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

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

Recommended background readings:

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

Adorno, "Imaginative Excesses" (1944)

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

Adorno, "Resignation" (1969)

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

Cosponsored by Pi Sigma Tau, STAND, and SAF.

Transcript in Platypus Review #37:

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Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010

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On Thursday November 19, 2009, Platypus Review Editor-in-Chief Spencer A. Leonard discussed with author George Scialabba a new volume of essays entitled What are Intellectuals Good For? (Boston: Pressed Wafer Press, 2009). Their discussion was conducted live on “Radical Minds,” a radio show Leonard conducts weekly with co-host Greg Gabrellas on WHPK 88.5 FM in Chicago. Leonard and Scialabba’s discussion focused chiefly on a single theme of the book, the connections and disconnects between the intellectuals of the anti-Stalinist Old Left forged in America in the 1930s and the New Left that emerged decades later in the early 1960s. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

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Dwight Macdonald, editor of the Partisan Review during the years 1937 to 1943, speaking at the "Counter Commencement" of Columbia University in June 1968. Generally friendly to the Columbia student left, he spoke of them as "the best generation I have known in this country, the cleverest and the most serious and decent." At the Counter Commencement, Macdonald reversed himself, arguing that the students risked destroying the university, in which case "they would have nothing to replace it."

Spencer Leonard: Recently published by Pressed Wafer Press in 2009, George Scialabba’s What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a collection of book reviews that, taken together, constitutes an extensive tour through the ruinous history of modern American leftist intellectualism stretching back into the 1930s and beyond. Now regarding the book, I wanted to start off by asking your views on the New Left, who receive considerable treatment in this book, albeit in a largely oblique way. I say this because the views you express here on the New Left, and of your own generation’s political experience, are marked by a deep ambivalence. On the one hand, you celebrate its questioning, almost naïve character, as evidenced for you by the Port Huron Statement; on the other hand, you lament your generation’s failure to produce towering leftist intellectuals and, by implication, a strong Left capable of achieving a more just and emancipated future. You seem largely to agree with Russell Jacoby and others who claim that something has been deeply amiss on the Left for a long time now.For instance, on page 4 you say, “the New Left, for all its promise of vitality, originality, and engagement now seems safely integrated, largely insulated from public influence.”You note the evacuation of leftism from the New Left, yet it seems that to a large degree you exonerate the New Left from the charge of being inadequate to the tasks of its time. Instead, you attribute the eclipse of the Left politically and of leftist public intellectualism generally to external factors, such as the growth of empirical knowledge and the proliferation of mass media. But how far can this be defended? Can we really speak of the age of information as overwhelming intellectuals’ ability to speak critically in a way qualitatively distinct from the situation obtaining earlier in the century? 

George Scialabba: No one is adequate to her time, especially among 17–21 year-olds. I am, on the whole, an admirer of the New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s. Among contemporary leftists, the New Left is less a living presence or project than it is a slightly awkward memory. It is widely thought that the New Left played a large part in preparing the way for Nixon’s victory and for the general backlash against liberalism, the New Deal, and the Great Society. I think that is overstated, but it is partially true. Certainly, there were a lot of loudmouths and rowdies and other obnoxious people in the New Left. There always are such people in every social movement, and they get more than their share of publicity.But the New Left did do something profoundly important: to invoke a slogan of the times, they questioned authority in a way more direct and unashamed than most of their predecessors in American intellectual and political history—they had a more direct and unashamed moral passion. They saw the promise of American life. The Port Huron statement is really in some ways a paean to the American republican tradition. They understood that civic virtue really was essential to a viable society and to the health of American democracy. They were not young Maoists or Leninists deluded and besotted by ideology. They simply wanted America to live up to its promise. They saw the massive injustice of racial inequality and the barbarity of the technological onslaught in Indochina, and they responded with a certain intellectual clarity and an unmistakable moral passion. They did not give their arguments the high finish that appeals to editorialists at the New York Times, but they accomplished something very important. They faded away ingloriously and left tangled memories behind, but on the whole, it was a very salutary response from which the contemporary Left can learn.

Leonard: I agree with the idea that there is much in the New Left in its formative period that vanishes without a trace. But both in your answer and in the book you refer to the retread of Stalinism that we saw with the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and many other prominent groups that arose from the mainstream of the New Left—so, I still wonder how to connect the kind of honesty, naïveté, directness, and plain speaking that you admire in the New Left with the inadequate organizational and ideological expressions that came out of it. It seems we would need a more complex account of the forces that gave rise to the New Left and the dynamics that operated within it to explain how it collapsed as a Left in the 1970s and 1980s.

