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Review of Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou, eds., Revolt and crisis in Greece: Between a present yet to pass and a future still to come (Oakland: AK Press & Occupied London, 2011).

Thodoris Velissaris

Platypus Review 41 | November 2011

[Article PDF]  [Review PDF]

“What is happening here exceeds us.” (199)

THERE IS A BAD THEORETICAL HABIT common among leftists: the confirmation of revolutionary aspirations through an unmediated verification by the “facts” or “data.” The ghost of an “objective” reality obscures the effort to grasp the “concrete” as the combination of many abstractions and, instead, “a chaotic representation [Vorstellung] of the whole” (Marx) is preferred, offering a temporary foundation for self-affirmation and miraculously turning a “bad” reality into a “good” one. A more critical way to regard “facts,” related to the pursuit and furtherance of freedom in society, is forgotten if not defamed today. As Max Horkheimer once put it: “But in regard to the essential kind of change at which the critical theory aims, there can be no corresponding concrete perception of it until it actually comes about. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the eating here is still in the future. Comparison with similar historical events can be drawn only in a limited degree.”[1] While our ability to change the world diminishes, the problem of the self-serving fallacy of reference to the insuperable “objective” character of reality becomes more apparent.

To cite some recent examples, various anarchists, under the rubric of the political tendencies of “communization,” found a verification of their theories in the English riots. This falls into a pattern: Nepalese guerillas “verify” the aspirations of Maoism; the struggle of “indignados” verifies libertarian impulses; and, finally, the Arab Spring and the Wisconsin protests verify for the entire global “Left” that we are on the right track. People feel obliged to prove repeatedly that the “struggle continues,” only to forget the fact of our impotency. To recall a verse by Stéphane Mallarmé: “Le Néant parti, reste le château de la pureté!” (“With nothingness gone, there remains the chateau of purity!”) Experience assures the “Left” that its nothingness is dispelled, so that its chateau of purity can stay intact.

This is the manner in which the book under consideration approaches the case of the Greek December of 2008, specifically the uprising that marked it. To avoid any misinterpretation, this is a typically anarchist work, albeit of certain flavors. December 2008 in Greece is treated as a glorious, although temporary “event,”[2] affirming a way of thinking and acting, and helping to sustain these for the future.  The book, we are informed, is about the “social antagonist movement” (14). So much wishful thinking is contained in these three words! The volume has many merits and is excellent for familiarizing oneself with aspects of contemporary Greek reality. That said, the remainder of this intervention will focus on some of the book’s more problematic aspects.

Before doing so, we must briefly review the volume’s main contents. The editors present this work as “a collective attempt to map the time between the revolt of December 2008 and the crisis that followed” (14), offering material on both the former and the latter in three parts. The first part—entitled “The site: Athens”—is an introduction to the context of December’s events, offering a critical analysis of Athens in comparison to other cities across the world, as well as explicating the political atmosphere of the city and some relevant developments within it. The second part—“The event: December”—explores the events themselves. It begins historically, with the first essays covering the development of social struggles in Greece since the end of the military junta (1974), the recent period of “structural” capitalist transformations in the country, and the evolution of alternative media in the years preceding December. This approach leads to viewing December as the culmination of prior developments; the remaining essays in the second part draw attention also to what was radically new by shedding light on various aspects of what happened and what this means for Greece and the “movement” in general (as well as the way December is conceived abroad). The third and final part of the book—“Crisis”—provides a wealth of information about the Greek crisis, emphasizing the opportunities for change that it presents. According to the contributors, the crisis itself necessitates not only action but theory, and the attempts presented and described here all point to potential fulfillments of anarchist conceptions of this demand.

Turning our attention to the volume’s central arguments, it should be noted that the text is structured around a wide range of issues, all of which can be characterized as elements of reality—“data”—supposedly unaffected by our subjectivity: a chronology of events, accounts of urban planning, alternative media, class, existential private feelings, etc. It is on the basis of such “data” that the contributors feel licensed to offer their political estimations. However, the most important factor of contemporary reality is constantly evaded: namely, ideology. Certainly, the necessity of ideology is difficult to address. Regardless of this difficulty, as an expression of our critical consciousness and self-understanding—and, hence, of politics as a realm not reducible to the reactions of the oppressed—ideology must be taken into account. Insofar as there is any treatment of ideology in this book, it is at the descriptive level of history and remains external to the events themselves. The consciousness of past events—e.g., “metapolitefsi”[3] (211)—as well as the “self-criticism”[4] (199) contained in these essays is insufficiently critical. The context remains one of constant self-affirmation: modern Greek history is presented not as a series of defeats and failures but rather as the history of struggles culminating in the event December.

A boy shouts at riot police during a demonstration in front of the Greek parliament building in Athens

The Greek left protests the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, December 2008.

History is presented in an almost mythological manner, with December represented as its peak, recalling something like an eruption of natural forces. Its insurrectionist moment is presented as one that can change our lives along the lines of an unexpected tsunami impelling us towards freedom—too bad that it never really does, since freedom requires something more than blind movement! Mutatis mutandis, the anonymous power of capital comes to mind: a promise of emancipation never fulfilled and the blind hope that at some point it will be, despite all past disappointments. The poverty of events results in the poverty of theory, with images of December 2008 as the “culmination” of, or perhaps even surpassing, May ’68 (110 and 51).

It is worth examining in detail the two long essays, strongly characteristic of the volume as a whole, written by an “anti-authoritarian communist group from Athens”—“Children of the Galley” (TPTG) – whose work is heavily influenced by Gilles Dauvé. In a somewhat mysterious fashion, the event of the uprising is presented as a result of class transformations erupting spontaneously (that is to say, objectively). The failure of the uprising is presented as a result, again, of class transformations and class composition (once again, objectively, but “objective” as before, along the lines of a positivist sociological conception that dogmatically assumes the separation of subject and object and thus fails to grapple with social practices as forms of consciousness). According to this interpretation, the uprising failed due to socio-economic limitations and the state repression that followed. What does one make of this argument? The following conclusion is inescapable: as representatives of the Left, we are perfect and would achieve the world if not for these objective limits and the repressive state.

TPTG praise the “spontaneous and uncontrolled character of the rebellion” and they do not concern themselves with the problem that the lack of left-wing organization and leadership typically means unconscious right-wing—and thus regressive—organization and leadership. The foundation of their analysis is “class” as a separate object. “Class” determines everything. TPTG views political mediation as pathological (118 and 121), as if to accept or reject it is a matter of taste—as if, out there, something can exist immediately for us. Anarchists have never sympathized with dialectics!

With a penchant for extreme reductionism, TPTG explains the capitalist crisis as an exploitability crisis of labor power driven by the proletariat’s supposed resistance. The Greek crisis was provoked by proletarian struggles and December was responsible for accelerating these struggles (and, hence, the crisis) (253). Absent from this account is any reckoning with the decay and eventual death of the international Left over the course of the twentieth century. “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” TPTG have given themselves such a place. Namely, class: “the real cause of the crisis: the convulsive but persistent refusal of the global proletariat to become totally subordinated to capital” (270). What Lenin would have called their “economism” or “tailism” is fully exposed in the ceaseless quest for “autonomous proletarian action” (270). As a comrade of mine remarked, people all around the world try desperately to organize themselves politically—except for people like TPTG!

TPTG, seduced by their own anti-Leninism, confuse the problems of the self-valorization of capital with the proletariat’s acts of resistance. If anything, crises are a product of bourgeois “equality” and its normally functioning exploitation. In the era of the First World War, it is true that the proletariat’s struggles brought about the crisis of capital, at its depths, but this was only due to the mediation (cursed for TPTG!) of the revolutionary leadership provided by figures such as Lenin and Luxemburg—and this crisis was, simultaneously, the eve of revolution (in the sense that revolution is bourgeois society in its acute crisis, not the total overcoming of bourgeois society).[5] If catastrophes and crises continuously occur—but without any prospect of overcoming them—it is precisely because of our failure to successfully resist subordination to capital, not because we resisted it so well! It is the failure of the Left (that is, our failure) that accelerates the crisis. TPTG is like the boxing coach who, during a fight, keeps congratulating his semi-conscious athlete until the final devastating knock-out blow is delivered by the opponent.

The analysis of the crisis remains superficial throughout the book. This is by no means accidental, for there is no Left in crisis to expose acutely the symptoms of the crisis itself. So, for example, Yiannis Kaplanis’s contribution (and, on this count, the contributions of others as well) is for the most part descriptive. David Graeber’s chapter is transhistorical in perspective and thus fails to deal with the peculiarity of debt in capitalist modernity. “Money” and “debt” are not discussed and explored as mediations of value, but rather as ruling-class impositions on society and in terms of “the arbitrary nature of power.”[6]

It is not the case that the editors and contributors do not understand the problem of “the lack of a well-developed theory” (23). It is the case, however, that “revolt” is presented in these pages as an automatic process precisely because of our increased inability to change the course of world events. We seem to have internalized the famous image of the chess-playing automaton provided in the first of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)—the very image that he used to criticize the false optimism of “historical materialism”! Fantasies of a practice without theory are supplemented by fantasies of a theory without practice: It is difficult to determine if this is merely an indication of thoughtless irresponsibility or also the expression of a real cul-de-sac. The problem, however, is fully revealed: For the editors, “more significant than the sequence of events is the occurrence of the events themselves” (24).

The situation in Greece

The contemporary situation in Greece is related to the aforementioned issues: the “Left” in Greece thinks of itself as possessing the most appropriate theory and praxis for emancipation today, and is waiting for the “masses” to follow its prescriptions. The fact that the “Left” as it is presently constituted (indeed, across the globe) is part of the problem, or indeed is the central problem, is never seriously considered. Once again, a dogmatically separated and fully equipped “observer” awaits her “object” of verification. “The struggle continues” in our minds in order to avoid reflecting on its extinction!


Greek anti-austerity protests in Athens, June 2011.

Rather than separately examining all aspects of the contemporary “Left” in Greece, we will briefly sketch an outline of its principal tendencies.

Despite the ongoing unprecedented (for post-war Greece) economic catastrophe, it is obvious that the Left is not advancing here in any sense. It is this unavoidable truth that provides the solid basis for a serious discussion of the Left’s decline in Greece (and across the world). Despite the massive offensive launched against the working class and the spectacular “resistance” to it, nothing yet has happened to benefit the Left or the working class. All are waiting for higher vote totals in the next elections to verify their significance. The fact that the right and even the extreme right are also waiting for an even greater increase in their share of the vote does not seem to bother anyone on the “Left.”

When the first symptoms of the Greek crisis, in its recent more acute and urgent forms, broke out, our problems as a “Left” in Greece emerged as well. While previously, when such urgent issues appeared, we felt free to luxuriate in our utopian speculations (as more or less paper exercises), things are now much more serious. Bourgeois class representatives present the situation as a black-and-white choice: either austerity or catastrophe. Of course, this is a lie—but in an alienated world, lies do not lose their strength simply by being revealed. Ideology is more real than any “actual” reality, and it must be taken seriously and worked through in order to possibly be overcome. If we are going to delegitimize the “Establishment” and its “solutions,” are we ready to offer any alternatives? If we are going to accelerate the crisis, could this lead to any progressive development? While pondering these questions, the words of Hal Draper return again and again: Marx argued “against both those who say the workers can take power any Sunday, and those who say never.”[7] Can we indeed take power “any Sunday?” And, if not, how can we avoid falling into the abyss of thinking that we can never do so? And, to put it bluntly, how can we even try to think in such terms when the only “reality” available to work with is the one the “Establishment” is offering us?[8] To deny austerity does not seem to open up a path to emancipatory social-political struggle but rather to a rogues’ gallery of right-wing pseudo-saviors, discontented sections of the capitalist class, nationalists, bureaucrats, et al.

Karl Korsch’s words haunt the present situation: “Over a long period, when Marxism was slowly spreading throughout Europe, it had in fact no practical revolutionary task to accomplish. Therefore problems of revolution had ceased, even in theory, to exist as problems of the real world for the great majority of Marxists, orthodox as well as revisionist”[9]—how much more true today! The “Left” in the crisis in Greece is eager either to suggest pseudo-radical/reformist solutions, pointing to earlier phases of capitalist development (e.g., calls to nationalize the banks), or to attempt miraculously to be a true “revolutionary” agent in the absence of a real revolutionary situation or even a real possibility of one. In both cases, “actionism” and “impatience with theory” (to recall Adorno’s 1969 essay “Resignation”) reigns. Reformists and revolutionaries are trying desperately to prove that they are such in a period of “resistance,” when neither reformism nor revolution seems possible.[10]

From abroad, many leftists not well acquainted with the present dangers of authoritarianism in Greek society (and with their bank accounts probably safe in one of the leading capitalist countries) have recommended that Greece simply “default” (with the casualness of suggesting a nice evening walk!) and accept a period of deeper crisis, with the hope that things will be better for “emancipation” in the long run. It seems that these individuals want simply to oppose any capitalist development in order to prove that they are “anti-capitalist”—as if capitalism can be opposed from the outside, and as if they are posing an “alternative” to capitalism. They persist in the belief that “structural” or “systemic” change may lead to real politics, when in actuality the basis for such politics does not exist.

Let us consider a historical example of this reasoning. In the Arab world, various nationalist leaders were supported by leftists in previous decades in the hope that pure structural changes would improve emancipatory prospects. The Arab Spring, in its unfolding tragedy, demonstrates how the “ruse of reason” trusted by these leftists simply leads to more disasters. Our friends from abroad have forgotten that any “structural” change within or beyond capitalism necessarily involves issues of (false) consciousness.

