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After the recent discussion of Luxemburg's pamphlet on Reform or Revolution? (1900/08), there might be some confusion regarding the relationship between Luxemburg's formulations and the raison d'etre of Platypus as an organized project today. -- What is the point of reading Luxemburg today?

Whereas Luxemburg was critiquing Eduard Bernstein and other "revisionists'" arguments that the development of capitalism had made proletarian social revolution superfluous or even harmful, Luxemburg was arguing that such historical "development" must be seen as symptomatic of the growing and deepening crisis of capitalism, and that the organized Marxist social-democratic labor and political movement must be seen as part of that history, part of that crisis.

Rather than diminishing the importance of the Marxist political point of departure, as Bernstein had hypothesized, for Luxemburg, the development of the proletarian socialist movement, as part and parcel of and inextricably bound up with the development of capitalism, had only gained in saliency, had only grown in political importance.

Luxemburg understood Bernstein's "revisionism" in a two-fold sense: theoretically and psychologically. But in both senses as a matter of ideology. Theoretically, the bankruptcy of bourgeois thought had caused it to collapse into Marxism. Psychologically, the apparent convergence of liberalism and ("Marxist") socialism meant the attempt to avoid, as a matter of political practice, the growing crisis of capitalism. Hence, Bernstein's assumption of the gradual "evolution" of capitalism into socialism, whereas Luxemburg emphasizes the crucial crossroads at which modern society had arrived: in the language of her later Junius pamphlet (The Crisis of German Social Democracy, 1915), borrowed from Engels, "socialism or barbarism!"

It was precisely this crossroads of socialism or barbarism that the "revisionists" denied, and that Luxemburg had to reestablish in order to grasp the crucial role that Marxism as an organized political tendency could and indeed needed to play for the emancipation of humanity beyond capital.

But Luxemburg was writing in a very different time from ours. Where Luxemburg attributed "revisionism" -- the impulse to liquidate Marxist socialism back into liberalism -- to the fear that the dawning crisis and depth of the tasks revealed by the development of the international socialist workers' movement engendered among what she called the "petit bourgeois" intellectuals adhering to the workers' movement, she confidently characterized this as a passing malady.

More fundamentally, however, Luxemburg pointed to the deeper conflict within the working class itself, between apprehending its interests in a "petit bourgeois" vs. "proletarian" way.

This is the essence of Luxemburg's accusation that Bernstein et al. had collapsed back into liberalism, but under the guise (and as a tendency) of avowed, self-conscious "Marxism."

For a workers' movement without a Marxian revolutionary politics is just liberalism, despite whatever "Marxist" verbiage or consciousness with which it might clothe itself.

So Luxemburg was calling attention to and theoretically elucidating the danger that the workers' movement (however avowedly "socialist" or even "Marxist" it thought itself) would relapse back into liberalism, precisely as the political tasks it faced were revealed in all their breadth and depth. What later thinkers in the Frankfurt School critical theoretical tradition would characterize as the "fear of freedom" underlies this perpetual danger of opportunism (as opposed to inadequate explanations like "selling out," etc.).

Today, by contrast, we face not a world in which the depth and breadth of the task of a social politics that could point beyond capitalism has been revealed, but in which it is deeply obscured and hidden.

We lack the developed workers' movement of Luxemburg's time (i.e., 2nd International Marxist socialism) that could simultaneously reveal the task of anticapitalist politics, as well as provide the means for succumbing to the danger of abdicating this task (through labor reformism etc., co-optation to the capitalist state, etc.).

And we lack the consciousness that such a politics is desirable, let alone possible or necessary. "Marxism" has consumed itself in the abdication of the task it historically set for itself, and it has buried the truth of the modern of society of capital in the sepulcher of its own demise.

Nevertheless, read properly, the history of Marxist socialism offers some clues into such necessities, possibilities, and desirabilities of a Marxian politics, a politics derived from Marx's recognition of the problem of capital.

We cannot, as Luxemburg could, point to the class polarization of society as an underlying reality with which a Marxian politics could grasp actual possibilities -- and to which such a politics contributed the emergence and development.

Rather, we are left with a more obscure task, revealing that there was ever a point to the Marxian characterization of modern society as capitalist. We are back to square one in this sense, not at Luxemburg's moment of culminating crisis in thought and potential action, but deeply lost in the accumulated barbarism that has necessarily resulted from the failure of historical revolutionary Marxism.