Scialabba:  Well, the Weathermen grabbed the spotlight, explosively, so to speak, but they were a tiny splinter. SDS had to some extent already run out of steam, or had, at least temporarily, run out of energy by then. The Weatherman, under the evil guidance of the old Left groups such as the Progressive Labor Party, seized leadership positions on national and some influential local chapters, and pretty much ran the institution into the ground. Students started getting bizarre Leninist/Maoist communiqués from the central committee and just kind of dropped off.

Leonard: Did you participate in that personally? Did you have a role in the student Left in the 60s?

Scialabba: In 1969–70 I was at Columbia University where I saw this unfolding. Though I was not really very involved, I was close enough to see it happening more or less firsthand. I think the media was actually looking for this sort of thing to play up in order to discredit the student Left generally, and the student leadership certainly played into those designs. These are young people: of course they are irresponsible and failing to show the proper degree of intellectual deference. Again, I do not mean there was any conspiracy, but I do think there is a good deal of intellectual dishonesty and poverty of imagination on the part both of the mass media and of academia in interpreting this sorry history.

Leonard: I recognize that this discussion threatens to edge away from the leading themes of your book, so to bring it back a little I want to ask, to what extent do you think that the Old Left generation—the kind of figures that you are talking about in the book, coming from the Partisan Review, people who had really cut their teeth on the critique of Stalinism in the 1930s—to what extent did that intellectual cohort really prepare and, in a sense, educate the generation that emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s? To what extent, indeed, can the disconnect between the Old Left and the New be understood as merely a breakdown of inter-generational communication?  And to what degree do you think that the innocence and naïveté of youth grew into a critical and theoretical failing of the New Left? Was their ill-preparedness for the political challenges that their generation faced a consequence of their inability to work through the problems they had inherited from the past?

Scialabba: I am not as versed in the specific history of the New Left and SDS as many others but my impression is that there was, and there always is with social movements, a smaller group, a few seed groupings, who were quite conscious of the American left-wing tradition, both of the native tradition of anarchists like Randolph Bourne, Paul Goodman, and Dwight Macdonald, and of the European leftist tradition, as with the Partisan Review group. To some extent, figures like Macdonald and C. Wright Mills bridged those traditions. I think those who were thus rooted in the American Left found a ready audience among their peers, especially given the rising consciousness of racial inequality and the rising tide of barbarism in Indochina. Students who were predisposed by whatever predisposes people to passionate political involvement responded to politically self-aware leaders. They in turn joined the movement, went out and demonstrated, talked to their families, their friends, and their neighbors—just the way social movements happen. And discouraging things happened, as the police became nasty, editorials became snooty, and professors became disapproving, theyquavered and then, as I say, the professional revolutionaries, the Weathermen, the Stalinists, moved in to seize control, as is typical of Leninist, professional revolutionary, vanguardists. With their ideological delusions they wrecked a slow-moving and erratic but nonetheless genuine social movement. I do think that among those early people, the seed groupings, there was an awareness of, and a real desire to learn from, the older leftists. Tom Hayden, for example, and the other authors of the Port Huron Statement were eager to meet Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, and Paul Goodman, and they did meet them. My admiration for Harrington and Goodman is very great, but the fact is—and there is plenty of blame on both sides—but the fact is, although their specific criticisms of the youngsters were true enough, the results were an emotional disaster.

Leonard: This you discuss in the essay on Irving Howe.

Scialabba: Well, they made more than they needed to of the students’ insufficient emancipation from Marxist ideology and revolutionary rhetoric. They were quite right, but it is something they did not give the students time to learn for themselves. They could have been encouraging, usefully critical, but instead they chose to come down on them like a ton of bricks. Then again, 17–21 year-olds are not always able to be discriminating. They heard this, felt cast out and furious, and the relationship between the Old Left and the New Left went to hell.

