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

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <>. See the symposium on Horkheimer's essay with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at (January 11, 2016), from which this essay is taken: <>. 

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

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

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

  5. <

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

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

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

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.

A moderated panel discussion hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on the interrelation of capital, history and ecology, held at York University on January 15, 2014.

- Jordan Briggs, International Bolshevik Tendency
- Michelle Mawhinney, Political Science, York University
- Raymond Rogers, Environmental Studies, York University

The Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen recently characterized the period marked by the start of the industrial revolution in the 18th Century to the present as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This periodization is meant to capture a change in the history of the planet, namely that for the first time in history its course will be determined by the question of what humanity will become.

This event will focus on different interpretations of why the Left has failed to deal with the deepening crisis of the Anthropocene through the 19th and 20th Centuries and how and if this problem is interrelated with the growing problems associated with ecological systems across the earth. While Karl Marx would note that the problem of freedom shifted with the industrial revolution and the emergence of the working class - the crisis of bourgeois society that Marx would term capital - the idea of freedom seemed not to survive the collapse of Marxist politics in the 20th Century. We seem to live in a world in which the fate of ecological systems seem foreclosed, where attempts at eco-modernization seem to emerge many steps behind the rate of ecological degradation. For many, degradation of the environment appears a permanent feature of modern society, something which can only be resisted but never transformed.

This panel will consider the relationship between the history of capital and the Left—and thus the issue of history and freedom - and how it may be linked to our present inability to render environmental threats and degradation visible and comprehensible, and by extension, subject to its conscious and free overcoming by society.

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 53 | February 2013


Spencer A. Leonard interviewed noted Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the classic Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), to discuss the new Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The interview was broadcast on January 29, 2013 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Spencer Leonard: 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This constituted an important culmination in the long struggle for the abolition of slavery. What, in brief, is the background to the Proclamation in terms of the long struggle for free labor in North America stretching back to the Revolution and into colonial times? Was the destruction of slavery in America simply a matter of coming to terms with an original American sin or a lingering hypocrisy? Or had the course of history in the 19th century posed the question of chattel slavery in a way that it had not done for the generation of the American Enlightenment and Revolution?

James McPherson: Well, in the first place, slavery was not a uniquely American sin. It had existed in many societies over many centuries even prior to its first introduction into Virginia in 1619. In subsequent decades, slavery took deep root in all of the British North American colonies, as it did in the Caribbean and in South America, where in fact slavery was much more deeply entrenched than it was in most parts of North America.

But starting in the third quarter of the 18th century, a variety of forces began to call the morality and validity of slavery into question—cultural forces and intellectual forces and economic forces. The Enlightenment and, with it, the Age of Revolution—the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the revolutions in Latin America—these began to attack the philosophical and economic underpinnings of slavery. In the northern states of the new American nation, the Revolution led to a powerful anti-slavery movement which by about 1800 had eliminated slavery or had begun to eliminate slavery from all of the states north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Haitian Revolution beginning in the 1790s liberated that island, albeit violently.

So, there was a gathering movement against slavery in the Western world that had a significant effect in the United States, generating a strong anti-slavery movement first among the Quakers, then spreading. It extended not only to the North but to the South as well, reaching a kind of culmination in the 1830s with the beginning of the militant Abolitionist movement—William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Gradually, that impulse spread into a political movement, first with the Liberty Party in 1840 and then with the Free Soil Party in 1848 and the Republican Party in the middle 1850s. Together these developed what historian Eric Foner talked about many decades ago as a “free labour ideology.” That politics created a sense of two socioeconomic orders in the United States: One in the North based on free labour with social mobility, a dynamic entrepreneurial society; the other in the South based on slavery, which since the 1780s had become more deeply entrenched.

