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You are here: Platypus /Archive for tag History of the Left

Summer and Fall/Autumn 2016 – Winter 2017

Every Monday, 7:00-9:00 pm

Bongo Java, 2007 Belmont Blvd.

 

I. What is the Left? -- What is Marxism?


required / + recommended reading


Marx and Engels readings pp. from Robert C. Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (Norton 2nd ed., 1978)


 

Week A. Radical bourgeois philosophy I. Rousseau: Crossroads of society | Aug. 8, 2016

Whoever dares undertake to establish a people’s institutions must feel himself capable of changing, as it were, human nature, of transforming each individual, who by himself is a complete and solitary whole, into a part of a larger whole, from which, in a sense, the individual receives his life and his being, of substituting a limited and mental existence for the physical and independent existence. He has to take from man his own powers, and give him in exchange alien powers which he cannot employ without the help of other men.

-- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (1762)

• epigraphs on modern history and freedom by James Miller (on Jean-Jacques Rousseau), Louis Menand (on Edmund Wilson), Karl Marx, on "becoming" (from the Grundrisse, 1857–58), and Peter Preuss (on Nietzsche)

+ Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (1908)

+ Robert Pippin, "On Critical Theory" (2004)

• Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754) PDFs of preferred translation (5 parts): [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Rousseau, selection from On the Social Contract (1762)


 

Week B. Radical bourgeois philosophy II. Hegel: Freedom in history | Aug. 15, 2016

• G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (1831) [HTML] [PDF pp. 14-128] [Audiobook]


 

Week C. Radical bourgeois philosophy III. Nietzsche (1): Life in history | Aug. 22, 2016

• Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life (1874) [translator's introduction by Peter Preuss]

+ Nietzsche on history chart of terms


 

Week D. Radical bourgeois philosophy IV. Nietzsche (2): Asceticism of moderns | Aug. 29, 2016

+ Human, All Too Human: Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil (1999)

Nietzsche, selection from On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873)

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic (1887)


 

Week E. 1960s New Left I. Neo-Marxism | Sep. 6, 2016 U.S. Labor Day weekend

• Martin Nicolaus, “The unknown Marx” (1968)

+ Commodity form chart of terms

• Moishe Postone, “Necessity, labor, and time” (1978)

+ Postone, “History and helplessness: Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anticapitalism” (2006)

+ Postone, “Theorizing the contemporary world: Brenner, Arrighi, Harvey” (2006)


 

Week F. 1960s New Left II. Gender and sexuality | Sep. 12, 2016

• Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The longest revolution” (1966)

• Clara Zetkin and Vladimir Lenin, “An interview on the woman question” (1920)

• Theodor W. Adorno, “Sexual taboos and the law today” (1963)

• John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and gay identity” (1983)


 

Week G. 1960s New Left III. Anti-black racism in the U.S. | Sep. 19, 2016

• Richard Fraser, “Two lectures on the black question in America and revolutionary integrationism” (1953)

• James Robertson and Shirley Stoute, “For black Trotskyism” (1963)

+ Spartacist League, “Black and red: Class struggle road to Negro freedom” (1966)

+ Bayard Rustin, “The failure of black separatism” (1970)

• Adolph Reed, “Black particularity reconsidered” (1979)

+ Reed, “Paths to Critical Theory” (1984)


 

Week H. Frankfurt School precursors | Sep. 26, 2016

• Wilhelm Reich, “Ideology as material power” (1933/46)

• Siegfried Kracauer, “The mass ornament” (1927)

+ Kracauer, “Photography” (1927)


 

Week 1. What is the Left? I. Capital in history | Oct. 3, 2016

• epigraphs on modern history and freedom by Louis Menand (on Marx and Engels) and Karl Marx, on "becoming" (from the Grundrisse, 1857–58)

• Chris Cutrone, "Capital in history" (2008)

+ Capital in history timeline and chart of terms

+ video of Communist University 2011 London presentation

Cutrone, "The Marxist hypothesis" (2010)


 

Week 2. What is the Left? II. Bourgeois society | Oct. 10, 2016

• Immanuel Kant, "Idea for a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view" and "What is Enlightenment?" (1784)

• Benjamin Constant, "The liberty of the ancients compared with that of the moderns" (1819)

+ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the origin of inequality (1754)

+ Rousseau, selection from On the social contract (1762)


 

Week 3. What is the Left? III. Failure of Marxism | Oct. 17, 2016

• Max Horkheimer, selections from Dämmerung (1926–31)

Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses” (1944–47)


 

Week 4. What is the Left? IV. Utopia and critique | Oct. 24, 2016

• Leszek Kolakowski, “The concept of the Left” (1968)

Marx, To make the world philosophical (from Marx's dissertation, 1839–41), pp. 9–11

Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existing (letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843), pp. 12–15


 

Week 5. What is Marxism? I. Socialism | Oct. 31, 2016

Marx, selections from Economic and philosophic manuscripts (1844), pp. 70–101

+ Commodity form chart of terms

Marx and Friedrich Engels, selections from the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), pp. 469-500

Marx, Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League (1850), pp. 501–511


 

Week 6. What is Marxism? II. Revolution in 1848 | Nov. 7, 2016

Marx, The coming upheaval (from The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847) and Class struggle and mode of production (letter to Weydemeyer, 1852), pp. 218-220

Engels, The tactics of social democracy (Engels's 1895 introduction to Marx, The Class Struggles in France), pp. 556–573

Marx, selections from The Class Struggles in France 1848–50 (1850), pp. 586–593

Marx, selections from The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), pp. 594–617


 

Week 7. What is Marxism? III. Bonapartism | Nov. 14, 2016

+ Karl Korsch, "The Marxism of the First International" (1924)

Marx, Inaugural address to the First International (1864), pp. 512–519

Marx, selections from The Civil War in France (1871, including Engels's 1891 Introduction), pp. 618–652

+ Korsch, Introduction to Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1922)

Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, pp. 525–541

Marx, Programme of the Parti Ouvrier (1880)


 

Week 8. What is Marxism? IV. Critique of political economy | Nov. 21, 2016

+ Commodity form chart of terms

Marx, selections from the Grundrisse (1857–61), pp. 222–226, 236–244, 247–250, 276–293 ME Reader pp. 276-281

Marx, Capital Vol. I, Ch. 1 Sec. 4 "The fetishism of commodities" (1867), pp. 319–329


 

Week 9. Nov. 28, 2016 U.S. Thanksgiving break


 

Week 10. What is Marxism? V. Reification | Dec. 5, 2016 / Jan. 9, 2017

• Georg Lukács, “The phenomenon of reification” (Part I of “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness, 1923)

+ Commodity form chart of terms


 

Winter break readings

+ Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate / A&Z, Introducing Lenin and the Russian Revolution / Lenin for Beginners (1977)

+ Sebastian Haffner, Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918–19 (1968)

+ Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940), Part II. Ch. (1–4,) 5–10, 12–16; Part III. Ch. 1–6

+ Tariq Ali and Phil Evans, Introducing Trotsky and Marxism / Trotsky for Beginners (1980)

+ James Joll, The Second International 1889–1914 (1966)


 

Week 11. What is Marxism? VI. Class consciousness | Dec. 12, 2016 / Jan. 16, 2017

Lukács, Original Preface (1922), “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (1919), “Class Consciousness” (1920), History and Class Consciousness (1923)

+ Marx, Preface to the First German Edition and Afterword to the Second German Edition (1873) of Capital (1867), pp. 294–298, 299–302


 

Week 12. What is Marxism? VII. Ends of philosophy | Dec. 19, 2016 / Jan. 23, 2017

Korsch, “Marxism and philosophy” (1923)

+ Marx, To make the world philosophical (from Marx's dissertation, 1839–41), pp. 9–11

+ Marx, For the ruthless criticism of everything existing (letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843), pp. 12–15

+ Marx, "Theses on Feuerbach" (1845), pp. 143–145


 

Winter–Spring 2017

II. Introduction to revolutionary Marxism

IN RESPONSE TO THE CRITIQUES of Wayne Price and Liam Swenson to my piece on anarchism in The Platypus Review #65, I will reiterate what I consider the major differences between Marxist revolutionary theory and anarchism in general. I say in general because I see nothing to be gained by dealing with the great variety of differences within anarchism itself presented by these critiques. In fact their great variety proves the very fleeting and vacillating nature of the anarchist project.

The death of Marxism and the emergence of neo-liberalism and neo-anarchism

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

At the 2012 Platypus Affiliated Society’s (PAS) annual International Convention, held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago March 30–April 1, Chris Cutrone, President of the PAS, delivered the following presentation, which has been edited for clarity. A full audio recording is available online by clicking the above link.


IN THE TRADITION we established just two years ago, there is a Platypus President’s report, speaking to the historical moment. At our convention last year, I presented on the “anti-fa” vs. “anti-imp” Left, as a division in the history of the Left that bears upon the present.[1] In the year prior to that, in my first report, I presented on the 1970s as a decade in the history of the Left that continues to inform the present, but in ways that are usually not acknowledged.

This year, I am presenting on “1873 to 1973: The century of Marxism.” The reason that I, in consultation with my comrades and colleagues, chose this topic, is to attempt to grasp the crisis of 2007–08 as closing the period of neoliberalism that began with the crisis of 1973. One thing to consider, therefore, is the parallel but also lack or disparity between the period from 1873 to, say, 1912 vs. the period from 1973 to today. I think this bears upon how we might consider our present historical moment. So the provocative formulation I have is to call the period from 1873 to 1973 the “century of Marxism,” locating Marxism itself historically in this period.

Historical periodization

I will begin with some historical dates, the birth and death years of various figures in the history of Marxism that are of prime importance for Platypus. The “century of Marxism” is, principally, after Marx’s time, and ends, roughly, around the time of Adorno’s death.

1818–1883      Karl Marx

1820–1895      Friedrich Engels

1870–1924      Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

1871–1919      Rosa Luxemburg

1879–1940      Leon Trotsky

1885–1971      Georg Lukács

1889–1914      Second International

1892–1940      Walter Benjamin

1895–1973      Max Horkheimer

1903–69         Theodor W. Adorno

If, according to Jim Creegan, in his article on #Occupy, “Hot autumn in New York,”[2] the events of 2011 were similar to but different in certain key respects from those of 1968 and 1999, this is due to 1968, as a crisis year of the New Left, and 1999, the year of the Battle of Seattle, taking place during periods of economic boom, whereas 2011 took place during the economic crisis that began in 2007–08. However, in terms of similarities and differences, what this comparison neglects is the crisis of 1973, the crisis of Keynesianism and Fordism that occurred in the aftermath of the New Left explosion of 1968. One can say, perhaps, that 1968 took place during an economic boom, but the 1970s phase of the New Left took place during a period of economic crisis, after 1973. Why Creegan, among others, may choose to forget this is that it raises the question of Marxism in the 1970s, the last time that there was a potential renascence of the Left during an economic crisis on the order of magnitude we’re facing today. The 1970s were a period whose failure conditions any attempts at Marxism in the present.

The last apparent renascence of Marxism, in the 1970s “Marxist-Leninist” turn of the New Left, may indeed be considered, rather, Marxism's long-delayed death. In other words, Marxism didn't come back to life in the ’70s so much as it finally died then. This is quite different from considering the collapse of the Soviet Bloc beginning in 1989 to be the crisis and death of Marxism. For it was in the 1970s that the crisis of Keynesian Fordism led to the neoliberal era, symbolized by the election of Thatcher and Reagan by the end of the decade. Neoliberalism has this crucial history in the 1970s, two decades before the 1990s, despite the preponderant consciousness today of later anti-globalization protests.

If the recent crisis is to be considered a crisis of neoliberalism, then it recalls the birth of the neoliberal era in the failure of the New Left, specifically the failure of New Left Marxism in the 1970s. The Marxist-Leninist turn of the New Left is coincidental historically with neoliberalism, so neoliberalism can be considered a historical phenomenon of the failure of the New Left. It was this failure that led to “postmodernist” anti-Marxism, specifically the death of the Left in its “post-political” phase of the 1980s–90s that we describe in Platypus’s official Statement of Purpose.

The century of Marxism: 19th and 20th centuries

The question before us, then, is the century of Marxism, considered as the emergence, crisis, death, and memory of Marxism. That question can be historically periodized as 1873–1973.

Marx's thought predates this period, and is properly considered a phenomenon circa and in the aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848.[3] If Marx's own thought was born in the crisis of the 1840s (the “hungry ’40s”), then Marx-ism (as distinct from Marx’s own thought and practice), as a form of politics sui generis, a Marxist politics per se, dates from the collapse of the First International (International Workingmen’s Association) and the formation of the German Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SPD) in the 1870s. As such, Marxism is contemporaneous with the first Great Depression that began with the crisis of 1873. Marxism, as a form of politics distinct from other forms of socialism, dates from this period. Prior to this, there was no question of “Marxism” but, rather, Marx and Engels and their close colleagues participated in the broader socialist movement.

1873 is commonly regarded as the end of the mid-19th century "liberal" era (which saw a certain heyday in the 1860s, also when Leftist politics emerged from post-1848 reaction). In Marxist historiography, the period after 1873 dates the emergence of the "monopoly" era of capitalism, the era of modern "imperialism."  By contrast, the 1860s is the decade, for instance, marked by the U.S. Civil War, which conditioned the formation of the First International.[4] However, that period ended by the 1870s.

Significantly, 1873 was a blow to, and not a boon for, the First International. If we take the First International as paradigmatic of 19th century socialism, the crisis of 1873 did not boost 19th century socialism as much as it was coincidental historically with the crisis of 19th century socialism, namely, the collapse of the First International. The 1870s signaled a shift. This shift, towards what became “Marxism,” therefore, was bound up with other changes.[5] These changes can be summed up in the historical shift from the liberal era to the state-centric era of capitalism.

“State capitalism” and Marxism

“State capitalism” is a tricky category, with a variety of different meanings. For instance, Friedrich Pollock, a member of the Frankfurt School, wrote an influential essay on “state capitalism,” published in the early 1940s, which referred to changes in the inter-war years of the early 20th century. But, in another sense, “state capitalism” can be dated in two very different ways: from 1873 or 1914, either Bismarck or WWI. The fact that state capitalism can be characterized as having such very different start dates is significant: it places, specifically, the period between these two dates under certain questions. This period, 1873–1914, is coterminous with another historiographic period, the time between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI (in France, this is the period of the Third Republic, after the collapse of the Louis Bonaparte's Second Empire and the suppression of the Paris Commune), which developed towards a certain flowering of global capitalism in the Belle Époque. This is also the period of Marxism. Thus, it is significant that Marxism, in its "classical" era, can be considered a phenomenon of the turn to state capitalism. Marxists of this period called this era "imperialism," or the "highest stage of capitalism," the eve of socialist revolution. In other words, the period of the emergence of Marxism as a politics sui generis was also understood by Marxists of the time as sharing the historical moment of capitalism's highest possible stage. “State capitalism,” in this view, was not the overcoming but rather the exacerbation of the contradictions of capitalism. Marxism was thus bound up with heightening contradiction.

The late-19th to early-20th century period of “imperialism” resulted in the First World War, which was, of course, the crisis of Marxism: the collapse of the Second International. The question is how Marxism was bound up with the imperialist phase of capitalism, and how the crisis of Marxism in WWI was connected to the other results of this period of history. In other words, how did the crisis of Marxism itself share in the historical moment of the emergence and crisis of state capitalism, understood by Marxists at the time as “imperialism”?

For the Marxists of this time, WWI was the crisis of capitalism in its period of "revolution," which was signaled, in an inaugural sense, by the Russian Revolution of 1905. Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky regarded this period as one confronted by the choice of "socialism or barbarism," or, more specifically, the "civil war" of the workers against the capitalists or a "world war" between imperialist states. This was the prognosis.

The 20th century (1): The death of Marxism

Both predictions, of civil war and world war, in fact, came spectacularly true. Up to that time, Marxists understood this as either one alternative or the other. As it turned out, it was both. There was a world war and a civil war in 1914–19, in which the Second International collapsed and Marxism was divided. Marxism was divided specifically on the questions of both the imperialist world war and the class-struggle civil war that followed. So the crisis of Marxism was not only over the world war but was also over the civil war.

Marxism, specifically as a form of politics sui generis (distinguished from the greater 19th century history of socialism, from the Utopians to Proudhon, Blanqui, Lassalle, Bakunin, et al.) that had developed in the preceding period, from 1875–1914, did not survive its crisis in WWI and the revolutions that followed. Rather, Marxism died then.

The failure of Marxism can be seen most clearly in the birth of a new right-wing form of politics, fascism, in this period, issuing directly out of the crisis of Marxism in WWI (see, for instance, Benito Mussolini, who before the war was a leading member of the Marxist Left of the Italian Socialist Party). Fascism, 20th century social-democratic reformism, 20th century forms of nationalism (i.e., “anti-colonialism”), and Stalinism were the predominant (but not exclusive) results of the failed crisis of Marxism 1914–19.

So, how are we to regard the history of Marxism post-1919? Precisely as its post-history, its memory.

The 20th century (2): The memory of Marxism

The memory of Marxism was carried, for the purposes of our project in Platypus, principally by two figures: Trotsky and Adorno. Trotsky, as the major surviving figure of Second International radicalism (Luxemburg died in 1919, and Lenin in 1924); and Adorno, as the "Critical Theorist" who tried to sustain the insights of Lukács and Korsch in the aftermath of 1917–19 (also through the attempt to sustain Benjamin's work, which was itself inspired by Lukács and Korsch's work of the early 1920s). Trotsky and Adorno represented the disintegration of theory and practice that had characterized the crisis and failure of Marxism as a relation of theory and practice, as a form of thinking and political action sui generis, as it had developed up to 1914. In other words, Marxism developed from the 1870s, it ran into a crisis by 1914, and then it became divided in its theory and practice, especially around the revolutions of 1917–19. These two figures, Trotsky and Adorno, exemplify the effects of this history. But what they actually exemplify, to be more precise, is not the separation of theory (Adorno) from practice (Trotsky), but, rather, both Adorno and Trotsky are symptoms of the disintegration of Marxism as a relation of theory and practice that developed in the preceding period. The theory and practice problem exists on both sides of Trotskyism and the Frankfurt School.

The memory of Marxism haunted the 20th century, especially regarding the grotesque farce of Marxism in Stalinism. If there was a tragedy of Marxism in 1914–19, then this was followed by the farce of Stalinism. Both Trotsky and Adorno exemplify the possibilities for anti-Stalinist Marxism.

What died in the 1970s (let alone in 1989!) was not Marxism but rather the memory of Marxism, which had been only tenuously sustained. Between 1919 and 1973, we had the memory of Marxism, which faded out: this memory did not really survive Adorno's death. This is not to say that Adorno was the personal embodiment of the memory of the Marxism, but that it didn't really survive the time of Adorno’s death. The reason that the passing of the memory of Marxism might date, coincidentally, with the death of Adorno (who was more a thinker and not a very overtly political actor), is that "Trotskyism" as a form of Marxist politics did not really survive Trotsky's death in 1940.

What is of interest, then, is how the last great renaissance of interest in Marxism, in the 1970s, actually marked the “death” of its effective memory. The apparent recovery of Marxism in the ’70s was actually the effective obscuring of its memory.