Leonard: At the center of this book, even in the essays that do not directly address their writings, you come back time and again to a generation of writers that we would associate with the 1930s and 1940s, with the journal the Partisan Review, and with the city of New York. I want to ask about the reticence you have towards many of those writers’ Marxist commitments. A lot of them abandoned Communism for Trotskyism over the course of the 1930s. It seems to me that you tend to shy away from direct discussion of this. Indeed, your book really focuses only on those who broke their ties with Trotskyism, so that figures such as Max Shachtman, whose influence was surely considerable, fall out of the discussion. I wonder if your wariness of this kind of politics does not compromise our ability to understand not only what made that group of intellectuals great, but also what made them a group. After all, many of the “New York Intellectuals” shared a set of commitments and orientations, so that, for a lot of them, the turn to Trotskyism was a turn, not away from the Left, but towards it. They saw the Communist Party and others as more conservative than themselves and considered those organizations incapable of bringing about the kind of change that they wanted to see brought about. They recognized that, in a sense, the whole legacy of the European revolutionary tradition, from the French Revolution to the rise of the labor movement and of mass socialists parties, threatened to amount to nothing, or worse than nothing—a dread we can see expressed perhaps most clearly in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station. What do we say today of such political commitments, and how does that inform our sense of tragedy respecting that generation of intellectuals?

Scialabba: I have enormous respect for left-wing Marxism. I have studied Capital with the son of one of the great Marxist theorists of the 20th century, Paul Mattick, and I was affiliated for many years with one of the tiny libertarian Marxist groups that he founded in Cambridge. But, on the whole, I do not think Marxism historically has contributed much of anything useful to the American Left. I think the native tradition of Goodman, Edward Bellamy, Bourne, Macdonald, and others is more fruitful. One reason why I did not deal more with people like Shachtman and the Trotskyists you mentioned, is that the people I mostly wrote about were literary-political intellectuals; that is, they were people who drew much of their evidence for and standards in moral argument from the humanistic tradition. They may have started out as pretty rigorous orthodox Marxists, but they stopped arguing for the most part in Marxist terms and began mostly arguing as humanists. Again, Dwight MacDonald and the Partisan Review crowd in America, George Orwell in England, Albert Camus in France, and Nicola Chiaromonte in Italy—what they carried over from Marxism was something often lacking in American radicalism, a respect for European high culture and, of course, a sense of the importance of understanding capitalism as a system. But I do not know that the Marxist analyses of American capitalism ever proved to be very influential in the history of the American Left, nor am I sure that they deserved to be. I think that it is possible, and in fact likely, that an effective, stable, permanent, successful American Left can be built—if the world does not melt or blow up before then—largely from a basis of common morality, humanism, and simple democracy, as a fulfillment of American Western democratic ideals, and of the solidaristic, universalistic, moral imagination of Western radicalism from Tolstoy to William Morris and so on. I do not know that the Left needs or will get that much help from Marxist theory.

Leonard: One last question on that. I agree with the connection you make between the views of Michael Walzer and those of Richard Rorty, but I always had a problem with politics rooted in literary or moralist traditions, especially when these are conceived as national. Part of what I would take from Marxism is a vision of freedom that seeks more than justice, that is not straightforwardly ethical, and that looks to future, rather than tradition, for emancipatory potential. To me, Marxism seeks to do more than translate our morals into the political domain, but attempts to open the way to new forms of sociality that we lack a clear view of now. But you strike something like a tone of bemusement when you discuss Jacoby’s arguing for a world in which people work less and more fulfillingly and are capable of different and freer kinds of family, sexual, and intimate relations. If we lose touch with that critical tradition, which looks not to our national culture, but to global capitalist society and its potential, do we not risk losing the politics of emancipation?

Scialabba: I agree entirely. I must not have said it right in that piece on Jacoby, because I certainly endorse that kind of utopian visionary thinking. I was unhappy that he kept insisting that the social democratic reformists like Robert Kuttner or Michael Harrington, and journals like In These Times, The American Prospect, and Dissent, simply did not get it. This, to me, was not helping. As I said in that essay, I am a 20th century Utopian. I think we are going to get there, if we are to survive as a species.But it will be stepwise and, for the time being, I think the reformists he criticized are the people we should work with, rather than the negative utopians like Adorno. |P

The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century Toward a Theory of Historical Regression THE ABANDONMENT OF EMANCIPATORY POLITICS in our time has not been, as past revolutionary thinkers may have feared, an abandonment of revolution in favor of reformism. Rather, because the revolutionary overcoming of capital is no longer imagined, reformism too is dead. As the task of achieving human society beyond capital has been abandoned, nothing worthy of the name of politics takes its place, nor could it. The project of freedom has now altogether receded from view. For, while bourgeois thinkers like Hegel were no doubt mistaken in their identification of capital with freedom, they nevertheless grasped that the question of freedom only poses itself with reference to the capital problematic.
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The stench of decay on the German Left, 1932–2009