In the 18th century there was a widespread sense that slavery would disappear. The Founding Fathers, who formed the Constitution in 1787, assumed that slavery would soon die out. This is why they were willing to make certain compromises with the slave states to get them to join the new nation. Though the Constitution-makers assumed that slavery would probably die out soon, quite the opposite happened in the South, starting in the 1790s and early 1800s with the spread of the Cotton Kingdom, which meant that in the very decades that slavery was disappearing in the North and a strong anti-slavery movement was developing in the first half of the 19th century, the institution was becoming much more deeply entrenched in the South. That generated a whole series of cultural, social, and political justifications for the institution of slavery. By the middle of the 19th century the two sections had come to a kind of face-off with each other over the question of the expansion of slavery, which had been made an acute problem by the acquisition of a huge amount of new territory in the Mexican War. A bitter struggle ensued, starting in 1854, over the territories that had originally been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; the whole question of whether slavery would be allowed to expand into those territories that were not yet states became acute in the 1850s. So, in a sense, the anti-slavery impulse that had deep roots going back into the latter part of the 18th century was coming into a collision course with a pro-slavery impulse that had become pretty powerful by the 1830s and 1840s in the slave states. This led to the showdown in 1860, with Lincoln’s election and the secession of the southern states.

SL: So, at the time of the Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution, there was not among American revolutionaries North and South indifference towards slavery so much as an expectation that the institution would die out. And, indeed, slavery was abolished throughout the North in subsequent decades. But in the South the expectations of the 18th century proved mistaken. That generation did not foresee, for instance, the sort of changes that the cultivation of cotton for industrial production would bring about.

JM: The cotton textile industry was at the cutting edge of economic change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There is a real irony here, as the same industrial changes that encouraged the growth of cotton in the South and thus entrenched slavery there ever more deeply also generated—first in Britain and then in Northern United States—the free labour system that came into violent conflict with the slave power in the war.

SL: In 1862, prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln remarked, “I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet!”[1] Was the Proclamation inoperative, as Lincoln feared? If not, what was the specific import of the Proclamation in the ongoing process of the war’s destruction of slavery as an institution in the United States? What of the clauses lifting the ban on the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army? Finally, was Lincoln dilatory in issuing the Proclamation and confronting slavery?

JM: From the very beginning of the war Lincoln had to walk a narrow path. On one side, there were forces set in motion that eroded slavery. These began at the very start of the war: The moment the first Northern soldier set foot in the South he became an agent of emancipation—even if an unwitting and unintentional one—because slaves started flocking to Union lines. Very early the Lincoln administration made the commitment not to return them to slavery. So, starting in the Virginia Peninsula in May 1861 and expanding to many other places as army and naval forces began to penetrate the Confederacy, thousands, then tens of thousands of slaves came within Union lines. The Lincoln Administration was resolved that they would not be returned.

At first, they were not returned only if the owners supported the Confederacy. But by the late summer or fall of 1861, even in the border states that remained loyal to the Union, slaves were not being returned to masters unless the masters could prove, which turned out often to be very difficult, that they were loyal to the United States—and sometimes not even then. Congress also began passing legislation. First there was the Confiscation Act in August 1861. It said that masters whose slaves had worked to support the Confederate War effort but escaped to Union lines—those masters had forfeited the rights to their slaves. In fact, what they meant was that the slaves had become free. Half a year later, in March 1862, Congress passed legislation prohibiting Union officers from returning slaves to their masters, whether those masters were loyal or not and whether this process took place in the Confederacy or in the loyal border states.

That’s one side. The other is Lincoln’s concern to maintain the northern war coalition that included northern Democrats and border state Unionists. Neither of these groups saw this as a war against slavery but only as a war to restore the Union—the Union of 1861 in which slavery existed in half the country. They threatened to withdraw their support for the war if it became overtly and explicitly a war against slavery. So Lincoln had to walk that path. In the first year and a half of the war he sustained the steps I described above by which thousands of slaves did in fact achieve freedom. At the same time he had to make clear that this was not a war for the abolition of slavery, but only to preserve the Union. Any steps that eroded slavery were just a by-product of this war to defend this Union.