Sectarian "Marxists" read Luxemburg merely as an eloquent defense of "revolution" against "reformism," but as Luxemburg herself pointed out, it is only the reformists who separate and oppose the struggle for fundamental transformation from reforms. The apparent contradiction between reform and revolution is itself a product of the degeneration of effective practical political agency and consciousness.

Whereas Luxemburg had a movement to critique and goad on, we only have a history that haunts us, and one that becomes dimmer over time, demanding fundamental recognition and potential elaboration of an available, if rendered temporarily obscure, framework for asking in our present what is necessary, possible, and desirable for transforming our world.

Rather than waiting for some "objective" crisis of capitalism that, according to the senile "Left" will supposedly do our work for us, while it continues to never ever come, we are tasked by Luxemburg and her fellow historical revolutionary Marxists to explore what we can actually do to advance the crisis of modern society, to make it take the form of a political crisis over its direction and potential resolution.

Platypus, initially, has taken up this task as a matter of conscious recognition of the problem that needs to be addressed, of basic orientation towards the true horizon of potential possibility to be explored.

While it might appear that Luxemburg's practical revolutionary Marxist politics was proven wrong and hopeless by history, it's not as if her debating opponents, e.g., Bernstein, fared any better, in theory or practice.

Whereas Bernstein et al. offered nothing that could address the history that followed, which did not lead to socialism, Luxemburg's clear warning about the threat of regression has been actualized, and for precisely the reasons she had recognized.

This doesn't mean following Luxemburg's (et al.) script, but rather her spirit. It is why we, and not the ostensible "Marxists" who supposedly follow her more strictly, are answering her (and her historical Marxist cohort's) call, and hopefully not too late.

Yesterday, with everyone all back in Boston for the first time since December (Laura literally got in from India an hour before the start of the meeting), we spent a good deal of our time doing organizational planning for the spring session. We were able, however, to spend some time with the Slaughter reading.

Our discussion covered several aspects of the piece, but focused mainly on the relationship of politics and organization. We addressed the interdependence of the two, acknowledging that any revolutionary organization cannot grow in size or strength without an increasingly rigorous and refined politics, and that the formation of sophisticated revolutionary politics cannot come to pass without a corresponding development of effective organization. To emphasize the necessary bond between the two, one could say that organizing *is* political and that politics *is* the practice of organization. But this fact must be recognized--must be brought to consciousness (and rigorously maintained there)--in order for the dialectical relationship to bear revolutionary fruit; unrecognized it will lead to degeneration.

The question was then posed: if Platypus considers itself a "pre-political" project, what is the nature of its relation to and engagement with organizational practices? This is a complex question, but I would venture to start out by saying that the role of Platypus, through its pedagogical mandate, is to cultivate a situation in which politics and organization, like theory and practice, can be made to develop into a mutually generative relationship. And this means loosening it from the catch-22 paralysis in which it remains stuck. The interdependent nature of the relationship between political consciousness and revolutionary organization can lead either to their total stagnation, in which they become mutually exclusive, or to their mutual propulsion, in which each relies on and makes possible the other. It is for the latter that we must lay the groundwork.

A final note: though Platypus seeks to politicize, we are not a body of political leadership. It is our mission to bring to bear a situation in which revolutionary political leadership is needed, and when that happens Platypus as it now stands will have fulfilled its task, and can be closed as a chapter. Our task, then, is to render our particular project no longer necessary.

-Soren W. (Boston)

Yesterday, with everyone all back in Boston for the first time since December (Laura literally got in from India an hour before the start of the meeting), we spent a good deal of our time doing organizational planning for the spring session. We were able, however, to spend some time with the Slaughter reading.

Our discussion covered several aspects of the piece, but focused mainly on the relationship of politics and organization. We addressed the interdependence of the two, acknowledging that any revolutionary organization cannot grow in size or strength without an increasingly rigorous and refined politics, and that the formation of sophisticated revolutionary politics cannot come to pass without a corresponding development of effective organization. To emphasize the necessary bond between the two, one could say that organizing *is* political and that politics *is* the practice of organization. But this fact must be recognized--must be brought to consciousness (and rigorously maintained there)--in order for the dialectical relationship to bear revolutionary fruit; unrecognized it will lead to degeneration.