Jerzy Sobotta

Platypus Review 16 | October 2009

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IN MAY OF 2009 SCIENTISTS IN BERLIN claimed to have unearthed the corpse of the martyred revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg. Stored in the cellar of a hospital, the corpse had neither a head, nor feet, nor hands. The stump of a corpse of Rosa Luxemburg lay rotting in a basement, subjected to the un-tender mercies of modern forensic science.

Less than fourteen years after the death of one of its greatest leaders, the German Left died. Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor, after which what can best be described as the suicide of the Left took place. The proletarian world revolution, when it was needed the most, on the day of January 20, 1942—the day of the Wannsee Conference, where the mass annihilation of European Jewry was decided—did not take place. Instead, the mass of German workers, the revolutionary subject for the emancipation of mankind, was transformed into Volksgemeinschaft, the German collective based on race, blood, soil, and concrete labor. The class conflict, based on the fundamental antagonism between use value and exchange value, had to be externalized because there was no place for it in the organic body of the Germans. Auschwitz was the German nation’s revolt against its mortal enemies, exchange value and the sphere of circulation.

In much the same way that the British relate to the Magna Carta, the Americans to their war of independence, and the French relate to their revolution, so the Germans relate to National Socialism—except, in the German case, the relationship is condemned. Through Nazism, German ideology, which had previously been criticized by Marx, took on an altogether different quality after the Shoah.

In the face of the Cold War, the Allies gave up their attempt to denazify Germany. Teachers, lawyers, and politicians who had loyally served the Nazi regime were rarely replaced and were instead allowed to remain in positions of power and influence. But more important than such personal continuities were the ideological ones. As Adorno wrote in the sixties, “National Socialism lives on, and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its own death, or whether it has not yet died at all, whether the willingness to commit the unspeakable survives in the people as well as in the conditions that enclose them.”

The post-war silence surrounding Nazism was broken by the New Left and the student movement of 1968, who aggressively criticized their parents’ generation for complicity with fascism and exterminatory anti-Semitism. This theme was one of the most important aspects of the anti-authoritarian mood that developed among the youth in Germany. In those years, the broad Left understood itself as fighting fascist tendencies in Germany.

But as long as the victims were still alive, their very presence served to remind the perpetrators of their crimes. And this proved to be unbearable, not only for the old Nazis, but also for their revolutionary children. In 1969—the same year that Adorno, in correspondence with his old friend Marcuse, wrote, “Might not a movement, by the force of its immanent antinomies, transform itself into its opposite?”—the radical left-wing group Tupamaros West-Berlin placed a bomb in the city’s Jewish Community Center. The date: Kristallnacht, November 9, the anniversary of the nationwide anti-Semitic pogroms of 1939. Only a technical defect in the bomb prevented the shedding of blood. In a leaflet the group declared,

True anti-fascism is the clear and simple expression of solidarity with the fighting fedayeen. No longer will our solidarity remain only with verbal-abstract methods of enlightenment as in the case of Vietnam… The Jews who were expelled by fascism have themselves become fascists who, in collaboration with American capital want to eradicate the Palestinian people. By striking the direct support for Israel by German industry and the government of the Federal Republic, we are aiding the victory of the Palestinian revolution and force for the renewed defeat of world imperialism. At the same time, we expand our battle against the fascists in democratic clothes and begin to build a revolutionary liberation front in the metropole.[3]

Later years were marked by growing radicalization and militancy. Anti-imperialism, Maoism, and solidarity with national liberation movements in the Third World peaked. The Red Army Faction (RAF), the biggest left-wing terrorist organization at that time, more popularly known as the “Baader-Meinhof Gang,” even went as far as to praise the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Ulrike Meinhof, one of the group’s founders, wrote, “The action of Black September in Munich has exposed the nature of imperialistic dominance and the anti-imperialistic fight, transparent in a way as no revolutionary action before in West Germany and West Berlin. It was at the same time anti-imperialist, anti-fascist and international.”