In the summer of 1862 the Confederates launched a series of counter-offensives that ended the hopes of a quick Union victory that had spread following Union success in several theatres of the war earlier in the year. The Confederacy was roaring back. It was also becoming increasingly clear that slave labour was sustaining the Southern war economy. Slaves provided much of the labor required by the Confederate army’s logistical efforts. To “strike against slavery as a military necessity” was therefore the phrase used over and over again in the North in 1862. To undermine the Confederate war effort by striking overtly at slavery, Congress passed a more comprehensive Confiscation Act in July 1862. In that same month Lincoln decided to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in parts of the Confederacy that were at war with the United States. His proposed proclamation would go well beyond the earlier partial steps by which slaves who came within Union lines achieved freedom.

Lincoln was dissuaded from making this overt proclamation at a time when Union armies were reeling back in defeat. He was anxious that it not be viewed as a desperate measure to incite slave insurrection. So he withheld it until after Union armies won a limited but significant victory at Antietam in September 1862. Five days after that battle Lincoln stated his intention to issue a final proclamation on January 1, 1863. This would apply to all parts of the Confederacy that had not by that time returned to the Union. When January 1, 1863, came and the rebellion still persisted in the seceded states, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the culmination of a process that went back to the beginning of the war. In some ways, of course, it went back decades before, back into the long history of the struggle against slavery, the movement to abolish it or at least to restrict its power.

The Emancipation Proclamation had a powerful symbolic as well as substantive impact. It announced that now one of the goals of the war was to bring an end to slavery—maybe not everywhere, maybe not immediately, but it was a much more dramatic statement of purpose than anything that had gone before. It also lifted what had previously been in effect a ban on enlistment of African Americans in the Union Army and announced an explicit intention to recruit freed slaves into the Union army. This added another arrow to the quiver of the Union. In the end, about 200,000 African Americans, most of them former slaves, fought in the Union Army and Navy. As Lincoln himself said on several occasions, these black soldiers made an essential contribution to the Northern war effort. In some ways that might have been the most important part of the Emancipation Proclamation, because now the slaves could not only achieve their own freedom by coming within Union lines but could be armed to fight for their own freedom and for the freedom of the entire slave population.


 A lithograph of a Union soldier reads the Emancipation Proclamation to newly freed slaves, image from the U.S. National Archives.

SL: Karl Marx’s Civil War writings, many of which were written in his capacity of London correspondent for Greeley’s paper, repeatedly decry the open or at least tacit sympathy for the Confederacy in governing circles in London. It is an aspect of it little remarked upon now, but in its own day the Emancipation Proclamation was as much directed at Europe as it was towards Richmond and the plantations of the South. Thus 150 years ago, on the day the Proclamation was issued, Horace Greeley, editor of what was then the leading Republican newspaper in the country, The New York Tribune, wrote the following[2]:

 Our European friends have all desired and hoped that we would take ground against that mother of sedition, that fruitful source of all our woes, Slavery. Victor Hugo, Garibaldi, John Bright—every recognized and honored leader of the party of progress —had impatiently anticipated the Proclamation of Freedom… The policy of Emancipation has won to our cause some valued friends over the water—we do not hear that it has lost us one.

Why was the success or failure of the project to enforce militarily the emancipation of American slaves significant internationally? What was the Emancipation Proclamation’s impact on that plane?


A photograph taken after the Battle of Antietam. Alexander Gardner, “Bloody Lane,” 1862. Library of Congress. 

JM: At one level, the Emancipation Proclamation was significant in precluding foreign intervention in the American Civil War. Most civil wars throughout history have attracted foreign intervention. We can think of examples in our own time: Libya last year, Syria right now. There was a real possibility that something of that sort would happen in the American Civil War. If that had happened, foreign intervention certainly would have been on the side of the Confederacy.

SL: There were French armies at the time on the borders of the Confederacy…

JM: That’s right. France had intervened in Mexico in 1861, ultimately sending some 35,000 troops, and in 1864 they installed the Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the Mexican throne. During this time, the Confederates were reaching out to the French and to Maximilian. The French might have provided some assistance to the Confederacy in return for Confederate recognition of Maximilian’s reign in Mexico. That never happened, but it was a real danger.

