time we lack a single work which gives a comprehensive picture of the October upheaval and puts the proper stress upon its most important political and organizational aspects. Worse yet, even the available firsthand material -- including the most important documents -- directly pertaining to the various particulars of the preparation for the revolution, or the revolution itself remains unpublished as yet. Numerous documents and considerable material have been issued bearing on the pre-October history of the revolution and the pre-October history of the party; we have also issued much material and many documents relating to the post October period. But October itself has received far less attention. Having achieved the revolution, we seem to have concluded that we should never have to repeat it. It is as if we thought that no immediate and direct benefit for the unpostponable tasks of future constructive work could be derived from the study of October; the actual conditions of the direct preparation for it; the actual accomplishment of it; and the work of consolidating it during the first few weeks.
"Such an approach -- though it may be subconscious -- is, however, profoundly erroneous, and is, moreover, narrow and nationalistic. We ourselves may never have to repeat the experience of the October Revolution, but this does not at all imply that we have nothing to learn from that experience. We are a part of the International, and the workers in all other countries are still faced with the solution of the problem of their own 'October.' Last year we had ample proof that the most advanced Communist parties of the West had not only failed to assimilate our October experience but were virtually ignorant of the actual facts.
"To be sure, the objection may be raised that it is impossible to study October or even to publish documents relating to October without the risk of stirring up old disagreements. But such an approach to the question would be altogether petty. The disagreements of 1917 were indeed very profound, and they were not by any means accidental. But nothing could be more paltry than an attempt to turn them now, after a lapse of several years, into weapons of attack against those who were at that time mistaken. It would be, however, even more inadmissible to remain silent as regards the most important problems of the October Revolution, which are of international significance, on account of trifling personal considerations."
I would underscore Trotsky's emphasis on the "problems" of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution, which were expressed in what Trotsky calls "profound disagreements."
These disagreements had to do with the nature and character of the revolutionary crisis in Russia, whether it portended the possibility of participating in an international struggle for socialism or was destined to be merely a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution. But, less disagreements of principle in and of themselves, they were over how to pursue tasks of emancipatory politics in the Russian Revolution, whether or not Marxists needed to wait until the fulfillment of liberal-democratic struggles before being able to struggle for socialism. This was not a matter of conceptual schema but of judgment within a rapidly changing situation, of what was perhaps going too far vs. not far enough in one's actions, and how one understood this in terms of theory.
This harks back to Lenin's discussion, in What is to be done? (1902), of the importance of theoretical struggles, which might otherwise seem scholastic and of little actual political importance. Trotsky's point in The Lessons of October, as Lenin's was in What is to be done?, is that theoretical differences can have profound practical political implications, because it affects what one thinks one is doing -- and hence affects what one is doing.
Beginning in April 1917, with his famous return to Russia at the Finland Station, Lenin began a ruthless critique of Bolshevik policy, calling for "all power to the soviets!" while the Bolsheviks had been supporting the Provisional Government that had issued from the deposing of the Tsar in the revolution of February 1917.
The Bolsheviks who heard Lenin's speech at the Finland Station thought that Lenin had lost his mind. The opponents of the Bolsheviks relished what they thought was Lenin's ultra-Leftism, which they hoped would condemn the Bolsheviks to not playing any role in the revolution, which they considered to be of an entirely liberal/bourgeois-democratic character in its possibilities.
In declaring that the struggle for socialism was on in Russia, Lenin seemed to have transgressed the prior Bolshevik perspective of a "revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants" that might and indeed had broken out. The Bolsheviks had thought that such a "bourgeois-democratic" revolution would be a potential spark for a workers' socialist revolution in Europe, which then might only subsequently allow a struggle for socialism in Russia.
This is the famous controversy over the "stage theory" of revolution (in Russia), which came back to haunt the international Communist movement in its later Stalinization. -- Related to this is the "peasant question," or the peasants as a "revolutionary class" in the revolution, which lied behind so much mischief in liquidating a Marxian perspective in the history of Stalinized "Communism" (i.e., Maoism).