What we have been living through more recently, say, since the 2000s, is the exhaustion and falling away of the means for obscuring the memory of Marxism that emerged and developed in the 1970s–80s–90s, which were a process of forgetting Marxism. The 1990s were an especially interesting period in this history, as there were already some intimations of the exhaustion of the postmodernism of the previous 1970s–80s. In this sense, 1989 can be considered a certain end to the "long 1960s" that had extended into the ’70s and ’80s (or, ’89 can be considered as an “inverted ’68”).

The period from 1914 to 1973 (or, perhaps, 1989) was the essential, “short” 20th century.[6]

Platypus: Marxism in the 21st century?

Now, what does this say about Platypus in this regard? There are two different generations of Platypus, broadly speaking: the generation of the 1990s and that of the 2000s. These two generations express (the tensions within) the possible recovery of the memory of Marxism against its passing means of effacement. Thus, two different founding moments of Platypus's own historical consciousness—1999, Seattle, and 2007, the exhaustion of the anti-war movement—are interrelated and interact specifically as different modulations of the exhaustion of processes for obscuring the memory of Marxism. Platypus, therefore, has two histories: a pre-history, 1999–2007; and an actual history, 2007–11/12.

If we compare our historical period with one a hundred years ago, the specificity of our project can be thrown into stark relief.

Whereas Marxism up to 1914 responded to and participated in the culmination of the imperialist phase of post-1873 capitalism, Platypus circa 2012 faces the very different challenges of the crisis of the neoliberal phase of post-1973 capitalism. In other words, our project in Platypus is a product of the end of the post-1973 neoliberal era. In this respect, the era of Marxism 1873–1914 could not contrast more starkly with our time, 1968/73–2011. Where one, 1873–1914, was a mounting crisis and a deeply ambivalent process of historical progression and regression, the other, our period, is one of spiraling decomposition.

This is how Platypus must relate to the history of Marxism: through the profound contrasts of post-1873 vs. post-1973 history.

Unprecedented historical moment

The reason that our project in Platypus is unprecedented is precisely because our historical moment is unprecedented: without the post-1848 and post-1873 projects of Marxism, and without the memory of Marxism 1914/19–73. Our period is a “post-Marxist” time in a totally unparalleled way. We are entering into a time not only very much unlike post-1873 or post-1914, but also significantly unlike the decades post-1973 (1970s–80s) and post-1989 (1990s–2000s).

This is why our project is so specifically one of the 21st century, of its first, and, now, its second decade. We need to attend closely to the various ways in which our project is so conditioned. The specificity of our time is our task.

Reference to the history of Marxism, as the ghost that might still haunt us, helps specify the peculiarities of our time, in which a fundamental transformation of Marxism is necessary for it to continue at all—for Marxism to be reborn, or, more precisely, to be reincarnated, in the traditional sense of spirit forgetting its past life. Such forgetting today, however, is a pathological repression. We must make Marxism remembered, if however, and necessarily, obscurely.

Unredeemable legacy of the 20th century

The 20th century, the period of the emergence, crisis, death, and memory of Marxism, cannot really be redeemed. In other words, the language of redemption you find in the Second International, with figures such as Rosa Luxemburg, or even with figures such as Benjamin or Adorno (who followed Luxemburg), their notion of redemption doesn't apply for us in the 21st century. The reason that the 20th century cannot be redeemed is that, unlike the 19th century, we can say that the 20th century was one of unnecessary suffering. This is because the failure of Marxism was unnecessary—which is why it cannot be properly forgotten.

Rather, all of (prior) human history is now filtered through the 20th century—not through capital (as in the 19th century, for Marx), but rather through the failure of Marxism. The postmodernist attempt to overturn “grand narratives” of history was first and foremost the attempt to overcome Marxism as the grandest of all narratives of history. But postmodernism was not successful in this.

Whereas, for Marx, capital was the crossroads of human history as it had culminated in the 19th century, the 20th century was characterized by the crossroads of Marxism. This affects what came after. All ideology today is anti-Marxism, thus always returning to the question of Marxism. This is why Platypus is not about Marxism as an answer to the crisis of history, but rather as a question. That means that Platypus as a project is peculiar and unlike any other Marxist project historically, and the reason that we are unlike any other Marxist project today is that we emerged when we did. Our historical moment is unlike any other period. We cannot pose Marxism as an answer but only as a question.

Now, our claim is not that Marxism is a question, but is, rather, the more emphatic one, that Marxism is the question.

Because of the nature of the last year, 2011–12, this narrative requires a postscript, on anarchism.

Neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism

I just narrated 1873–1973 with respect to Marxism. Now, I'd like to narrate 1873–1973 in terms of anarchism.

Post-1873, anarchism was a waning ideology in the wilderness, excluded from the Second International, and thus cast into the shadows.

Post-1973, by contrast, it has become impossible to avoid anarchism. There is a way in which everything has become a kind of anarchism. Everything becomes filtered through an ethos of anarchism. Such (pseudo-)"anarchism" is more ideologically prevalent today than ever before.

It is significant that anarchism was excluded from the Second International. For the Second International, it didn't seem that this was to any political detriment.

Starting in 1905, however, with the Russian Revolution, there began to be a changed relationship between anarchism and Marxism. After the 1870s, Marxism felt entirely justified in regarding anarchism as an antiquated and obsolete ideology. After 1905, however, this is no longer really the case. There are splits in both Marxism and anarchism that point to a changed relationship between Marxism and anarchism. Starting with 1905, anarchists become Marxists and, also, Marxists become (somehow) more anarchist. For instance, it was important for Rosa Luxemburg to argue, with respect to her pamphlet on 1905, The Mass Strike, the Trade Unions and the Political Party (1906), that she was not offering an anarchist argument or apologia for anarchism.

And, later, again, with the Russian Revolution in 1917, significantly, anarchists became Marxists.

From 1920/24–73, however, dissident Marxism becomes ("neo"-)anarchism, as seen in “council-communism,” Korsch’s later (post-1924) trajectory, figures such as Castoriadis, Murray Bookchin, the Situationist International, etc.

In 1969, Adorno wrote, in his last essay, “Resignation,” that "the return of anarchism is that of a ghost," that (historical) Marxism's critique of anarchism remained valid (see there Adorno's paraphrasing of Lenin's 1920 pamphlet "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder).

Marxism's failure to transcend anarchism post-1919 means that the recrudescence of anarchism becomes an important symptom of the failure of Marxism. But this return of anarchism is not true but rather “pseudo.”

More broadly speaking, socialism's failure to transcend liberalism in the 20th century means that liberalism becomes an important symptom of the failure of socialism, i.e., neo-liberalism. There are thus significant parallels between neo-liberalism and what we might call neo-anarchism after the failure of Marxism in the world revolution 1917–19.

Why characterize (pseudo-")anarchism(") as "dishonest liberalism,” or, as “hysterical” liberalism?[7] What might we mean by that? This is because anarchism is the only serious non-Marxian approach to socialism—other versions of socialism, for instance 20th century Social Democracy, are more clearly apparently relapses into (decadent, “ideological” forms of) liberalism. (Hence, Luxemburg's characterization, in Reform or Revolution?, 1900/08, of Eduard Bernstein’s “reformism” as “liberalism.”)

The failure of Marxist socialism thus has two essential results: neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism. They are distinguished not in principle, as their proponents might imagine, but only on a spectrum of opportunism. Hence, the indicative, symptomatic ideology of "libertarian socialism" in our post-1973 era. Libertarianism is merely an ideologically cruder version of anarchism, or, (neo- or pseudo-)anarchism post-1973 is merely an ideologically overwrought libertarianism. Anarchists are libertarians who take themselves too seriously; and libertarians are anarchists who are content to remain muddled in their thinking.

Following the Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky (and Luxemburg), Stalinism, as a form of “state socialism” is not to be defined properly as "authoritarian" but rather as opportunist. It was not simply a “wrong way,” but an opportunistic adaptation to defeat (or failure), what Trotsky called the “great organizer of defeat.” Hence, neo-anarchism is to be defined as dishonest opportunism, or as "(reactionary-)utopian ideology."

The primary character of such ideology is the obscuring of history—the effacing of post-1848 political authoritarianism (“Bonapartism”) as a historical symptom that cannot be avoided but must be worked through. Anarchism is indicted by its anti-Marxism. This is what it means to say that (neo-)anarchism lacks historical consciousness or theory, replacing this with anthropology or psychology.

Q&A

In speaking about the “unnecessary suffering” of the 20th century, what did you mean?

It is significant that it is only in the late 19th century that one finds, for instance, a genocidal policy towards indigenous peoples (e.g., Native Americans). But, also, there is a new kind of racism, whether Dreyfus Affair anti-Semitism, or the new post-(collapse of) Reconstruction anti-black racism in the U.S. These came to characterize the 20th century. I would assert that such pathologies were not historically necessary but avoidable.

What about Bonapartism, as a post-1848 vs. post-1873 phenomenon?

This is related to the difference between Marx and Marxism, which is potentially obscure. Is there a difference in Bonapartism post-1848 and post-1873? Perhaps. This is the importance of “state capitalism.” What is the difference between the 1848 Revolutions and the (1870–71) Paris Commune? What is the difference between the First and Second Internationals? Marx and Engels did not seek to make “Marxism,” whatever that would be, hegemonic in the First International. But it seems to become necessarily hegemonic in the Second International. This expresses a historical shift.

I have two questions about the historical periodization: perhaps two blind spots. What about the period between the death of Trotsky in 1940 and the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s? This would appear to be an important bridge period. Also, aren’t you collapsing the post-1973 and post-1989 periods? What about the 1980s, before the collapse of Stalinism, but after the efflorescence of the 1970s? One sees this, for example, in the degeneration of the Spartacist League, among other Marxist organizations, after the 1970s.

The 1980s were importantly characterized by the disintegration of the Left into academicism and activism. Hence, there were two phases of what I’m calling the obscuring of the memory of Marxism, in which this occurred differently: the 1970s and the 1980s.

In terms of the mid-20th century period, one could say this was the heyday of Stalinism, as well as of ersatz or quasi-Stalinism, that is, Third World nationalism and Maoism, Castroism/Guevarism, etc. The Cold War films of the period showed the “blob” of the “Red Menace” growing. But this was not, I would contend, the growth of Marxism.

The memory of Marxism was sustained by the farce of Marxism in Stalinism.

But wasn’t Adorno’s own work a response to this mid-20th century moment?

I would say that neither the Frankfurt School nor Trotskyism experienced any real development in the mid-20th century, after 1940. At best, they held their ground. At worst, they retreated.

What about the 1860s? What about Bonapartism as an epochal development? What about Marx’s own growth and maturity as a political thinker? In 1873, from my understanding of European history, the kind of state interventionism one sees then is a political choice, not (merely) an economic one. When was the crisis of Marxism? How does this relate to the crisis of neoliberalism in the present? Why do you place such emphasis on Trotsky and Trotskyism? I know you were once around the Spartacist League. But wasn’t Trotskyism a farce as much as Stalinism? Didn’t Trotsky underestimate the profound, paralyzing influence of Stalinism? Wasn’t Stalinism a profounder problem than Trotsky thought? Isn’t there a problem with the “red thread” argument, linking Marx, through Lenin, Trotsky, etc.?

I must say that I don’t think Trotsky’s Fourth International project was particularly viable. But I also don’t think the Third, Communist International project was viable. Now, of course, Lenin and Trotsky had to hope against hope with the Third International.

But this is not to fault Trotsky (or Lenin!). When Trotsky was launching the Fourth International—people had spoken of the October Revolution as one characterized by “youth;” the soldiers were teenagers—there was still a living memory of the Revolution in the 1930s. Those who were once 20 were then 40, and thus still capable of making revolution. There is also the problem of what I would call Trotsky’s self-vulgarization, his propaganda orientation. Moreover, there was a problem in Trotsky trying to split the Third International, and basing his politics on the early Third International. But we must bear in mind that after 1933 Trotsky also oriented towards the remnants of Second International Social Democracy (as expressed in the so-called “French turn”), and refused to characterize Stalinism as somehow more Left than Social Democracy. I think that Trotsky’s “crisis of leadership” estimation of political possibilities meant something more supple than what his followers offered later. I think he recognized the profundity of the problem and its historical roots.

Let me be clear: The failure of Marxism was profound. Hence, there is no Marxism to return to. There is no answer, only a question. The question is the failure of Marxism.

The reason I am putting such emphasis on post-1873 history is to raise the issue of Marxism per se. Not the question of the workers’ movement or of socialism, but of Marxism. This is not posed later, in 1938 (the founding of the Fourth International) or 1933 (the failure of Third International to stop Nazism), or 1923 (the definitive end of the post-WWI revolutionary wave) or 1919 (the crushing of the German Revolution) or 1917 (the October Revolution as revolutionary split in Marxism) or 1914 (the collapse of the Second International in WWI). The question of Marxism is posed already at the outset in the 1870s. Why was the SPD necessary? Why does the SPD take the form it does? Why did Marxists join a Lassallean party?

So, there is the issue of the SPD, founded in 1875, being what Moishe Postone, for one, has called a “Lassallean party with Marxist verbiage.” Wasn’t it always a Lassallean party with “Marxist” window-dressing? My question is, is there such a thing as a “Marxist party?” Or, is there, rather, a socialist party with Marxists participating in it? Marxism was the “historical consciousness” of the socialist workers’ movement. There’s a famous photograph of Rosa Luxemburg, flanked on stage by portraits of Lassalle and Marx. Now, what did that mean? Certainly, Luxemburg was aware of Marx’s critique of and political opposition to Lassalle. So, what did it mean for an avowed “Marxist” such as Luxemburg to participate in a socialist workers’ movement and political party with a strong tradition of Lassalleanism?

But the history of Marxism was always characterized by the critique of socialism, starting with Marx in the 1840s, but carried forward, for instance, in Lenin’s critique of Narodnism, “Legal Marxism,” and “Economism.” Or, more generally, in the Marxist critique of anarchism, whether of Proudhon or Bakunin, et al. There is also the “Revisionist Dispute” within Marxism itself in the 1890s. What would it mean, then, to speak of Marxism as a form of politics per se?

Just as Marxism as a philosophy or theory is peculiar, as a political practice it is also quite peculiar. If, for Marxists, the socialist workers’ movement always shades off into liberalism and anarchism, is always overlaid with anarchist and liberal ideology, then Marxism is always in a constant struggle against these. But this is not a struggle merely of opposition but of critical recognition.

About the “maturity” of Marxism, there is a question. I don’t think of the “mature Marx” as the writer of Capital, but also and perhaps more importantly as a political figure. In the critique of Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) by Kautsky that we published,[8] Kautsky accuses Korsch, along with Lenin and the Bolsheviks (including Trotsky), for being enamored of “primitive Marxism,” i.e., that of Marx and Engels in the 1840s, and ignoring subsequent development.[9] Both Korsch and Kautsky have some points to score in that debate. What’s the difference, for example, between Marx in the Manifesto and in the “Programme of the Parti Ouvrier” (1880)?[10] These differences are potentially vital. But can they be considered simply as development?

There is, for instance, the issue that Marx himself was accused (in the 1860s) of being right-wing or opportunistic, in his endorsement of unions and workers’ consumer cooperatives, etc. Lukács is good at pointing this out (in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness, 1923), that is, the symptomatic character of Lassalle’s criticism of Marx for supposedly being “economistic” and neglecting politics. But Lassalle criticized the “economic” struggles of the workers more generally, going so far as to call this the mere struggle of economic “objects” as objects (of capitalism). But Lukács’s point was that Marx recognized a dialectic of economics and politics, or, of the workers as both “objects” and “subjects” of capitalism. Marx didn’t take unions or cooperatives as good in themselves, but rather as historical (and symptomatic) forms that the workers’ movement was taking, to be pushed through. They are the forms through which the possibility for socialism can be grasped. They can’t be accepted in their own terms, but they’re also not to be criticized, let alone rejected as such.

That’s why I emphasize this period of the collapse of the First International and the birth of the SPD in the 1870s, to bring out the issue of Marxism as such.

What about the crisis of liberalism? When does the crisis of liberalism become the necessity for Marxism? When was this shift?

For Marx, certainly liberalism was “dead” as an emancipatory politics already in 1848. It was liberals, after all, who put down the workers in June 1848. Liberalism dies several deaths. The death of liberalism in 1848 is different from that in the 1870s (for example, with the failure of Reconstruction in the U.S.).

This raises the question of historical “progress.” The necessity for socialism grows between 1848 and 1873. Engels, for example, in his 1895 Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France,[11] discusses the still not exhausted potential for capitalist development after 1848. But this wasn’t for Engels merely “economic” but political. Capitalism continues to grow, economically, in a sense. The question was whether such growth was a political advance. The evidence of “progress,” for Engels, was the growth of the socialist workers’ movement. What Marx and Engels had “underestimated” was the potential for capitalism to contribute to the growth of the workers’ movement for socialism. But that is precisely what we have not seen since 1973! Perhaps not since 1919.

What about Marx’s (infamous) Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), about “productive forces” and “relations of production?” To call the 20th century one huge ball of unnecessary suffering seems to belie Marx’s sense of contradiction. This is part of the continuing strange character of “what it means to live.” Chris, I’ve heard you address, for instance, financial techniques as forces of production, still contributing to the development of social possibilities. The 20th century as unnecessary suffering fails to get at that aspect of history. Capitalism hasn’t shut down yet. On the other hand, Marx and Engels, in the Manifesto, project the rest of the 19th century as unnecessary. So, the 20th century could be seen still as necessary, while the 19th century could also be seen as unnecessary.

The reason I put it this way, highly tendentiously, is to focus the question of Marxism. In other words, will Marxism play a role in emancipation? If it does, then the 20th century was unnecessary. If it does not, then perhaps the 20th century was necessary, in getting beyond, and transcending, Marxism. If the history of actual Marxism as politics plays no role, then the New Left was right, revolution in 1917 had been premature. If this history still has a role to play, however, then perhaps 1917 was not so premature, and what came later was not so necessary.

We must ask, in what ways might the history of Marxism play a role? As practical politics? As theory? How? As a relation of theory and practice, as Adorno puts it in “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis” (1969)? In what way was and is Marxism necessary?

Why should a project such as ours, beginning in the 21st century, be “Marxist?” Why shouldn’t we be “post-Marxist?” Why can’t we say, simply, that the history of Marxism has some contributions to make, but look at all these other things, anarchism, etc.?

How is it that Stalinism, Maoism, etc., weren’t Marxism? Is it because they abandoned an emancipatory vision? Is it because they became one-sided in their opposition to capitalism, and denied its contributing to emancipatory possibilities? So that, today, it doesn’t seem that capitalism holds such possibilities. What would it take to make that possibility active again? It would seem that the only way to do that would be to work through the history of the 20th century.

I’m not exactly saying that (about Stalinism and Maoism, etc.). To get back to the issue of Trotskyism, yes, Trotskyism was farcical in a sense. It was not the Marxism practiced by Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky himself in an earlier period. It was not the relation between theory and practice that Marxism once was. This is what makes the history of Trotskyism, including Trotsky’s own in the 1920s and ’30s, farcical, in a sense.