But the primary fear of the North and hope of the South was British intervention, and, as Karl Marx recognized, there was a lot of sympathy for the Confederacy in Britain, especially among the gentry and the aristocracy. But there was also a countervailing trend of hostility to slavery in Britain. The British had themselves abolished slavery in their West Indian colonies back in 1833. At that time it was the largest single act of emancipation in the history of the world. Within the British working class and among middle class liberals there was a lot of sympathy for the North. After all, for a generation or more before the Civil War the United States was seen by many British workers and middle class liberals as a kind of exemplar of democracy, but with its great, tragic flaw of slavery. So, as long as the North was not openly and overtly fighting a war against slavery but only for the restoration of the Union, it was difficult for those British liberals and radicals to argue that, despite the cutoff of cotton by the war which had caused a kind of economic crisis in Britain, Britain should not intervene in favor of the Confederacy. But once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that tragic flaw was removed and British liberals and the British working class could now openly celebrate their support of the Union, and British sympathizers with the Confederacy could no longer use the argument that this was only a war for dominion and not a war for freedom. It became much more difficult to argue that the Union was no better than the Confederacy, that Britain ought to intervene in order to get cotton, that Britain had an obligation to sustain a people fighting for self-government, and so on. So, yes, European and, especially, British opinion was a factor in Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, one major consequence of which was that it put a definitive end to any possibility of military intervention. Such intervention would have been seen as supporting slavery against freedom.

SL: One abiding misconception respecting the war is in regards to its character as a military conflict. Schoolchildren are often told simply that the North had inferior military commanders. But what this leaves aside is the way in which the Civil War was political not only in its aims, but even in its conduct. How does the Emancipation Proclamation grow out of and feed back into the conduct of the war by the Union Army? How did the transformation of the struggle into one for the forcible uprooting of the slave power, signalled by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, culminate in Lincoln’s appointment of General Ulysses S. Grant as commander of the Union armies? To take a line from the Speilberg film, how did Lincoln’s Republican Party and Grant’s Army enable each other “to do terrible things”?

JM: Politics and the military are inextricably intertwined. Carl von Clausewitz made the point in his book Vom Kriege that war is a continuation of politics by other means. In the case of the American Civil War, it broke out in the first place because of political differences and a resultant breakdown of the political process. Lincoln was well aware that as President of the United States, as leader of the Republican Party, and as Commander-in-Chief of the United States armies, he was fulfilling both a political and a military role. He knew they could not really be separated from each other.

Early in the war, Lincoln tried to maintain a united coalition of Republicans, of Northern Democrats, and of border-state Unionists for the war effort and he was afraid that any radical steps against slavery would fracture that coalition. But as the war ground on, that equation began to change in his mind and in the North more generally. Steadily demands grew louder from the principal part of his political constituency, the Republican Party, for bolder action against slavery to crush the rebellion—“Bolder action against rebels and traitors!” “Take their property!” And, of course, a principal form of their property was slaves.

So as the war grew harder and more bitter in 1862, the weight of politics became increasingly that of not merely restoring the Union, but of undermining the basis of disunion, which was slavery, the slave power. Lincoln became less and less concerned about maintaining the united support of the various parts of his war coalition and more concerned about striking against slavery and the slave power in order to break the rebellion. That shift in Lincoln’s political calculations resulted in a similar shift in the military.

In the first year or so of the war, Northern generals, and Lincoln himself, tried to avoid destruction of property in the South. He tried to conciliate or win back the support of Southern whites for the Union. But it became increasingly clear that this policy of conciliation or “soft war” was not working. This was especially so, as I have mentioned already, by the summer of 1862, as the Confederacy came storming back from an earlier series of defeats. The pressure grew to “take the kid gloves off” (one of the most frequently used metaphors in soldiers’ letters, newspaper editorials, political speeches in the North in 1862) and turn this into a really “hard war” against traitors. Instead of conciliating the traitors, the military aim was to crush them. This kind of language became increasingly common in the North in the summer of 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation and some of the Congressional confiscation legislation moved in tandem with the change in public opinion and with the actual behaviour of Union armies in the South. Whereas General George McClellan and General Buell, two of the principal Union commanders up until the fall of 1862, went out of their way to avoid hard war measures in the South, generals like Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant in 1864 adopted the policy of destroying anything that sustained the Confederate war effort whether it be railroads or farms or slavery. This was a sharp change not only in military behaviour but in the kind of political will that sustained it. The war aim ceased to be restoration of the old Union and came instead to be destruction of the infrastructure of the Confederacy so as to build a new Union on its ruins.