The point for Marxists, as Lenin recognized, was how to enlist liberal/"bourgeois-democratic" grievances and demands into the struggle for socialism, or, looked at another way, how to secure the working class's leadership of democratic struggles so that they could be tied into the workers' struggles against capitalism.
For the development of capitalism had left a great deal of such democratic demands (of "bourgeois rights") unfulfilled. Moreover, as Trotsky had pointed out in Results and Prospects (1906) the "prerequisites of socialism" not only worked together but also mitigated and undermined each other: this was Trotsky's theory of how capitalism, in its crisis beginning in the mid-19th Century had become, as he followed from Marx, "overripe" for the struggle for proletarian socialism. -- Such a perspective also lied behind Luxemburg's notion, following an earlier statement by Engels, that humanity faced a choice of "socialism or barbarism," and not a choice of a complacent liberal status quo under capitalism or a struggle for socialism. This was manifested, glaringly, in how capitalism had developed in Russia by 1917 -- indeed by the time of the 1905 Revolution, in which Trotsky had been an important leader. -- Trotsky recognized in Results and Prospects how the development of capitalism in Russia undermined the possibilities for liberal-democratic struggles and made the struggle for proletarian socialism both more possible and more necessary.
As Marx had put it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), on the failure of the 1848 Revolution in France,
"The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France's poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself."
This is the essential Marxian characterization of the "petit-bourgeois" character of the peasantry, which might be termed as well "proto-bourgeois" or "pre-proletarian."
Nevertheless, this raises the question of what relation proletarian socialism has to such "petit-bourgeois" elements. In Trotsky's "permanent revolution" perspective or Luxemburg's more "orthodox" 2nd Intl. Marxist conception, it is a problem of the workers leading the struggle in the greater society for bourgeois-democratic rights for all its members, and thus demonstrating how capitalism undermines its own avowed "liberal" claims. For Lenin, the question becomes a matter of "how" the workers could lead the peasants (et al.). While this problem remained largely abstract for Luxemburg, Trotsky, et al. (i.e., the so-called "old Bolsheviks" who, like the Mensheviks, et al., had reacted in horror at Lenin's supposed "ultra-Leftism" after April 1917 and thought that the October Revolution was potentially "adventurist" folly), with Lenin it takes on a more practical aspect, concretely unfolding as a matter of the role of the peasants in the trajectory of the revolution in Russia in 1917.
It is in this sense, of the unfolding of the revolution, that Lenin's judgment becomes exemplary, and Trotsky inquires as to its possibilities and preconditions. Trotsky's point is that the necessary flexibility of judgment under changing events can only be had by way of a well organized and disciplined political party that can remain a coherent actor through the sharp turns and reversals that are inevitable in an actual revolution. The corollary of this organizational strength at an individual level resolves as a matter of theoretical sophistication, so that one does not become conceptually blindsided. The way theory and practice relate is through the political activity within and outside the party in which the issues are fought out. Both the individuals and the organizations of which they are a part need to be able to survive the straining demands of such political struggles. Recognizing how the prior history of the Bolshevik faction had prepared them for the role they played in the successful workers' revolution in Russia in October 1917 allowed Trotsky to derive certain lessons from the experience in which he had joined them.
Part of what Trotsky had to answer in his writing The Lessons of October is whether, to what extent and how he and Lenin had found agreement in 1917 and collaborated so successfully in the October Revolution. The reconciling of their theoretical perspectives had to be characterized sufficiently. -- Had Lenin become a "Trotskyist" in calling for "all power to the soviets!" in April 1917, or had Trotsky become a "Leninist" in joining the Bolshevik organization? In fact, both were the case.
What made the Bolshevik Revolution possible was the organizational and theoretical sophistication that allowed them to mold events and not be condemned to only chasing ("tailing") after them -- or being blindsided by them. The history of the Left ever since 1917 has been one of the endless repetition of such failure, defeat in opportunism, and theoretical and practical liquidation that results from adapting to failure.