Turning our attention to some of the basic problems that left-wing politics in Greece has exhibited during the recent period, we must raise the issue of the continuing Stalinism of much of the Greek “Left.” The term “Stalinism” is not intended to point to issues of authoritarianism, although these remain problems as well. It is used, rather, in the sense of “socialism in one country” (and “nationalism”). Across a wide range of the “Left” spectrum in Greece, the contemporary situation is presented in the following light: the government consists of traitors or incompetent people and Greece will be able to perform fine (or, simply, better) economically on a national level in different political conditions (with regard to these conditions, opinion varies among tendencies pointing to a progressive government, a popular front, a popular power, or even “socialism”). This perspective tends to ignore, or to oppose abstractly, international developments, with the danger of making things worse.[11] Of course, most of these leftists would say that they aspire to an international struggle but nothing in their proposals and programs convinces one of this.[12]

The only “internationalists” that transcend this Stalinist national framework are either the capitalist exploiters themselves or reformists who cultivate illusions about the nature of capitalist social relations and institutions that supposedly can be “reformed” for the benefit of the majority. In both these aforementioned tendencies (“internationalist” and nationalist), what is common is the appeal to technocratic “solutions,” which begs the question of politics and emancipation.

Finally, there are segments of the “Left” trying to overcome the aforementioned Scylla and Charybdis of Stalinist nationalism and capitalist internationalism. But they remain without any serious political influence and, more importantly, try to deal with these problems abstractly, offering transhistorical prescriptions that involve copying and pasting combinations of the supposedly “correct” balance of theory and praxis. A mistake typical of such an approach is the invocation of the historical Bolshevik demand regarding the national debt—namely, to erase it (which they accomplished). But today’s ambitious “Bolsheviks” forget that the historical Bolsheviks made similar demands when not only Soviets but also the Second International existed!

In contemporary Greece, an agent of potentially emancipatory change does not exist. It is imperative to recognize our impotency so that we might overcome it. Right now, we pay witness to increased oppression but not to a historical consciousness capable of grasping it, working through it, and potentially overcoming it.

With regard to the issue of authoritarianism, what is meant (from a Marxist perspective) is the tendency of people to revolt against an authority only in favor of another one. The spectacular activism of the oppressed may involve an attempt to constitute another form of oppression. In Greece, we have witnessed various examples of this tendency, and the mention of a few of them will serve to illustrate the point. In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of the oppressed marched in northern Greece in a nationalistic/reactionary fervor regarding the issue of “Macedonia’s” name. During the next decade, thousands followed the lead of a reactionary archbishop and demonstrated against the reform that prohibited the reference of religion in identity cards. In both cases, “shadowy” authorities were presented as a threat to national sovereignty and the oppressed raged against them only to strengthen real social domination. Finally, in recent years we have seen a series of pogroms against immigrants involving not only the tolerance but also the participation of important elements of Greek society (including elements of the oppressed). Immigrants are the scapegoats by which the oppressed “revolt” along lines that are in accordance with their oppressors. Certainly, this kind of authoritarianism has existed since the nineteenth century (post-1848) and persists to this day. The phenomenon of authoritarianism is not mentioned here in order to impugn struggles for emancipation, but only to emphasize the crucial importance of taking it under serious consideration in any such struggle. Unfortunately, such considerations are not entertained by the Greek “Left” today. Anti-capitalist struggles within capitalism cannot avoid grappling with the specter of authoritarianism. It is only with a consciousness of such dangers that these struggles might generate progressive prospects.[13]

In conclusion, returning to the most obvious problems of the Greek “Left” today, it must be recognized that the “movement” of the “indignados” did not manage to pose a political alternative (which it was incapable of doing in any case, under the present conditions). On the contrary, its overall failure has rendered this lack of an alternative more acute and obvious.[14]

What will happen after the “summer vacations” that followed the “spring offensives” (to recall the title of an old Murray Bookchin article)? As things stand right now, any development is likely to bring more catastrophes. In dealing with this problem, there is not only a necessity to act but also a necessity to think, the latter possibly being of greater importance since no one seems to be doing it. Various forms of resistance are indeed necessary. Equally necessary, however, is a critical recognition of what the nature of this resistance is and what its prospects actually are. As Adorno once put it: “The deluded workers are directly dependent on those who can still just see and tell of their delusion. Their hatred of intellectuals has changed accordingly. It has aligned itself to the prevailing commonsense views. The masses no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals.”[15]|P

September 2011

[1]. Max Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” in Critical Theory: Selected Essays (New York: Continuum, 2002 [1937]), 188–243.

[2]. Some contributors to the book, following Badiou’s notion so much in vogue today, view December as an “event.” The mystification and emptiness contained in this jargon is apparent when one realizes that for this kind of reasoning the Great French Revolution of 1789 and December are both “events.”

[3]. As explained in the glossary of the book (339), “metapolitefsi” (literally meaning “political transition”) is a term “used to describe the historical period of modern Greek history that follows the end of the colonels’ dictatorship (1974). Many believed the revolt of December 2008 to signify the end of Metapolitefsi.” Christos Lynteris’s article fails to adequately grasp the fundamental character of the present as the self-transformation of metapolitefsi, which was itself the self-transformation of Greece after the Second World War. To be more accurate, instead of labeling these historical developments as self-transformations we should refer to them as self-regressions, for nothing “real” about metapolitefsi is revealed by the current crisis. Apocalypse under these conditions is more obfuscatory: it is impossible.

[4]. Soula M.’s contribution is also problematic insofar as its perspective remains external, thinking of problems of bourgeois consciousness as characteristic mainly of the oppressors and not of December, in its momentous purity.

[5]. In this sense, Christos Lynteris’s assertion that Marx supposedly considered crisis “to be a structural trait” (209) is equally one-sided.

[6]. Graeber has recently published a book on this very topic: Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2011).

[7]. Hal Draper, “The Two Souls of Socialism,” New Politics 5.1 (Winter 1966): 57–84. Available online at <>.

[8]. For decades, the Greek “Left” has simply been following capitalism’s orbit, trying to “resist” its dynamics, while the initiative was/is always left to the ruling class. Perhaps this was unavoidable, but it is positively reactionary to present this “resistance” as a series of successes.

[9]. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970 [1923]). Available online at <>.

[10]. Similar issues were discussed lucidly by presenters on a panel on the problematic forms of anticapitalism today organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society. A transcript of the forum, "The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance," is available online at /2007/11/12/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-resistance/.

[11]. For example, a reason why some sections of the “Left” demand an exit from the EU and the Eurozone is in order to implement an independent monetary policy, citing in support of such action the possibility of devaluing the currency and antagonistically increasing Greece’s share in international exports. In appropriate conditions, such developments could trigger more virulent forms of nationalism and much worse.

[12]. Quite popular at present is the idea of forming some sort of front (national or popular) to “resist” an attack that is considered similar to the Nazi occupation of Greece during the Second World War. This conception of capital as an aggressor outside the nation-state is unacceptable, especially for Marxists.

[13]. With regard to the KKE’s (the Communist Party of Greece—the largest “Left” party in Greece) authoritarianism, the problem again is not so much their strict manner of organizing (which is preferable to the non-organization of the anarchists) but with the illusions they cultivate, in particular that the problems of authoritarianism (or of post-1848 capitalism) can be resolved at the national level by a “popular front” under their leadership. This is the central problem with their sympathies for Stalin and is bound up with the ease with which they are capable of baptizing another form of capitalism or authority as “socialism.”

[14]. This “movement,” of course, given its importance, suffers from both its “anti-authoritarianism”—baptizing incoherence as merit and lack of organization and vision as hope (confirming again, today, that “direct democracy” is usually invoked so that people can maintain the illusion that everything will happen spontaneously and miraculously)—and its authoritarianism, which is on display in its hostility towards, and even rage against, trade unions and class issues in general.

[15]. Theodor W. Adorno, “Imaginative Excesses,” New Left Review 200 (July–August 1993): 12–14.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Haseeb Ahmed

Platypus Review 16 | October 2009


FOR YEARS Theodor Adorno’s theoretical work has suffered from either neglect or semi-hostile “interpretation.” It is therefore refreshing to see Detlev Claussen, who studied under Adorno at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt from 1966 to 1971, take a more sympathetic approach to the study of Adorno’s philosophy and intellectual life. In Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius, Claussen attempts to track the historical and biographical factors that influenced Adorno’s critical theory and, in doing so, strives to carefully reconstruct both the changing context and the abiding problematic that Adorno was attempting to grasp in and through his work.

The late 1960s witnessed an upsurge of student activism that culminated in massive strikes and demonstrations worldwide beginning in 1968 and extending into 1969, the year of Adorno’s death. Though they had learned much from him, the student New Left in this period strongly counter-identified against their teacher, Adorno, who typified for them the old and impotent Left they sought to supersede. Following the lead of Herbert Marcuse, who said just after Adorno’s death that “there is no one who can represent Adorno or speak for him,” Claussen does not engage in a critique of Adorno’s students and contemporaries on behalf of his former teacher, but attempts instead to allow Adorno to speak for himself by drawing from a huge array of intimate correspondence, diary entries, and assorted works, many of them previously unpublished. Claussen makes the point straight away that Adorno’s criticism of the New Left and the parting of ways between Adorno and Marcuse over the latter’s support for it was not exceptional but consistent with Adorno’s lifelong history of remaining true to the Left by criticizing it. Claussen notes that Adorno’s lectures around this time attempted to clarify how “the new is the longing for the new itself: that is what everything new suffers from” (327). It is for this reason that there must be an unrelenting differentiation between “representation for the purposes of agitation and practical reality” (336), something that the students failed to realize as the situation in 1968 escalated, and to which both Adorno and the student movement ultimately fell victim.


Theodor Adorno in his youth.

For Claussen, Adorno’s childhood growing up in a Jewish bourgeois household in Frankfurt is crucial for understanding him, and Claussen returns to it throughout the book. Adorno is portrayed as the last generation to know the “broken promises of happiness” of the long Bourgeois era, which, at “the end of the nineteenth century denie[d] tradition by inventing it” (52), specifically through the cultivation of individual interests. For Adorno this meant chiefly musical pursuits. Claussen contrasts the relationship that Adorno and his family had to their Jewish origins with that of his colleague Leo Lowenthal and mentor Siegfried Kracauer. While Kracauer and Lowenthal would describe themselves as “hybrids,” unable to reconcile tradition and secularized life, Adorno appeared to be relatively untouched by this dilemma. However, this tension between the lived Jewish experience and enlightened liberalism was not entirely arbitrary since, on Claussen’s reading of Adorno, bourgeois ideology found its necessary conclusion with the rise of National Socialism. Claussen makes the point that this attitude towards “bourgeois” culture and society conditioned Adorno’s work throughout his life; after his return to Germany in 1953 Adorno wrote, “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more of a threat than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy” (335).

Before the Nazis took power, Adorno studied in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg, the radical modernist composer, during which time Adorno had to reconcile his growing interests in philosophy and sociology with the pursuit of music. Claussen tracks how this tension remained constant and informed his work throughout his life. Adorno was repeatedly “forced to insist that social categories could not simply be applied to musical material from the outside but had to be generated from the material itself” (113). In this way, issues of technique in musical production could be potentially critical of the social situation that produced it, albeit never in a direct, unmediated way. The failure to recognize this capacity in art left it to the mere pathological function of “veiling” social reality. Furthermore, Claussen points out that the project of the institute was to query the character of a culture whose task “is to conceal the regression into barbarism” without having recourse to the tradition of Marxist categories that functioned also as signals for Stalinist and McCarthyite suppression (202). Claussen notes that, even today, much of the critique of Adorno internalizes the apparent contradistinction between theory and practice, by which Adorno is made to appear as a failed musician turned theorist. Claussen then goes on to quote Adorno as saying, “because of biographical destiny and assuredly also because of certain psychological mechanisms I have not achieved nearly as much as a composer as I believe I could have achieved” (133). But this was not merely a lament on Adorno’s part. Rather, it is the attempt to register the damage inflicted on individual life by a form of social organization that is not adequate to itself.

Beyond Adorno’s childhood and musical upbringing, Claussen illuminates the personal and professional difficulties that constantly confronted the intellectuals, grouped around Max Horkheimer, known as the Frankfurt School. Of Adorno’s exile in the United States during World War II, Claussen reports that Adorno found himself isolated and “out of the firing line” (the title of an essay he wrote), along with other Jewish intellectuals, as the systematic murder of Jews in Europe remained distant, if ever-present. In this context, friendship took on an even greater importance for Adorno as an essential way of knowing himself. Claussen describes personal relationships that shed light on different aspects of Adorno’s inner life and the potentials he wished to realize, since “for Adorno bourgeois society continued to live on in ‘the minds of intellectuals, who [were] at one and the same time the last enemies of the bourgeois and the last bourgeois’” (137). Adorno’s deep affection for his friends permeates the book: To his friend Fritz Lang, whom he nicknamed the Badger, Adorno was Hippopotamus King Archibald, while Horkheimer was the Soft Pear. In a birthday letter Charlie Chaplin became the Bengal Tiger as Vegetarian. Imagination was not reserved only for its use in creating work but as a way of shaping one’s inner life, as Adorno employed playful references to our animal origins to animate the characters closest to him. If the experience of living in the United States strengthened Adorno’s friendships with his fellow exiles, the political climate that led to their exile also complicated and strained these relationships. Living in the wake of the collapse of organized revolutionary Marxist politics, each member of this diverse and eclectic émigré intelligentsia had to decide for herself a relationship to the Soviet Union and “the Party.” Claussen details Adorno’s painful political partings with friends and comrades like Ernst Bloch and Bertolt Brecht, whose attitude, for Adorno, prefigured the anti-intellectualism of the students in 1968. Adorno refused to heed the call for “unity” between theory and practice which was the official Communist Party line and later a slogan of the students in 1968. In both cases it resulted in the suppression of critical thought.