SL: The recent film “Lincoln” addresses Lincoln the Politician rather than Honest Abe the Plaster Saint or Everyman Lincoln the Log-Splitter. I want to play two brief clips from Spielberg’s movie. The first is Lincoln’s backroom colloquy with Thaddeus Stevens during a party at the White House respecting, in effect, the relations between war aims, strategy, and tactics. The second is Lincoln’s disquisition to his cabinet regarding the necessity of the 13th Amendment, during which he remarks that the hardest thing in politics is to recognize what is required in the here and now. Allow me to play these two clips and have you comment on the film’s portrayal of Lincoln as both leader of the Republican Party and as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War.

In the White House Kitchen

Thaddeus Stevens: Ashley insists you’re ensuring approval by dispensing patronage to otherwise undeserving Democrats.

Abraham Lincoln: I can’t ensure a single damn thing if you scare the whole House silly with talk of land appropriations and revolutionary tribunals and punitive thisses and thats.

TS: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote, and much more. Congress shall mandate the seizure of every foot of rebel land and every dollar of their property. We’ll use their confiscated wealth to establish hundreds of thousands of free Negro farmers, and at their side soldiers armed to occupy and transform the heritage of traitors… The nation needs to know that we have such plans.

AL: That’s the untempered version of reconstruction…

TS: …. The people elected me to represent them, to lead them, and I lead! You ought to try it sometime!

AL: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But, if I’d listened to you, I’d’ve declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter. Then the border states would’ve gone over to the Confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and, instead of abolishing slavery as we hope to do in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.

TS: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them, but you know what the people are. You know the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery….

AL: A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll—it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?


In Lincoln’s Office

AL: I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any human meaning or worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war. And whether any of you or anyone else knows it, I know I need this. This amendment is that cure. We’re stepped out upon the world stage now. Now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment. Now! Now! Now! And you grousle and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters. See what is before you! See the here and now, that’s the hardest thing, the only thing that counts. These votes must be procured.

What of Lincoln’s political greatness does Spielberg’s film (and Tony Kushner’s script) get at?

JM: In the colloquy with Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln first of all pays tribute to Stevens’s leadership. Stevens was a radical Republican who from the very beginning insisted this must be a war to destroy slavery and the planter class in the South. As he does in this scene, he frequently expressed his impatience with Lincoln’s dilatory and gradualist approach. Lincoln is here shown acknowledging Stevens’s prescience respecting what the goal of the war had ultimately to be. Stevens was the one who pointed to “true north,” total victory and the destruction of slavery.

Of course, we have no evidence that anything like this conversation ever took place. Still, Kushner here conveys something of Lincoln’s manner of often resorting to metaphor. The compass indicates the direction in which we want to go, but it says nothing about how to get there or how to negotiate the obstacles that will be encountered along the way. As President, he is saying, “You showed me the direction we needed to take.” But, he elaborates, “if I had followed your advice and blindly struck out for true north, we would have lost the support of the war Democrats and border state Unionists, and, ultimately, we would have lost the war.” As Commander-in-Chief and leader of the Republican Party, Lincoln was responsible for figuring out how to get around the swamps and mountains. He justifies his political leadership by saying that this is what he had been doing over the last three and a half years, and had led the country to the brink of abolishing slavery forever. The 13th Amendment was getting ready to pass. Lincoln notes that “it will bring us very near to the end of this long journey.” It’s a brilliant scene that shows Lincoln’s leadership style in contrast with Stevens’s. Both of them were important and necessary. Lincoln’s brilliance was that he recognized how to implement Stevens’s radical vision.