As Trotsky put it in conclusion to The Lessons of October,
"History secured for our party revolutionary advantages that are truly inestimable. The traditions of the heroic struggle against the tsarist monarchy; the habituation to revolutionary self-sacrifice bound up with the conditions of underground activity; the broad theoretical study and assimilation of the revolutionary experience of humanity; the struggle against Menshevism, against the Narodniks, and against conciliationism; the supreme experience of the 1905 revolution; the theoretical study and assimilation of this experience during the years of counterrevolution; the examination of the problems of the international labor movement in the light of the revolutionary lessons of 1905 -- these were the things which in their totality gave our party an exceptional revolutionary temper, supreme theoretical penetration, and unparalleled revolutionary sweep. Nevertheless, even within this party, among its leaders, on the eve of decisive action there was formed a group of experienced revolutionists, Old Bolsheviks, who were in sharp opposition to the proletarian revolution and who, in the course of the most critical period of the revolution from February 1917 to approximately February 1918, adopted on all fundamental questions an essentially social democratic position. It required Lenin, and Lenin's exceptional influence in the party, unprecedented even at that time, to safeguard the party and the revolution against the supreme confusion following from such a situation. This must never be forgotten if we wish other Communist parties to learn anything from us.
"The question of selecting the leading staff is of exceptional importance to the parties of Western Europe. The experience of the abortive German October is shocking proof of this. But this selection must proceed in the light of revolutionary action. During these recent years, Germany has provided ample opportunities for the testing of the leading party members in moments of direct struggle. Failing this criterion, the rest is worthless. . . . A careful study of such acute episodes provides irreplaceable material for the evaluation of a party leadership, the conduct of various party organs, and individual leading members. To ignore these lessons and not to draw the necessary conclusions from them as to the choice of personalities is to invite inevitable defeats; for without a penetrating, resolute, and courageous party leadership, the victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible.
"Each party, even the most revolutionary party, must inevitably produce its own organizational conservatism; for otherwise it would lack the necessary stability. This is wholly a question of degree. In a revolutionary party the vitally necessary dose of conservatism must be combined with a complete freedom from routine, with initiative in orientation and daring in action. These qualities are put to the severest test during turning points in history. We have already quoted the words of Lenin to the effect that even the most revolutionary parties, when an abrupt change occurs in a situation and when new tasks arise as a consequence, frequently pursue the political line of yesterday and thereby become, or threaten to become, a brake upon the revolutionary process. Both conservatism and revolutionary initiative find their most concentrated expression in the leading organs of the party. In the meantime, the European Communist parties have still to face their sharpest â€œturning pointâ€ -- the turn from preparatory work to the actual seizure of power. This turn is the most exacting, the most unpostponable, the most responsible, and the most formidable. To miss the moment for the turn is to incur the greatest defeat that a party can possibly suffer.
"The experience of the European struggles, and above all the struggles in Germany, when looked at in the light of our own experience, tells us that there are . . . leaders who incline to drag the party back at the very moment when it must take a stupendous leap forward. Some among them generally tend to see mainly the difficulties and obstacles in the way of revolution, and to estimate each situation with a preconceived, though not always conscious, intention of avoiding any action. Marxism in their hands is turned into a method for establishing the impossibility of revolutionary action. The purest specimens of this type are the Russian Mensheviks. But this type as such is not confined to Menshevism, and at the most criticial moment it suddenly manifests itself in responsible posts in the most revolutionary party. . . .
"Meanwhile, the entire preparatory work is of value only to the extent that it renders the party and above all its leading organs capable of determining the moment for an insurrection, and of assuming the leadership of it. For the task of the Communist Party is the conquest of power for the purpose of reconstructing society.
"Much has been spoken and written lately on the necessity of 'Bolshevizing' the Comintern. This is a task that cannot be disputed or delayed; it is made particularly urgent after the cruel lessons of Bulgaria and Germany a year ago [in 1923]. Bolshevism is not a doctrine (i.e., not merely a doctrine) but a system of revolutionary training for the proletarian uprising. What is the Bolshevization of Communist parties? It is giving them such a training, and effecting such a selection of the leading staff, as would prevent them from drifting when the hour for their October strikes. 'That is the whole of Hegel, and the wisdom of books, and the meaning of all philosophy. . . .' "
-- The point is that the German Revolution was defeated as a function of the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades Karl Liebknecht et al., from which the German Communist Party never recovered. Just as Lenin (and Trotsky) had proven indispensably key for the victory of the workers' revolution in Russia, so did Luxemburg et al., in the negative sense of the absence of their theoretical and practical leadership. At the decisive moment in 1919 they lacked an adequate organization; subsequently, though the KPD grew enormously organizationally powerful, like the SPD before it, it ended up amounting to nothing, because it could not exercise the necessary revolutionary leadership in action that might have been provided precisely through the theoretical consciousness of Rosa Luxemburg and her comrades.