Furthermore, the Frankfurt School group was not exempt from pressures of economic survival, and Claussen offers detailed accounts of how friendships fell prey to rivalry in the competition for financial and moral support. The experience of suppression in both the GDR (East Germany) and America in the McCarthy period showed how easy it was to fall victim to inquisitorial campaigns (156). Adorno did not become a full professor until the 1950s upon his return to Frankfurt, with the help of his old friend and benefactor Max Horkheimer. Even then, he was contemptuously referred to by his colleagues, who had continued on the faculty through the Nazi era, as a “reparation-professor,” or someone who had achieved his position undeservedly through West Germany’s policy of making reparations for Nazism by appointing Jews to faculty positions. Adorno only reached popular audiences in Germany with the post-war publication of his book Minima Moralia. All this fits with Claussen’s image of Adorno as a “late bloomer,” an opinion shared by many of Adorno’s colleagues.

But while Claussen illustrates clearly how such friendships were formative for Adorno, at these points the identity between Adorno’s life and its presentation in the book become confused and Adorno’s own criticisms about biography as the bourgeois idealization of the individual, the topic with which Claussen paradoxically opens the book, seem applicable to the work itself. Nevertheless, Claussen’s careful and sympathetic rendering of various aspects of Adorno’s theory emerges as the greatest strength of One Last Genius.

Claussen identifies the most important thought-figures for Adorno, developed in different ways throughout his work, as being those of identity and non-identity. As Adorno puts it, “Freedom postulates the existence of something non-identical” (247). There is an integral link between individuals through a shared form of subjectivity.

The persistent contradictions of social life under capitalism point to the possibility beyond, but as generated from within capitalism itself. For Claussen it is this basis that shapes Adorno’s aesthetic writings from within and renders their ideological content. The attempt to superimpose political content onto aesthetic form, however, transforms it from an object of negative reflection into a tool for the affirmation of that which it seeks to critique. Claussen reports that in a radio talk prepared by Adorno in 1962 in honor of the death of Hanns Eisler, another one of Schoenberg’s students whom Claussen’s dubs Adorno’s “non-identical brother,” a small note appears: “Socially the relation of the intellectual to the proletariat amounts to a failed identification” (308). Referring to earlier sections of the book, we can understand that what Claussen is conveying is that certain Marxist intellectuals eliminated the standpoint of critical theory by attempting to collapse it into the ubiquitous standpoint of the proletariat in the name of unity; Eisler is now best known for his composition of East Germany’s anthem. To identify with a proletariat whose political consciousness had been seriously undermined by political failures of the 20th century and who had been barred from meaningful, organized political practice by the dominance of Stalinism in the international Left—this would be an abdication of the attempt to describe the conditions of life under capital, in the face of those conditions.

According to Claussen, the categories of identity and non-identity are essentially derived from psychoanalysis, and this appropriation is one of the Frankfurt School’s greatest contributions to Marxist critical theory. In texts such as The Authoritarian Personality, hailed by C. Wright Mills in 1954 as “the most influential book of the last decade,” Adorno and his colleagues anticipated the underlying authoritarianism of the supposedly “anti-authoritarian” Left of the 1960s, a character structure that is still with us today. In this text, Adorno labored to understand how people could act against their own interests, and on such a massive scale, while at the same time allowing for the potential critical recognition of such cathartic behaviors that proliferated with the rise of fascism globally. On this point Claussen quotes Adorno: “the capacity for fear and for happiness are the same, the unrestricted openness to experience amounting to the self-abandonment in which the vanquished rediscovers himself” (246). One can recognize oneself in advanced capitalism’s forms of mass mediation in both their apocalyptic and banal forms.

Claussen elaborates at length on the effect and meaning of Adorno’s most famous dictum, that “after Auschwitz to write poetry is barbaric,” a statement that curiously attracted poets and writers like Paul Celan and Samuel Beckett. Claussen makes the point that it is usually quoted without the following clarifying clause, from Adorno’s last major work, Aesthetic Theory: “After Auschwitz no further poems are possible, except on the foundation of Auschwitz itself” (330). However, in a review of Eisler’s work, Adorno admits that this argument “stems from politics, not aesthetic reflection.” A radical negative poetry can register the absence of both a collective that would be able to deliver a sense of meaning more authoritative than private attempts, and a personal poetry able to deliver “truth in itself in the interest of society” (300). In an effective synthesis of biographical research and theoretical analysis, Claussen shows how this dictum was developed as an attempt to challenge radical left-wing artists, such as Brecht and Eisler, to register the changing character of one’s social situation and to respond to it through aesthetic form. The failure of reason, which allowed itself to be instrumentalized in the systematic murder of millions of Jews, still also contains within it the kernel of individual thought, through which freedom can become generalizable. By overcoming its own form through consciousness of itself, it can make good on the promise that allows life to carry on. This is what formulating the non-identical would mean.

Conditions of life under capitalism are in constant flux and seem to deny the essential forms of social relations at their core. For that very reason such social relations must be approached as historically specific. Specifically, Claussen points out that anti-Semitism was “not the function of an authoritarian national character but… a historically determined manifestation of violence that could not be eliminated simply by an enlightened program of information.” In 1967, before the student uprising, this was the real point of contention between Adorno and Marcuse, something that remains a key factor in the reception of Adorno’s work, according to Claussen. Today we see Marcuse’s argument reproduced in a degenerate form in the criticism of mass media as the “manufacturing of consent” (Noam Chomsky, after Walter Lippmann), which assumes that culture, as the form of representation of society, and society itself are identical with one another. This eliminates the core of freedom, conceding it to the “totally administered world.” It is this core non-identity that Adorno never loses sight of in his writings and that Claussen traces throughout his work, revealing Adorno to be a far more “optimistic” theorist than colleagues like Marcuse. Claussen similarly shows how Bloch’s and Brecht’s work to “reconstruct a meaningful connection between reason and revolution… was irrevocably doomed after the Stalinist regression and the fact of Auschwitz” (327), because these thinkers allowed an idealized reason to obscure the reality of the historical moment they were hoping to address. This also differentiates them from Adorno, who was willing to register the effects of the cataclysm on himself and, in that way, on everyone else subject to the shared historical moment.

Benjamin argued through the dialectic of continuity and change that each historical moment up to and including the present has to be understood in the terms of its form of appearance (Schein), and it is for this reason that the categories of identity and non-identity offer a way of registering the character of an otherwise opaque form of subjectivity. The book Adorno: One Last Genius at times makes it difficult to differentiate between Adorno’s lived experience and the interpretation of it offered up by Claussen. Nevertheless, it offers a robust historical and theoretical foundation for understanding the categories of Adorno’s thought. The pleasure of seeing in such great detail how ideas were a way of living for Adorno and those around him, allowing them to understand, in and through their own lives, what it was that gave them form, is exhilarating. Thus revealed, Adorno’s critical categories retain their capacity to deepen our understanding of present social reality. Claussen’s contribution advances and broadens the potential use of these categories, even if it risks obscuring them even further by exploring them in a biographical form. |P

Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Ashley Weger

Platypus Review 16 | October 2009


“It was not the economics of Communism, nor the great power of trade unions, nor the excitement of underground politics that claimed me; my attention was caught by the similarity of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred peoples into a whole.”
— Richard Wright, Black Boy

RANDI STORCH’S RED CHICAGO takes to task prevailing caricatures of American Communism during the so-called “Third Period” of the late twenties and early thirties, a period in the history of American Communism frequently criticized for its growing ideological rigidity, its organizational Stalinization, and its ultimate failure to revitalize the flagging world revolution and to check the threat of fascism. Against such views, Storch argues historians have been unfair to the early Chicago Communists, falsely constructing them either as mannequins manipulated by Soviet puppeteers, or else as heroic defenders of the city’s working class, a collection of hyper-romantic organic radicals whose every breath stood in defiance of both employers and the party itself. Storch, whose political imagination is less that of a historian than an anthropologist, attempts to resist these tendencies by uncovering the stories, personalities, and politics of Chicago’s Communists with more nuances in mind than the usual Stalinist, anti-communist, or anti-Stalinist histories. In place of the old preoccupations, Storch proposes parallel analyses of Soviet policy during the Third Period and local stories and practices of party organizers, members, and affiliates. In so doing, Storch postulates that party leaders, youth organizers, workers, and intellectuals each wished to paint the town red, albeit with different hues. Posing an inquiry as to how and why Chicago Communists’ crimsons, corals, roses, and maroons maintained their distinct character as part of a red Chicago offers an opportunity to interact with the fractures and complexities Communist politics assumed in its turn towards Stalinism.

In one sense, the combination offers insight into “the period’s broader social and political context and calls attention to the social, political, economic, and cultural forces that shaped American working-class life from the 1920s through the mid-1930s… [and explains] why and how ordinary people became radicalized” (5). Some were born into socialism, others gravitated to it from other radical traditions, and still others shared Richard Wright’s perhaps simplistic aim of joining together “the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed people all over the world” (54). The manner in which Storch’s work illuminates the variety of inspirations Chicagoans found in Communism during these years is effective in her conception of her work as a community study, but misses the mark in evaluating the political underpinning of such a Communist culture. It asks rather than assumes, “who were Chicago’s Communists? How, when, and why did they implement Third Period policy? What did they actually do in the city’s neighborhoods and industries? How did they understand the party line? When and why did they reinterpret it?” (4) However, Red Chicago cannot resist understanding Stalinism as a force somehow alien to party membership, rather than as a nuanced ideological reality that they actively participated in constructing. Perhaps, then, the use of Storch’s text lies in its psychological analysis of party members, but it does not operate as a political history.

The volume of information Storch compiles in Red Chicago is considerable. The book usefully highlights key tendencies within the Communist Party during the Third Period, and delves into considerable detail regarding recruitment, party culture, relief initiatives, radical trade unionism (and its demise), youth organizing, women’s rights, and anti-racism. In some ways, Third Period organizing appeared to take a dramatic turn to the Left, adopting a quixotic rhetoric of revolution. A microcosm of such Stalinist ultra-Left tactics is found in the dual-unionism strategy epitomized by the Trade Union Unity League (TUUL), which vilified the “moral capitalism” of organized labor under the AFL-CIO as a hazard and hindrance to working-class organizing. Under the Popular Front, the hyperbolically sectarian TUUL became passé, quickly forgotten in a rhetorical and political shift away from revolution towards unapologetic reformism, as groups previously described as “fascist” became close allies in the power shift inaugurated by the unfolding of the Second World War.

Storch claims these contradictions and paradoxes are partially products of the intense politicization of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chicago was no exception, as its radical past acted as a peculiar foundation for its vein of Communism. The site of the Haymarket Riots and of the struggle against the resulting bogus prosecutions, not to mention the home of a massive eight-hour movement, Chicago was also the backdrop to the Pullman Strike, and a major center in the founding, first, of the Industrial Workers of the World and, later, of the American Communist Party. The rich history of struggle amongst anarchists, socialists, and communists for leadership of Chicago’s labor movement was clearly evident in the earliest days of the American Communist Party, when party leaders maintained contacts and friendships with “an array of activists struggling to find their own answers to the problems they saw inherent in the capitalist system” (9). Leftists of all varieties were in frequent dialogue and dispute with one another, polemicizing in parks to crowds of thousands: a political landscape almost unimaginable to modern readers, and antithetical to policies of zero collaboration.

Chicago epitomized a particular imagination of the proletariat. Brawny and bustling, built by 19th century industrial manufacturing and mass transportation, it was home to many militant workers, including thousands of highly politicized immigrants and black migrants, each of whom came to the party “with their own newspapers, cultural groups, institutions, and willingness to quarrel” (19). Of Chicago’s Communists, nearly half spoke foreign languages, and a quarter were African American; the party also included an abundant unemployed population, though this often conflicted with its organizing strategies, which were based in the labor union. It is too easy, however, to distill the Chicago party culture to a fundamental essence, a tendency Storch does not entirely escape. It was cosmopolitan and traditional; it had communities propelled towards preserving ethnic identity, and those promoting Americanization; it grappled with issues of sexism and racism in the State and within the party, with limited degrees of success. Perhaps Chicago was the muscle of the Communist Party, but it hardly resigned itself to that alone: it was home to such radical spaces as the Dill Pickle Club, Bughouse Square, and the John Reed Club, where famous intellectuals, writers, and artists such as Richard Wright and Nelson Algren debated and created works of artistic and political significance. And yet, Storch’s portrait of the city supposes that intellectuals were (and, frighteningly, perhaps forever are) outside, looking in on the proletariat, rather than existing as an integral part of working-class politics. Striving to dismantle preconceptions of the early Communist Party, Storch falls short on recognizing her own problematic reproductions of certain historical fictions.

Storch’s fascination with cultural contexts, then, sometimes comes at the expense of fully characterizing a sober evaluation of the pervasiveness of Stalinist politics, which is frequently positioned as some sort of Soviet boogeyman rather than the worldwide reality of Communist politics that it actually was. This is exemplified by her treatment of the problem Trotskyism posed within the Third Period. From Storch’s claim that Chicago’s Trotskyist sympathizers and non-conformists were “infrequently expelled, not forever severed and, sometimes, even readmitted,” one might suppose that political intolerance was only a Soviet phenomenon (95). Storch produces an unfortunate historical imagination here: While Trotskyists in the Soviet Union are condemned to exile, work camps, and extermination, their American counterparts are assumed to be benignly tolerated by party members. It is a dangerous assumption, one that proposes that American Communists were not conscious agents in the repression of political dissidence. Albeit generally more amiable than the USSR, the Chicago Communist circles were hardly a space for internal polemicizing.