Four years later, in 1976, German left-wing extremists of the Revolutionary Cells (RZ) collaborated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda. There the hijackers separated Jewish passengers from non-Jews and forced the latter off the airplane. The operation ultimately concluded with the liberation of the hostages by Israeli special forces, the Sayeret Matkal.

The response of the German government to such widespread terrorism, including hundreds of bombings and dozens of murders, was the restriction of civil liberties. In the seventies and eighties, especially after Mao’s death in 1976, many groups dissolved themselves and the radical Left took on issues like ecology, pacifism, and anti-militarism. The founding of the nonviolent Green Party in the early 1980s was the logical consequence of this development. In 2002 the Greens achieved political power by forming a coalition with Rosa Luxemburg’s old party, the SPD, which reformed itself as a center-left party after World War I, dropping all revolutionary ambitions.

Recently, the political development in Germany has been the founding of a new party, Die Linke, or “The Left.” Founded in 2007, out of a merger between some left-wing SPD dissidents and the successors to the parties that had ruled East Germany, Die Linke has grown rapidly in strength, achieving electoral results as high as 13 percent. Despite the appearance of success, Die Linke is merely another sad example of what it means to be leftist in post-Nazi, post-unification Germany. In 2005, the party’s leader and main spokesman Oskar Lafontaine proclaimed, “The state is obliged to protect its citizens. It is obliged to prevent family fathers from becoming homeless because foreigners take their jobs for lesser wages.” Although Die Linke openly criticizes capitalism and the party sporadically cooperates with old-style Marxist-Leninist parties, its criticism of capitalism, once meant to lead humanity to a “society of free human beings,” in fact reeks of unfreedom. The stench of Lafontaine’s words is worse than that emanating from Luxemburg’s rotting torso: “We want to overthrow capitalism… We will change the economic order.”[4] Elsewhere he declares, ”If the gamble hell of casino-capitalism can be found somewhere, than it is in New York. If money rules the world, then New York is the world’s capital.”[5]

Nationalism, racism, and anti-Americanism are the main ideological weapons of Die Linke. Capital, the circulation sphere, and abstract value are their enemies. The glorification of state and concrete labor is their answer to the crisis of late capitalism.

The early eighties saw the first signs of awareness of the theoretical bankruptcy of the German Left. Beginning with a few individuals polemicizing against the anti-Semitic character of the pro-Palestinian consensus, a current in the radical Left came to strongly oppose the reunification of Germany, which finally took place in 1989. This current, which became known as the Anti-Deutsch tendency, was at that time a much more diverse and heterogeneous current unified by a shared concern about the possible reemergence of fascism in German society. Shortly after the reunification, Germany saw the most extreme xenophobic riots of the post-war period, with perhaps the most striking incident occurring in a suburb of Rostock, in the former East, where a crowd of several hundred militant right-wing extremists, backed by around 3,000 locals, hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at a house used by asylum-seekers. The police were unable to stop the raging mob and after three days the attackers outnumbered the police forces. At the same time, the increasingly aggressive rhetoric of German politicians, including discussions about greater militarization and a “legitimate” expansion towards the East, underscored the reasons for Anti-Deutsch to be concerned. Consequently, they made efforts to reflect this development theoretically. The Gulf War in 1991 and the resulting pacifist or even pro-Hussein sentiments of the broad German Left produced an insurmountable gap between Anti-Deutsch and other leftists. The new current of Anti-Deutsch began with a re-reading of Marx that breaks with the old anti-imperialism. This renewed focus on Marx, especially the theory of value, and on Critical Theory took place together with attempts to intervene in the Left.

Most recently, in the wake of the anti-Semitic attacks of 9/11 and in the face of the fraternization of the global Left with the Ba’athists in Iraq and Islamists in Afghanistan and Palestine, Anti-Deutsch concluded that solidarity with Third World movements is solidarity with barbarism. Emancipatory, communist critique had to be articulated against the Left.

The rotten, headless, and footless corpse, with its unbearable stench of resentment, has been left for the bourgeois scientists and their cadaver-eating leftist counterparts. The only question that matters: How could it have been left to rot for such a long time? |P


[1]. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 3–4.

[2]. Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” in New Left Review I/233 (Jan–Feb 1999): 129.

[3]. Wolfgang Kraushaar, Die Bombe im Jüdischen Gemeindehaus (Hamburg: Hamburger Editions HIS Verlagsges, 2005), 48.