I am writing with some very brief notes on the 3rd part of Lukacs's essay "Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat," "The Standpoint of the Proletariat," which is very important for Platypus's grasp of the self-understanding of the revolutionary Marxism in 1917-19 that Lukacs was trying to theoretically digest. -- In a certain sense, this piece by Lukacs is the culmination of all the prior readings we have done by Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Lukacs and Korsch.
For Lukacs, "proletarian class consciousness" is historical consciousness of the problem of capital, i.e., proletarian consciousness is Marx's own thought. Likewise, "reification" and "immediacy" refer not to everyday, naive consciousness, but rather to what Marx called "political economy," which in Lukacs's time took the form of "Marxism." When Lukacs writes "reification"/"immediacy" he means Kautskyan "orthodoxy" in 2nd Intl. Marxism (and not merely Bernsteinian "revisionism," let alone what Lenin called "trade union consciousness" [in What is to be done?] or what Luxemburg called "liberalism" [in Reform or Revolution?]).
Lukacs's point is not that it is the concrete sociological position (or in the process of production, etc.) that grants the proletariat the possibility of getting beyond capitalism as "subject-object of history" (the most common way of misinterpreting Lukacs), but rather that the dialectical character of capitalism/bourgeois society takes its highest, most acute form in terms of proletarian socialism. The modern society of capital goes through, broadly, two historical phases, its "bourgeois" one of emergence, and its "proletarian" one of crisis and potential overcoming, which is datable to at least as early as 1848 and Marx and Engels's realization of this in theory in practice with the Communist Manifesto -- after which "bourgeois" thought, according to Marx, becomes "vulgar," i.e., becomes concerned with affirming what has become untenable from the standpoint of bourgeois society's own emancipatory intent, namely capital.
Proletarian socialism is the most advanced, most adequate conscious expression of the dialectic of capital, through which the necessity of getting beyond capital might be made manifestly possible.
-- Those critics of Lukacs who think he is either ontologizing labor/the working class as emancipatory agent are only avoiding the most obvious question: why Marx, who certainly recognized that the reproduction of conditions of proletarian labor is precisely what needs to be overcome, still nevertheless endorsed the working class politics of proletarian socialism as the only progressive-emancipatory way out of capital.
Lukacs was merely following Marx (and the best Marxists, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky) in arguing that capital can and must be overcome only by the wage laborers struggling in and through forms of necessary appearance, or through necessary forms of (mis)recognition.
Lukacs's "Hegelian" Marxism was not, as may be mistaken (e.g., by Postone et al.), the reassimilation of Marx back to Hegel (thus transforming Marx's thought into the affirmation of capital/labor, a la Hegel), but rather the attempt to reground the "Hegelian" dimension of Marx's thought, which was necessary precisely in order to bring a Marxian approach to critically theorizing the crisis of Marxism itself. Only by engaging the Hegelian dimension of Marx, Lukacs thought, could Marxism itself become subject to a "dialectical" treatment.
Lukacs, like Marx and the best Marxists before him, recognized that the struggle against capital is necessarily symptomatic of it. This is the meaning of the word "dialectic" in the subtitle to Lukacs's book History and Class Consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics, which sought to analyze the social-historical phenomenon of Marxism in a Marxian critical-theoretical manner. Lukacs was not providing a philosophical justification for Marxism, but rather a Marxian (i.e., immanent and historical) critique of Marxism as it had developed up to that time.
The reason that so few can grasp what Lukacs was actually trying to do is because they don't understand Marxism to begin with.