There were real political commitments and allegiances based on cues taken from Moscow, so that plenty of American Communists quickly came to assume the role of Stalinist counterparts in the Soviet Union. Chicago Communists tirelessly organized, recruited, and routinely burned themselves out for the party. Take, for instance, the 2,088 demonstrations that the Chicago Communists organized or participated in during the first five years of the Depression. Beyond protesting, organizing labor, and working on reform initiatives, the Communists formed party schools, hosted community functions, and created relief networks. The repression and economic depression of the time produced a steadfast, even uncritical belief in capitalism’s imminent demise—a belief guided in equal parts by eagerness, theoretical immaturity, and a collective memory of the October Revolution. So while retention was a serious problem for recruiters, membership increased four hundred percent nationwide and five hundred percent within Chicago during the Third Period. This is expressive of a central contradiction of the Third Period: revolutionary fervor, on the one hand, and on the other a dilution of strength, with size taking precedence over sustained, ideological commitment (36). While the Popular Front attracted even greater numbers, including formerly unresponsive white-collar workers and Marxist intellectuals, its emphasis on collaborative efforts surrounding anti-fascism emerged only after fascism had already gained momentum in Europe and, even then, occurred at the expense of clear ideological stances. The embodiment of such a betrayal exists in the apology made by Communists internationally for the Hitler-Stalin Pact. As international relations became confused by the rise of the right, along with the Second World War and its aftermath, the aims and ambitions behind ultra-Left tactics appeared as a misguided dream.

If the history of the Left is one ultimately of failure, the Communists of Red Chicago prove to be no exception. And yet, we must not be disillusioned or delusional in our disappointment, but instead admit that it is only in their confusions and missteps that we can find potential. Storch’s text is a microcosmic example of why we must re-evaluate our relationship with the past. While, practically, it teaches both of methods and mechanisms successful in engaging interest about communism and of the systems, structures, and spaces that can be used as support for inquiry, it also represents a certain intellectual and political poverty, one that Storch seeks to overcome, but cannot entirely escape. Red Chicago poses a challenge that it does not fully deliver upon: to seriously consider how a Marxist understanding has (d)evolved since the Third Period through a reconfiguration of imaginations regarding the Left’s past and its participants. In the scores of narratives found in Red Chicago, no one is totally exempt from or irredeemably victim to the particularities of Stalinism and the Soviet Union; by projecting fictions of helplessness and radical subjectivity onto the past, we negate the potentiality history has to offer our present. At the same time, optimism for our political future exists only in accurately pronouncing the failings of the historic Left in terms of a regression of the possibility in actualizing Marxist intents. |P

New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Greg Gabrellas

Platypus Review 15 | September 2009


IF THE COLOR LINE WAS THE PROBLEM of the American 20th century, then the 20th century did not manage to solve it. De jure segregation ended some forty years ago, and American social norms mostly bar the public expression of racist sentiment or stereotype. Yet by any measure—access to quality healthcare and education, rate of incarceration, etc.—black Americans remain proportionally worse off than their white peers. There remains a color line, but why? This question has bred a whole genus of specious answers. Take the Bell Curve genetic inheritance theory: poor genes make for poor IQ, poor IQ makes for poor minds, and poor minds make for poor people. For slightly less controversial variations, substitute “welfare queen” or “single mothers.” Rightly uncomfortable with transferring blame for a social pathology onto its victims, anti-racism activists offer another explanation. Racism, they claim, persists—invisible, yes, but inherent in oppressive social structures caused by the instincts of white society. For instance, when faced with two equally qualified candidates, employers will hire the one with the white sounding name. Such unconscious discrimination stalks black Americans, dooming them to social death. The persistence of the color line, this “anti-racist” explanation suggests, is a problem of race relations. Change the race relations—through multicultural education, affirmative action, and supporting black-owned businesses—and the color line will vanish. Call this the “race relations paradigm.”

Michael Rudolph West, in his recent study, argues that the race relations paradigm begins with Booker T. Washington. This is an unusual suggestion: Few consider Washington as a theorist of much of anything, let alone the inventor of a paradigm. Depending on one’s viewpoint, Washington is either a pragmatic race leader, doggedly working for the advancement of his people, or an Uncle Tom, a race traitor who sells out to segregationists. But West neither glorifies nor excoriates his subject, nor does he portray Washington merely as the clever tactician he certainly was. West’s Washington appears as a theorist of the “Negro question,” struggling to find political possibility in the wake of Reconstruction’s failure. Like other theorists of the Negro question, for instance Thomas Jefferson or Gunnar Myrdal, Washington is out to understand and resolve the place of black people in America. But West also suggests that this may not be the right question, that there might be another, more fruitful way of understanding Washington as a theorist of the Negro question. Thinking race qua racial difference delinks the problem from broader questions of politics, class, and capitalism. The problem of race after this delinking appears susceptible to resolution without broader social change. Jefferson’s “solution” was simply to ship adult slaves back to Africa, and undo the whole problem. Although Jefferson’s idea of colonization never had broad appeal, Washington’s solution, by contrast, has had a real, lasting legacy. West calls this solution the theory of “good race relations.”


 Lithograph commemorating Booker T. Washington’s 1901 White House dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt.

Unlike other biographies of its subject, West’s Education stands out as a unique synthesis of political and social history, psychology, and ideological critique. As West shows, Washington’s education was not the “industrial education” he later advocated for others. Rather, Washington’s theories of race and the meaning of history for understanding the “Negro question” must be understood with reference to the unfinished, but stymied, history of Reconstruction itself—what Eric Foner has called “America’s unfinished revolution.” West argues that the race relations paradigm, which he calls Washingtonianism, displaced the radical democratic aspirations of Reconstruction. Washington himself participated in Reconstruction electoral politics as a teenager. For example, he put radical Republican ideas into action as secretary of the Tinkersville, West Virginia Republicans (160). Before the collapse of the Freedman’s Bureau and, with it, black participation in Southern governments, black politicians overtly fought for mass political franchise, the redistribution of land and property, and social integration. Yet out of his disappointment with his experience as a freedman and Republican activist, Washington fashioned a new mission. In the wake of Reconstruction’s failure, instead of fighting for social power, Washington argued that blacks should work hard and whites should play nice.

There was a real appeal to the idea of “good race relations” in post-Reconstruction America. This way, despite the grim retrenchment of landlords and capitalists, progressives could still feel like one was advancing the cause of black people. Washington, a good-hearted opportunist to the core, did what opportunists usually do: He accepted defeat, while refusing to call it by that name. Reconstruction attempted, and failed, to bring real social equality to the emancipated slaves. Washington offered a comfortable solution that seemed to work; hard work and mutual respect might not fully substitute for the radical Republican agenda, but they could offer harmony and “progress.” Washington and his race relations paradigm helped to bury radical Reconstruction by claiming to share many of its goals. West argues, it was only in the context of this political failure that Washington found a broad hearing among sympathetic liberals, and established himself as de facto race spokesman and leader. But Washington not only reconciled blacks to their exclusion from the polls, he was complicit with it. “Progress” was Washington’s name for (and affirmation of) the diminished political horizons blacks faced after the collapse of Reconstruction: political disfranchisement and segregation. If American society is basically well-ordered, but segregated, and if emancipation had finally secured the precondition of black improvement despite the conflicts engendered by Reconstruction, then at least blacks could control their lives more by improving themselves and others’ perceptions of them. Washington himself, in his Atlanta Address of 1885, gives the best explication: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” Separate and unequal, but working real hard.


West’s story of late 19th century radical defeat closely resembles another trajectory closer to our own time: the decline of Civil Rights and the rise of Black Power, the ideological consequences of which remain with us today. After ending de jure segregation, the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement attempted to address and resolve the social position of American blacks. Bayard Rustin urged cooperation with the labor movement, but the means of attack proved inadequate, and the attempt failed. Militant activists then turned to slogans such as “community self-determination,” and exhorted their colleagues to promote racially segregated cooperatives and institutions. The Black Panthers seem to have little in common with old Uncle Booker; like the race relations paradigm, however, the politics of Black Power marked a turn towards internal racial transformation rather than transforming the political and economic order. Today’s proponents of “good race relations” take a less militant tone, but they, too, look inwards. Multiculturalism views respect between racial communities as imperative to progress. Yet, capital accumulates among a wealthy few and social disparities between the rich and the poor continue to increase. When activists substitute “good race relations” for social politics, the entire working class—white and black—suffers.

If the ideology of “good race relations” obscures crucial aspects of anti-black racism and poverty, then the critique of this ideology should point toward the overcoming of racism. However, West leaves us critical of the race relations paradigm but unsure where to turn for a more adequate analysis of American racism. Most fundamentally, West leaves the long-term defeat of radical Republicanism largely undiagnosed. After all, post-Reconstruction politics were not solely dominated by Washingtonianism. Populist, socialist, and communist movements all tried and failed to eliminate racism through the late 19th and 20th centuries. The failure to ground his analysis of the race relations paradigm more firmly in the history of the Left thus leaves underspecified West’s implied critique of 20th century anti-racist politics. For instance, although he suggests that the civil disobedience strategies of the Civil Rights Movement were effective because they broke the shallow consensus of segregation endorsed by Washington and his followers, it is unclear where the forerunners to Civil Rights fit into the story. West’s work is therefore only a promising beginning to reassess the ideology of the Civil Rights Movement; nevertheless, it still performs a vital service. By tracing the race relations paradigm to the rise and ignominious defeat of Reconstruction, West calls attention to the historical roots of what has become common sense about race today. He challenges us to imagine the possibility of a movement for social reform that is not satisfied with the scraps the ruling classes are willing to throw its way. |P

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.

Ryan Hardy

Platypus Review 13 | July 2009


THE STORY ITSELF IS WELL KNOWN: Originally trained as a physician, Ernesto "Che" Guevara was an Argentine revolutionary who played a significant part in the Cuban Revolution. Later, Che tried to help incite revolution in the modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Bolivia, where he was eventually killed in 1967. In the more than four decades since his death, Che has been transformed from one among many icons of the revolutionary 1960s into the most recognizable political icon of the period. Indeed, it would be difficult to name a more obvious-or more ambiguous-symbol of that era's supposedly revolutionary character than the ubiquitous photograph of Che taken by Alberto Korda, Guerrillero Heroico. This photo crystallizes a range of the period's dominant preoccupations-with revolution, heroism, masculinity, and martyrdom-all of which continue to haunt us still. As the actual political significance of Che's actions recedes into the past, and revolutionary Cuba, his chief living testament, is transformed into little more than an exotic tourist destination, we might expect that Che's revolutionary glamour would fade. And yet, it remains very much an ongoing concern today. From giant murals in Cuba to the ubiquitous T-shirts bearing his image, the Che mystique persists, and with it a legacy that, whether endorsed or condemned, grows increas­ingly opaque in the present. Both that image and that legacy have now been brought to the screen by one of Hollywood's leading directors, Steven Soderbergh. The resulting film raises the question of working through the history of the Left only to disavow this project as poten­tially paralyzing.

Che consists of two parts, which in some markets have been released as two separate films: The Argentine and Guerrilla. Taken together, it represents a significant con­tribution to the already substantial corpus of Che-derived media, not least because it is the first noteworthy encoun­ter between the icon and Hollywood. It is a complex film, an obvious labor of love on the part of one of American cinema's finest directors, with an impressive performance by its leading man, Benicio del Toro. In terms of its formal achievement and realization, Che is a very good film and ranks with Soderbergh's best work. But when the film's subject is Che, this might not be enough.


Although a biopic, Che makes no effort to cinemati­cally recreate Guevara's life story. Rather, it sticks to Che the Revolutionary, narrating the story of two guer­rilla campaigns: the successful insurgency against the Batista regime in Cuba (The Argentine), and the failed and ultimately fatal attempt to incite the peasants of Bolivia into revolution (Guerrilla). While some scenes are set in neither Cuba nor Bolivia, including a sequence that treats Che's trip to New York City and address to the United Nations, Che remains fundamentally a tale of two wars. In consequence, Che's complex career is synthesized into two relatively conventional war films. Eschewing the introspective approach taken by Brazilian director Walter Salles in Motorcycle Diaries (2004), this film has a differ­ent focus. As Soderbergh remarked, "I was interested in Che as a warrior, Che as a guy who had an ideology, who picked up a gun. [T]his [film] was the result."

In explaining his attraction to Che, Soderbergh does mention ideology; still, it is clear that Che's picking up of the gun is what genuinely captured the director's imagi­nation. Alternatively, we might say that this film suggests that ideology is something people with guns are more likely to have. At any rate, for Soderbergh, Che is a mili­tary man first and a political man second; hence the near exclusive focus on military campaigns. As others have pointed out, this decision allows Soderbergh to omit from the film any serious treatment of the most controversial aspects of Che's record, such as the notorious execu­tions at the La Cabana fortress or his stint as President of the National Bank of Cuba. No scene in this film shows Che executing political prisoners, bungling the national budget for the fiscal year, or speaking in glowing terms of Joseph Stalin. Apparently, these are not the aspects of Che's career that Soderbergh thinks worthy of further exploration.

It comes as no surprise that in the hands of the direc­tor of Ocean's 11 (2001), Out Of Sight (1998), and Traffic (2000), the leading impulse is to entertain. Battle scenes are tightly paced and genuinely suspenseful, even if we know how things will turn out. The acting of the en­semble cast is likewise superb. Catalina Sandino Moreno, who plays Che's wife Aleida March, and Demián Bichir, who plays Fidel Castro to surprisingly comic heights, are particularly outstanding. In the leading role, Benicio del Toro forges a moving, complex performance from the sparse raw material of Che's biography.