The question was then posed: if Platypus considers itself a "pre-political" project, what is the nature of its relation to and engagement with organizational practices? This is a complex question, but I would venture to start out by saying that the role of Platypus, through its pedagogical mandate, is to cultivate a situation in which politics and organization, like theory and practice, can be made to develop into a mutually generative relationship. And this means loosening it from the catch-22 paralysis in which it remains stuck. The interdependent nature of the relationship between political consciousness and revolutionary organization can lead either to their total stagnation, in which they become mutually exclusive, or to their mutual propulsion, in which each relies on and makes possible the other. It is for the latter that we must lay the groundwork.

A final note: though Platypus seeks to politicize, we are not a body of political leadership. It is our mission to bring to bear a situation in which revolutionary political leadership is needed, and when that happens Platypus as it now stands will have fulfilled its task, and can be closed as a chapter. Our task, then, is to render our particular project no longer necessary.

-Soren W. (Boston)

Platypus chapter at SAIC meets Sundays at

School of the Art Institute of Chicago
112 S. Michigan Ave.

Room 707

1-4pm

[contact: ian.morrison.a@gmail.com]

Platypus chapter at University of Chicago meets Sundays at
Reynolds Club 5706 S. University Ave.

2nd floor South Lounge
2-5PM
For more information contact mtorre3@artic.edu

1960s paths not taken (1): Civil Rights - Black Power

bayard_rustin2

Platypus Marxist readings for Sunday January 11, 2009

· Richard Fraser, Two Lectures on the Black Question in America and Revolutionary
Integrationism
(1953)


· James Robertson and Shirley Stoute, "For Black Trotskyism" (1963)

Spartacist League, "Black and Red — Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom" (1966)

· Bayard Rustin, "The Failure of Black Separatism" (1970)

At two locations in Chicago:

University of Chicago
Reynolds Club 5706 S. University Ave.
2nd floor South Lounge
2-5PM

School of the Art Institute of Chicago
112 S. Michigan Ave.
room 707 (7th floor)
1-4PM

If you are not affiliated with SAIC and would like to participate in the reading group contact lrojas@saic.edu

Richard Kidd

Platypus Review 9 | December 2008

[PDF]

To change the world, we need a movement. This movement must be made up of millions of people and thousands of organizations. These organizations must build and push the movement forward. How do we get to this point? We have to start with leadership.

From 12 to 155

As a union organizer, I train workers to lead their shop floor and industry wide struggles. In the case of my union, we call the leaders in the shops “committee members.” These folks organize for fights with bosses, deal with issues on the shop floor, and negotiate contracts.

Every June for the last five years there has been a major citywide rally on behalf of all of the members of my union. For my part, I was responsible for organizing workers at one of the major food service companies in Chicago. All the workers of this company are part of the union. For the big citywide action on Michigan Avenue in 2007, only 12 out of 650 workers showed up. Not even half of the committee came.

The union committee did the day-to-day work of running the union. There were no qualifications for membership in the committee. Everyone who wanted to be on the committee was welcome; no one was ever turned away. If you joined the committee, you were not given any clear expectations. The committee was comprised of twentyfive volunteers who were neither the most respected nor trusted workers in the shop. And they were the ones expected to move the union forward?! The organization of the union was catch as catch can. It was a weak union, and that’s definitely not what we needed.

Twenty-five individuals that did not have the ability to mobilize their co-workers, did not have any responsibility, and did not have the skills or the knowledge to win issues on the shop floor, produced a weak union.

One year later, the same march takes place, and workers from the same shop come out to Michigan Avenue. This time, 155 workers came.

This was made possible by a strong and fighting union. This union has a committee that pushes co-workers to fight; a committee that both carries out the daily functions of the union and believes in a long-term class-based political program; a committee with members trained to become better leaders, who can target and recruit new committee people. The union needed committee members who would constantly challenge each other to be stronger and better organizers. In other words, leadership was needed.

We can build a successful movement by developing leadership skills and leaders who can be held accountable.