[4]. Oskar Lafontaine, “We Want to Overthrow Capitalism,” interview by Spiegel Online, May 14, 2009.

[5]. Oskar Lafontaine, “Das Ressentiment hat einen Namen—Oskar L.,” Wartezeit überbrücken, posted March 24, 2009.

Chris Cutrone KARL KORSCH'S SEMINAL ESSAY on “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923) is a historical treatment of the problem from Marx and Engels’s time through the 2nd International to the crisis of Marxism and the revolutions of 1917–19 in Russia, Germany and beyond. More specifically, Korsch took up the development and vicissitudes of the relation between theory and practice in the history of Marxism, which he considered the “philosophical” problem of Marxism. Korsch, like Georg Lukács and the thinkers in Frankfurt School critical theory, was inspired by the “subjective” aspect of Marxism exemplified by Lenin's irreducible role in the October Revolution. Korsch was subsequently denounced as a “professor” in the Communist International and quit the movement, embracing council communism and shunning Marxian theory, writing an "Anti-Critique" in 1930 that critiqued Marxism as such, and by 1950 actively seeking to liquidate the difference between Marxian and anarchist approaches. In so doing, Korsch succumbed to what Adorno termed “identity thinking.” By assuming the identity of theory and practice, or of social being and consciousness in the workers’ movement, Korsch abandoned his prior discernment and critical grasp of their persistent antagonism in any purported politics of emancipation.
Historical transformations in social-political context Chris Cutrone We in Platypus have anticipated, since our inception in 2006, the possibility of a "return to Marx," and have sought to inform the terms in which this might take place. We have sought the re-opening of historical issues on the Left with the intention of their fundamental recon­sideration, taking nothing for granted, so that we could definitively close the books on stale "debates" in which the "Left" has remained stuck for more than a genera­tion, since at least the 1960s. Given the confusion reign­ing on the "Left" today, the urgency for this is evident.
Sunit Singh DER BAADER-MEINHOF KOMPLEX (2008) dramatizes the violence that the Leftist group the Rote Armee Fraktion ("Red Army Faction" [RAF] aka the Baader-Meinhof) wreaked across West German cities in the 1970s. The film documents, or, rather, reenacts their streak of violence that started with petty vandalism against storefronts in Frankfurt but that soon escalated into more serious acts.
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"The Left is Dead! — Long Live the Left!"

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 1 | November 2007

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[Ελληνικό]

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
— Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852)

“The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago — and usually better the first time around.”
— Theodor W. Adorno, “Sexual Taboos and the Law Today” (1963)

ACCORDING TO LENIN, the greatest contribution of the German Marxist radical Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) to the fight for socialism was the statement that her Social Democratic Party of Germany had become a “stinking corpse” as a result of voting for war credits on August 4, 1914. Lenin wrote this about Luxemburg in 1922, at the close of the period of war, revolution, counterrevolution and reaction in which Luxemburg was murdered. Lenin remarked that Luxemburg would be remembered well for her incisive critique at a crucial moment of crisis in the movement to which she had dedicated and ultimately gave her life. Instead, ironically, Luxemburg has been remembered — for her occasional criticisms of Lenin and the Bolsheviks!

Two lessons can be drawn from this story: that the Left suffers, as a result of the accumulated wreckage of intervening defeats and failures, from a very partial and distorted memory of its own history; and that at crucial moments the best work on the Left is its own critique, motivated by the attempt to escape this history and its outcomes. At certain times, the most necessary contribution one can make is to declare that the Left is dead.

Hence, Platypus makes the proclamation, for our time: “The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!” — We say this so that the future possibility of the Left might live.

Platypus began in December, 2004 as a project for an international journal of critical letters and emancipatory politics, envisioned by a core group of students of University of Chicago professor Moishe Postone, who has studied and written on Marx’s mature critical theory in the Grundrisse and Capital towards the imagination of postcapitalist society since the 1960s.

Platypus developed and grew in Spring 2006 into a reading group of our students interested in pursuing the continued purchase of Marxian critical theory. The Platypus Affiliated Society is a recently established (in December, 2006) political organization seeking to investigate possibilities for reconstituting a Marxian Left after the demise of the historical Marxist Left.

We take our namesake from the platypus, which suffered at its moment of zoological discovery from its unclassifiability according to prevailing science. We think that an authentic emancipatory Left today would suffer from a similar problem of (mis)recognition, in part because the tasks and project of social emancipation have disintegrated and so exist for us only in fragments and shards.