In one sense at least the film is right to give short shrift to Che's politics. After all, as even the most cursory glance at his writings proves, Che was no great theo­retician. In virtually all cases, and definitely in the case of Cuba and Bolivia, his approach was little more than Robin Hood-style banditry gussied up as Marxist revolu­tion: His modus operandi was to take to the hills and start kicking ass, but make periodic reference to the work­ing class while he was at it. By treating Che chiefly as a military adventurer, the film does convey something es­sential about Che's politics: its opportunism. Yet even this treatment, sympathetic in both form and content, cannot avoid bringing its hero into conflict with other, very differ­ent elements of the Left.


Film still, Che (2008)

 In The Argentine, after Castro meets with the leaders of Cuba's urban labor movement to conclude a vital cooperation pact, Che derides them as "clowns" and questions the value of dealing with them at all, since they are not fighting. Likewise, in Guerrilla, when Mario Monje, leader of the Bolivian Communist Party, tells Che that the party disagrees with his methods, Che's response is a burst of invective and the continuation of an increas­ingly quixotic guerrilla campaign. Che seems almost hopelessly naïve in these encounters, such as when early on he responds quizzically to another guerrilla's bitter remark about "Stalinists." While Soderbergh clearly feels it is important to intro­duce these scenes into the film, his handling of them is uncertain. Ultimately, the film, like Che, seeks dramatic resolution through armed struggle, and thus implicitly endorses Che's impatient preoccupation with "action." This is never clearer than when Che and his fighters prepare for the Battle of Santa Clara, which represents both the climax of The Argentine and the death knell of the Batista regime. In preparation for this risky engage­ment, Che makes an effort to unite various rebel groups under his leadership. This is one of the most interesting parts of the movie, because it raises the spectre, for the first time, of serious political divisions between the vari­ous factions fighting Batista. There are several causes of discord between the factions, from tactical questions to strategic differences, but in the end it is Che's charisma and seemingly unique martial abilities that resolve what are made to seem merely verbal disagreements. Che's personality cements the Popular Front supposedly nec­essary to overthrow Batista's detested lackey regime.

Watching Che, particularly The Argentine, it is difficult not to be reminded of David Lean's memorable Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Both films tell the story of a foreigner who throws in his lot with an insurrectionary movement only to become one of that movement's greatest leaders, both share the trope of the execution of a disobedient soldier as a sort of revolutionary baptism, and both are exceptionally entertaining Hollywood epics built around complex performances by great actors. But the achieve­ment of these films as works of art serves, perversely, to confirm the politically problematic character of the men they celebrate. Of course, there is no real comparison between Lawrence's support for the House of Saud in the service of British imperialism and Guevara's struggle against American imperialism in the Western hemi­sphere. Yet both films betray deep ambivalence towards politics, preferring instead to promote the myth that massive and systemic injustice can be rectified simply by recourse to personal courage and armed struggle. Though, unlike Lawrence of Arabia, Che does condescend to portray something of the real political content behind the events it displays, through its narrative structure it ultimately subverts and empties those scenes of content. It is because of this that, as an attempt to actually work through the past, Che must be judged a failure. |P


University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Soren Whited

Platypus Review 13 | July 2009


SUSAN BUCK-MORSS'S RECENT OFFERING, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, takes critical aim at two targets: what she identifies as Eurocentric models of universal history, on the one hand, and, on the other, the rejection of any notion of universality whatsoever in favor of the postmodernist "plurality of alternative models" (ix). What she proposes instead is "a universal history worthy of the name" (x), by which she means one that does not give the European Enlightenment and its direct heirs a monopoly on the historical project of freedom. It is refreshing to see the false choice of Eurocentrism vs. postmodernist pluralism identified as such, but if Buck-Morss opposes such a false choice, she fails to register and critique it as a contemporary historical symptom itself. She thus ends up with a theory that is universal in name, but which remains essentially postmodernist in content.

The short book reprints her essay "Hegel and Haiti," originally published in 2000 in Critical Inquiry, together with a new essay, "Universal History," in which Buck-Morss responds to the original essay's critics, par­ticularly those for whom "the very suggestion of resur­recting the project of universal history from the ashes of modern metaphysics appeared tantamount to collusion with Western imperialism"(ix). The book also contains substantial prefaces to both essays.

In "Hegel and Haiti," Buck-Morss's central histori­cal claim is that Hegel's discussion of freedom, gener­ally, and his formulation of the "master-slave dialectic," specifically, were directly informed by his awareness of the Haitian Revolution. This argument, Buck-Morss asserts, has scarcely been made, much less thoroughly investigated, by mainstream Hegel scholarship. "One wonders why the topic Hegel and Haiti has for so long been ignored. Not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer this question; they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it" (56).[1] Buck-Morss sup­ports her claim that Hegel was aware of the Haitian Revolution by pointing out that the revolution was going on at the same time as Hegel was formulating his phi­losophy of history, and that he was reading periodicals such as Minerva and The Morning Post at the time, both of which closely covered the events in Haiti. The conclusion to be drawn, she argues, is that Hegel, who at the time was engaged in thinking through the historical project of freedom, was influenced, if not compelled, by his reading of journalistic accounts of a contemporary, actual slave rebellion that Buck-Morss regards as a concrete unfold­ing of this dialectic.


Hegel and his students

But if the Haitian Revolution inspired Hegel, his philosophy of freedom remains bound, for Buck-Morss, to a Eurocentric and racist worldview. In this way Hegel is representative of what Buck-Morss sees as the hypoc­risy of modern Europe in general, wherein the pursuit of freedom was carried out in theory but only partially and selectively in deed. Modern Europe, in other words, developed a theory of freedom that was simultaneously negated in practice.

The Haitian Revolution, on the other hand, repre­sents for Buck-Morss a break with this hypocrisy, and the first genuinely modern political struggle for freedom, by which she means that it first posed the problem of freedom in a truly universal, albeit not entirely unprob­lematic, manner. "The Haitian experience," she asserts, "was not a modern phenomenon too, but first" (138). She also attributes to the Haitian Revolution a degree of singularity: "The radical anti-slavery articulated in Saint-Domingue was politically unprecedented" (138). Most importantly for her argument, the Haitian Revolution constitutes an example of a "historical rupture," an event discontinuous with the trajectory of history (133).

It is in such ruptures that Buck-Morss sees the possibility of a universal humanity emerging. This is also where her affinities with postmodernism, a mode of thought she professes to contest, are clearly vis­ible. There is a shared hostility to dialectical theory, which would demand that the contradictions born of the European Enlightenment and the bourgeois revolution, including that of racism, be dealt with immanently. But for Buck-Morss such a treatment would, to use her language, be tantamount to collusion with European racism. Her hostility to dialectics is evident when, for ex­ample, she says, "any political movement that attempts to transform the death's-head (the skeletal remains of the victims of history) into an angel's face (history's redeemer) is far more likely to unleash a human hell" (144). Thus, faced with the glaring contradiction between Europe's philosophy of freedom and its brutal economic and political practices, Buck-Morss searches elsewhere for a practice that corresponds to the theory. Her ap­proach, then, is based on an understanding of theory and practice as autonomous, or at least semi-autonomous, phenomena.


“Revenge Taken by the Black Army,” engraving in Marcus Rainsford’s An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti (1805).

Rather than necessarily bound up with each other as part of a single historical practice, the pursuit of freedom in theory and its negation in practice remain for her distinct and incidental, if simultaneous, processes. This sundering of theory and practice, this failure to take account of their dialectical relationship, compels Buck-Morss to remain satisfied with merely condemning the brutality of Europe's political and economic practices, to bracket them, and thus to fail in rooting the struggle for (and denial of) freedom within them

The model of historical rupture also has a distinctly Third-Worldist thrust, which comes out clearly when Buck-Morss states, "The greater the power a civilization wields in the world, the less capable its thinkers may be to recognize the naiveté of their own beliefs" (119). According to this logic, Buck-Morss is herself in no posi­tion to adequately grasp the world and her beliefs about it, which ironically becomes the case precisely because she holds this view. Several pages later she contin­ues, "It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose culture has been strained to the breaking point give expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits. And it is in our empathic identification with this raw, free, and vulnerable state, that we have a chance of understanding what they say" (133). Such romanticiza­tion, which represents the crux of Buck-Morss's thought in this book, is nothing new. It has dominated radical thought for the last 40 years, in both its New Leftist and postmodernist strains. Buck-Morss frames her call for "a universal history worthy of the name" as a challenge to such thought, when really it is only its repackaging. |P

[1]. It should be pointed out that Buck-Morss immediately goes on to say, "Surely a major reason for this omission is the Marxist appropriation of a social interpretation of Hegel's dialectic. Since the 1840s, with the early writings of Karl Marx the struggle between the master and slave has been abstracted from literal reference and read once again as a metaphor, this time for the class struggle" (56). This is one example of her contention that Marx and "(white) Marxism" are complicit in the whitewashing of history and the struggle against oppression, an ill-conceived charge that I will not directly address in this review.

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.

Book Review: Cottee, Simon and Thomas Cushman (eds.). Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 11 | March 2009


If it did not come to end in 1989, as conservative critic Francis Fukuyama expected, this is because, in Hegel's sense, as freedom's self-realization in time, History had already ceased. Long before the new geopolitical configurations and institutional forms of the post-Soviet world, a new and unprecedented, though scarcely recognized, political situation had taken shape: The last threads of continuity connecting the present with the long epoch of political emancipation were severed. In the second half of the 20th century the history that stretched back through modern socialism and the labor movement to the Enlightenment and the bourgeois revolutions that came before, became bunk. Yet, unlike Stalinism's well-publicized (if exaggerated) collapse, the passing of History and the death of the long-ailing Left in our time has passed almost wholly unnoticed and unmourned. One exception to this is found in the writings of journalist and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens, which, though they sometimes express it only unconsciously and symptomatically, nevertheless very often register awareness of the unprecedented circumstance that is the death of the Left.

When Hitchens publicly broke with the The Nation in the aftermath of 9/11, the break was based on chiefly moral grounds. The Left's anti-war arguments were, Hitchens argued, "contemptible" and in "bad faith"; its authors were corrupt "masochists" [104-8]. While Hitchens's defection was widely condemned by the Left, few attended closely to the moral form that it took, which is in many ways as revealing as the substance of the debates it occasioned. In Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left [hereafter CHHC], editors Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman provide a handy single-volume introduction to Hitchens's tussle with the Left during those years, supplying both an ample selection of Hitchens's writings and published interviews, as well as many criticisms by his erstwhile comrades. Through them we relive something of the disorientation and struggle for clarification on the Left that accompanied 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Though in some respects a replay of debates around western intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s, far more engaging is the near total discrediting of the existing Left that Hitchens has accomplished writing as a moralist since.

Enlightenment on the Left

A scourge of the establishment, Hitchens was one of the few journalists steeped in Marxism publishing in the mass circulation English press during the 1980s and 90s. Coming out of the International Socialist tendency of British Trotskyism, Hitchens did not simply admire Marx or sympathize with certain historical achievements of the socialist Left; rather, he brought to the pages of The New Statesman, Harper's and The Atlantic the unique resources of a sectarian Marxist political education. With the familiarity he possessed of its prevailing intellectual habits and dispositions and also of the actual composition of the various popular front organizations that sprung up to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hitchens possessed unique resources to undertake a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary Left. It is the limitations of these same resources, however, that ultimately diminished the force of that critique. For while Hitchens was correct in his assessment of the conservative and one-sided character of the "leftist" critique of American hegemony, it was chimerical to imagine that one could both side with the Bush regime's war and, at the same time, retain critical independence from it.

Taking the last ten years together, Hitchens has been remarkably prolific, producing a steady output of books and articles. This impressive written output has gained Hitchens a mass audience, further expanded by the steady schedule he maintains of television and radio appearances, as well as high-profile public debates. Neither specialized scholar nor think-tank wonk, Hitchens is a rare breed: one who lives not simply by his writing, but by a sustained attempt to analyze the present. By concentrating on the years 2001-2005, Hitchens and His Critics offers a valuable selection of writings from the time when Hitchens began to do what he does entirely freeform, that is with total independence from party or clique.

To describe Hitchens's writings in CHHC as acts of "apostasy" from the Left is misleading. It is better to read them as authentic, if inadequate, responses to the intractability of contemporary circumstances. Out of their recognition of this, editors Cottee and Cushman locate Hitchens not among the God-that-failed liberals, but rather "in the tradition of Marx and the Frankfurt School." As they explain: "It is our belief that in Hitchens's recent political writings it is possible to discern one of the most powerful self-critiques of the Western Left today. Hitchens is. . . an essential reference point for the Left, and his criticisms demand to be engaged with" [3-4]. While one might balk at the phrase "Western Left" as foreign to Hitchens's internationalist disposition, Cottee and Cushman are undoubtedly correct in pointing out that Hitchens did not so much abandon the Left, as he was abandoned by it.