Why isn’t Trotsky a tragic figure, why is he farcical? Well, because the real tragic figures of Marxism, to my mind, are Lenin and Luxemburg. Lenin, to me, was a tragic figure. Also, Marx and Engels themselves. Marxism was the tragedy.

The ambiguity of the 20th century raises the issue of ideology. Could Marxism again become a guiding ideology?

There is the difference of the dialectic of history, as expressed by Marxism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the exhaustion of history in our present period. That’s what Fukuyama meant by the “end of history.” While untrue in a certain sense, it is symptomatically expressive in another sense.

What is the possibility of the recovery of the memory of Marxism? I think that the casualty of the death of Marxism was the workers’ movement itself, despite the 1930s, let alone the ’60s and ’70s. The “class struggle,” as previously found in history, ended. Not labor militancy, but class struggle. The failure of Marxism is the failure of the socialist workers’ movement. Stalinism was not only the farce of Marxism but also of the socialist workers’ movement. This is related to social democracy and even fascism. When Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom (1944), said that the roots of fascism are to be found in pre-WWI social democracy, even a benign case like Austrian Social Democracy, he had a point. Horrific if true, still, there is the problem of the plausibility of Hayek’s account, which was influential. Hayek, after all, is a key progenitor of neo-liberalism, that is, 20th century liberalism.

The 20th century was the rehash of 19th century ideology. There’s nothing new. Hayek, for instance, doesn’t come up with anything new, but rather goes back to liberalism, to ideology before socialism. The recrudescence of old ideologies is indicative. The 19th century, by contrast, was very new at the level of ideology.

What about fascism? What about fundamentalism? Aren’t they new in the 20th century?

Well, fundamentalism might be new, but I am emphasizing the Left. Fundamentalism is obviously conservative, and reaches back well before the 19th century. Fascism has roots in the 19th century, specifically in history after the 1870s. But, on the Left, liberalism and anarchism, as forms of anti-Marxism, still claim to be emancipatory, not conservative ideologies. They, like Marxism, originate in the 19th century. They are still with us today. The question is whether and how Marxism still is. |P

Transcribed with the assistance of Nikolas Lelle


[1]. See Chris Cutrone, “The ‘anti-fascist’ vs. ‘anti-imperialist’ Left: Some genealogies and prospects,” available online at <http://chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1203>.

[2]. Jim Creegan, “Hot Autumn in New York,” in Weekly Worker 886 (October 20, 2011), available online at <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004580>.

[3]. See Cutrone, “The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’,” in Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at </2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>.

[4]. See Karl Korsch, “The Marxism of the First International” (1924), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1924/first-international.htm>.

[5]. See Cutrone, “Lenin’s liberalism,” in Platypus Review 36 (June 2011), available online at </2011/06/01/lenin’s-liberalism/>. See also Cutrone, “1917,” in Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at </2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>.

[6]. Cf., Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991 (New York: Vintage, 1994).

[7]. See “The Occupy Movement, a Renascent Left, and Marxism Today: An interview with Slavoj Žižek,” in Platypus Review 42 (December 2011–January 2012), available online at </2011/12/01/occupy-movement-interview-with-slavoj-zizek/>.

[8]. See Karl Kautsky, “A Destroyer of Vulgar-Marxism,” in Platypus Review 43 (February 2012), available online at </2012/01/30/destroyer-of-vulgar-marxism/>.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Jules Guesde and Karl Marx, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm>.

[11]. See Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850” (1895), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1895/03/06.htm>.

Book review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (Leipzig: C.L. Hirschfeld, 1923).

Karl Kautsky

Platypus Review 43 | February 2012

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Karl Kautsky's 1924 review of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy appears below in English for the first time.[1] It is hoped that other reviews of Marxism and Philosophy will also be made available in the very near future, not least by leading German communists such as August Thalheimer. Given the highly disputed theoretical legacy of both Kautsky and Korsch, the publication of this review will doubtless add to the debate on the idea of a "coming of age" of Marxism in the late 1860s. For an earlier discussion of Korsch's book, see Chris Cutrone’s review of the 2008 reprint of Marxism and Philosophy released by Monthly Review Press, in Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), available online at </2009/09/03/book-review-karl-korsch-marxism-and-philosophy/>.[2]

karl-kautsky

Photograph of Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), date unknown, Library of Congress, Bain Collection 

WE FIND THE ENTIRE quintessence of this highly philosophical essay compressed into a small sentence of a footnote, where the author explicitly states: “During the entire (!) second half of the nineteenth century the debasement and impoverishment of the Marxist theory into vulgar-Marxism gradually set in" (28).

We must not assume that this is an incidental slip of the pen. On page 61 Korsch asserts once again:

"We see that the second half of the nineteenth century did not merely vulgarize Marxism.”

The entire work is dedicated to proving that this is really the case. The "debasement and impoverishment" of Marxism set in while Marx and Engels were still alive, during the period in which the first International was founded and Capital was written. Should Marx and Engels themselves bear guilt for this debasement?

Korsch does not quite say this.

He instructs us: In its first epoch, up until the 1848 revolution and its demise, Marxism was a  “theory—saturated through and through with philosophical thought—of social revolution, comprehended and actualized as a living totality” (29-30).

But then came the “practically completely un-revolutionary epoch, which essentially filled the second half of the nineteenth century in Europe” (30). Unfortunately, this also rubbed off on the works published by Marx and Engels in this epoch. However, the change in language that resulted from this did not equally signify a change in their thought.

"It is only to the superficial glance that a pure theory of thought seems to have displaced the practice of the revolutionary will. This revolutionary will is latent, yet present, in every sentence of Marx’s work and erupts again and again in every decisive passage, especially in the first volume of Capital. One need only think of the famous seventh section of Chapter 24 on the historical tendency of capital accumulation." (32).[3]

We “epigones” are not supposed to have paid attention to this subtext of Marx and Engels’s works in the second half of the nineteenth century. Hence our extraordinarily debased and simplified vulgar Marxism (26).

I personally am falsely attributed with deliberately distorting Marx for this purpose. For in my 'Preface' to the reprint of the Inaugural Address of 1864 (1922), I "tellingly" left out a sentence from a letter I quote written by Marx to Engels. This sentence states, “that it will take time before the revival of the movement allows the old boldness of language to be used.”[4]

For Korsch, it was necessary for me to omit this sentence in order to “create the opportunity… to play off the Inaugural Address of 1864, which was given in a more cautious tone, against the fiery-flowing style of the Manifesto of 1847/48 and against the ‘illegal agents of the 3rd International’” (31).

In reality I have not played off the Inaugural Address against the "illegal agents of the Third International." In the ‘Preface’ to which I alluded earlier, I came to speak about this in an entirely different context, namely in relation to a "confidential communication" about Bakunin, which in 1870 Marx addressed to the German party-committee, and in which he exhibited the "old boldness of language" in a completely unhampered manner. Especially today, this communication is of utmost, topical interest.

Marx explained why he held England to be the great lever of proletarian revolution. The English possessed all the material preconditions for the great revolution. What they lacked was “the spirit of generalization,” i.e., a sense for theory, and “revolutionary passion.”

At any rate, I cited these passages extensively in my ‘Preface’ to the Inaugural Address supposedly because I did not want to let Marx's “revolutionary passion" of that time come to light.

Liebknecht, Hepner u.Bebel Leipzig 1872

Wood engraving by Fredrich Waibler depicting the Leipzig high treason trial (1872): Wilhelm Liebknecht stands in the middle whereas Adolf Hepner and August Bebel are shown seated

The "confidential communication" fell into the hands of the Leipzig public prosecutor following a house search, and was used against August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht at their high treason trial in Leipzig. As against Bakuninism, Marx said in the communication, among other things, that the General Council of the International was choosing to put "important and unseen activity in place of the sheer howls of the local crier [Marktschreierei]." From this, the public prosecutor concluded that the General Council was conducting underground, and therefore illegal, work. On this I remark in my 'Preface' that the public prosecutor had falsified things, because here "unseen" work is not in contradiction to legal work, but to loud mouth-ism.

"Illegal, underground work does not however preclude loud mouth-ism, rather it is often closely bound up with it. There are no noisier bawlers than the illegal agents of the Third International."[5]

Does Korsch really believe that I would have lost the opportunity to deride the loud mouth-ism of the Third International if I had shared with my readers the little sentence about the "old boldness of language?"

Indeed, directly after the sentence I cited from my 'Preface' above, are the words: "The Inaugural Address and the Communist Manifesto are born of the same spirit."

In this way I seek to "play off the Inaugural Address of 1864, made in a more cautious tone, against the fiery-flowing style of the Manifesto of 1847/48."

Certainly I noted that, “for all the agreement on the fundamentals,” the Inaugural Address “exhibits an entirely different character than the Communist Manifesto."

This change relates however not only to the "fiery flowing style," as Korsch puts it. That was entirely trivial. As I say in the 'Preface':

"The standpoint Marx took in 1864 was the same as that of 1847. But the situation had completely changed. ... Thus in 1864 Marx deemed it appropriate to speak in a different language than that of seventeen years earlier. In those seventeen years he had learned an enormous amount. This was the period in which Capital was written. Given this, he not only had to change his language, but also many of his views." (‘Preface’, 12-3)

Thus, in 1850 Engels (and probably Marx, too) held the ten-hour day in a capitalist state to be impossible. In the Inaugural Address he observes briefly its deep-reaching effects as that of a recognized institution. Besides the ten-hour day, he praised co-operatives of production, if they were developed at a national level and with national means. Thus there were substantial changes in opinion, not just language. However, Korsch is not concerned with these, but merely with the "fiery-flowing style.”

How the analysis I mention above would have become impossible if I had quoted the sentence about the “old boldness of language” remains Korsch's secret.

What merely appears to him as the moderation of fiery-flowing style, is what, in his analysis, the "epigones" have turned into a full "deformation" of Marxism, about which Marx and Engels themselves would have been highly indignant. The regression becomes clearly visible if we compare Marx’s statutes of the First International to the programs of the Socialist Parties of Central and Western Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, and especially to that of the German Social Democratic Party, the leading Marxist Party in Europe.[6] It is well known how bitterly critical Marx and Engels were of the fact that German Social Democracy made almost entirely reformist demands in the political as well as the cultural and ideological fields in their Gotha (1875) and Erfurt (1891) programmes (36).

Yet this fact does not actually appear to be "well known." To me, at least, it is entirely new. I am surprised to learn that in 1875 German Social Democracy was "the leading Marxist party in Europe." Before Korsch, party history had accepted that in 1875 there was no Marxist party in the whole of Europe. The first socialist journals that stood on Marxist ground (not counting those published by Marx himself), the Zurich "Sozialdemokrat" and the Stuttgart "Neue Zeit," were only founded during the anti-Socialist laws (1878-1890).

Only with the existence of both of these publications can we speak of a Marxist school. It took some time before this school made the majority of the party a Marxist one. The Erfurt programme evinced this progress.

Here too it is in no way “well known” to me, that Engels had spoken of the Erfurt programme in a "bitterly critical" way. Korsch of course points to Engels's "Comments on the Erfurt draft programme." But Korsch's glowing hatred of the "debasement" and "simplification" of Marxism unfortunately prevented him from reading these comments closely, otherwise he would have noticed that they are not directed at my draft,[7] which then was accepted by the congress, but at a previous one. Not only did Engels not reject my draft, he even recommended its adoption.

The other big socialist party in "Central and Western Europe," whose founding Marx and Engels were still alive to see, was the French Labor Party of the Marxists Lafargue and Guesde. Its program was written by Marx himself (1880). This does not seem to be "well known" to Korsch either, otherwise he would hardly have dared to state that, when comparing the socialist party programs of Western and Central Europe with the statues of the International, the "deformation" of Marxism by its "epigones" clearly comes to light.

Korsch follows the same method of writing party history in his entire work. Thus he notes on page 6:

"Most of the philosophizing Marxists (Kantian, Dietzgenist, and Machian Marxists) have since then (since 1914) proven in word and deed that, not only in their philosophy, but, as a necessary consequence, in their political theory and practise as well, they have in reality not been able to detach themselves from the standpoint of bourgeois society."

The "bourgeois-reformist character of Kantian-Marxism" appears so obvious to Korsch that he considers it unnecessary to put forward any evidence. Back in 1908 Lenin had already said everything necessary about Mach, and the fact that Dietzgen must lead to bourgeois-reformist thinking is proved by his son. Thus the Machian Fritz Adler, and even Max Adler, who sympathises with Bolshevism on many points, are "bourgeois-reformists." Korsch skips any evidence for this. However, the fact that the elder Dietzgen, the contemporary of Marx and Engels, produced nothing but bourgeois-reformism will very much astonish those of his followers, who in the Netherlands are amongst the most radical communists.

Following these achievements in the field of party history, one can imagine the faithfulness with which Korsch depicts the views of the "vulgar-Marxists," who are condemned by him lock and barrel. One small example will suffice.

With utmost assurance, Korsch claims that the "Marxist epigones" explained the materialist conception of history in a way in which only real facts are behind economic views, but behind other social forms of consciousness there is not much, or nothing at all.

"Many vulgar-Marxists to this day have never, even in theory, admitted that intellectual life and forms of social consciousness are comparable realities. Quoting certain statements by Marx, and especially Engels, they simply explain away the intellectual (ideological) structures of society as a mere pseudo-reality that only exists in the minds of ideologues as error, imagination, and illusion, devoid of a genuine object … This can be formulated concisely, with only a slight caricature, by saying that for vulgar-Marxism there are three degrees of reality: First, the economy, which in the last instance is the only objective and totally non-ideological reality; Second, Law and the State, which are already somewhat less real because they are clad in ideology, and third, pure ideology, which is objectless and totally unreal ('utter nonsense')." (54-5)

He is quite right: utter nonsense. Korsch places this phrase in quotation marks, as though he were quoting a "vulgar-Marxist". Unfortunately, he forgets to even point out from whom amongst us he has discovered this “utter nonsense.” Following the method so beloved to him, he also considers this point of view to be so "well known" that it requires no evidence.

He repeatedly chafes at Rudolph Hilferding, whose Finance Capital he also counts amongst the products of "debased," "simplified," "reformist" Marxism.

Hilferding differentiates very well between the method of Marxism and its results. He notes how, today, these results lead to socialism; therefore this method is rejected by the champions of the establishment.

“Only in this sense is it (Marxism) the science of the proletariat and the opponent of bourgeois political economy, since it holds unflinchingly to the claim made by every science about the objective universality of its conclusions.”

Korsch counts Hilferding’s very important sentence amongst the pernicious "deformations" of Marxism. How can a class fighter lay claim "to universal validity" (here, meaning standing above classes) for his theorem? At best he may do so out of "practical-tactical considerations for the benefit of the proletarian class" (Footnote, p. 34).

Thus proletarian science, as understood by Korsch, is not only characterized by the fact that it looks at the world from the proletarian point of view, but also that it lays no claim to the universal validity of its propositions. They are only to be correct for the proletariat! We may at best claim their universal validity for the purpose of agitation!

For Korsch, Marxism is nothing but a theory of social revolution. (62) In reality, one of Marxism’s most outstanding characteristics is the conviction that the social revolution is only possible under certain conditions, thus only in certain countries and times. The communist sect, to which Korsch belongs (the German Communist Party, or KPD–BL), has entirely forgotten this. For them, the social revolution is always possible, everywhere, under all conditions.

Were Bolshevism not of this out-and-out un-Marxist point of view, it would be impossible to say that Marxism is one with the social revolution. In what way shall the materialist conception of history only hold true for the social revolution? Was this conception of history not won through examining previous history, all of which comes before the social revolution? And will it not also apply to the time after the social revolution, when there is no longer a proletariat?

It is thus entirely absurd to claim that it stands in contradiction to the theory of class struggle, if Marxism claims the universal validity of its theorem also for the other classes, not just for the proletariat, and that Marxism is limited to the stage of the social revolution.

However, Korsch has compelling proof of just how ruinous the proposition of the universal validity of Marxist theory is. For him, whoever accepts the universal validity of Marxism, opens the way for those, who draw anti-socialist consequences from the Marxist method.

"Hilferding can see from the example of such Marxists as Paul Lensch, that this sort of ‘scientific science' (!) certainly also allows itself to be used ‘quite well' against socialism" (note 34).

Again, this argument shows Korsch to be a great expert on party history. To other people it is "well known" that, until 1914, Lensch was not Hilferding's most faithful follower, but Rosa Luxemburg's—the same Luxemburg whom Korsch on page 39 celebrates as the one who had regenerated Marxist theory and theoretically destroyed vulgar-Marxism in Germany.

Even the most revolutionary views do not provide a safeguard against renegacy— not even Korsch’s.

And there are a few parallels between Korsch and Lensch. Both share, for example, an enthusiasm for dictatorship. However, they do not agree on who that dictator is: one prefers Hugo Stinnes, the other Lenin. But the antagonism between both dictators is diminishing from day to day, the Stinnes-ists and the Leninists are already doing fairly good business with each other and their rapprochement is promoted in no small part by their hatred of their common enemy: "vulgar-Marxism."

Yet this is not to say that Lensch’s and Korsch’s views on dictatorship are entirely the same. In this respect, Korsch succeeded in taking the crown and outbidding both Stinnes and Lenin—even Mussolini! Thus he explains at the end of his work:

"Just as political action is not rendered unnecessary by the economic action of a revolutionary class, so intellectual action is not rendered unnecessary by either political or economic action (are both of these actions not intellectual as well, or does Korsch consider politics as unthinking action? Kautsky). On the contrary it (intellectual action) must be carried through to the end in theory and practice, as revolutionary scientific criticism and agitating work before the seizure of state power by the proletariat, and as scientific organization and ideological dictatorship after the seizure of state power" (70).

Dictatorship in the realm of ideas—until now this had not occurred to anyone, not even [Comintern leader Grigory] Zinoviev or [Cheka founder Felix] Dzerzhinsky! Deep insight is shown by the fact that Korsch only deems scientific critique necessary up to the seizure of state power by the "revolutionary proletariat", that is, by him and his friends.

Afterwards it becomes frowned upon. The critique, which is leveled against him, is a crime worthy of death. Woe the vulgar-Marxists after the seizure of state power by the communists, namely after the installment of "ideological dictatorship"![8]

Unfortunately we do not find out what this ideological dictatorship will look like. Perhaps all of the country’s thought-apparatuses should be expropriated and placed at the disposal of the dictator, whose directives they will have to follow?

It is clear what we "vulgar-Marxists" think about this. Korsch himself asserts that, according to his understanding of vulgar-Marxism, all higher ideology is "utter nonsense." So he will have to admit that dictatorship in ideology for us can be nothing but the height of nonsense.

However, there is a deeper meaning to the childish game presented to us by the communist "theoretician." It encompasses a series of absurdities, all of which are caused by him. But he shares the crux of his outlook in common with the entire communist doctrine. All theoreticians of communism delight in drawing on primitive Marxism, on the early works, which Marx and Engels wrote before they turned thirty, up until the revolution of 1848 and its aftermath of 1849 and 1850. Apart from a few isolated sentences, the communist theoreticians have little use for Marx and Engels’s later works, especially Capital. That is not a coincidence. In the early works we already see the paws of the Marxist lions, the greatness of their method. But these works arrive at a number of conclusions, at individual views and demands, which Marx and Engels themselves later deemed out of date. It is precisely these obsolete findings that particularly enrapture Bolshevism, and which it holds up as true Marxism against the later "debased," "simplified," "deformed" Marxism “of the second half of the nineteenth century.”