The worker-led organizing committee shrunk to twenty, with some workers from the first committee, and some were new members. The philosophy and expectations of the committee members changed. Committee members agreed to a minimum set of requirements: they had to have the respect of the group, and the desire to lead their co-workers. Each committee member agreed to take responsibility for organizing a group, to attend meetings, to recruit more leaders, to get training, and to do the work of building a movement. Those that did not agree and those that did not live up to the responsibility got off the committee. The committee was changing from a hodgepodge group of volunteers to a body ready for leadership.

Why leadership?

I recently sat on a panel at the “Platypus Readers and Writers Forum.” The discussion was supposed to focus on how the Platypus Review could become a better newspaper. But, the panelists and the audience were interest in having a different conversation. The forum moved in the direction of the age-old debate between “theory” and “practice,” or between “thought” and “action.” After three hours we all agreed that both were necessary in a radical movement for social change.

Everyone on the left has heard and said it before. We are all wrong. The problem today is not about theory, the “right line,” or militant action. The problem is one of leadership. The question should be: how do we get more people to accept our theories and to take part in our actions, so we can build enough momentum to be able to actually accomplish the goals of our movement?

It is impossible to build real organization, to direct our actions, thoughts, and goals into a single vision, in a Left when “leader” and “leadership” are treated as dirty words. Those in leadership roles (official or unofficial)— even in large organizations—are treated with disdain, disgust, even as enemies.

On the Left today, the concept of leadership is synonymous with authoritarianism, dictatorship, oppression, and control. This antipathy towards leadership has stalled our efforts: we waste time working to limit the power of our own organizations, instead of figuring out how to use the power of our organizations against the current system. As a result, constant infighting and petty personality disputes destroy our ability to achieve our actual goals.

This negative vision of leadership has produced broad acceptance of “diversity of tactics,” “anti-authoritarianism,” “consensus decision making.” These and a host of other leftist ideas were a rejection of the centralized leadership and bureaucratic structures of the left before the 1960s.

Students for a Democratic Society, founded with exactly these concepts in mind, once had 100,000 members nationwide. In 1969, it gave way to the Weatherman Faction, which in turn became the Weather Underground. The potential for a strong organization was lost; the radicals that could have led SDS ended as a few dozen people isolated from any broader movement. This story has become far too common throughout the history of the left.

Today, the movement has no structure and no power. Because of the ever-shrinking and splintered organizations, it’s impossible to think beyond our own small circle of friends or “affinity groups.” Some Chicagoans who participated in the 2008 Republican National Convention reported that during the planning for blocking traffic, certain affinity groups couldn’t even commit to the rest of the organization to hold certain intersections, in case they “felt like going somewhere else.” This has become the norm, the views of every small group is of equal importance, and every person within that group is allowed to opt in or out at anytime.

Activists no longer view their roles as leaders of a movement, nor consider themselves responsible to organizations. Individuals are not expected to, nor desire to, recruit others into organizations or activities. Recruitment and training are not priorities. Discipline and planning are limited to one-off actions, not long-term organizational plans. Individualism has run amok, and the outcome is libertinism, not political power for the masses of humanity.

This sentiment is not just anti-leadership, it is anti-organization, and ultimately it is anti-power. This is not due to a political theory, either; it is merely the product of our own internal fear. In the face of constant defeat, the vast majority of the left, regardless of label, has adopted this anti-power ideology. We have complacently accepted our own situation, resigned ourselves to symbolic protest and resistance, and accepted our minority status. We are being held back by our own fear of being right, of being wrong, of winning, of losing, of anything. We are afraid of looking over the edge, seeing the abyss before us, and having to leap. We are more afraid still of leading others off that cliff into creating a new world. We are terrified of the responsibilities and burdens of that leadership.

This must change. We must learn to be leaders.

This is not the leadership of unaccountable government leaders, top-down and based on patronage or the power of the law. Nor is it the self-appointed ideological leadership of communist parties. The position of leaders in a real emancipatory movement must come solely from one factor: the ability of the leaders to lead those involved in the organization into a struggle for liberation and power. Taking responsibility and leadership is the ultimate act of believing in your politics. It is the ultimate act of believing in yourself. You must create the new or it will never come. And we are more afraid of the new than what we know.

Timothy’s path to leadership

I will never forget meeting Timothy, one of the first members of the new committee in my union. He was on the prior committee and had worked there for seven years. Like so many of us, Timothy felt his life was out of his hands, and just wanted to talk about his problems. His wife was robbed, his daughter had asthma and frequently ended up in the hospital, and he’d been in and out of prison.