Still, Cottee and Cushman's introduction generates as much confusion as clarity respecting Hitchens's leftism. For while Hitchens cannot but mourn the collapse of the revolutionary Left, insofar as it stood for the abolition of capitalist social domination and the realization of human freedom, his editors lack this understanding of the Left's fundamental commitments. So, it is hard to see how they as non-Marxists can even comprehend Hitchens when he says, "there is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism - certainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement. . . . [Still] I don't think that the contradictions, as we used to say, of the system are by any means all resolved" [169]. The sense Hitchens expresses here of the collapse of the Left is true now in a way that was not the case even for those who survived into the 1940s. Though certainly the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists recognized that the rise and consolidation of Stalinism and fascism in Europe prepared the ground for it, the total extinction of the Left had to wait till the second half of the 20th century. With unmistakable melancholy if not nostalgia Hitchens says, "I am in a strong position to promise you. . . [that] all talk [of a Trotskyist revival] is idle. It's over" [181]. Just as they can imagine Jürgen Habermas's liberalism to represent a continuation of the Frankfurt School's mid-century project, Cottee and Cushman treat "the Left" as if it were a stable political category. Hitchens, on the other hand, makes no claim that he represents an alternative form of Leftism. Instead, as he says, "call me a neo-conservative if you must: anything is preferable to the rotten unprincipled alliance between the former fans of the one-party state and the hysterical zealots of the one-god one" ["At Last Our Lefties See the Light" The Times of London online edition, 4/30/06].

Breaking Left

Viewed in retrospect, Hitchens's break with the Left may be seen to have been foreshadowed by his 1990s tirades against Bill Clinton and his "lesser evilist" liberal supporters. In those polemics, Hitchens argued in effect that social democracy had utterly collapsed and, with it, so had the political salience of the distinction between the Democrats and Republicans. The Clinton presidency represented the triumph of fully managed, poll-driven, and lobbyist-directed politics. This failure of parliamentary democracy was accompanied by intellectual vulgarization and moral degradation. Changes such as these were not wholly explicable in their own terms, but were after effects of the Left's collapse. But this last point Hitchens never made explicit. For this reason the 90s writings fail to register fully his dawning sense that what had occurred was an epochal shift, though this can be seen in the gradual alteration of Hitchens's tone from that of political analysis proper to something more akin to 19th century moralism. Even prior to 9/11 Hitchens could remark, "I don't have allegiances. . . anymore" [173]; but, because of the indirection of targeting Clinton rather than his Left supporters, writings from this period are only a prelude to what would come later.

In the weeks and months following 9/11, Hitchens's criticism of what passes for the Left resounded loudly on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether in left-leaning organs such as The Nation and the Guardian or in more mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and The Independent, in article after article Hitchens drove the point home that the issue of "imperialism," as understood for decades on the Left, had ceased to be relevant. The enemies of American imperialism in no sense represented a more democratic future, nor would their victory be likely to indirectly produce politically desirable effects. Making the stakes plain, Hitchens asseverated, "capitalism, for all its contradictions, is superior to. . . what bin Laden and the Taliban stand for" [55]. As for U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Hitchens supplements the arguments about al-Qaeda's Islamist fascism with arguments drawn from Iraqi Trotskyist Kanan Makiya to the effect that Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime was not merely tyrannical but represented a variety of modern-day "totalitarianism." Hitchens then adds to this the assertion that when, in the aftermath of the 1991 war, it left Saddam's opponents in the lurch, the U.S. saddled itself with a "responsibility" to the people of Iraq. He condemned as both untenable and ill-conceived the continued enforcement of no-fly zones and a crippling sanctions regime. These punished the population while allowing Hussein to maintain his hold on power. Of course, nothing could be more predictable than the U.S. Army "failing" to fight Hitchens's war in Iraq (nor could greater "pressure" from the Left have prompted it to do so). Still, the American military, as Hitchens pointed out in a debate with Tariq Ali, was "not militarily defeatable" in Iraq and "all moral and political conclusions to be drawn from that should be drawn" []. Hitchens's support for the war was, of course, opportunistic. But, as CHHC demonstrates, it served an important purpose -- it distanced him once and for all from the pseudo-Left.

Taking up cudgels against the likes of Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, bell hooks, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Studs Terkel, and Howard Zinn, Hitchens recognized that Ba'athist Iraq's steady disintegration and the emergence into plain view of Islamist fascism posed for such "leftists" a dilemma they could not resolve. The War on Terror is not Vietnam II. The character of the enemy of American imperialism is utterly changed as is the geo-political environment within which the conflict takes place. Yet, despite this crucial recognition, Hitchens does not possess critical resources the others lack. For, contrary to what he suggests, Hitchens's support of America's invasion of Iraq is no straightforward act of solidarity with secular-socialist political parties inside Iraq, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani. Still, his repeated insistence on the plight of the Kurds under Saddam did serve to effectively dramatize the disappearance of Left internationalism. "When I first became a socialist," he writes,

[...] the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not defining thing, whether the cause was popular or not. I haven't seen an anti-war meeting all this year [2002] at which you could even guess at the existence of the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam, an opposition that was fighting for "regime change" when both Republicans and Democrats were fawning over Baghdad as a profitable client and geopolitical ally. [105]

Those on the Left who tacitly defended Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein did so because of an inherited moral and intellectual rot. A consequence of this was that "instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism" [108], one manifestation of which was the anti-war movement's willingness to bracket out of consideration the fate of Iraqi Leftist or oppositionist parties and trade unions, if not to condemn them outright as U.S. "stooges." For their part, groups like the ISO and Spartacist League,  by simply dusting off the slogans of earlier struggles, ignore the historical gulf that separates the current anti-war movement from, say, the movement that opposed the Vietnam War. The claims of such groups that, as they would put it, blows struck against American imperialism are blows in the interests of workers and the oppressed worldwide, have become unmeaning mantras by the muttering repetition of which such groups on the left withdraw into insensibility. Others on the Left are more vulgar, hoping that an Iraqi quagmire would allow for the emergence of Europe as a substantial counter-hegemonic force (as, for instance, in Habermas and Derrida's joint letter of May 31, 2003). Regarding such Leftism, Hitchens remarks, "I am very much put in mind of something from the opening of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. It's not the sentence about the historical relation between tragedy and farce. It's the observation that when people are learning a new language, they habitually translate it back into the one they already know" [55]. Unable to so much as describe the present, the Left has lost its currency for an entire generation. "Members of the Left, along with the far larger number of squishy 'progressives,' have grossly failed to live up to their responsibility to think; rather, they are merely reacting, substituting tired slogans for thought" [57]. Today's conservative leftism, with a long pedigree stretching back into the 1960s, first became dominant by couching itself in anti-imperialist language. But, as Hitchens comments, "My Marxist training tells me things don't remain the same. [These new, openly] reactionary-left positions won't hold for long. They will metamorphose into reactionary-right ones" ["'Don't Cross Over if You Have any Intention of Going Back'" Interview with Danny Postel The Common Review 4:1, 7]. The merits of this critique stand, regardless of Hitchens's position on the Iraq War.

Rejecting the consensus view that the 1960s New Left represents a high-water mark of radical politics, Hitchens argues that, in fact, the conservativism of today's pseudo-Left derives from precisely that period:

If you look back to the founding document of the 60's left, which was the Port Huron statement . . . you will easily see that it was in essence a conservative manifesto. It spoke in vaguely Marxist terms of alienation, true, but it was reacting to bigness and anonymity and urbanization, and it betrayed a yearning for a lost agrarian simplicity. It forgot what Marx had said, about the dynamism of capitalism and ''the idiocy of rural life.''

All that endures today on "the Left" is precisely this anti-modern strain of the 1960s. Describing the route from Port Huron to Seattle, Hitchens notes, "the anti-globalization movement has started to reject modernity altogether, to set its sights on laboratories and on the idea of the division of labor, and to adopt symbols from Fallujah as the emblems of its resistance" ["Where Aquarius Went," New York Times (online edition) 12/19/04]. If we are in politically dire straits, this is not because the New Left betrayed the ideals of its youth, but because it upheld them. Hitchens captures the massive political and intellectual shift this has occasioned anecdotally: "Marx and Engels thought that America was the great country of freedom and revolution. . . [We] live in a culture where people's first instinct when you say [that] is to laugh or to look bewildered" [176-77]. After years of Pop-Front coziness with his "comrades" in "the movement," Hitchens finally broke rank. And yet, Hitchens's defeat of his "Left" opponents, of which CHHC leaves its reader no doubt, never translated into what we might call a genuine political victory.

Hitchens's Marxism

The force of Hitchens's critique of the degenerate Left in the wake of 9/11 derives in large measure, as argued above, from his sectarian background which imparted to him a deep aversion to uncritical solidarity. It is this that lends his account its force. In other words, it is not simply a matter of familiarity breeding contempt, but of the precision that comes from long study of the enemy. And yet, the instincts that allow him to register his insights soon come up against their own limits. For the current crisis requires an active (and openly skeptical) re-engagement with the history of the Left and the theoretical categories of Marxism.

Hitchens's greatest shortcoming is not the position he has taken on Iraq, as this amounts chiefly to a confession of political futility. Nor is it his bullying and hectoring tone, which, though it occasionally rings false, is typically reserved for those who deserve it. Rather, his greatest shortcoming is in his sclerotic Marxism, which is very often conceptually under-specified and indistinguishable from ahistorical liberalism. For what Hitchens terms the "tenets of the Left" require us only to recognize the truth of certain propositions, such as "there are opposing class interests" and "monopoly capitalism can and should be distinguished from the free market and that it has certain fatal tendencies" (Letters to a Young Contrarian [hereafter LYC], 102). But, there is nothing specifically Marxist about these or any such propositions outside of dialectical analysis.

Discussing the anti-Stalinist Marxists of the 1930s, Hitchens says "these heroes. . . were forced to rely as much on their own consciences, if not indeed more, as on any historical materialist canon" [LYC 98]. But the likes of C. L. R. James, Victor Serge, and Trotsky are not merely moral exemplars, and the "crimes" to which they bore witness were not simply criminal. Stalin's betrayals were political betrayals opposed politically by a Marxism rooted in a definite conception of capitalism as a form of social organization. Any full account must go beyond discussing the bravery of these tendencies to address that their emancipatory potential. Hitchens exhorts readers to question the obvious and the status quo, for which, he argues, intellectual honesty and a will to truth alone are required. While this is true as far as it goes, it only goes so far. Morality and "principles" alone, including "the conception of universal human rights" to which he points as guiding "the next phase or epoch" of Leftist politics are an inadequate basis on which to remount the sort of emancipatory politics to which Hitchens is unmistakably committed [LYC 136].

Hitchens's etiolated conception of Enlightenment (under which rubric he subsumes Marxist "historical materialism") causes him to fall below the level of his own insights. This can most readily be seen by a brief review of Hitchens's 2002 treatment of George Orwell, Why Orwell Matters [WOM]. This book's publication coincided with and may be seen as explicating much of the basis for his criticism of his former comrades. Hitchens's Orwell, it is safe to say, stands in for the Trotskyism that came so late to Britain, where most of those who would become the beacons of the New Left did not actually break with Stalinism in Trotsky's lifetime but much later, after the 1956 Hungarian uprising was crushed by the Soviet Union. Orwell was "in contact with the small and scattered forces of the independent international Left" and this fact, that he questioned Stalinism at a time in the history of the British Left when it was extremely unpopular to do so, is central to why Orwell matters to Christopher Hitchens [WOM, 62]. As a fellow traveler of "the International of persecuted oppositionists who withstood 'the midnight of the century' - the clasping of hands of Hitler and Stalin" [WOM, 63], Orwell was a confirmed leftist critic of the Left from at least the time of his fighting on behalf of the Spanish Republic, which he chronicled in his early work, Homage to Catalonia. Nor did Orwell ever discard the commitments and insights that crystallized for him while fighting in Spain, since in his late work Animal Farm "the aims and principles of the Russian revolution are given face-value credit throughout: this is a revolution betrayed, not a revolution that is monstrous from its inception" [WOM 187]. Thus, while "the edifice of [Orwell's] work. . . [is typically] identified with sturdy English virtues" [WOM, 63], it constitutes for Hitchens an internationalist legacy far more valuable than that of many figures more widely lionized on the British Left, where the New Left intellectuals' struggle to work through the fraught legacy of the past was hobbled by the relatively superficial de-Stalinization after 1956. Hitchens skewers Raymond William's hatchet job on Orwell as symptomatic of precisely an undigested Stalinism that then also affected the New Left Review's editors, who in their reverence toward Williams in the 1960s, failed to theoretically work through the struggles on the Left of the 1930s.

But Hitchens, too, fails to work through the history of the left. On the one hand, he is adamant that we regard as a victory for the anti-Stalinist New Left the Velvet Revolutions that brought to an end "actually existing socialism" in the former Warsaw Pact countries. On the other hand, he recognizes that "once the Cold War was over, there was a recrudescence of. . . totalitarianism and. . . authoritarianism" ["'Don't Cross Over if You have any Intention of Going Back,'" 7]. It is altogether unclear just how Hitchens can view the 1990s as simultaneously a culminating revolutionary moment and as a period of the revival of totalitarianism. Here is no dialectical antinomy, just a flat contradiction.

Retreat to moralism

The insights Hitchens develops respecting the history of the Left with reference to Orwell are valuable and, in many instances, merit further elucidation. The difficulty arises in trying to address such matters in the moral terms on which Hitchens bases his analysis, as for instance when Hitchens attempts to characterize the European fascism of the 1930s and 40s in terms of "arrogance," "bullying," "greed," "wickedness," and "stupidity" [WOM, 7]. Such moral and intellectual flaws have, after all, plagued humankind throughout its history, and for this reason they provide an inadequate basis for conceptualizing something so distinctly and exclusively modern as fascism. Similarly, leftist politics, while it may be rooted at the individual level in a certain moral impulse, can never be guided by that impulse alone. While Hitchens's expressions of moral disapproval are in themselves unobjectionable and indeed often rhetorically powerful, they hardly suffice as categories of political analysis. For such analysis requires a theoretical grasp of social and historical circumstances, the abstract character of which necessitates theory. As Hitchens himself acknowledges, "I became a socialist . . . [as an] outcome of studying history" [168]. In other words, Marxian theory is necessary to actually grasp the ongoing transformation of society. The power of facing unpleasant facts that Hitchens associates with Orwell is scarcely sufficient if the aim is to elaborate a politics rooted in a critical grasp of the present. Hitchens knows full well that "a purely moral onslaught on capitalism and empire would be empty sermonizing" ["The Grub Street Years," The Guardian 6/16/07], and yet he seems to think an increasingly moral rhetoric to be adequate for contemporary critical purposes.