When Marx and Engels wrote their first works, they stood before a Germany that was economically backward, like Russia today, and was not yet politically able to overcome absolutism. This is also like Russia today, where an absolutist regime still enslaves the masses, even though this regime was briefly interrupted, and even though this absolutism today assumes a different form. No wonder that the products of revolutionary German thought of the 1840s particularly encourage a party, which arose as a revolutionary party in absolutist Russia, and which wants to continue to live up to its revolutionary birth certificate at least in theory, even though in practice it became unfaithful to this a long time ago.

Thus, after the revolution, Marx came to England, the classical land of capitalism, became familiar with its capitalist mechanism in detail, and observed the effects of a free press and public mass organizations of the proletariat. The awakening of the workers and the weakening of the absolutist governments in continental Europe, especially in Germany and France, suggested to him the attempt to graft the mass organizations and the fight for the rights they needed with the International, and to bring these into close contact with the English workers’ movement in order to prepare the workers’ struggle for political power. When finally, from 1870, a new France and a new Germany emerged, in which the rise of the working class and its conquest of political rights became irresistible, Marx, and with him Engels, perfected the Marxist method and expanded their theory of class struggle in a way that made it applicable not only to the stage of revolution, but also for non-revolutionary times. This expansion of theory above and beyond the Communist Manifesto was initiated by the Inaugural Address (1864) and concluded with Engels's Preface to the re-publication of Marx's Class Struggles in France (1895).

This expansion of theory naturally claims universal validity for all countries. Yet precisely from the Marxist point of view it is understandable that for those Russian socialists who, like the Mensheviks, took as their starting point Marxism as a whole, did not deal merely in the obsolete aspects of primitive Marxism. This theoretical superiority became an element of practical weakness against those socialists who adapted the West European conceptions of socialism to Russia’s unique character and thus created a national-Russian socialism, like Herzen and Bakunin, and, following them, the populists and social-revolutionaries. In a relentless struggle against these elements, the Mensheviks brought Marxism to the Russian proletariat. But it was not the Mensheviks that were the beneficiaries of the fruits of their arduous labor, but the Bolsheviks. As long as the main focus of Bolshevism remained in exile, it was affected by the theoretical superiority of Menshevism, from which it sprang. The stronger the position of the Bolshevik organization in Russia, the more it succumbed to the influence of the Russian milieu, and the more it sought to adapt Marxist theory, whose popularity it exploited, to the specifically Russian practical needs of the moment, to incorporate ever more Bakuninist traits into it. Marxism after the Inaugural Address was badly suited to this, even for the most experienced Talmudists. More suitable propositions in the early Marxist works had to therefore be discovered.

Thus from the obvious fact that, in many respects, Marxism of the second half of the nineteenth century has a different character than that of its first years, a preference for primitive Marxism emerges in opposition to the later, more mature Marxism.

To be sure, this conception can indeed not lay claim to universal validity, but for Russia it becomes psychologically understandable.

However, whoever accepts it in Germany, and even exaggerates it to a point where primitive Marxism is the only true Marxism, and the more developed Marxism, signifies a debasement and impoverishment, only shows his intellectual dependency and uncritical reliance on foreign models from a backward milieu, his incomprehension of the conditions of proletarian class struggle in more developed capitalist countries, and his own boyish callowness. |P

Translated from German by Ben Lewis


[1]. Kautsky's review was first published in Die Gesellschaft: Internationale Revue für Sozialismus und Politik (Berlin: Dietz, 1924), 306-314.

[2]. See also David Black’s response to Cutrone in Platypus Review 18 (December 2009), online at </2009/12/06/comments-on-chris-cutrone%E2%80%99s-review-of-marxism-and-philosophy-by-karl-korsch/>, and Cutrone’s subsequent comments in Platypus Review 20 (February 2010), online at </2010/02/26/rejoinder-to-david-black-on-karl-korschs-marxism-and-philosophy/>.

[3]. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm>.

[4]. Marx to Engels, 4 November 1864, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/letters/64_11_04.htm>.

[5]. Karl Kautsky, Preface to Friedrich Engels, Die Inauguraladresse der Internationalen Arbeiterassoziation , ed. Kautsky (Stuttgart, 1922), 11.

[6]. The phrase ‘leading Marxist party in Europe’ does not appear in the translated version on the Marxist Internet Archive.

[7]. Kautsky is formally correct on the history here. Yet he actually dodges the main issue at hand. Engels's main objection to the draft of the Erfurt programme was that it did not clearly state the aim of German Social Democracy: the democratic republic. This democratic republic was conceived as the culmination of the political demands of the minimum program
and thus the "form" of working class rule, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fact remains that Kautsky's own draft did not address this central point either. For a discussion of Kautsky's changing conception of working class rule throughout his career, see Lewis, Ben, 'Kautsky: from Erfurt to Charlottenburg' in Weekly Worker 889 (Online at <http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004610>).

[8]. Korsch attempts to deal with this apparent “misunderstanding” in a 1930 article written in response to Kautsky and other critics of his Marxism and Philosophy. Entitled “The Present State of the Problem of Marxism and Philosophy – An Anti-Critique”, it can also be accessed on the Marxists’ Internet Archive: <http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/19xx/anti-critique.htm>.[[8]] 

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 42 | December 2011 – January 2012

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HOW ARE WE TO REGARD the history of revolutions? Why do revolutions appear to fail to achieve their goals? What does this say about consciousness of social change?

One common misunderstanding of Marx (against which, however, many counter-arguments have been made) is with respect to the supposed "logic of history" in capital.

The notion of a "historical logic" is problematic, in that there may be assumed an underlying historical logic that Marx, as a social scientist, is supposed to have discovered. Marx's (and Engels's) idea of "science," however, is not the conventional one of recognizing objective facts independent of the scientific observer, but rather the Hegelian one of knowledge aware of its own conditions of possibility.

This philosophical approach to "science" began with Kant, and regards theoretical concepts as self-critical reflections arising from practice. In other words, Hegelian "science," in the original Marxist sense of Marx and Engels's use of the term, is the attempt to raise practice to greater self-awareness. "Consciousness" is formed in the dialectic of theory and practice. Furthermore, consciousness develops in a dialectic with "social being."

This is because Marxism was not concerned with how social being "determines" consciousness, but with how both social being and consciousness can change. It was the unfreedom of this process of change in modern society that Marx sought to address in his critical account of capital. For Marx, the "logic of capital" was not a logic at all.

Capital was, in Marx's view, a process of social disintegration, in fits and starts, and no wheel of history—at least not in terms of freedom.

In what way was Marxist thought and political practice "critical?" Marx sought to raise greater awareness of the potential possibility of the transformation of society in freedom, which meant as a function of changes in consciousness as well as in social being. Following Kant and Hegel, Marxism asks: is consciousness merely to be the Stoical recognition and submission to inevitable change?

How are we to regard the history of the Left?

One plausible way regards the history of political change as belated response to social development. In this view, revolutions come about as adjustments to processes of social change already underway or completed. Political revolution crowns the achievement of social transformation, as the old order reveals itself to be already gone. Knowledge appears only in retrospect: according to Hegel, the "Owl of Minerva flies at dusk."

But what of the obverse? What if revolution was only the delicate beginning of change, and consciousness its dawning awareness? Then failure would be explicable: failure to think or act.

carmichael_rustin_platypus_review

L: Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Black Power turn of the Civil Rights Movement; R: Bayard Rustin.

As Bayard Rustin described the Black Power turn of the late 1960s, "passionate self-assertion can be a mask for accommodation."[1] This spoke to the entire 1960s moment. In hindsight, it is difficult to disagree with this diagnosis.

At the time, such a disenchantment of protest was regarded as a conservative response to a potentially revolutionary situation.

But the point was that the apparent revolution was not the one the revolutionaries claimed to want, but rather one that used their discontents for other purposes. This involves a complex theory of social change that is worth considering. How might avowedly "revolutionary" ideology repress actual possibilities?

We are living in a time of change. The question is whether and how we can claim to be bringing this change about. Or, is the change already happening, beyond our control, and are we merely, in protest, registering our pain in the transition, as we accommodate and adapt to it?

Can politics be something more and other than the process of submission to domination? Is the goal of emancipation possible? History seems to show otherwise.[2]

If we imagine that history is on our side, we threaten to rationalize a course of change already underway that we have yet to control. Our protest against it may already be our resignation to it, in the guise of calling us to task.

The world is changing. The question is whether and how we are a function of that change. |P


[1]. Quoted in John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York: Free Press, 2003), 475. See also: Bayard Rustin, “The Failure of Black Separatism,” Harper’s Magazine (January 1970); Adolph Reed, “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” Telos 39 (1979), later expanded as “The ‘Black Revolution’ and the Reconstitution of Domination,” in Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era, ed. Adolph Reed (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999); and Adolph Reed, “The Limits of Anti-Racism: Vague Politics about a Nearly Indescribable Thing,” Left Business Observer 121 (September 2009), available online at <http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Antiracism.html>.[[1]]

[2]. See Chris Cutrone, "Egypt, or, History's Invidious Comparisons: 1979, 1789, and 1848," Platypus Review 33 (March 2011), available online at </2011/03/01/egypt-or-history%e2%80%99s-invidious-comparisons-1979-1789-and-1848/>.[[2]]

An interview with Max Elbaum

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 30 | December 2010

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On October 17, 2010, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Max Elbaum, author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao, and Che, to discuss the New Communist Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The interview was aired during two episodes of Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago, on October 26 and November 9. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Spencer Leonard: To start off in the broadest possible way, how and when did the New Communist Movement emerge? What sort of politics did it espouse?

Max Elbaum: During the late 1960s there was a broad radicalization across many sectors of society, responding mainly to racism and the Vietnam War. It was a time when the Third World was alive with national liberation movements, most of which identified with some form of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism: the Cuban Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, Vietnam, Southern Africa, and a number of political movements in the Middle East. Revolution seemed like a possibility to many. People were looking around for some framework. While Trotskyism and the established Communist Party [CP] had their adherents, the majority of those who turned to revolutionary politics looked toward Third World national liberation movements. They embraced various versions of Marxism-Leninism influenced by what they thought—what we thought—were the lessons of those Third World revolutions. Many decided that building some kind of new Leninist party would harness the emerging revolutionary sentiment.

So from 1968 through the early 1970s, large numbers of young people, some of whom had been involved in various liberation movements, all gathered into a common but loose political trend that called itself the New Communist Movement or the Anti-Revisionist Movement. This included former members of the Black Panther Party, SNCC, white students from SDS, the Puerto Rican movement, the Chicano movement, the Asian-American movement. By styling themselves “anti-revisionist” they intended to say that the official CP had surrendered its revolutionary perspectives for a non-revolutionary revision of Marxism-Leninism.

black-panther-and-the-red-book-1969-300x198

Black Panthers dare to struggle at a rally in Oakland, 1969.

SL: Today it seems almost unimaginable that in the 1970s Marxists constituted a dynamic section of a vibrant anti-capitalist Left. The entire Left now barely registers in U.S. politics. Advocates of revolutionary politics have only the barest foothold in popular movements and, among them, anarchists and revolutionary nationalists exercise greater influence than Marxists. Given the radical difference between the 1970s and the 2000s, why reexamine the history of the New Communist Movement? When you published the book in 2002, what intervention in the contemporary left did you hope to effect?

ME: After the group I had been in during the 1970s and 1980s disbanded, I was working in California on an ecumenical socialist magazine called CrossRoads. I was also working to organize opposition to a range of anti-working class, anti-immigrant propositions on the California ballot. In both projects, we began to encounter young people who had been radicalized during the first Gulf War. It was striking how little these people who had come up from 1989–1995 knew about what had happened after the 1960s. Many had heard of the Black Panther Party, and there was literature about the CP, and so on. But there was nothing about the New Communist Movement. I thought that some book should cover that history since, after all, it was an important part of the political experience of that generation. I also felt more generally that the Left in the 1990s had failed to appreciate the strengths and the weaknesses of the New Communist Movement. So I wanted to get all of this on the record.

SL: What are some of the lessons you felt were being neglected?

ME: For one thing, there was a fetish of ideological purity in the different trends of the New Communist Movement, a certain kind of voluntarism that attempted to leap over objective conditions. These problems affected our generation and glimpses of them came through again around Seattle in the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. We were also afflicted by rigid ideas about organization. Both led to various kinds of sectarian squabbling. There was also a general underestimation of how much serious theoretical and strategic assessment needed to be done regarding the society in which we live. A kind of American anti-intellectualism affected the New Communist Movement even as it promoted slogans like Lenin’s “Without a revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

On the positive side, the New Communist Movement was dedicated to internationalism and to building a multi-racial movement committed to fighting racist discrimination. That was unusual for the time and produced some very strong bonds across social barriers. It also managed to produce some political victories, albeit often on only a small scale. The effort to sink roots in the working class, the effort to try to build long-term organizations, ones that have some staying power—indeed, the idea that you would go through some ebbs and flows—these were some of the strengths of the ideas that infused the Communist Movement. I do not agree today with some of our theoretical explications, but there was a lot that was positive there.

For one thing, the organizational model back then stands in contrast to what people today call the nonprofit industrial complex: large numbers of people organizing in and through NGOs. Nonprofits have their place, but there is nothing for the Left like an individual membership forming a voluntary organization focused on common goals.

SL: The founding moment of the New Communist Movement came in the late 1960s, when activists involved in anti-racist politics and the protest movement against the Vietnam War came to discover Marxism. Many of these activists, as you write, felt that if their moment was itself not revolutionary, it was at least pre-revolutionary, a 1905 moment prior to a coming 1917. There was the idea that the 1960s were a dress rehearsal for a revolution expected to take place in the activists’ lifetimes. Can you elaborate the grounds on which leftists in the 1960s and early 1970s based their assessment of their historical moment? What consequences did this assessment have for how they oriented and conducted their politics?

ME: The picture of the world that people held at the end of the 1960s was that the U.S. was the most powerful country in the capitalist world, that a whole section of the world had broken off from the capitalist system—the Soviet bloc, China, and so on—and that these were  “socialist” or “counter-system” states or what have you. Of course, there were many debates around this question. In addition, Third World countries engaged in late-stage decolonization struggles voiced socialist aspirations. According to this picture big chunks of the world were already non-capitalist and whole other chunks were moving away from capitalism. Given this we searched for movements within the capitalist world which, while beginning largely with young people and students, nevertheless seemed poised to forge links with the American working class, as we understood to be happening in France and Italy. In addition to this, many thought the profits within the imperialist metropole were going to be squeezed, requiring more concessions from the working class, which might prompt further radicalization.

Moreover, there was a certain intangible ideological quality to the moment. People who were 22, 23 in the late 1960s were old enough to remember those southern governors standing at the universities saying, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” A few years later, Jim Crow was outlawed. In terms of the change in the laws, and in light of the huge Freedom Movement, people felt they could identify with the people involved in the Freedom Rides and sit-ins. You knew those people if you were not one of them yourself. In addition to all the cultural ferment, a certain intellectual viewpoint emerged as to what the map of the world was, and with it a sense of having lived through a period of incredible change in which ordinary people had come on the stage and made a huge difference. Together these factors made revolution seem extremely plausible. That said, I don’t think many of us thought, “The revolution is coming tomorrow.” Certainly, those of us who had some political experience knew it was not going be a straight shot, one linear ascent all the way to revolution. But you are right to say that we understood ourselves as inhabiting a 1905 moment. The 1960s were our dress rehearsal: Contradictions were going to intensify, and in a decade or so there would come another movement that could be bigger, broader, and farther to the Left. That was the mindset.

SL: Would you say that the New Communist Movement really came too late, or that mistakes were made that might have been able to generate, as you say, more of an in-it-for-the-long-haul revolutionary current, one more resilient than what actually survived till today?

ME: Well, yes. The spirit of the book is that the revolutionary project is legitimate, positive, and desirable. Revolutionary politics are reaffirmed, if you will. But the book is also a self-critique about mistakes made along the way. Still, I do not think that we could have accomplished a revolution even if the generation of 1968 had made no mistakes. That said, were it not for our mistakes the 1970s would have been different, the 1980s would have been different. There’s a long debate about which mistakes were avoidable and which were not. It is impossible to do anything without making some mistakes. So how many of those mistakes could have been avoided, exactly which ones, what occurred at the level of individual shortcomings—such reflections can spin off into purely philosophical questions, or become an indulgence in alternate history. But certainly we took some wrong turns, and distinguishing these from the impulses and directions that moved things forward is what the book attempts to do, first of all by laying out all the facts of a history that most people are unaware of.

For example, given the goal of revolution, one still has to decide whether one is entering an offensive period or a defensive period. Are you going into a period that’s likely to produce advances and gains, or are you going into a period that will require consolidating gains already made while staving off a counterattack? You never know for sure, but you abandon materialism if you fail to make an estimate of the forces that are on your side and those arrayed against you. You have to ask, What are the tendencies? What is likely and whom do you work with? That is integral to Marxism, figuring out what is on the agenda within the constraints of objective circumstances. Marxists seek to understand their circumstances without apologizing for or accommodating to them, so they can know what they should do. We wrongly assessed our circumstances and the balance of forces. We overestimated the strength of the forces opposed to capitalism worldwide and underestimated U.S. capitalism’s counterattack.

We also took a whole bunch of things for granted. We thought that the gains of the welfare state, for example, were here to stay. We thought there was no significant tendency that could become dominant the way neoliberalism has become dominant. Had we assessed that better, we might have adjusted our strategies, our tactics and organizational approaches, to preempt and weaken the counteroffensive while keeping our side strong. I do not think that the revolution was going to happen in the 1970s or the 1980s, but had the generation of 1968—not just the New Communist Movement, but all of us who had turned to leftist, radical, and revolutionary thinking—done it better, we certainly could have entered the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond in a much stronger position than we did.

SL: Respecting the relative merits of the Chinese, the Cuban, and the Vietnamese parties, what pitfalls arose from attempting to constitute proletarian politics on the basis of examples from largely agrarian societies such as these?

ME: I do not think anyone in the New Communist Movement thought that we could duplicate the revolutionary processes or approaches of Cuba, China, or Vietnam. I mean, everyone understood that those were Third World societies with huge proportions of peasantry while the U.S. was a majority working class society, an advanced industrial society. So on that level I do not think people within the New Communist Movement sought simply to import those models. Still, this was a period when violence was in the air, confrontation was very intense, the level of conflict in the street had risen, and people had witnessed, to take one example, the repression leveled against the Black Panthers. Of course, there were some patterns taken from those revolutionary experiences that were unfortunately imported into politics here. Additionally, the complexity and importance of dealing with the electoral arena was not fully appreciated.

SL: Within the New Communist Movement, what sense had developed of the potentials concentrated in an advanced capitalist country such as the United States, potentials that could not be grasped by looking to politics developed under more adverse conditions?