We have grown from at first about a dozen graduate students and teachers to over thirty undergraduate and graduate students and teachers and others from the greater Chicago community and beyond (for instance, developing corresponding members in New York and Toronto).

We have worked with various other groups on the Left in Chicago and beyond, for instance giving a workshop on the Iraqi Left for the new SDS conference on the Iraq occupation in Chicago in February. In January, we held the first of a series of Platypus public fora in Chicago, on the topic of “imperialism” and the Left, including panelists Kevin Anderson from News and Letters (Marxist Humanists), Nick Kreitman from the newly refounded Students for a Democratic Society, Danny Postel from OpenDemocracy.net, and Adam Turl from the International Socialist Organization.

We have organized our critical investigation of the history of the Left in order to help discern emancipatory social possibilities in the present, a present that has been determined by the history of defeat and failure on the Left. As seekers after a highly problematic legacy from which we are separated by a definite historical distance, we are dedicated to approaching the history of thought and action on the Left from which we must learn in a deliberately non-dogmatic manner, taking nothing as given.

Why Marx? Why now? We find Marx’s thought to be the focal point and vital nerve center for the fundamental critique of the modern world in which we still live that emerged in Marx’s time with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. We take Marx’s thought in relation both to the preceding history of critical social thought, including the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, as well as the work by those inspired later to follow Marx in the critique of social modernity, most prominently Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno. Hence, Platypus is committed to the reconsideration of the entire critical theoretical tradition spanning the 19th and 20th Centuries. As Leszek Kolakowski put it (in his 1968 essay “The Concept of the Left”) the Left must be defined ideologically and not sociologically; thought, not society, is divided into Right and Left: the Left is defined by its utopianism, the Right by its opportunism. — Or, as Robert Pippin has put it, the problem with critical theory today is that it is not critical (Critical Inquiry, 2003).

Platypus is dedicated to re-opening various historical questions of the Left in order to read that history “against the grain” (as Benjamin put it, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940), attempting to grasp past moments of defeat and failure on the Left not as given but rather in their unfulfilled potential, regarding the present as the product not of historical necessity, but rather of what happened that need not have been. We struggle to escape the dead hand of at least two preceding generations of problematic action and thinking on the Left, the 1920s-30s and the 1960s-70s. More proximally, we suffer the effects of the depoliticization — the deliberate “postmodernist” abandonment of any “grand narratives” of social emancipation — on the Left in the 1980s-90s.

But the “tradition” of the “dead generation” that “weighs” most heavily as a “nightmare” on our minds is that of the 1960s New Left, especially in its history of anti-Bolshevism — expressed by both the complementary bad alternatives of Stalinophobic anti-Communism (of Cold War liberalism and social democracy) and Stalinophilic “militancy” (e.g., Maoism, Guevarism, etc.) — that led to the naturalization of the degeneration of the Left into resignation and abdication, originating in the inadequate response by the 1960s “New” Left to the problems of the post-1920s-30s “Old” Left. In our estimation, the 1960s New Left remained beholden to Stalinism — including the lie that Lenin led to Stalin — to the great detriment of possibilities for emancipatory politics up to today.

In attempting to read this history of the accelerated demise and self-liquidation of the Left after the 1960s “against the grain,” we face a problem discussed by Nietzsche in his essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” (1873):

“A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. . . . People or ages serving life in this way, by judging and destroying a past, are always dangerous and in danger. . . . It is an attempt to give oneself, as it were, a past after the fact, out of which we may be descended in opposition to the one from which we are descended.” [Nietzsche translation by Ian Johnston at: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/history.htm]

However, as Karl Korsch wrote, in “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923):

“[Marx wrote that] ‘[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence’ [Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)]. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch.” [Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy (NLB: New York and London, 1970), 58]

As Adorno wrote, in Negative Dialectics (1966):

“The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [of theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. . . . The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that ‘world history is the world tribunal’. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.”
[T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (Continuum: New York, 1983), 143-144]

Platypus is concerned with exploring the improbable but not impossible tasks and project of the reemergence of a critical Left with emancipatory social intent. We look forward to making a critical but vital contribution towards a possible “return to Marx” for the potential reinvigoration of the Left in coming years. We invite and welcome those who wish to share in and contribute to this project. |P