Stefan Collini (in a 2003 essay unfortunately omitted from the volume under review) is no doubt right to balk (or chuckle) at the machismo of the ostentatiously hard-drinking, chain-smoking, author of pieces like "Why Women Aren't Funny." But, what is curious is the evidence of Hitchens's masculinism that Collini adduces, namely his commitment to being "right about which way the world . . . is going, right about which policies will work and which regimes are wicked; right about the accuracy of one's facts and one's stories; and right when so many others, especially well-regarded or well-placed others, are demonstrably wrong" [Stefan Collini, "'No Bullshit' Bullshit" London Review of Books 25:2 (1/23/03), online edition]. If Hitchens fails in his attempts to understand which way the world is going, it is scarcely because of the masculinist folly of the enterprise, nor, indeed, because of the limitations of his talent, intellect or instincts, but because the world itself has become opaque. This, and the impulse toward being right -- at least against the "Left" -- is what has led Hitchens to shill for the American warmongers. The old habit of choosing sides betrays Hitchens when the task requires more than simply making compromises and choosing the lesser evil, but actually critically confronting a situation in which there is nothing to choose. While Collini's chastising as "masculinist" Hitchens's commitment to being right when so many others are politically wrong amounts to little more than the imposition of a thought-taboo, it is nevertheless undeniable that, for the present, the formulation of "a political line" is impossible. This is because of "the world's" incoherence when the Left is dead. Hitchens's polemics would seem to imply an independent position, but the impossibility of this is precisely where the contemporary circumstance of the death of the left must be registered.

Hitchens's "return" to moralism in the 1990s and 200s is coupled with a nascent sense of historical regression, which he understands as a return to the Enlightenment and a replay of bourgeois revolution. Thus Hitchens's most recent writings on the Enlightenment, American Revolution, and atheism stem from his sense of the need for a renewal of "the war for Enlightenment values" [213]. As early as 2002 Hitchens wrote, "as the third millennium gets under way, and as the Russian and Chinese and Cuban revolutions drop below the horizon, it is possible to argue that the American revolution, with its promise of cosmopolitan democracy, is the only 'model' revolution that humanity has left to it" [WOM 105]. But, in the works that grew out of this conviction published after 2005, Hitchens flattens out much of what remained suggestive in the polemical writings contained in CHHC. For instance, in his recent non-fiction best-seller God is Not Great, Hitchens improbably portrays the struggle against contemporary religious fascisms as a mere continuation of the Enlightenment tussle with irrationality. As if al-Qaeada's "medievalism" were a relic of the unscientific feudal past! At this point, rationality surrenders to dogma in the name of the Enlightenment and Hitchens's recognition of political regression threatens to transform itself into the idée fixe of a crank who has forgotten that the argument with religion is the beginning, not the end, of the ruthless criticism of everything existing. Adopting a more sympathetic approach towards these more recent works requires reading them against the grain to argue not only that the self-described left today is entirely past saving and needs only to be retired, but also that the project of re-constituting the left today may be advanced more through an engagement with those drawn to (and encountering the limits of) liberalism than with the sleep-walkers that today pass for the Left. |P

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 10 | February 2009


This article has been reprinted in Mainstream Weekly

Deep historical precedents

However sincere its backers or belligerent its enemies, the “War on Terror” is not and cannot become anti-Islamist. This is not because, as some think, there is no Islamist or Taliban-style fascism on the receiving end of America’s War on Terror. Far from it. The reason is that the prosecutors of the war are only half committed to the selective elimination of certain religious reactionaries. In consequence, the War on Terror presents the Left with a dilemma: How to respond to apparently anti-fascist imperialism? It is a dilemma that has been faced before, most notably in the experience of World War II. Writing in the Partisan Review after the Allies’ “liberation” of French North Africa and the reinstallation of French imperialism there, Leftist intellectual Dwight MacDonald expressed those difficulties as follows:

A nation fighting the kind of war the French Revolutionary armies fought, or the Red Army in 1919, does all it can to politicize the struggle. It is notable that everything possible is done by [American] leaders to depoliticize this war. . . . Some weeks ago, the Office of War Information issued directives to its propagandists on “the nature of the enemy.” [Hitler] was described as a bully, a murderer, a thief, a gangster, etc., but only once in the lengthy document as a fascist. [“The Future of Democratic Values” in The Partisan Reader, 548]

Roosevelt and Churchill’s imperialist “anti-fascism” arose as a deliberate propaganda project set to counter that fascist “anti-imperialism” that found fertile soil among Persian, Arab, and Indian nationalists in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia in the 1930s and 40s. Leftists like MacDonald were aware that as in North Africa, the contradictions of the Allied war effort were most starkly revealed in the British struggle to preserve their empire in India. There, the crypto-fascist Subhas Chandra Bose emerged as a leading nationalist, eventually escaping British India and lending military assistance and the prestige of his cause to the fascist Axis. Anticipating such possibilities, Leon Trotsky chose to address the issue in 1939 in “An Open Letter to the Workers of India,” in which he warned against imperialist overtures to support a “war . . . waged for principles of ‘democracy,’ ” arguing that by dissolving itself into a liberal-Stalinist popular front, the Left prepared the way for its own marginalization and for the betrayal of the very anti-fascist aims that actuated it to begin with.

Unable to work through its past, the Left today is disoriented. It stumbles about aimlessly while the executors of the War on Terror, their first blush of neo-conservative ideological enthusiasm now dissipated, gradually abandon the rhetoric of “fascism” and “democracy,” growing more “pragmatic” day by day. Just as American officers found Vichy French colonial administrators and officers in 1943, American war makers today are discovering the congeniality of the “good Taliban” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even as they applaud the “moderate elements” in Iraq. As I show in the following review of significant editorials on the Mumbai attacks written by prominent Indian Leftists, and Leftists writing about India, the crisis that MacDonald identified in 1943 remains with us still. Only now it seems that, if the Left could be said to still exist, we would be forced to confess finally that it has not learned the lessons of the failures of the Popular Front against fascism in the 1930s and that it remains the inheritor of Stalinism. Today, as in the 1930s, there prevails a tacit alliance between Islamist fascism and important segments of the Left which actively inhibits the re-emergence of emancipatory politics. Of course, some things have changed. In the 1940s the Left signed up with “anti-fascist” imperialism, in the 2000s the Left tends to keep company with fascist “anti-imperialists.” The review of media discourse that follows focuses on pieces appearing in one of the world’s most Left-leaning mass-circulation daily newspapers in English today, the Manchester Guardian or simply The Guardian. In examining works from this source, I argue that in their incapacity to isolate and cogently discuss the issues raised by the attacks they exemplify what Platypus terms “the death of the Left.” The shortcomings of these pieces are rooted in the Left’s inability to honestly face up to its historical circumstances.

Mumbai's Public Transportation

An overcrowded local train in Mumbai

9/11 and the Mumbai attacks

In the title of her December 4, 2008 Guardian editorial on the Mumbai attacks, Priyamvada Gopal asserts that “Comparing Mumbai to 9/11 diminishes both tragedies.” But even this title is deceitful, since, as her readers soon discover, the piece is not concerned with the particularities of the two events. Nor does the danger of “diminishing” 9/11 give Gopal pause. On the contrary, diminishing and displacing 9/11 from our active preoccupations is her intent. Allowing the November attack on Mumbai to be deemed “India’s 9/11” would be, she argues, “to privilege the experience of the United States” and to be complicit with India’s “relentless Americanization.” 9/11 is either another brand name in McWorld or something even more sinister, an event so “fetishized” as to “sanction endless vengeance,” even as it obscures “the experience of millions [elsewhere] who have suffered as much” as those who died or were injured in the attack on the U.S. on that day. 9/11 “legitimized a false war,” “created legal abominations,” and “strengthened neoconservatism.”

While Gopal’s piece makes perfunctory mention of the suffering of the victims of 9/11, it says nothing of the actual contours of that event, much less the intentions behind it. The U.S. reaction concerns her more than the attack itself does. Rather than offering any analysis of the event about which she was writing, Gopal strains to change the subject. Presumably the killing spree that took place in Mumbai from November 26th to November 29th 2008 (and has now come to be referred to “11/26”), requires no analysis. But when we actually specify what 9/11 was, can the comparison with it really be so easily avoided?

The crucial point to be made about 9/11 — and the one that Gopal studiously avoids — makes the comparison with the Mumbai attacks inevitable: both were attacks inspired by Islamism on intensely cosmopolitan urban populations with the intention of inflicting the maximum number of casualties. Moreover, like New York, Mumbai is an old colonial port city with a rich if submerged history of radical democratic struggle. Like New York, Mumbai is the commercial and cultural, though not the political, capital of a pluralistic democracy. In short, like New York, Mumbai is one of world’s great nerve-centers of contemporary capitalism. Also, the attacks on Mumbai were not on the Hindu chauvinist politics of Bal Thackeray, just as the 9/11 attack was not on the neo-liberalism of Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. In both cases, the targets were the profane pleasures of modern society. In both cases, the attacks were made, so to speak, in plain view, so that the fascistic menace was unmistakable (albeit in the absurdly comic form of expressionless young men who might, but for the assault rifles in their hands, be easily mistaken for ravers en route to Goa). Finally, as with 9/11, the regional strategic consequences bound to flow from the Mumbai attacks are profound.

In a certain respect, the semiotics of the attacks in Mumbai were even more ghastly than those of 9/11, since it witnessed the deliberate hunting of Jews qua Jews, especially at the Chabad House, where Jews were subjected to savage beatings before their execution, unlike even the Americans and Britons who were also singled out. For those who planned the attacks killing Jews was a priority and it was executed in the midst of a police siege by killers who had, in all likelihood, never so much as seen a Jewish person before. Though the murderous anti-Semitism on display in Mumbai ought by now to be an all-too-familiar aspect of Islamist ideology, Guardian correspondent Richard Silverstein, like Gopal on the editorial page, declines to acknowledge the obvious. Instead he insists that the attack on Chabad House was “not necessarily anti-Semitic,” claiming that the attackers were seeking “redress for crimes against Palestine” [“Why did the Attackers Choose to Attack Chabad House” Guardian 12/4/2008, cf. Alex Stein “Inspiration from India” Guardian 12/4/2008]. From this we may safely conclude that, for Silverstein, anytime a Muslim kills a Jew he need only utter the magic word “Palestine” to have his guilt absolved: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza means that it is open season on Jews all over the world. In the same vein, William Dalrymple, informs the wised-up readers of the Guardian that “the horrific events have to be seen in the context of. . . the abject failure of the Bush administration” and the “ill-treatment of the people of Kashmir” [“Mumbai Atrocities Highlight Need for a Solution in Kashmir” Guardian 11/30/08]. In Arundhati Roy’s column, too, we rely upon the terrorists to tell the truth and to remind “us” of the “things we don't want to talk about any more” [“The Monster in the Mirror,” 12/13/08]. It is one thing for a journalist to report the content of authoritarian manifestoes or the statements terrorists make in the course of an attack; it is quite another matter to rationalize such statements in the manner of Silverstein, Dalrymple, and Roy.

Highlighting the political significance of the attack on Chabad House cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that there was also something quite discriminating about the seemingly more indiscriminate killing of commuters at the Victoria Terminus. It is not enough to say simply that, compared to the foreigners and the rich people at the Taj and Oberoi Hotels, the victims there were poorer, working people, though this is true. It is also worth pointing out that at the train station, the attackers fired directly into crowds. The Muslims among the dead there were not unintended victims. They were punished for living and working in peace in secular democratic India, i.e. of having failed to join the jihad. Of course, the Hindus regarded as pagans were positively marked for slaughter. As for the attacks on Mumbai’s elite hotels, likewise, the clear intent was to comingle on their marble floors the blood of dying unbelievers of all sorts — Zionist, Crusader, and Infidel. There again was the same unbridled murderousness that has been a significant feature of previous attacks, such as the 2006 commuter train in Mumbai and the serial bombings earlier in 2008 in Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and Delhi, to name just a few. These rather elementary aspects of the politics behind the Mumbai attacks rarely merit mention in the analysis to be found in the Guardian. But while the “Left” cannot remain at this elementary level of analysis, neither can it afford to ignore the obvious.

While Gopal is right to claim that in many respects 9/11 is not unique as a point of comparison (there have been many other Islamist terrorist attacks besides 9/11), her aim seems not to locate the attacks in an alternative history of recent Islamist terrorism, as, for instance, in relation to the bombing in Pakistan in September of the Islamabad Marriott that killed 53 and injured more than 250. Rather, the Mumbai attacks are treated as have no determinate character whatsoever, Gopal preferring to speak only of a “massacre of defenceless innocents.” Presumably the same is true of the bomb detonated December 5th, 2008 in a market outside a Shi’a mosque in Peshawar in which 22 people were killed and more than 90 were wounded. While 9/11 posed for everyone worldwide the question of modern Islamism, Gopal’s editorial reveals once again how the Left continues to rely on its old reflex responses — supposed “anti-imperialism” — to defer any confrontation with the full scope of the barbarism in our time. In this way, the piece tends to obscure or deny what is salient for advancing (or even imagining) a politics genuinely capable of both countering fascism and reconstituting an emancipatory politics in South Asia.