ME: It was not until later that some of Gramsci’s ideas became popular, so we did not sufficiently grasp the complexities of dealing with radical politics in an advanced bourgeois democracy such as the United States. This was partially because we looked mostly to groups in the Third World for inspiration. There was interchange and study back and forth with people in Italy and Portugal and Western Europe and Japan, but probably not as much as there should have been.

There was a general ideological notion that the received theory of Marxism-Leninism was sufficient theoretically. While certainly it had to be applied to concrete conditions in the United States, the big theoretical questions were thought to have been solved. I no longer agree with that. Nor am I certain that everyone completely agreed with it at the time, though it was at any rate the dominant stance, and people more or less proceeded accordingly. Even the anti-revisionism phrase indicates a return to orthodoxy as opposed to breaking new ground.

There was, of course, a positive side. After all, this was a period—it is a little different today although not completely—in which few recognized that white people in the United States might have something to learn from societies and people of color in the Third World. That advancement was important for human equality and democracy. It does not mean you follow and adopt ideas uncritically, but it certainly means that you might learn something as well as teach.

SL: To what extent was the necessity of expressing solidarity with the Left through critique of the Third World movements felt among this generation of intellectuals?

ME: There was no shortage of criticism of parties around the world. There was no notion that people in the Third World can do no wrong and we just have to follow them. Different people within the New Communist Movement tended, as much out of sectarianism as anything else, to embrace one or another ideological schema and then do battle with the other ones. That was a common problem and it has been a problem for the Marxist Left, and for the Left generally, for a long time. But this raises the question of how one can develop critical solidarity given the complexities of U.S. domination of the Third World, and given how little people know about what is going on there. It’s a real challenge and the Communist Movement did not meet it particularly well, but I am not sure that it was much worse on this account than other Left tendencies. Indeed, in some respects it was better. Of course, that is not a good enough standard if we are talking about how to reconstitute the Left today.

SL: To what extent was there a project of developing intellectual and theoretical leadership in the United States, where so much potential is concentrated in terms of education and theoretical development? How much did young people in the New Communist Movement see that as a responsibility? Also, to what degree was there tension between orienting towards the Third World, on the one hand, and trying to develop workers’ political consciousness here in the United States, on the other?

ME: It’s hard to generalize about the New Communist Movement in that regard because there was a strong anti-intellectualist strain that was more dominant in some groups than in others. But there were also Capital reading groups and other attempts at an exploration of theory. It was a mixed bag.

SL: A lot of the questions point towards the question of orthodoxy. But it is not exactly clear how we inherit this orthodoxy, or how orthodoxy can be said to establish itself and its credentials. When we look back historically, prestige surrounds revolutionary success, and in a sense, guarantees orthodoxy. But this begs the question of how the whole history of revolutionary communism is assessed, of what constitutes “success.” There is, for instance, the question of Stalinism and the political transformations within the Eastern Bloc. But allow me again to press on the tension between the orientation towards the Third World movement and the project of  “sinking roots in the working class.”

ME: The word “tension” is apt. The basic standpoint of the New Communist Movement was that the capitalist exploiters who ran the U.S. were the common enemy of the Third World and American workers. To defeat that common enemy meant liberation for both. We were bound together by international proletarian solidarity and we shared a common enemy. On the other hand, there were tendencies impassioned by the brutality of the wars in the Third World, tendencies that shared resentment toward those Americans who seemed not to share their visceral anger. This tension could lead to Weathermen-style politics that simply denounced the vast majority of the population as collaborators with the enemy and arguing for the need to “fight the people.”

More generally, the New Communist Movement did not pay much attention to the visionary component about what progress and socialism could look like in the U.S. in an era of abundance. This may have stemmed in part from anti-consumerist ideas inherited from the New Left. But while there were shortcomings in how the New Communist Movement dealt with internationalism, there was, as I say, a widespread understanding that Vietnamese workers, Uruguayan workers, Palestinian workers, American workers, all had a common enemy. The problem was turning this into effective practice, and I certainly think that the New Communist Movement did not master that.

SL: Throughout the New Communist Movement, you saw young people politicized in the 1960s turning away from middle class professions and proletarianizing themselves for the sake of left politics. You write that the New Communist Movement

worked overtime to present itself—and actually become—culturally in and of the proletariat. This was no simple task. Faced with a badly divided working class and fuzzy borders between the working class and other classes, it was hard to locate any kind of uniform or clear-cut working class culture. Within people of color communities there were identifiable cultures of resistance, and a few organizations had some success in meshing into and helping sustain them. But there were few left-wing cultural milieus that simultaneously crossed racial lines and had a mass character. (170)

Wanting to fuse itself with the proletariat, leaders within the New Communist favored “working class” styles of dress, discouraged or banned drug use and homosexuality, adopted what you call a “crude anti-intellectualism masquerading as hostility towards elitism,” and even encouraged alcohol use. This points to how the New Communist Movement came to understand the working class as something uniform or clear-cut that had identifiable tastes and practices, rather than as something to be intersected and even criticized. How did this conception of class and class politics develop, and in what ways might it have limited the activity or imagination of the New Communist Movement?

ME: That kind of reification of workers did not work. It came from a lot of inexperience, prejudices, stereotypes, and a certain kind of orthodoxy, in the sense of a certain image of what had happened in the 1930s, which many tried simply to reproduce despite vastly altered conditions. In many cases the image itself was largely constructed, and does not correspond to what actually happened in the 1930s. As time went on, those New Communist Movement groups that managed to get past an initial stage and acquire enough staying power that they had some relationship to at least some group of workers—a group of a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand at most—usually shed the sort of practices and prejudices you mention.

The Communist Party in the 1930s grew to some tens of thousands of members, about half industrial workers. None of the New Communist Movement groups approached such a size or depth of influence in the working class. So, of course, their conceptions, interactions, were more primitive; idiosyncratic factors of different individuals can exert much more influence in a small group, and even become dominant, in a way that does not usually happen when you actually become a mass sociological phenomenon, which the New Communist groups at their best were only ever on the edge of. We never quite made it over that hump. Some tendencies still exist, but none of them developed the kind of organic roots in the working class the way the communists did in the 1930s.

SL: The commitment to anti-racism was a defining element among all New Communist tendencies, but the specifics of anti-racist politics became intensely divisive. During the Boston busing crisis, for example, the movement was divided over whether forced integration of Boston schools was actually part of a ruling class plot to divide the working class. Judged in retrospect, from the perspective of today’s functionally post-racist society—whose social barbarism towards racial minorities nonetheless matches or even exceeds the past, in the sense that in Obama’s America we are, in a way, facing both a more and less racist society—the anti-racist politics of the New Communist Movement feel misguided or anachronistic, if not destructive. In particular, what are the limits, as you see them today, of viewing the racial composition of the American working class in terms of oppressed national minorities, given all the difficulties this led to in the 1970s and before?

ME: Most of the New Communist Movement embraced the resolutions of the 1928 and 1930 CP grappling with the oppression of African-Americans in the U.S. The CP was trying to deal with the reawakening of politics that addressed race head on—peoples of color across the world, national liberation movements, the Marcus Garvey movement, and so on. So there was an effort on the CP’s part to deal with the fact that there was a distinct dynamic to the black freedom movement; it had a cross-class dynamic against racial discrimination, it was progressive, it was for equality and democracy. The particular theoretical frame that emerged in the writing on this is that African-Americans constituted or formed a nation, so their struggle was a national liberation movement from within. African-Americans in the Black Belt in the South constituted a nation and African-Americans elsewhere in the country constituted a national minority.

There was a lot of debate in the CP, and there has been a lot of historical debate about how much the actual “nation” aspect in this formulation of the “Black Belt” thesis had to do with an advancement of practice in the CP through the 1930s or 1940s, and how much had to do with the fact that the working class had to embrace the demands for equality being put forth by blacks. By the 1970s, most groups had a version of the black nation thesis, though some did not. But certainly all the groups in the New Communist Movement felt that the struggle against racism had its own independent dynamic. It was not simply reducible to the issue of class, but was an important struggle to be taken up by the working class as a whole.

Boston-busing-protest
Protestors march against integrated busing in Boston's Charlestown neighborhood.

So that was the background to the Boston busing crisis. The controversy within the New Communist movement revolved around the final ruling, whether it had to be supported as a product of the desegregation struggle that had been waged by Boston’s black community and its allies for more than a decade, or whether it represented a plot by the ruling class to divide workers. A few groups argued that the judge’s decision was a ruling class ploy, but most recognized that the working class was already divided by racism. On the ground, the resistance to the busing ruling was principally a “keep blacks out” movement. That resistance took violent form. There were mobs attacking buses with school children, and so forth. Most of the Left, and most of the New Communist Movement, took the point of view that blacks had the right to go to any school they wanted, and that this was an anti-segregation struggle: “It’s not the bus it’s us,” as Jesse Jackson, who was involved in that movement, put it. Most of the NAACP and most of the black freedom movement, most of the New Communist Movement, the Trotskyist groups, all took the line that it was an anti-racist struggle.

The Revolutionary Union, which was the largest New Communist Movement group at the time, and a few others, took the line that it was a ruling class ploy to divide the workers. So the New Communist Movement was not united in its opposition. It was pretty much the first time since the New Communist Movement’s emergence in the 1960s that it was not united, in a practical sense, around a particular struggle. There had been all these theoretical debates around national oppression, the Black Belt thesis, national struggles, but it had not yet been translated into taking different sides in a practical struggle of large significance. By the mid-1970s the Boston busing crisis had taken on national importance. There were national demonstrations. Boston had become a flashpoint of the anti-racist struggle and the New Communist tendency provided no unified direction.

What that had to do with the actual existence of a “black nation” or not, I don’t know. It is still difficult for me to figure out how exactly that fits in to the political struggle around Boston’s busing. I think the debate had more to do with one’s understanding of mass struggles and reforms and how the ruling class makes concessions, whether its concessions are plots that divide and weaken or whether they have a dual character. On the one hand, concessions such as the busing decision had been wrung out of the ruling class through mass struggle. On the other hand, the ruling class, when it makes concessions, always tries to make them on its own terms and in a way that is also likely to benefit them. At any rate, the Boston busing crisis was a turning point in the New Communist Movement’s capacity to unite and in its stature as a pole of attraction for the Left as a whole. Combined with struggles over Chinese policies, this proved divisive. The New Communist Movement lost the strength of attraction it had exercised from 1969 up until that point.

SL: The relationship between the Black Belt thesis and whether to interpret the busing decision as a ruling class plot remains opaque. While I agree that problems of racism and the politics of anti-racism remain, the way these were argued—in terms of the presence of third world nationalities in the USA, or even the idea that American minorities naturally “belong” to or have some other nationality than American—seem very foreign to the present moment. That a black person could be a corporate manager or indeed the commander in chief of American imperialism is something that most people take for granted today.

ME: The New Communist Movement group I was in did not think that the Black Belt thesis was theoretically sound even in the 1930s, much less the 1970s. We argued a very different point of view. There is a whole school of thought around this that has evolved into critical race theory and various other strands that look at the history of racial categories, race relations, racism, and race in America. I agree that strictly only using the tools of nation and nationality is not particularly useful in analyzing the history of race in America.

At the time, we had some sharp polemics in the New Communist Movement over this, and the debate lingers today. The folks whom I disagreed with then, even if I did not think the theoretical tools were the right ones, were nevertheless largely sensible. When looking at the theory debates, it is clear that much of it often came down to whose ideas, in the abstract, better imitated the prevailing orthodoxy or seemed to show greater loyalty to it. There were a lot of gymnastics around that, but when it came down to analyzing concrete struggles, the majority of the folks were pretty good. Even if they used theoretical frameworks I disagreed with, many of them engaged in quite advanced practice around the struggles of the 1970s.

For approaching today’s society, though, I do not think the idea that there are oppressed nations within the borders of the US is helpful in terms of understanding the political economy and social relationships, unless perhaps you are referring to specific Native American tribes who have treaty relations with the U.S. government, but that is a far different situation.

SL: You argued that the New Communist Movement was mistaken in its assessment of how ripe capitalism was for defeat. I wanted to raise the question of how we think about possibility and the defeat of possibility, retrospectively. In particular, can we really accept our defeat as evidence of the unripeness of capitalism for revolution? Doesn’t defeat or, at least, the form that defeat has taken render capitalism less ripe for future revolution? In making such assessments do we run the risk of imposing a false necessity upon history, and treating accomplished fact as inevitable? Reflecting on the politics of the 1970s, your book does not shrink from a recognition of defeat. But to what extent might we say that the limitations of our past politics are responsible for the present—in other words, to what extent might it not simply have been the case that “someone else won,” but also that we won in ways we did not expect to, and which now trouble us? Even the right-wing today seems to have been molded in important ways by the experience of the 1960s and 1970s radical left, not only in the sense that the right was forced to make concessions, but also in the ways that radical politics of the past have been stabilized, as a new status quo. Indeed, it is this ability to stabilize the status quo that we truly refer to when we speak of the strength of the right. Doesn’t history task us with the unpleasant necessity of taking responsibility for the present? In what ways do you think your book does this?

ME: I do not think we can let ourselves off the hook, nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that the current situation has nothing to do with what we did. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the current situation resulted only from what we failed to do, and not also from what we actually participated in. We cannot only give ourselves credit for good things and let ourselves off for the bad things. We are part of it. That said, there needs to be a sense of proportion: There are some things the Left had control over, and many we did not. To assess the histories of social movements, you need to understand what the potentialities were at a given moment, and the extent to which these possibilities were realized.

I do not think Marx, for instance, was responsible for the failures of the 1848 revolutions. Some of what Marx said and did could have affected the outcome in some way, but fundamentally it was an issue of the balance of forces at the time. Of course, the failures of the Left worldwide have something to do with why the beginning of the 21st century looks the way it does. The U.S. Left in the 1970s were in a position to change the outcome of some political battles that took place between then and now, but certainly not all of them. Even with all the thought and energy so many of us expended, the fact is that we did not become powerful enough to decisively impact the overall balance of forces. So exactly how much change we could have effected is a matter of ongoing debate, and one that is not simply a question of historical “facts.” So, yours is a question with various moral, political, and philosophical dimensions. Struggling for the right sense of historical proportion is, after all, ultimately a matter of political judgment. |P

Transcribed by Ana Lilia Torres

Kevin Anderson, Chris Cutrone, Nick Kreitman, Danny Postel, and Adam Turl

Platypus Review 25 | July 2010

[PDF]  [Video Recording]

On January 30th, 2007, Platypus hosted its first public forum, “Imperialism: What is it—Why should we be Against it?” The panel consisted of Adam Turl of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Kevin Anderson of the Marxist-Humanist group News and Letters, Nick Kreitman of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Danny Postel of Open Democracy, and Chris Cutrone of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of this event; the full video can be found online at the above link.

The question of imperialism remains obscure on the Left. In light of the continued failure of the anti-war movement to end the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the decline of anti-war protest in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, it seems that the critique of imperialism has not been clarified, but only become more impotent in its opacity. Consequently, the Platypus Review believes that this panel retains its salience.

Opening remarks

Adam Turl: To Marxists, imperialism designates the circumstance whereby economic competition among major capitalist countries, driven by finance capital, large banks, and big corporations, leads to political and military competition. This takes the form of an indirect competition for colonies, zones of influence, and trade networks. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq—it was not just about seizing oil, but controlling the access to oil of potential competitors to America, such as China. So “imperialism” is not just about bad foreign policy, but the necessity for a ruling class driven by competition to pursue such policies. But what force in society can oppose imperialism? My position is that working class people in the United States, whether they work at an auto plant or in an office, have the power and the interest to oppose imperialism.

Unfortunately, most of the 1960s New Left argued that large segments of the American working class benefit materially from imperialism. I do not believe this argument was ever correct, and it has only grown more implausible with age. The costs of imperialism are borne not only by those that the U.S. oppresses abroad, but also by working class people here at home. The benefits of imperialism are almost entirely accrued by the very wealthy here and by tiny groups of collaborators abroad.

Iraqi_resistance_21-240x300

Protesters at an anti-war demonstration.

Working class people identify with imperialist ideology only to their own detriment. It has been a great weakness of the U.S. labor movement that much of its leadership since World War II has identified with the economic interests of major U.S. corporations, ultimately leading to a massive decline of labor rights in America. Although corporations have reaped huge dividends, workers have benefited from neither the theft of Iraqi oil, nor the exploitation of workers around the globe—quite the opposite, in fact. More than 60 percent of the U.S. population has demonstrated repeatedly in polls that they oppose the occupation of Iraq. Imperialism breeds anti-imperialism: The crisis in Iraq, along with the economic crisis facing millions of workers here at home, has bred opposition to the war.

We face this common situation of having to build an anti-imperialist Left. As American workers begin to question the war, is there a Left to offer a position on the war and imperialism that makes sense? Without this, people will believe the commonsense answers pushed by Democrats, who say the war in Iraq is a policy misstep, rather than part of an imperial project in the Middle East connected, among other things, to America’s support of the occupation of Palestine. The Left needs to be rebuilt, and this means creating as large an anti-war movement as possible. With the debacle in Iraq our rulers are facing something of a crisis; now is the time to seize this moment to organize against the war.

Kevin Anderson: Imperialism is a system by which powerful, competing nations are driven to dominate and exploit weaker ones. It is not simply a conspiracy, but a social and economic process rooted in the very structure of capitalism. Modern imperialism seeks to dominate the globe in order to secure markets, cheap labor, and raw materials, a process analyzed by Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.

Imperialism also has a concrete political and military aspect, but military control is necessary only to secure the access needed for economic imperialism to operate. Imperialism seeks to open up other societies to the penetration of capital, making direct occupation unnecessary and thus uncommon today, which is partly why even some pro-imperialists consider the war in Iraq reckless.

Finally there is cultural imperialism, which has dominated academic discussions of imperialism. Everything from Indiana Jones to the way colonized peoples are typically portrayed legitimates economic and political imperialism. Even elite cultural institutions, such as art museums, in the way they organize artwork—e.g., Egyptian artifacts in the basement and French paintings on the top floor—can reflect a fundamentally racist ideology assuring people of their cultural superiority and right to dominate.

Imperialism strengthens capitalism, but it always engenders resistance. Working people have to fight imperialist wars and thus pay its costs, so they resist; naturally, those directly subject to imperialism also resist. Forms of resistance vary, however, from progressive and emancipatory to reactionary: Take Pat Buchanan, who opposes the Iraq war strictly on isolationist grounds, so as to avoid involvement with “inferior races.” Imperialism is sometimes opposed by reactionary interests abroad, too, from Al-Qaeda to Serbian nationalists. Of course, generally, imperialism is opposed by progressive movements. It is important for anti-imperialists here, and those in countries directly oppressed by imperialism, to be willing to work together. Today, various U.S. organizations support Chiapas and Bolivia. Such progressive anti-imperialists must continue to oppose imperialism, but must also avoid supporting reactionary forms of anti-imperialism. It is not enough to say simply that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Nick Kreitman: Most anti-imperialists today have no program. At the anti-war marches they organize, groups like United for Peace and Justice advance no concrete alternatives. They simply hand you a sticker reading “Troops Out Now.” They do not elaborate on what they want after troop withdrawal, and therefore do not connect this struggle with the question of realizing a more just society. Of course, sovereignty should rest solely with the Iraqis. Yet, even as the war continues, the number of people turning out for protests dwindles because, at least in part, they can see no solution.