The scene with the cabinet is not true to the reality of Lincoln’s relationship with them. It portrays the cabinet as dragging their feet on the 13th Amendment. That was not really true in January of 1865. Most members of the cabinet were fully committed to Lincoln’s policy. But Kushner uses this scene, nevertheless, to make a historically valid point. Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief demanded that this step has to be taken and that here and now is the time. To use a contemporary metaphor that is much in the news right now, Lincoln says, in effect, “We can’t just keep kicking this can down the road. We must act now and act decisively.” It’s another and important component of Lincoln’s leadership, the matter of timing. There are times when you have to prevaricate and make backroom deals, but there also comes a time when you need to step up to the plate and do what it takes to accomplish the task at hand. In this sense, the scene is very effective even though it is not fair to Lincoln’s 1865 cabinet.

SL: Beyond Lincoln’s presidency, of course, lay peace and Reconstruction. Here, it seems, the contrast between war and peace threatens to obscure underlying political continuities. How did Reconstruction arise as a consequence of the war? We’ve been talking about the connection between the conduct of the war by the Union army and the political project that emerged of suppressing the slaveholders’ rebellion against the federal government. How did Lincoln’s acceptance of the emancipatory logic of the war shape the subsequent project of Reconstruction?


Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861; Oil on paper, 7.5 x 11.25 in; Fred Keeler Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC.

JM: Reconstruction became an extremely thorny problem for Lincoln, but even more so for his successors. One reason for this is that the word reconstruction had two meanings in the contemporary usage and these were potentially in conflict with one another. In one sense, reconstruction meant to reconstruct the union, to end the war, bring the southern states back in, and to knit the United States together again as one nation. The other meaning denoted the reconstruction of Southern society on a new basis. Now that slavery was gone, the question posed itself: What was freedom going to mean? What was going to be the status of the freed slaves? What was their relationship to their former owners going to be in this reconstructed union? That became the main problem faced by the country for many decades in some ways, most especially during the dozen years after the end of the war, from 1865 to 1877, when federal troops were stationed in the former Confederate states as the agents to enforce Reconstruction.

One way to reconstruct the United States was a degree of forgiveness, of amnesty, of conciliation toward former enemies—that is, the Confederates—in order to entice them to become loyal Americans again. But what would be the fate of the freed slaves if you restored, through conciliation, through amnesty, their former masters, the former Confederates, without any safeguards to protect the freedom of the slaves from some kind of new slavery, some kind of re-imposed quasi-slavery? Such a conciliatory Reconstruction project was what President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, tried to undertake, and he could invoke some of Lincoln’s legacy by way of precedent and justification. Lincoln had issued a proclamation of amnesty and Reconstruction back in December 1863. In his second inaugural address he had talked about forgiveness and reconciliation. President Andrew Johnson tried to implement that side of Reconstruction to bring the southern states back into the Union as quickly, easily, and painlessly as possible. But the Republican majority in Congress rejected that approach, and I think Lincoln would have come to reject it too had he seen what was happening (if he had lived in 1865 and 1866). At all events, they tried to write a number of safeguards to protect the freedom and expand the civil and eventually political rights of the freed slaves, and that led to a decade, really, of violence and conflict in the south that, in some ways, reversed the aphorism of Clausewitz: The politics of Reconstruction became a continuation of the war. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan came into conflict with union leagues in the South, organizations of blacks including some former black soldiers. The violence that took place in southern states during Reconstruction was in some ways a continuation of the war. So Reconstruction became a very troubled, controversial, and violent process. Whether Lincoln could have provided the kind of leadership in his second term, had he lived, to avoid the worst of that, is unknowable. Personally, I think he might have. If anybody could have undertaken a more thoroughgoing Reconstruction, he could have!