Mumbai train terminal attacked
Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Station (AKA Victoria Terminus) at rush hour

The Pakistan connection

All indications identify the culprit of the Mumbai attacks to be the notorious Pakistani Islamist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT], a group the CIA and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] founded in the early 1980s to foment jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Beginning in the early 1990s, it shifted focus to Indian Kashmir. It was in one of LeT’s Rawalpindi safe houses that the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was apprehended in 2003. Late the previous year, Pakistani authorities took al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah from a LeT safe house in Faisalabad.

LeT is not hidden away in remote tribal areas beyond the reach of the Pakistani state. It recruits, indoctrinates, and trains members for military action in full view of the Pakistani Army, which must, therefore, be said to protect it. And it is worth noting that there is nothing on the Indian side comparable to Pakistan’s harboring of such “non-state actors.” Of course, the Pakistani government’s first reaction to the news of the Mumbai attacks was, as usual, to flatly deny claims that the attackers were Pakistani, or that LeT was involved. But the important investigation of Guardian journalist Saeed Shah helped confound these denials. This he did by finding the one of many villages in Pakistan named Faridkot, where in his statement to the Indian police the sole surviving terrorist, Ajmal Amir Kasab, claimed he was born. To confirm that he had in fact found the attacker’s village and that LeT recruiters were indeed active there, Shah spoke to local people. One confirmed the story on condition of anonymity, adding, “We know that boy [caught in Mumbai] is from Faridkot. . . . We knew from the first night [of the attack]. They brainwash our youth about jihad. There are people who do it in this village.” [Saeed Shah, “Mumbai Terrorist came from Pakistan, local Villagers Confirm” Guardian 12/7/08]. Given Islamabad’s proven mendacity, Washington’s opportunism, and Delhi’s capacity for evidence-tampering and deception of the public (most notoriously in the botched frame-up of the alleged plotters of the December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament), Shah’s brand of investigative journalism is invaluable. His reports in the Guardian were significant and sound — in stark contrast to the irresponsible commentary we are addressing here.

Though officially denied in Islamabad, there can be no doubt that many in the Pakistani Army and ISI approve and promote LeT’s attempts to Islamicize the resistance to India’s long-standing military occupation of Kashmir. This collusion between elements inside the Pakistani Army and LeT is inextricably related to the Mumbai attacks. For years the Pakistani military has permitted jihadis fighting in Kashmir free rein to train and recruit in Pakistan creating the milieu from which the Mumbai attacks came. Even if the LeT and the other organizations of Kashmiri and Afghan jihadis which the ISI has created are no longer under their control, it can scarcely disclaim all responsibility for their actions. Moreover, as confirmed by the July 7th 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the ISI is certainly directly engaged in the promotion of the Taliban and the sabotaging of the Karzai government in Afghanistan. We catch a glimpse of such Pakistani army councils when President Asif Ali Zardari, upon being pressed regarding LeT involvement, tellingly exclaims: "Even if these activists are linked to the LeT, who do you think we are fighting?" [quoted in Bernard-Henri Levy, “Let's Give Pakistan the Attention It Deserves” Wall Street Journal 12/3/08]. That is, the resistance to the newly elected government’s assertion of its authority over the military (a highly fraught proposition) derives from those elements still promoting a jihadi-based foreign policy.

LeT is chiefly a player in the growth industry that is Islamist terror attacks against India, a country al-Qaeda rightly perceives as a weak link in the Zionist-Crusader-Infidel alliance with which so many of its recent propaganda broadcasts have been preoccupied. While, in knowing tones, area specialists insist on the great significance of the theological distinctions between jihadi groups, bin Laden himself is clear in his reiterated calls for unity. He knows, even if they do not, that there is only one modern jihad and that, in Pakistan, it is bidding for the soul of the Army. As bin Laden’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri (otherwise notorious for his recent slander of Barack Obama as a “House Slave”), stated in his April 2006 message “To the People of Pakistan”:

Musharraf was the primary backer of [America’s] ouster of the Islamic Emirate from Kabul. . . As a result of Musharraf's betrayal, Indian intelligence has crept close to the Pakistan-Afghan border. . . [Consequently] the Pakistani Army, with the exit of the Taliban government from Kabul, became a double loser: first, the Pakistani Army lost the strategic depth which Afghanistan, with its highlands and mountains, can offer it in any Pakistani-Indian confrontation. And second, the Pakistani Army's back became exposed to a regime hostile to it and allied with its enemies.

Zawahiri demonstrates perfect familiarity with the “national security” language in which top ISI officers have long rationalized their support for Islamist fascism. The civil war within the Muslim world has long since become a struggle inside the state apparatus of Pakistan. The Army has become so Islamized that its strategic aims are now interchangeably describable in the rhetoric of Clausewitz or of jihad. The Mumbai attacks and LeT’s rising prominence also represents a fusion of al-Qaeda’s international agenda to long-standing projects of the Pakistani military and ISI..

Mumbai attack suspect

Mumbai attack suspect

Reaction in-progress

While it is certainly well for commentators such as Gopal to wish that cool heads should prevail in the Government of India’s deliberations regarding its response, her ignoring of the manifestly Islamist character of the attack, the apparent link to LeT, and the internal tensions within the Pakistani state weakens that very plea for moderation and peaceful negotiations. Her commentary leaves unspecified what the purpose of any negotiation might be. After all, it is clear that, as in the past, Pakistan will first try to deny all involvement, then refuse to extradite its citizens to face trial, and, in the end, will release all those it has rounded up under pressure from the U.S. In the course of this response, Pakistan will no doubt take the opportunity to point out the manner in which India has in the past used terror attacks as an occasion to frame inconvenient dissidents and advance repressive purposes. At any rate, it is not clear that Pakistan can be pressured to take on the jihadi groups at all. As Fareed Zakaria’s December 8, 2008 CNN interview with former ISI chief Hamid Gul suggests, the institutional culture of Pakistani military intelligence is so completely Islamicized as to permit a senior spokesman to state publicly, on global media, that 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks were “an inside job” perpetrated by the “Zionists and the neo-cons.” This is from a man who claimed in 2002 that “jihad has the UN sanction,” and who is rumored to have relayed information to the Taliban in advance of U.S. strikes. Given the fact that such opinions can be held by a man in Gul’s position, deepest anxieties are not unwarranted. We might add that Gul’s conspiracy-mongering is not confined to military circles, but is widely represented in the Pakistani media today [for which see, most recently, Kamal Siddiqi’s “Everyone at Fault Except Us” in The News (Islamabad) 12/15/08]. As for Pakistan’s bureaucratic and scientific elite, it will do well to remember that the “father” of the country’s nuclear program, A. Q. Khan, in February 1984 dismissed concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear program as “a figment of the Zionist mind.” Three years later, Khan reversed himself to gleefully announce that Pakistan had succeeded in constructing what he called an “Islamic bomb” [Leonard Weiss, “Pakistan: It’s Déjà vu all Over Again” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 60:3 (May/June 2004), 55-56].

Gopal’s analysis leaves unspecified a fact crucial for the Left to recognize, that Pakistan is subject to and an exporter of a murderous fascism that goes unopposed by any mass political organization inside the country and which enjoys informal state support. Radical street demonstrations and political organizing in Pakistan have been largely moribund for some decades now, as these have been the near-exclusive domain of reactionary and jingoistic displays, the recent “lawyers’ movement” notwithstanding. The little labor organization that once existed in the country is now utterly dispirited and depoliticized. At the same time, given the permanent political crisis in the region, a circumstance to which all the relevant political actors, not least the NATO commanders in Afghanistan, are reconciled, the demand for the reigning-in of fascism, whether “Hindu” or “Muslim,” serves only to reinforce the status quo. That is, at present this demand only translates into support for the Indian National Congress or the Pakistan People’s Party, political defenders of the wretched cronyism that prevails in both countries.
While Gopal is not wrong to note the crimes of the Bush administration, neither it nor American imperialism is responsible for the attacks on Mumbai. Nor does a recitation of the sordid history of U.S. support for military dictator General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamicization of Pakistan and for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s fundamentally alter the fact that the jihadis have their own deeply reactionary agenda that is wholly irreconcilable with secular democratic politics in South Asia. In this era of political imbecility, it requires emphasizing that opposition to this ISI-jihadi nexus in Pakistan implies no tempering of the critique of the Hindutvavadis or Hindu fascists in India, nor any diminution of their crimes, such as the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. On the contrary.

At least since the time of Zia, the political order in Pakistan has rested on a despicable alliance between military despotism and Islamicism. This alliance, which has functioned during both civilian and military governments, is responsible for many thousands of corpses of Leftist activists, trade unionists, and intellectuals. Neither the Bush administration nor recent Pakistani leadership, whether that of Musharraf or Zardari, has done anything to disrupt it. Indeed, they are on the side historically of those who perpetrated those crimes. Rather than emphasize this complicity, Gopal reserves her concern for what the Indian government might do. If anything, what we have seen is something that demonstrates the strength of Indian democracy, as with the immediate acceptance of responsibility and resignation by the Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil, Chief Minister of Maharashtra Vilasrao Deshmukh, and Home Minister of Maharashtra R. R. Patil. Her concern to restrain India also sits uneasily with the statements of President Zardari of Pakistan who, writing in the New York Times, seems precisely to pin his hope on leveraging U.S. and Indian pressure to strengthen his hand against the military establishment and the homegrown Islamism that seeks to overthrow his government. Certainly, recognizing Islamist responsibility and ISI complicity implies no support for the opportunistic use to which the Mumbai attacks be put by India’s military and political parties. As its entire long history shows, when the Left evades such facts as ill-suited to its preferred understanding of the political environment, not only does it confess its own helplessness in the face of the present, but threatens in the process to betray — yet again — what should be its own most fundamental commitments.

The possibility of a Left

In urging that the Mumbai attacks are not to be compared to 9/11, Gopal, as we have seen, was not concerned with the actual events themselves so much as the potential Indian response. Instead of strengthening democracy and the struggle against authoritarianism (much less any attempt to criticize and advance the politics of the Left), Gopal proposes something else: “Rather than imitate the US . . . India has the option of turning to its own unique history in seeking an end to the violence.” Invoking Gandhi, she declares, “India has no need to cede its unique cultural resources for the derivative language of 9/11.” To the same purpose Arundhati Roy relates her recognition that “November isn't September, 2008 isn't 2001, Pakistan isn't Afghanistan and India isn't America.” Like Gopal, Roy dismisses as trifling the “war on TV,” attempting to insert it into the familiar framework for understanding Hindu-Muslim antagonism in South Asia, that of so-called “communal violence” which she duly attributes to the legacy of British colonial mendacity. If indeed Gopal acknowledges any danger to emanate from Pakistan, she leaves it to the American Empire to sort out. As for the political (as opposed to cultural) resources available to India, Gopal declines to specify which of those is up to the task of opposing the fascism on display on 11/26. Should we inquire as to India’s political as opposed to cultural resources, Gopal would offer nothing in reply. But the degeneracy of the Indian left is a rich subject. After all, the Indian Left in recent years has been guilty of active complicity with Islamism as, for instance, in the 2007 expulsion of Bangladeshi asylum seeker, feminist, and critic of Islamism, Taslima Nasreen by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Government of West Bengal.

In the world Guardian writers prefer not to face, the Left is in no position to affect outcomes. Still, acknowledging circumstances and the Left’s exhaustion is the only way forward. For, to invert Marx’s famous thesis, we will not be in position to change the world, until and unless we understand it. And the crucial conditioning factor of current events is the death of the Left. In the here-and-now, it is clear that the political struggle against Islamism in South Asia, as elsewhere, has a military aspect and that any marginally desirable political outcome will have been brought about at least in part by means of the violence of state action. Moreover, as most Leftists would doubtless be loathe to admit, the very prospect of reconstituting Leftist politics in South Asia rides to no small extent on the ability of the U.S. and NATO to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Left has a stake in historical processes that at present it is powerless to affect.

It has long been evident that with respect to “the war on TV” the scattered fragments of the Left can do little more than watch the bullets fly. However, we might even take some comfort in the fact that, once again in the recent elections, most people in Pakistan rejected the appeal of the religious parties. Despite the prevailing depoliticization, many recognized that they too have stakes in the struggle against Islamism, and did not allow their discontent with the status quo to lead to a reconciliation with it. The Left ought to attend more closely to the dilemma the Pakistani people are forced to negotiate on account of a failed politics, i.e. a choice between two right-wing alternatives. Certainly, as has been shown here, anti-imperialism in our time has become a smokescreen that obscures more than it reveals. It alone offers no way forward. While we cannot contemplate without horror an Islamist victory in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Kashmir. At the same time, it is impossible to imagine its defeat at the hands of such “enemies” as it now faces. That is, in present circumstances the “War on Terror” is no more horrific to contemplate than is the peace to be made with it. If, rather than railing against or rallying on behalf of one or another right-wing politics, the Left would be complicit with neither barbarous war nor rotten peace, it will have to subject itself to searching critical reflection. Though as "a newspaper of record" the Guardian will continue documenting atrocities symptomatically expressive of the ongoing political regression like the attacks on Mumbai, it will do so without the critical awareness that this is what it's doing. |P


This poster reads in part: "Who gets the wealth that is produced in India? The British Empire. It is all sent there and is not used for the India’s benefit! Britain has ruled India for 200 years and still the Indian poor are dying of hunger."

This German propaganda poster (circa 1944) reads in part: "Who gets the wealth that is produced in India? The British Empire. It is all sent there and is not used for the India’s benefit! Britain has ruled India for 200 years and still the Indian poor are dying of hunger.