The Left needs to resume the responsibility of political leadership, which includes identifying and presenting alternatives to U.S. foreign policy. Only then can we overcome apathy. Unfortunately, the Left has failed to elaborate on what could be done, on what a new Iraq might look like, just as, in the 1990s, we failed to articulate a position on how the U.S. should engage Serbia, which misled people to believe we supported Miloševic.

We need people to articulate alternatives in the long term and to form concrete plans in the short term to end the occupation. Some are interested in this work, but they have not been trying hard enough to lead the movement, to provide solutions that will help us connect with people.

Danny Postel: The Balkan Wars of the 1990s proved confusing for those who, like myself, came of age politically during the Central America solidarity movements of the 1980s, and who were thus anti-imperialist as a matter of course. As Yugoslavia became engulfed in violence, the paradigm inherited from the anti-Vietnam War movement proved insufficient to understand what was happening. Kevin Anderson and I argued that anti-imperialism was obscuring what was critical at that moment. Unfortunately, support for Miloševic on the Left was all too real, drawing in leftists as prominent as Michael Parenti—who helped organize the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Miloševic—as well as Diana Johnstone, Michel Chossudovsky, and Jared Israel.

Many on the Left in the 1990s were led down a dark alley, a situation analyzed thoughtfully in “Against the Double Blackmail,” an essay by Slavoj Žižek written around this time. There, Žižek argued that leftists needed to oppose both Western imperialism and its false antithesis, ethno-fascist gangster capitalism, which does not represent a form of resistance to but, rather, the mirror image of global capital and Western empire.

Since September 11, one can witness in dismay the return of this tunnel-visioned anti-imperialism that had deeply confused the Left about the Balkans. A critical stance toward myopic anti-imperialism has lost ground given the brazenness of the new era of global imperialism represented by the Bush administration. Despite this resurgence of U.S. imperialism, the example of Iran clearly shows the limitations of adopting imperialism as the sole organizing principal of leftist thought. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often employs the language of anti-imperialism, to the confusion of people on the Left. Some even admire him for it, especially when someone like Hugo Chavez embraces Ahmadinejad, the front man of Iran’s far right, as a “revolutionary brother.”

This is further confused by the fact that the emancipatory demands of Iranian dissidents tend not to be expressed in the idiom of anti-imperialism, but in terms of human rights and secularism, which are undeservedly dismissed as “mere bourgeois rights” by too many Marxists. The Iranian struggle is indeed anti-imperialist, but not to the exclusion of other issues. Student radicals publicly denounced Ahmadinejad for embracing David Duke at a global Holocaust conference at Tehran University [in December 2006]. Those students are saying their struggle is two-fold: It opposes imperialism and internal authoritarianism. Similarly, our struggle should be two-fold. We should struggle against imperialism, to stop the U.S. from attacking Iran, but we should also struggle in solidarity with emancipatory forces in Iran. Anti-imperialism is only half of our equation. It signals what we are against—but what are we for?

Chris Cutrone: Platypus takes its name from the animal because of its incomprehensibility, its resistance to classification. Like our namesake we feel that an authentic Left today would go almost unrecognized by the existing Left or, if recognized, seen only as a living fossil. We focus on the history and thought of the Marxist tradition, but in a critical and non-dogmatic manner, taking nothing for granted. We do this because we recognize our present, the politics of today, as the consequence of the Left’s self-liquidation over the course of at least a generation. It is our contention and provocation that the Left, understood in its best historical traditions, is dead. It needs to be entirely reformulated, both theoretically and practically, at the most fundamental levels.

The issue of imperialism provides a good frame for investigating the present international crisis of the Left. Though problematic for the Left for some time, the issue of imperialism has taken on particularly grotesque forms more recently, losing whatever coherence it had in the past. Today, it betrays symptomatically the Left’s dearth of emancipatory imagination. The present anti-war movement continues to struggle against the latest war by misapplying the template of the Vietnam War and the counterinsurgencies waged by the U.S. in Latin America. There, the U.S. fought against progressive agents for social change. The same cannot be said today. In addition to confusing the past with the present, the Left now tails after the crassest opportunism of the Democratic Party, for whom the more dead in Iraq, the more they can marginalize the Bush administration.

The Left has abdicated responsibility for a self-aware politics of progressive social transformation and emancipation. Instead, U.S. policy and the realities it grapples with are opportunistically vilified. Thus the Left shirks serious reflection on its own inconvenient history, its own role in how we got here. The worst expressions of this can be found in the intemperate hatred of Bush and in the idea, unfortunately prevalent in some leftist circles, that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11 attacks.

We in Platypus recognize that leftist politics today is characterized by its despair over the constrained possibilities of social change. Whatever vision for such change exists in the present derives from a wounded narcissism animated by the kind of loathing Susan Sontag expressed in the 1960s when she said, “the white race is the cancer of human history.”[1] The desire for change has become reactionary. The Left has devolved into apologetics for the world as it is, for existing social and political movements having nothing to do with emancipation. Thus the Left threatens to become the new right. Many who consider themselves leftist dress up Islamist insurgents as champions of national self-determination. One recalls Ward Churchill calling the office workers killed on September 11 “little Eichmanns of U.S. imperialism,” or Lynne Stewart, the civil rights attorney, saying that Sheik Abdul Rahman, who orchestrated the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, might be a legitimate freedom fighter.

The Left has lost its basic orientation towards freedom, a problem going back at least as far as the 1930s. The perspective the Left once had on the question and problem of freedom has become occluded in the present. Consequently, the Left has largely decomposed into competing rationalizations for a bad reality that the Left, in its long degeneration, has not only failed to prevent, but actually helped bring about. The sooner we stem the rot on the Left the better, but first of all we must recognize the depth of the problem. This is why we in Platypus are dedicated to investigating the history of the Left’s demise, so that an imagination for social emancipation can be regained anew. The Left can only survive by overcoming itself. Seriously interrogating the received political categories on the Left, not least of all imperialism, is essential to establishing a coherent politics with any hope of changing the world in an emancipatory direction. The enemies of social progress have their visions and are pursuing them. Some are more reactionary than others. The only question for us now: What are we going to do on the Left?

Panelists’ responses

Kreitman: At times, the Left can degenerate into supporting ethnic fascism. We should not idealize Muqtada al-Sadr or the Iraqi Islamic Party. We need to figure out how we are going to help a democratic, socialist Iraq emerge out of the current mess. If this just means leaving, that is what we should do. But is pulling out going to solve any of Iraq’s problems? Or will it just give the next president a pretext to return in five years? We need to identify who our allies are and how we can affect U.S. policy to provide the best of all possible outcomes in Iraq.

Turl: With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformations in China, anti-imperialism certainly became more complicated. Nonetheless, opposing the imperialism of one’s own country still overlaps naturally with political support of organizations and countries resisting imperialism. There are two mistakes made by the Left. One is to associate any and all opposition to U.S. imperialism with progressive politics. The other is what Noam Chomsky writes about in Military Humanism, his study of Bill Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Serbia, which actually found support from so-called leftists. The 1990s broke the post-Vietnam reluctance of the U.S. to invade.

I disagree with Chris: I think the Left has more to do than examine our mistakes and despair. The Left is about a process taking place in society, about people radicalizing and struggling against injustice. We need to be engaged with those struggles around the world. There are debates going on in Venezuela today about what the future of that movement should look like. The Left should engage in these debates although, in the U.S., our most important obligation is to stand against our government telling anyone what to do in Venezuela.

Anderson: My interest has always been problematizing what the Left is doing. What alternative to capitalism we offer is connected with the critique of the Left, by the Left. Most would take issue with Ahmadinejad’s comments denying the Holocaust, yet many leftists think talking about such things will distract from organizing the next protest. However, every time we do not explore these critical questions, we lose a chance to clarify what our alternative to capitalism actually is. We imply that our political vision may resemble the world desired by any of the forces opposing imperialism, regardless of those forces’ politics. We have to explore the difficult questions of the Left even as we oppose the occupation of Iraq and affirm our solidarity with progressive movements.

Postel: To clarify, when I said we should be in solidarity with Iranian protesters, I do not just mean, “we Americans.” I mean, we on the internationalist Left: activists, people of conscience, progressives. Particularly in America, some leftists think that people outside Iran have no role to play in the Iranian struggles, because they come from an imperialist country. We do have a role to play: to ask people who are struggling, “What can we do for you?” and “How can we help your struggle?” In general, Iranian progressives do not want financial support from the Pentagon or think tanks. What they do want is the support of global civil society, from intellectuals, activists, leftists—that is, from people like us.

Cutrone: The Left is in a bad way when looking at the possibilities for developing a Left in Iraq. Regardless of intention, the U.S. forces in Iraq and the political process that they have protected—the emergence of an Iraqi state through elections—now stand between whatever possibility there is for an Iraqi Left, in the long term, and the immediate reactionary opposition from former Baathists, Islamists, and Shi’a paramilitaries. What does it mean to call U.S. policy “imperialist” when, on the ground, that policy is opposed primarily from the right? The Iraqi Communist Party put out a statement saying that, while they were opposed the invasion of Iraq, they now also oppose the reactionary military opposition to the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government. In other words, they were opposed to the U.S. occupation, but it matters to them how the occupation comes to an end. For, under the current conditions, the U.S. being forced out of Iraq by right-wing sectarians would be a disaster.

The critique of the Left internationally is a form of participation and solidarity on the Left. The Left exhibits some of its worst features on the issue of anti-imperialism. It is constantly trying to figure out where the Left is, what existing group one can point to and say, “This is the Left.” Too often this involves dressing up as “leftist” more or less reactionary opposition forces. In so doing, the Left expresses a conciliatory attitude towards the status quo. Against this, I say the most salient form of support is critique, and this applies to the preceding historical period, as well: The role of the American Left during the Vietnam War should have been to critique the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese regime.

Q & A

First, the real job of the anti-war movement in the 1960s was not to criticize the North Vietnamese regime, but to stop the genocidal war in Vietnam, and the movement succeeded. These wars are not just about abstract issues debated in graduate papers. Imperialism takes real lives. The ISO, which I am a member of, never had any problems supporting the Sandinistas against the U.S. and Solidarity against the USSR, because we took for granted that nations have the right to self-determination. This means, first, that activists in the advanced world have to be anti-imperialist as a principle, for it is not just about stopping oppression: We should support struggles against the U.S. because, if the forces of imperialism are defeated and weakened abroad, we can better fight for socialism here. Let’s be clear: the “dark alley” mentioned earlier—it was Stalinism. It was the identification, for 60 years, of socialism with totalitarianism and Soviet imperialism. Our task is to redevelop the socialist tradition by unearthing that crap, to make socialism relevant to the millions in this country who want fundamental change.

Cutrone: About Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive the NLF and the North Vietnamese communist regime expended literally thousands of cadres attempting to get the U.S. back to the negotiating table. Is that a form of fighting for social emancipation we can endorse? More broadly, I’m not sure the anti-Vietnam War movement succeeded. To the extent the U.S. was “defeated,” this was surely a Pyrrhic victory for Vietnam in light of the lasting devastation it suffered. Moreover, whether America lost or won militarily, the anti-war movement definitely did not win, as Vietnam presents no repeatable model of social emancipation.

The Left “here” and the Left “there” should be seen more in terms of an integral connection and less as a distant solidarity, which is a bad habit we inherit from the 1960s anti-war movement, expressed today in the idea that somehow the U.S. being defeated in Iraq automatically translates into an objective victory for the Left. This simply is not true, unless you think more Democrats in office is a triumph for the Left.

Anderson: The anti-war movement of the 1960s, which I participated in, had collapsed by the time the U.S. pulled out. Soon after, we had Reagan as president. The greater transformations we hoped to make out of the anti-war radicalism just did not happen. This failure was not simply a matter of America being a big, bad, reactionary country. It was because of all kinds of mistakes on the Left, not the least of which being the near idolatry of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.

Turl: You are not going to get a defense of Maoism from me. But still, the anti-war movement of the 1960s forced America out of Vietnam, allowing the Vietnamese people to win. Regardless of the politics of the government in Vietnam that resulted, the U.S. had to remain on the sidelines until September 11. That is a successful movement. Did the movement create socialism? If that is our standard, it will deter our participation in struggles for justice that do not measure up, forcing us into a passive stance.

Kreitman: We on the Left should be wary of trumpeting self-determination as one of our values. In the wake of the 1960s radicalism, defending “national self-determination” sometimes meant that the Left simply threw support to the best armed groups in a particular country, rather than take their politics into account.

The major problem in the 1990s was not that people were cloaking anti-imperialist groups in undeserved left-wing colors, but that the vast majority of leftists were apologizing for U.S. imperialism by supporting U.S.-led “humanitarian intervention.” We cannot, as leftists, afford to cease our support of national self-determination.

Postel: Few leftists believed humanitarianism motivated these U.S. interventions, though some liberal centrists may have fallen for that line. Most of us had a complex position on Western intervention in the Balkans. We who supported the Kosovo intervention, myself included, took that position out of a conviction that the consequences, not the motives, would benefit the Kosovar Albanians, as the Kosovar Albanians themselves argued.

Turl: One must differentiate between the politics of the people ruling the countries bombed by the U.S., and the right of the U.S. to bomb people. We make this distinction all the time in the Socialist Worker. We don’t gloss over the politics of the resistance in Iraq, but we also steadfastly defend the right of Iraqis to resist a foreign occupation and its troops. If there were an occupation of Chicago, I would defend the right of hardcore Republicans to resist that occupation. I wouldn’t care that they were right wing.

This relates to the stance of the Iraqi Communist Party, mentioned earlier. If the U.S. troops stand between the Iraqi Communist Party and obliteration, that is only because the Iraqi Communist Party decided to collaborate with the U.S. occupation and, thus, with the biggest imperial power on the planet. It is untrue that the U.S. stands between reaction and the Iraqi people, or that the U.S. troops are defending a nascent democracy, or whatever the propaganda on the evening news says. Most sectarian violence is created or stoked by America. The U.S. deliberately established an Islamic government in Iraq; next, the U.S. consciously decided to stir sectarian violence after it became clear their proxies, like Ahmed Chalabi, did not have a base in Iraq. After that, the U.S. began siding with different sectarian groups, and it is only then sectarian violence escalates. The longer the U.S. military stays, the more sectarian violence there is going to be and the more reactionary Iraqi politics will become. The only solution is to pull out immediately so that the Iraqis can sort everything out themselves.

Closing remarks

Anderson: Imperialism with a capital “I” lasted from about 1880 until around the 1950s–60s. However, rather than simply ending, colonialism has been replaced by neo-imperialism. So economic and cultural domination persist after political independence, which is why one cannot understand imperialism without talking about capitalism. But, when Lenin wrote his classic work on imperialism ninety years ago, there were five or six competing powers. Since then, capitalism has become simultaneously far more globalized and centralized. The nature of imperialism and capitalism has changed as a result of the emergence of state capitalism, exemplified by the total centralization of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Today, there’s one hyper-power: the United States. In many ways, what exactly these changes mean for anti-imperialism remains unclear.

Turl: Marx argued it is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness. Our ideas are informed by the reality of our lives. This is true, yet this relation is also falsified in America: Propaganda is relentlessly pumped into this society to ensure the prevalence of ruling class ideology. Of course, such lies contradict people’s everyday experience. Some people start to see the growing contradiction between what they are told and what they experience. Going through a struggle, a strike or an anti-war movement, catalyzes this change in people’s ideas. A significant example of this process at work now can be seen in Venezuela.

In the 1990s we began to see a resurgence of the Left. Here in the U.S., we had the Ralph Nader campaign and the anti-globalization protests in Seattle. Towards the end of the decade labor activity increased, with the UPS strike marking the first clear labor victory for some time. But this leftward momentum was interrupted by the political fallout of September 11, which was not only a tragedy in itself, but a disaster for the Left. It gave Bush and the rest of the U.S. ruling class the opportunity to wage war. But this is all beginning to change. Millions of people are demanding their rights. As long as people are oppressed, they will fight back and challenge the system. The question now is how to organize that fight. In order to rebuild a Left, we need to oppose our government, the dominant imperial power on the planet, every time it invades, occupies, and murders.

Kreitman: The Left has been in decline for at least a generation, primarily because it has not offered compelling alternatives. In the 1980s, as factories in America closed, there was no Left articulating a new model of how to do things. Workers today are complicit in imperialism, even if it is not in their interest as workers, primarily because the Left really has not provided a compelling alternative politics.

Take the crisis in Darfur. There is mounting political pressure for the U.S. government to send in troops to prevent further genocide. That would be imperialist, in a sense, but the Left has not said what to do instead. So people begin to think it is a matter either of stopping genocide through U.S. military intervention or not stopping genocide, rather than seeing it as a question of how to stop genocide. We need a framework that remains critical of imperialism while also addressing the political issues of the day.

Cutrone: It is all well and good to invoke the slogan, “the main enemy is at home.” But what position should the Left take regarding reactionary forces outside the U.S.? There are falsifications in much of the talk about the violence in Iraq. No matter whose body count one uses, most of the death and destruction in Iraq has been wreaked by the (so-called) "resistance," not the United States. Starting in early 2005, the majority of deaths in Iraq have been due to either Al-Qaeda in Iraq blowing up Shi’a mosques, marketplaces, or (government) recruiting centers, or Shi'a militias carrying out "ethnic cleansing" against the Sunni. You will hear the statistic that 90 percent of the attacks in Iraq are on U.S. or coalition forces, but the phrase “coalition forces” includes the current Iraqi government, and sectarian violence represents the vast majority of the attacks against it. The Iraqi resistance has nothing to do with national self-determination, much less democracy. One has to be realistic about the goals and responsibilities of the United States. It is fair to hold the U.S. responsible for the security situation in Iraq, but it is certainly not the case that the U.S. is setting off bombs in crowded markets and mosques. Reactionary sectarian groups in Iraq are the ones doing that.

If we actually care about the democratic self-determination of people around the world, we cannot ignore the fact that in a place like Iraq the Left has no hope if the insurgency forces perpetrating most of the violence succeed in their aims. It is simply false to say that the U.S. has instigated or perpetuated most of the inter-ethnic violence. The U.S. has tacked back and forth between the Shi’a and the Sunni precisely in order to prevent one side from getting the upper hand and delivering greater violence upon the other. The Left must recognize reality if it wants to be able to change it. This is not to offer apologetics for the U.S. military, but to assert that we must oppose what the U.S. is actually doing, and cease deluding ourselves. To pretend America invaded Iraq just to kill Iraqis only serves to evade the greater political questions of our time. I do not support the United States; however, I strive to be as clear as possible about what I am opposing, and that I oppose it from the Left. |P

Transcribed by Brian C. Worley


[1]. Susan Sontag, “What’s Happening in America?” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 2002), 203. Originally published 1966.