SL: You are of a generation of historians that emerged in the immediate wake of the Civil Rights Movement. But by the late 1960s, that movement was internally divided with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin on one side representing liberal integrationism, and Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton among others on the other side representing an ostensibly revolutionary separatism. So, the fault lines of the New Left seem not to correspond to those of the abolitionist revolution and its opponents in the 19th century. How did the experience of the politics of the 1960s shape your generation’s approach, for good and ill, to the history of abolitionism, the early Republican movement, the Civil War, and its aftermath?

JM: There can be no doubt that the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin version of the Civil Rights Movement powerfully shaped a generation of historians. I know it shaped my attitude toward the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mine was a liberal integrationist view. Along with others, I have interpreted the abolitionist movement as a liberal integrationist movement in the 19th century. Following on that, together with other historians of my generation, I interpreted Reconstruction as a noble effort to bring about a free and integrated society. This effort passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which, we felt, underlay the civil rights and voting rights legislation of the 1960s. We saw Reconstruction as a kind of tragic failure that had real possibilities that were undermined by Southern counter-revolution, if you will, as well as by a Northern retreat from their goals. What followed was the view that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a second Reconstruction that was now on its way to implementing the liberal and egalitarian goals of the first Reconstruction. I think that the movement toward the New Left, the Black Power movement, Stokely Carmichael, and others in the later 1960s and ’70s, rejected the whole idea that the liberal integrationist movement in the 19th century, the abolitionist movement, the Radical Republicans, and so on, ever had a chance to overcome white racism. For such thinkers equality had been a false promise. Reconstruction was not so much a tragic failure as it was something that never had a chance in the first place. The likes of Carmichael and Newton rejected the sincerity and genuineness of the abolitionists and the Republicans of the 1860s and 1870s. They were just racists, only slightly better than the Southern rednecks. On their view, all of those ideals of liberal egalitarianism needed to be rejected in favor of black nationalism. This view has not had as powerful an effect on the historiography but it certainly had a tendency to influence a good many historians in the 1980s and 1990s. Lerone Bennett’s book on Lincoln as a common, quintessential racist is one example of that.

SL: In his recent book Freedom National, James Oakes speaks of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. as a process of “bourgeois revolution” inconceivable without political leadership and organization. Yet about this revolution, this leadership and the revolution it brought about, the American left has always been ambivalent. Among liberals, there is often a good deal of hand-wringing respecting the constitutionality of measures taken by President Lincoln. Others to their left view the war as somehow compromised or one-sided, an industrialists’ war intended to free the slaves the better to subjugate them to industrial wage slavery. Still others seek to find the overcoming of slavery in a process “from below” that seems to take place outside of the political arena. They praise the abolitionist movement while evincing a certain reticence towards the political and military instruments that movement adopted to defeat the South and uproot slavery: The Republican Party, President Lincoln, and the Union Army. All are suspicious of the enormous growth in the power of the state that resulted from the Civil War and America’s subsequent emergence onto the world stage as a great, ultimately a global imperialist, world power. What is the value in such left criticisms? What to your mind do they grasp and what might they lose sight of? How, if you care to speculate, has the failure to digest (and advance) this history colored or compromised the Left’s subsequent project, whether in terms of the black question and racism or in terms of the politics of freedom more generally?

JM: I think that most of the “hand-wringing” by liberals respecting the constitutionality of Lincoln’s war measures concerns his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the declaration of martial law in the North, and the trial of civilians by military courts. At the same time, they tend to approve of his measures to emancipate slaves, including the Emancipation Proclamation, which were based on the same grounds of his war powers as Commander-in-Chief. The suspension of civil liberties probably went too far, as Lincoln himself acknowledged on one or two occasions, but most such actions took place in the border states that were active war zones, with guerrilla warfare and various kinds of sabotage creating circumstances in which martial law seemed the only way to control the situation.  Nevertheless, some of Lincoln’s actions are troubling, and created precedents that have been invoked by subsequent presidents with considerably less justification. As for the argument that the emancipation of the slaves was intended to subjugate them to wage slavery in Northern industry, that seems pretty far-fetched to me. The almost universal assumption in the 1860s was that the freed slaves would remain in the South as small family farmers. And, in fact, the large-scale migration to the North and to industrial employment did not begin until a half century after the Civil War.  And while it is quite true that the Civil War caused an enormous growth in the power of the state, the central government gave up much of that power in the decades after the war, until it began to grow again in the 1890s and 1900s, in response to circumstances that were quite different from those of the 1860s. The exercise of enlarged government power in the 1860s is something that the Left should approve of, since one of its principal uses was to abolish slavery and enact—on paper at least, and on the ground for a time—civil and political equality for the freed slaves. |P