Andony Melathopoulos

Platypus Review 23 | May 2010

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A bustling city at dawn. Industrious workers set out from their homes, coming and going in a perfect and productive ballet. But by evening the workers vanish. No trace of foul play. No bodies left behind. Mass disappearances like this have recently occurred across the globe, not of humans, but of millions of honey bees.[1]

The ominously titled 2007 PBS documentary Silence of the Bees begins with a montage of the streets of a major U.S. city that had grown silent because its inhabitants vanished. The empty city, we are told, is not unlike the beehives afflicted by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a commercial honey bee syndrome that has resulted in massive apian losses. A few minutes into the documentary, however, we are informed that the metaphor should be considered more literally, as “the bees’ disappearance could have colossal repercussions for humans.” As the documentary continues, a chorus of honey bee experts proclaims the apocalyptic scale of the unfolding CCD crisis, as bees “account for about one third of the food that is produced in America.” One suggests that “unless we only want to eat corn, wheat, and rice, we need bees.” Another supposes that “without bees, life as we know it, I do not think, will exist.”

Abruptly, mysteriously, and on a massive scale, honey bee colonies collapsed across North America at the end of 2006. Similar losses have also been observed in Europe, Japan and the Middle East. Reports from the southern U.S. this spring suggest that the problem continues unabated.

Colony Collapse Disorder was relentlessly incorporated into mass culture. Within a year it was the subject of a host of network documentaries, several popular books, and an episode of The Simpsons in which bees across Springfield suddenly vanished. Even Michelle Obama found it fashionable to include a honey bee colony in her new White House vegetable garden.

Public reaction to the plight of the honey bees was notably hysterical and irrational, as evidenced by the global persistence of a news story connecting CCD to cell phone usage. Less recognized and more pernicious is the prediction, reproduced in Silence of the Bees, that the loss of honey bees could reduce food production by up to 30%, which seems to have readily taken root in the public imagination. Subsequently, public anxiety about CCD and food security has been channeled into a host of popularly organized efforts. Nationwide campaigns to raise money for CCD research quickly materialized, from community bake sales to national consumer product marketing campaigns. Public education initiatives have appeared but seem wholly lacking in direction, such as community drives to have their municipalities proclaim an annual “Day of the Honey Bee.” Community and municipal government projects to cultivate urban apiaries and bee habitats have became commonplace in large cities, in spite of the overwhelming predominance and importance of colonies in rural areas.

While there has been considerable research into the agro-ecological causes of CCD, this has not been matched by investigations into the social impulses behind the fascination and fear that has gripped such broad strata of society. An emphasis on studying “natural” causes highlights the widespread belief among researchers and agricultural professionals that keeping bees alive, as well as solving agricultural or environmental problems more broadly, is largely a technical issue. The result has been an excessive emphasis on the development of technical solutions. This reveals how study of “naturalcauses today can be understood as a reified symptom of an impoverished popular consciousness, since it functions to completely obscure the social character of nature.

Popular understanding of the actual connections between society and “natural” causes are wholly inadequate. The reception of CCD in contemporary mass culture combines a borderline-apocalyptic pessimism toward the last generation of technical “solutions” (e.g., cell phones, pesticides, crop monoculture) with frenzied efforts to raise money for research to fund the next generation of technical innovation. In other words, the “leveraging” of public anxieties should negatively expose that no conscious social movement today could conceivably pull the levers themselves. The overwhelming and irrational public responses to CCD reveal the absence of the capacity to comprehend society that would come if reason could consciously determine its direction. The mania surrounding CCD exposes the fact that no broad-based political movement in the present could possibly shape even a modest agenda for agricultural policy reform today. The impossibility of reform, let alone any kind of substantive restructuring, is more worrisome than the disappearance of honey bee colonies itself. It signals the disappearance not only of the possibility of a mass conscious force that could direct society, but of the consciousness that such a thing might be desirable—or even necessary. In short, it signals the death of the Left.

Honey bees, like fertilizer or herbicide, are an important modern agricultural input. Placing high densities of colonies in fields of pollination-dependent crops increases both yield and quality, which in turn helps maximize profitability. The dependence of crops on pollination, however, varies, and many important staples (notably the cereals) do not require insect pollination. While the most recent estimates suggest that 35% of the food we eat (2.3 billion metric tons (Mt) annually) benefit from pollination—essentially one out of every three bites—this estimate includes some very large bites come from crops grown at present with a disproportionately small number of honey bees.

Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of potatoes, which constitute an enormous 300 million Mt of annual food production, just over one pollination-dependent bite in ten, but which require an insignificant number of pollinators to produce. On the other end of the scale, there is the pollination of the relatively miniscule 8 million Mt of almonds. The pollination of this crop in the U.S., the leading producer of almonds globally, requires the muscle of the entire U.S. beekeeping industry to accomplish, on account of this crop’s extraordinarily early blooming period. By contrast, other highly pollination-dependent crops that are far more deficient in the U.S. diet have not commanded the same attention. Fruit consumption in the U.S., for example, amounts to less than half the USDA recommended servings per capita, yet the number of colonies needed to pollinate almonds, which belong to a group with near-target consumption, is likely equal to the number of colonies needed to pollinate all fruit crops combined. Furthermore, recent surveys of pollination fees paid to beekeepers reveal that they receive three times the fee for almonds than for other crops. It would appear, then, that CCD is a big problem for the production of almonds, rather than a food security issue more generally.

The connection between food security and CCD becomes even less tenable when considering the overarching effect that economic and political factors have had on honey bee colony numbers and the agricultural landscape they pollinate. Massive global shifts occurred with the collapse of the Fordist state in the West and of the command economies in the East. An early indication of this shift was agricultural upheaval. Cold War trade barriers began to be breached in the early 1970s with massive exports of wheat and soybeans into the Eastern Bloc. Spurred on by inflation, itself partly precipitated by labor militancy and wage demands in the West, agriculture became one of the first areas of attempted restructuring.

This restructuring largely escaped the notice of the New Left, which failed in the 1960s and early 1970s to connect the broad social movements of their time, such as the Civil Rights, student, anti-war, and labor movements, into a coherent renewed anti-capitalist politics. This failure meant agricultural instability could only be resolved through a very limited set of mechanisms, all of which seem necessary only if this larger, prior political failure is taken for granted.

The crisis of the 1970s, as it was manifested in agriculture, resulted in a rapid increase in prices. Beekeepers trebled their colony numbers to capitalize on these new opportunities. However, the elevated output, coupled with increasing market liberalization, resulted in intense global competition. Beekeepers in the U.S., previously buffered from world honey prices by New Deal-era farm price support programs, became mired in financial hardship when the government terminated these programs and increased interest rates. North American colony numbers declined dramatically. This was followed a few years later by an even more precipitous drop in colony numbers in the wake of the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union. These colony losses far exceed anything exacted by CCD today.

The crisis failed to reinvigorate a Left that had been in decline for decades, and so instead was addressed from the Right through neoliberal economic reforms. From the beekeeping perspective, this was manifested in the stunning increase in production of higher value pollination-dependent crops, such as almonds. Since 1990 there has been an almost 300% increase in the production of these non-staple foods, an increase in output made possible by a 45% increase in honey bee stocks. Beekeeping has become more integrated into agriculture and its ties to crop production still more rationalized. The mainstay of beekeeper incomes, which traditionally depended on the sale of honey, has shifted. In Oregon, for example, beekeepers now derive over 70% of their incomes come from pollination, and most of this (67%) is derived from almonds. Furthermore, the dependency of beekeeping on external forces such as debt financing, equipment, labor, and other inputs has deepened. In a sense, the neoliberal food system is increasingly dependent on beekeepers and beekeepers have, in turn, become dependent on the new food system.

This new integration engenders new productivity, allowing diets around the world to be transformed in previously unimagined ways. It also creates a situation whereby beekeeping is more dependent on society as a whole, since a considerable amount of the work traditionally done by beekeepers and their families has been transferred to workers in the manufacturing and agrochemical sectors. The full realization of this emerging social productivity, however, would require a break from the forces that gave birth to them. That is, full realization of the potentials of modern agro-business are beyond the capacity of neoliberal or any other form of capitalism to realize. Of course, this view stands in sharp contrast to the conservative positions adopted by many activists and intellectuals of today’s Left who often take a negative attitude toward science, technology, and indeed, productivity. To them, there is no sense of possibility latent in the more dynamic elements of agriculture, notably in biotechnology. The difficult work previously taken up by the Left of trying to identify and advance the potential of the present has been replaced by nostalgia for a preindustrial and pastoral past. This is not to say that contemporary agricultural practices are unproblematic. The non-judicious and profligate use of pesticides in hives, for example, is a formidable problem that is likely linked to CCD itself. Nonetheless, in the absence of a Left, there are severe limits to our understanding of how such a problem could be resolved. The currently fashionable approach has been to turn such problems into moral and lifestyle choices (for example, eating organically produced foods or buying brands that donate profits to CCD research), or else to relegate the problem to public and private agencies. But this strategy has already run up against its limits.

The moral dimensions of present-day agricultural populism are exemplified by a lecture delivered by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Acting State Apiarist Dennis van Engelsdorp titled “A Plea for Bees,”[2] in which the solution to CCD was suggested to be in re-framing the problem as “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD). By romanticizing how humans have “forgotten our connection with nature,” the lecturer claims that “if we are able to reconnect to nature, we will be able to have the resources and interest to solve these problems.” The “easy cure” advanced is to convert urban lawns into meadows.

The phenomenon of CDD does not reveal our alienation from nature but our alienation from social productive forces. The “easy cure” simply reproduces the latter form of alienation by channeling it into the former, satisfying immediate impulses and, in turn, deflecting attempts to reflect or clarify what CCD actually means. While watching bees on flowers in a newly cultivated suburban meadow may seem transformative, in reality the shift would do little more than to reaffirm current modes of food production. “Easy cures” such as those offered in “A Plea for Bees” would only reinforce mass public irrationality in service of undisturbed patterns of production. This is rendered quite clear by a campaign conducted by the premium ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs, which donates money to bee research when consumers purchase products from their Bee-Built Flavors line. In the 1980s, the company licensed to produce Häagen-Dazs in North America, Nestlé S.A., was the target of a successful global campaign against its marketing practices of infant formula in Africa. Having clearly learned its lesson, the company has joined forces with activists in advocating to revoke the New York City Health Department’s ban on urban beekeeping. In effect, it successfully channeled urban anxieties about the food system into a community issue of little real consequence to the large-scale survival of bee colonies.

The opening sequence of Silence of the Bees is of various panned-out urban scenes of masses of people going to work. The footage has been sped up to eliminate any trace of human intention and to prepare for the bee hive footage to follow. The shot is reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s experimental documentary film Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which portrays a city waking as its population goes to work in a similar way. Vertov’s city dwellers, however, have a curious relation with the technologies of labor and leisure, one that fits the description of “labor tending into play.” Vertov’s 1920s masses stand in striking contrast to the bee-like masses of the present. An active and political Left made possible the understanding of how social labor could become conscious through the politics of freedom. It is perhaps because the politicization of the labor movement has no “connection with nature”—unlike the labor of the bee hive—that it was able to push against all preconceived limits of how society might be configured. Its social imagination was not limited to merely emulating patterns observed in the natural world. The framing of human labor as somehow “natural” is precisely what the Left challenged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the disappearance of this challenge that draws us back to look for a “connection with nature” and prevents us from identifying the basis of agricultural problems in our alienated labor.

With the collapse of the Left, society looks to experts to provide technological solutions, even as popular mass culture insists that experts flatten their analyses. Experts, in habituating themselves and their study to a society that refuses to mature, participate in restricting the horizon of possibilities even for the “technical” solutions that society, increasingly lacking a consciousness directed toward mass social transformation, increasingly demands of them. Disappearances in such a society are met with adaptation. We will adapt to the disappearance of bees using new technologies to keep them alive. We will adapt to the disappearance of the Left by telling ourselves that the present could not be otherwise. Registering disappearances rather than passively adapting to them, however, opens the possibility of remembering the future. It restarts the unfinished project of uncoupling our labor from a blind, runaway development. It is the precondition for being able to pose clearly the question, “How could bees be managed to nourish humanity in previously unimagined ways?” |P


[1]. Doug Schultz, Silence of the Bees (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2007), 50 min., 40 sec..

[2]. Dennis van Engelsdorp, A Plea for Bees (TED Conferences, LLC, 2008), 16 min., 23 sec..

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010

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DAVID BLACK’S VALUABLE COMMENTS and further historical exposition (in Platypus Review 18, December 2009) of my review of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy (Platypus Review 15, September 2009) have at their core an issue with Korsch’s account of the different historical phases of the question of “philosophy” for Marx and Marxism. Black questions Korsch’s differentiation of Marx’s relationship to philosophy into three distinct periods: pre-1848, circa 1848, and post-1848. But attempting to defeat Korsch’s historical account of such changes in Marx’s approaches to relating theory and practice means avoiding Korsch’s principal point. It also means defending Marx on mistaken ground. Black considers that Korsch’s periodization—his recognition of changes—opens the door to criticizing Marx for inconsistency in his relation of theory to practice. But that is not so.

Lenin-1895-mugshot-254x300

Police photo of Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, taken after his arrest in 1895 for participation in the St. Petersberg Union of Struggle for the Liberation of the Working Class.

What makes Korsch’s essay “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) important, to Benjamin and Adorno’s work for instance, and what relates it intrinsically to Lukács’s contemporaneous treatment of the question of the “Hegelian” dimension of Marxism in History and Class Consciousness, is Korsch’s discovery of the historically changing relation of theory and practice, and the self-consciousness of this problem, in the history of Marxism. This meant that the matter was, from a Marxian perspective, as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “not settled once and for all, but fluctuates historically.”[1] Indeed, as Adorno put it in a late essay,

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.[2]

However one may wish to question the nuances of Korsch’s specific historiographic periodization of the problem of Marxism as that of the relation of theory and practice, both during Marx’s lifetime and after, this should not be with an eye to either disputing or defending Marx or a Marxian approach’s consistency on the matter. One may perhaps attempt a more fine-grained approach to the historical “fluctuations” of what Adorno called the “constitutive” and indeed “progressive” aspect of the “separation of theory and praxis.” Korsch’s point in the 1923 “Marxism and Philosophy,” followed by Benjamin and Adorno, was that we must attend to this “separation,” or, as Adorno put it, “non-identity,” if we are to have a properly Marxian self-consciousness of the problem of “Marxism” in theory and practice. For this problem of the separation of theory and practice is not to be deplored, but calls for critical awareness. Marx was consistent in his own awareness of the relation of theory and practice. This meant that at different times Marx found them related in different ways.

By contrast, what has waylaid the sectarian “Marxist Left” has been the freezing of the theory-practice problem, which then continued to elude a progressive-emancipatory solution at any given moment. Particular historical moments in the theory-practice problem have become dogmatized by various sects, thus dooming them to irrelevance. So generations of ostensibly revolutionary “Marxists” have failed to heed the nature of Rosa Luxemburg’s praise of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in the October Revolution:

All of us are subject to the laws of history....The Bolsheviks have shown that they are capable of everything that a genuine revolutionary party can contribute within the limits of historical possibilities....What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescencies in the politics of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: “I have dared!” This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world....And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to “Bolshevism.”[3]

The Bolshevik Revolution was not itself the achievement of socialism and the overcoming of capitalism, but it did nevertheless squarely address itself to the problem of grasping history so as to make possible revolutionary practice. The Bolsheviks recognized, in other words, that we are tasked, by the very nature of capital, in Marx’s sense, to struggle within and through the separation of theory and practice. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was the occasion and context for Korsch’s rumination on the theory and practice of Marxism in his seminal 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy.”

In the extended aftermath of the failed revolution of 1917–19, the crisis of the Stalinization of Third International Communism and the looming political victory of fascism, Horkheimer, in an aphorism titled “A Discussion About Revolution,” addressed himself to the same subject Luxemburg and Korsch had discussed, from the other side of historical experience:

[A] proletarian party cannot be made the object of contemplative criticism....Bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle is a logical impossibility....At times such as the present, revolutionary belief may not really be compatible with great clear-sightedness about the realities.[4]

This is because, for Horkheimer, from a Marxian “proletarian” perspective, as opposed to a (historically) “bourgeois” one (including that of pre- or non-Marxian “socialism”), the problem is not a matter of formulating a correct theory and then implementing it in practice. It is rather a question of what Lukács called “historical consciousness.” We should note well how Horkheimer posed the theory-practice problem here, as the contradiction between “revolutionary belief” and “clear-sightedness about the realities.”

Horkheimer elaborated further that proletarian revolutionary politics cannot be conceived on the model of capitalist enterprise, and not only for socioeconomic class-hierarchical reasons, but rather because of the differing relation of theory and practice in the two instances; it is the absence of any “historical consciousness” of the theory and practice problem that makes “bourgeois criticism of the proletarian struggle” a logical “impossibility.” As Lukács put it, in “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” (1923), “a radical change in outlook is not feasible on the soil of bourgeois society.” Rather, one must radically deepen—render “dialectical”—the outlook of the present historical moment. The point is that a Marxian perspective can find—and indeed has often found—itself far removed from the practical politics and (entirely “bourgeois”) ideological consciousness of the working class. This has not invalidated Marxism, but rather called for a further Marxian critical reflection on its own condition.

In a letter of February 22, 1881 to the Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, Marx wrote,

It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Working Men’s Association has not yet arrived and for that reason I regard all workers’ congresses or socialist congresses, in so far as they are not directly related to the conditions existing in this or that particular nation, as not merely useless but actually harmful. They will always ineffectually end in endlessly repeated general banalities.[5]

How much more is this criticism applicable to the “Left” today! But, more directly, what it points to is that Marx recognized no fixed relation of theory and practice that he pursued throughout his life. Instead, he very self-consciously exercised judgment respecting the changing relation of theory and practice, and considered this consciousness the hallmark of his politics. Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) excoriated “bourgeois” democratic politics, including that of contemporary socialists, for its inability to simultaneously learn from history and face the challenge of the new.[6] How else could one judge that a moment has “not yet arrived” while calling for something other than “endlessly repeated banalities?”

Marx had a critical theory of the relation of theory and practice—recognizing it as a historically specific and not merely “philosophical” problem, or, a problem that called for the critical theory of the philosophy of history—and a political practice of the relation of theory and practice. There is not simply a theoretical or practical problem, but also and more profoundly a problem of relating theory and practice.

We are neither going to think our way out ahead of time, nor somehow work our way through, in the process of acting. We do not need to dissolve the theory-practice distinction that seems to paralyze us, but rather achieve both good theory and good practice in the struggle to relate them properly. It is not a matter of finding either a correct theory or correct practice, but of trying to judge and affect their changing relation and recognizing this as a problem of history.

Marx overcame the political pitfalls and historical blindness of his “revolutionary” contemporaries, such as the pre-Marxian socialism of Proudhon et al. leading to 1848, anarchism in the First International, and the Lassallean trend of the German Social-Democratic Party. It is significant that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) critiqued the residual Lassallean politics of the Social Democrats for being to the Right of the liberals on international free trade, etc., thus exposing the problem of this first “Marxist” party from the outset.[7]

Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, following Marx, recovered and struggled through the problem of theory and practice for their time, precipitating a crisis in Marxism, and thus advancing it. They overcame the “vulgar Marxist” ossification of theory and practice in the Second International, as Korsch and Lukács explained. It meant the Marxist critique of Marxism, or, an emancipatory critique of emancipatory politics—a Left critique of the Left. This is not a finished task. We need to attain this ability again, for our time. |P


[1]. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1983), 143.

[2]. Adorno, “Marginalia to Theory and Praxis,” in Critical Models, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 266. This essay, a “dialectical epilegomenon” to his book Negative Dialectics that Adorno said intended to bring together “philosophical speculation and drastic experience” (Critical Models, 126), was one of the last writings he finished for publication before he died in 1969. It reflected his dispute with fellow Frankfurt School critical theorist Hebert Marcuse over the student protests of the Vietnam War (see Adorno and Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” trans. Esther Leslie, New Left Review I/233, Jan.–Feb. 1999, 123–136). As Adorno put it in his May 5, 1969 letter to Marcuse, "[T]here are moments in which theory is pushed on further by practice. But such a situation neither exists objectively today, nor does the barren and brutal practicism that confronts us here have the slightest thing to do with theory anyhow" (“Correspondence,” 127).

[3]. Rosa Luxemburg, “The Russian Revolution,” in The Russian Revolution and Leninism or Marxism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 80.

[4]. Max Horkheimer, Dawn and Decline, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 40–41.

[5]. Karl Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, trans. Dona Torr (New York: International Publishers, 1942), 387, <www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/letters/81_02_22.htm>.

[6]. As Luxemburg put it in 1915 in The Crisis of German Social Democracy (aka The Junius Pamphlet, available online at <www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/>),

Marx says [in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)]: “[T]he democrat (that is, the petty bourgeois revolutionary) [comes] out of the most shameful defeats as unmarked as he naively went into them; he comes away with the newly gained conviction that he must be victorious, not that he or his party ought to give up the old principles, but that conditions ought to accommodate him.” The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently. Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey—its emancipation depends on this—is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war [WWI] is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.

[7]. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 533–534, <www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/>. Marx wrote, "In fact, the internationalism of the program stands even infinitely below that of the Free Trade party. The latter also asserts that the result of its efforts will be 'the international brotherhood of peoples.' But it also does something to make trade international...The international activity of the working classes does not in any way depend on the existence of the International Working Men’s Association."

David Black

Platypus Review 18 | December 2009

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[Philosophy] is the scientific expression of a certain fundamental human attitude… toward being and beings in general, and through which a historical-social situation often can express itself more clearly and deeply than in the reified, practical spheres of life.

— Herbert Marcuse[1]

CHRIS CUTRONE WRITES, “What the usual interpretive emphasis on Lukács occludes is that the Frankfurt School writers grappled not only with the problem of Stalinism but with that of ‘anti-Stalinism’ as well.”[2] This statement is well founded, considering how Korsch’s troubled relationship with Adorno and Horkheimer was paralleled by Sohn-Rethel’s with those two during the same period; not to mention the later dialogues Dunayevskaya had with Marcuse and Fromm.

On the key question of “nonidentity” versus the “identity of effective theory and practice,” Cutrone says that, for the earlier Korsch, “constitutive non-identity” was “expressed symptomatically, in the subsistence of ‘philosophy’ as a distinct activity in the historical epoch of Marxism.” This was because it expressed a “genuine historical need… to transcend and supersede philosophy”; a “recognition of the actuality of the symptom of philosophical thinking, of the mutually constitutive separation of theory and practice.”[3] Cutrone relates this to Adorno’s reiteration almost half a century later in Negative Dialectics of Korsch’s statement in Marxism and Philosophy that “Philosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” Cutrone says that “This side of emancipation, ‘theoretical’ self-reflection, thought’s reflecting on its own conditions of possibility, remains necessary, precisely because it expresses an unresolved social-historical problem.” He adds that the later Korsch, “by assuming the identity of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness in the workers’ movement… sought their ‘reconciliation,’ instead of discerning and critically grasping their persistent antagonism, as would necessarily be articulated in any purported politics of emancipation.”[4]

The later Korsch’s abandonment of the theory and practice problem, which I will come to later, is however already present in the earlier writings, which raises the question, What remains that is of value in Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy? In that work Korsch quotes Engels’s notorious statement about Marx’s philosophy: “That which survives independently of all earlier philosophies is the science of thought and its laws—formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.”[5] (However, Korsch did make one criticism of Engels, that “In Hegel’s terms he retreats from the heights of the Concept [Notion] to its threshold to the categories of reacting and mutual interaction.”)[6] But if “Marxism” is “superseded and annihilated as a philosophical object,” then it might also be superseded as a “positive science” of society if its historical practice can be can be shown to have “failed,” and if the determinations based on its methodology can be “falsified” according to positivist method. This annihilation of Marxism as a “philosophical object” seems to me the basis for Korsch’s eventual downgrading of Marx to just another theoretician, no more important than Thomas More or Mikhail Bukunin.

But the important issue is the “problem of the philosophy of revolution, or of the ‘theory of social revolution’” for both Hegel and Marx, which Cutrone spells out as follows: “How is it possible, if however problematic, to be a self-conscious agent of change, if what is being transformed includes oneself, or, more precisely, an agency that transforms conditions both for one’s practical grounding and for one’s theoretical self-understanding in the process of acting?”

This question, as well as addressing the problem of consciousness for the proletariat, also conjures up the self-consciousness of Marx the Philosopher, as a self-described “disciple” of Hegel who, in Capital, did not so much “apply” the Hegelian dialectic as recreate it. Korsch describes Marx’s pre-1848 period as characterized by “a critique of philosophy calling for its simultaneous realization and self-abolition,” and describes the circa-1848 period as “the sublimation of philosophy in revolution.”[7] Following this is the “curious blank spot or gap in the history of philosophy from the 1840s–60s, the period of Marxism’s emergence”; then there is everything in “Marxism” up to 1917.

Taking off from Raya Dunayevskaya’s unfinished critique of Korsch,[8] I have in my own research found the tripartite division Korsch applies to the history of “Marxism” to be highly questionable. As Cutrone points out, Korsch’s 1923 work was accomplished without benefit of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or the Grundrisse, or Lenin’s 1914 Hegel Notebooks. One might add that Korsch also did not have full knowledge of the debates within the Communist League in the early 1850s, now well documented.

George Lichtheim describes the original insight of Marx’s critical theory in 1843–44 as “the belief that a mere spark of critical self-awareness could ignite a revolutionary tinder heaped up by the inhuman conditions of life imposed on the early proletariat. In enabling the oppressed to attain an adequate consciousness of their true role, critical theory translates itself into revolutionary practice.” Consciousness was able to grasp “the total historical situation in which it is embedded… because at certain privileged moments a ‘revolution in thought’ acquired the character of a material force.”[9]

By 1850, following the defeat of the 1848–49 revolutions, Marx was developing the perspective of “Revolution in Permanence.” Marx argued that, although revolutionary workers parties could and would march with the petty bourgeois radicals against the class enemy, they would have to oppose all attempts by the bourgeois radicals to consolidate their position to the detriment of the workers. Dunayevskaya connects this concept with the “unchained dialectic” and “absolute negativity” of Hegel as appropriated by Marx in 1844. In my book, Helen Macfarlane, I have probed the connection of “Revolution in Permanence” to Blanquism. There was once a widespread myth that Blanqui actually coined the term “Revolution in Permanence.” Although this is long discredited, it is nonetheless true that the Marx–Blanqui relation was important. Blanqui was an implacable materialist, upholding, not the Hegelian dialectic, but the 18th-century French materialism of Holbach as the rightful inheritance of the proletariat, and as that which gave the proletarian body its head. Blanqui also saw revolutionary organization as a science as well as an art, requiring a “natural” hierarchy. But Blanqui was, like Marx, strongly anti-positivist, regarding the Comtean “equilibrium” theory of classes as counter-revolutionary. Sam Bernstein says that, in opposition to positivist equilibrium theory, Blanqui

thought of democracy as a process, with a history and a future. In practice it meant a series of acts which climaxed in what was then designated as the social republic. And being a process, it could neither ignore the past nor be mummified like revolutionary relics…. Democracy, from Blanqui’s viewpoint, had to become socialism, or it would be nothing more than a convenient cover for anyone, even for its enemies when they desire to disguise their intentions.[10]

At the very time Marx was writing about “Revolution in Permanence” in 1850, Louis Blanc, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Arnold Ruge issued a grandiose international program, which they hoped would reignite the defeated revolutions of 1848. Their program rejected “the cold and unfeeling travail of the intellect” in favour of the “instinct of the masses” as “the people in motion.” To Marx’s mind this was tantamount to demanding that the people “have no thought for the morrow and must strike all ideas from the mind” and that “the riddle of the future will be solved by a miracle.”[11] Within the German Communist League, August Willich and Karl Schapper argued that the counterrevolution in Europe would soon force the existing French bourgeois republic to fight against the anciens régimes of Europe and would thus re-open the floodgates of revolution. In practice this would mean the communists and Blanquists finding common cause with the petit-bourgeois democrats and nationalists of Europe, and the setting aside of the communist program of the dictatorship of the proletariat. According to Marx, Willich and Schapper “demanded, if not real conspiracies, at least the appearance of conspiracies, and accordingly favored an alliance with the heroes of the hour.”[12] Marx, who was studying the economic situation in Europe closely, knew that with industry booming, the old order of Europe re-stabilized, and the bourgeoisie newly confident in its ability to rule, Schapper’s perspective was a fantasy. As he said of Schapper’s proposals:

The revolution is not seen as a product of the realities of the situation but as the result of an effort of will. Whereas we say to the workers: you have 15, 20, 50 years of civil war to go through in order to alter the situation and to train yourselves for the exercise of power it is said: we must take power at once, or else we might as well take to our beds. Just as the democrats abused the word “people” so now the word “proletariat” has been used as a mere phrase.[13]

Marx’s position was consistent with what he actually was to do in the following years and decades: writing Capital, building the First International, etc. In 1850 Marx pointed out that, under present conditions in Europe, for the communists to make a revolution out of existing forces in the name of the proletariat they would have to describe the petty-bourgeoisie as proletarian and become their representatives. Schapper, in his reply, did not try to refute Marx’s arguments. Instead he drew a division between the “party of theory” and the “party of action.” Somewhat prefiguring the arguments of the “socialist” dictators of the underdeveloped world of the twentieth-century, Schapper said,

The people who represent the party in principle part company with those who organize the proletariat…. The question at issue is whether we ourselves chop off a few heads right at the start or whether it is our own heads that will fall. In France the workers will come to power and thereby in Germany too. Were this not the case I would indeed take to my bed…. If we come to power we can take such measures as are necessary to ensure the role of the proletariat. I am a fanatical supporter of this view.[14]

As far as Marx was concerned, it was not Schapper’s “hero of the hour,” Louis Blanc, but Auguste Blan­qui who was “true leader of the French proletariat.” Blanqui, in a statement smuggled out of prison, which was circulated by Marx and Engels, accused those in his own organization in favor of accommodation with the bourgeois radicals of “hiding its banner, giving ground to the bourgeois republicans and sacrificing the future for the morbid need of uncertain support in the present.” Blanqui declared, “Ideas are the standard of the masses. We must therefore be clear and blunt, and explain ev­erything on pain of being sorely let down. Secrecy is the preliminary of duplicity, and I shall never be party to it.”[15] None of this figures in Korsch’s potted history of “Marx­ism.” How then do we read Korsch’s 1950 thesis on the points he saw as “particularly critical for Marxism”?

(A) its dependence on the underdeveloped economic and political conditions in Germany and all the other countries of central and eastern Europe where it was to have political relevance; (B) its unconditional adherence to the political forms of the bourgeois revolution; (C) the unconditional acceptance of the advanced economic conditions of England as a model for the future development of all countries and as objective preconditions for the transition to social­ism; to which one should add, (D) the consequences of its repeated desperate and contradictory attempts to break out of these conditions.[16]

As I have indicated, Marx’s critique both of the revo­lutionaries’ failure to read the “economic and political conditions” and contemporary political forms of class collaboration (Blanc), terrorism (Mazzini), and con­spiracy (Schapper—and, implicitly, Blanqui), suggests otherwise. We now know, from Marx’s late writings on Russia, his Ethnological Notebooks, and later editions of Capital, that he did not see the “advanced economic con­ditions of England” as necessarily a “model for the future development of all countries.”[17] Also, it is clear that in the 1850 factional fight in the Communist League Marx was opposed to “desperate and contradictory attempts” by revolutionaries to break out of the social conditions.

As Cutrone points out, according to the later Korsch of the 1930 Anti-Critique, in the mid-19th century “Marx­ism” had grown ideological and even Marx’s Capital ex­pressed a certain “degeneration.” According to Korsch, quoted by Cutrone, “[T]he theory of Marx and Engels was progressing towards an ever higher level of theoretical perfection although it was no longer directly related to the practice of the worker’s movement.”

But inasmuch as “practice” found its representation in the practices of Lassalle, then perhaps it was a case of “so much the worse for the practice.” Marx’s attack on Lassalleanism in the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program was as realistic and objective as the 1850 critique of Wil­lich/Schapper, except that the Critique was able to offer Capital, vol. I as a “theoretical victory for our party.”

The later Korsch’s opinion of the mature Marx’s work as “anachronistic” jars with his earlier view that Hegel’s concept of the world-as-totality informed Marx’s analysis in Capital, and therefore needed to be reclaimed from the social democrats, for whom it was a theory of ahistori­cal laws governing production, separate from politics. Korsch’s 1922 introduction to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program sees an affinity between the reformism of Social Democracy and Hegel’s attempt to reconcile labor and society. The Lassalleans and social democrats saw the property issue as a juridical problem of distribu­tion solvable through changes in the form of the state, rather than a social problem of production which could only be solved by overthrowing the economic structure of society. (Korsch argued that, because during the “first phase” of communism bourgeois law and the bourgeois state will not have been totally superseded, the working class would need to control the whole economy, with workers’ councils playing a “constitutional” role to guard against any tendencies in management practices that might lead to capitalist restoration through bureaucracy.) Korsch’s writing on Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program is thus a real insight, which indicates to me that the Critique was a continuation of the 1844 Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic.[18]

Oddly, whereas in 1923 Korsch praised Lenin for his Hegelian “critical reflection on the problem of relating theory and practice,” in 1938 he dismissed him for his Hegelianism. In 1922–23 Korsch had recognized that Hegel had regarded “revolution in the form of thought as an objective component of the total social process of a real revolution.” But for Korsch, Hegel, in his quest for reconciliation with the results of the French Revolu­tion, had preserved the position of thought as external to economic reality. By 1938 Korsch was stressing the “bourgeois,” rather than revolutionary character of Hegel’s philosophy. Having broken with Leninism, he dismissed the significance of Lenin’s Hegel Notebooks when they appeared in the 1930s. “Lenin’s apprecia­tion of the ‘intelligent idealism’ of Hegel” came about, Korsch argued, because “the whole circle not only of bourgeois materialist thought but of all bourgeois philo­sophical thought from Holbach to Hegel was actually repeated in the Russian dominated phase of the Marxist movement.”[19] If, as Patrick Goode says, Korsch viewed Leninism as “merely an ideological form assumed by the bourgeois revolution in an underdeveloped country,” then it would not have been surprising to him that Lenin was drawn to Hegel.[20]

Given what Cutrone tells us about the “Leninist” aspect of Horkheimer and Adorno’s agenda, and given Pannekoek’s disregard for the Hegelian dialectic, it is amazing that the later Korsch could seriously expect Horkheimer and Adorno to publish Pannekoek’s critique of Lenin, which contains the following:

The first problem in the science of human knowl­edge, the origin of ideas, was answered by Marx in the demonstration that they are produced by the surrounding world. The second adjoining problem, how the impressions of the surrounding world are transformed into ideas, was answered by Dietzgen… Marx pointed out what the world does to the mind, Dietzgen pointed out what the mind does itself.[21]

Dietzgen, a self-proclaimed “materialist,” had recog­nized that thinking as well as objects could be the object of thought. But in a somewhat neo-Kantian manner, he argued that whilst “our brains do not grasp the things themselves but only the concepts,” the concepts were quite adequate for “practical living” in a rational human society run by the workers.[22] This is another world from Adorno’s Lukácsian view expressed in his letter to Walter Benjamin quoted by Cutrone: “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.”

As Walter Benjamin said of Dietzgen in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

Josef Dietzgen announced: “Labor is the savior of modern times…. In the improvement… of labor… consists the wealth, which can now finally fulfill what no redeemer could hitherto achieve.” This vulgar-Marxist concept of what labor is, does not bother to ask the question of how its products affect workers, so long as these are no longer at their disposal. It wishes to perceive only the progression of the exploitation of nature, not the regression of society. It already bears the technocratic traces which would later be found in Fascism.[23]

Cutrone writes,

If Marxism continued to be subject to a “Hegelian dialectic,” thus requiring the “historical material­ist” analysis and explanation that Korsch sought to provide of it, this was because it was not itself the reconciled unity of theory and practice but remained, as theory, the critical reflection on the problem of relating theory and practice—which in turn prompted further theoretical development as well as practical political advances.

Korsch developed this view in 1923 whilst reflecting on the failure of German councilism and the contrast­ing achievements of the Bolsheviks. In other words he saw the connection between the “return” to “commu­nist practice” of Marxism and the reemergence of the Hegelian dialectic. After 1923, sans philosophy, his work regresses—although the influence it had was and is important.[24] |P


[1]. Quoted in Seyla Benhabib, introduction to Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity, by Herbert Marcuse (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), xviii.

[2]. Chris Cutrone, “Book Review: Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy,” Platypus Review 15 (September 2009)

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25 (Lon­don: Lawrence and Wishart, 1987), 26.

[6]. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosphy (New York: Monthly Review Press 1970), 40, quoted in Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity (Lenham: Lexington Books 2002), 253.

[7]. Karl Korsch, “Ten Theses on Marxism Today,” trans. Andrew Giles-Peters, Telos 26 (Winter 1975–76)

[8]. Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity, 249–247.

[9]. George Lichtheim, Lukács (London: Fontana Modern Masters, 1970), 64–5.

[10]. Sam Bernstein, Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 227.

[11]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10 (London: Lawrence and Wishart 1978), 529–31, quoted in David Black, Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist and Philosopher in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 114–5.

[12]. Karl Marx, Herr Vogt (London: New Park, 1982), 28, quoted in ibid., 114.

[13]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 626–8, quoted in ibid., 116.

[14]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 628–9, quoted in ibid.

[15]. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 587, quoted in ibid., 117.

[16]. Korsch, “Ten Theses.”

[17]. Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humani­ties Press, 1982), 175–91.

[18]. Karl Korsch, introduction to Critique of the Gotha Programme, by Karl Marx, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970).

[19]. Karl Korsch, “Lenin’s Philosophy,” appendix to Anton Pan­nekoek, Lenin and Philosophy (London: Merlin, 1975) 114–5.

[20]. Patrick Goode, Karl Korsch: A Study in Western Marxism (Lon­don: Macmillan, 1979), 135, quoted in Kevin B. Anderson, Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 175–80.

[21]. Pannekoek, Lenin and Philosophy, 35

[22]. Quoted in ibid., 36.

[23]. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” trans. Dennis Redmond.

[24]. I discuss Korsch’s influence on the Situationists in my forth­coming essay, “Critique of the Situationist Dialectic.”