Transcribed by Wyatt Green, Ed Remus, and Wentai Xiao

[1]. Quoted in James Oakes’s Freedom National.

[2]. Horace Greeley, “The New Base of Freedom,” New York Tribune, January 1, 1863.

Join our "Does Marxism really matter?" on our Facebook event page.

With Pac Pobric, assistant editor of the Platypus Review, contributing editor, 491, contributor, On-Verge

event details

Thursday, September 20 
// 7:00 pm
NYU Kimmel Student Center, Room 907
// 60 Washington Square South

There will be free food.

Contact: Brian Hioe 
// cell: 845-492-1622

In the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels famously observed in the Communist Manifesto that a ‘specter’ was haunting Europe — the specter of Communism. 160 years later, it is ‘Marxism’ itself that haunts us.

In the 21st century, it seems that the Left abandoned Marxism as a path to freedom. But Marx critically intervened in his own moment and emboldened leftists to challenge society; is the Left not tasked with this today? Has the Left resolved the problems posed by Marx, and thus moved on?

Audio from our last teach-in:

Does Marxism really matter? Poster designed by Chris Mansour

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.


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 <>.

[2]. Jim Creegan, “Hot Autumn in New York,” in Weekly Worker 886 (October 20, 2011), available online at <>.

[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 <>.

[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 <>.

[11]. See Friedrich Engels, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850” (1895), available online at <>.

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 42 | December 2011 – January 2012


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.


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 <>.[[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]]

A presentation by Platypus member Chris Cutrone on August 16th, 2011, at Communist University, which took place from August 17th to August 20th, 2011, at Goldsmiths, University of London. Video Credit: Communist Party of Great Britain.

What is progress if not the absolute elaboration of humanity’s creative dispositions . . . unmeasured by any previously established yardstick[,] an end in itself . . . the absolute movement of becoming?

* * *

[T]he ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production. In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs,
capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature"? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick —
an end in itself? What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion. Hence in one way the childlike world of the ancients appears to be superior; and this is so, insofar as we seek for closed shape, form and established limitation. The ancients provide a narrow satisfaction, whereas the modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied, with itself, is vulgar and mean.

— Marx, "Pre-capitalist economic formations," Grundrisse (1857-58)

Recommended background readings:

Mike Macnair's Critique of Platypus


Cutrone, "Capital in history" (2008)

Cutrone, "The Marxist hypothesis" (2010)

Red Channels and the Platypus Affiliated Society present:

The Poverty of Student Life, a film screening and discussion


Monday, November 23, 7:30 pm - 10:30 pm @ The Brecht Forum, 451 West Street

San Francisco State: On Strike - Newsreel, 1969, 25 minutes
Community Control - Newsreel, 1969, 50 minutes
TOTAL RUNNING TIME: 75 minutes | Digital Projection

Discussion with:

Pam C. Nogales C. of the Platypus Affiliated Society

Luz Schreiber of the Committee in Defense of the Children's Learning Center at Hunter College, and Ollin Imagination

Jitu Weusi - teacher, principal, member of the African American Teachers Association, co-founder of The East (1969-1985)

[more TBA]

*  *  *

Platypus Review articles on student politics:

1. Politics of the contemporary student Left

2.  Violence at the RNC

3. The New School occupation and the direction of student politics: an interview with Atlee McFellin

4. Five questions to the student Left

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