Timothy wanted to be safe. He wanted to have control over his life. But Timothy had only fought for himself; he had never been challenged to act like a leader and challenge his friends/co-workers to stand up.

It would have been easier for me to just accept the history of this shop, and just say this is what “the workers” wanted. Instead, I chose to challenge him and to push others to do the same. I made him reconsider the role he and his co-workers could play. Along with workers’ strength, we talked about his life and what kind of man and father he wanted to be.

Timothy wanted his union to fight, although he wasn’t sure what that meant. He did know, however, that only a handful of people in the shop floor would talk about the problems, that nothing ever got fixed, and everyone felt weak for way too long. Timothy agreed to get trained and to challenge his co-workers to organize toward their common goals.

At a certain point, Timothy decided he was going to lead and organize a new area of the site because the company was cutting people’s hours and giving more work to certain “favorite” workers. He got four more committee members to start a petition; they convinced the whole department to sign it and deliver it as a group. The night before the delivery, the committee leaders called their coworker followers to make sure that they would be there.

They trusted the leadership’s decisions, and, despite their fears, 76 of them gathered to present the petition as a group. Timothy and four other committee members confronted the General Manager with the petition. Within twenty minutes, the Manager agreed to pay them thousands of dollars for the time the company had cut.

Leadership and the future of the Left

Finding and developing new leaders at the shop was not easy, but it proved that a strong organization, and a strong movement, is only possible through the development of leadership. Developing leadership for the movement requires creating long term plans for the growth of an organization, recruiting new members, training a new generation of leadership, and planning and carrying out campaigns for short-term victories.

A leader’s priority is to widen the base of support, train people to carry out necessary tasks, and immediately give newly recruited people responsibilities. Without training, and short-term goals, the membership will slowly decline and leadership will inevitably fall off. By planning and accomplishing things together members both old and new will learn to trust each other and the power of the leadership. As members go through the ups and downs of campaigns, wins and losses, they will learn the effectiveness of their own organizations and learn to trust in the leadership of those that are taking the bold step of leading people into difficult struggles. Larger goals become attainable, and more people will have been through difficult struggles and will have learned how to fight and win.

Timothy did just that, he became a man that was respected and built an organization that was feared. As he moves forward he will be able to change dozens—and will ultimately lead hundreds—of working class people. This has also allowed Timothy to build a better relationship with his wife and daughter. It taught him restraint, planning, patience and respect. When working class people learn to feel respect in their own lives, and feel power in the places of work and the community, we have advanced the possibility of real transformation.

We must not fail to recruit people into our organizations. We cannot be afraid to directly ask a person to recognize that they have a stake in changing the world, and share our vision of struggle with them. Many people on the left are just waiting for the revolution to come. We cannot just assume that someday the workers of the world are going to flock to our ideas. The revolution will never come by itself. A revolution will only be possible by the organized actions of the Left.

I lead people. I’m proud of leading people. I think leading people is the most important thing I can do in my life. I do not lead everyone. I don’t lead people in every area of their lives. I don’t lead people to do things against their self-interest. I am not unique in my leadership ability. But I can and will lead people in a social movement.

Each one of you gets to make the same choice I made, the same choice Timothy made. Who do I want to be? What is the better me? As you answer those questions, believe that it is our duty as revolutionaries to make sure other people can answer them as well, and can realize their visions. Everyone wants a better world, but it is up to us to get the world there.

Two dominant ideas on the left today are used to treat leadership negatively and not as a necessity: “we are all leaders” or “we have no leaders.”

The left is wrong and will continue to lose until it recognizes that fact. It is imperative that we learn to take leadership seriously and work to develop it. There is only one thing that should be avoided on the left, and that is losing. It is time to do something different. It is time to lead. |P

Benjamin Blumberg

Platypus Review 6 | September 2008

[PDF]

“We succeeded culturally. We succeeded socially. And we lost politically.… I always say: ‘thank God!’”
— Daniel Cohn-Bendit in interview on 1968, conducted by Yascha Mounk for
The Utopian (2008)

“[O]ne asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor.… Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror.… There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.”
— Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)

In its May 2008 issue, the most commercially successful art criticism publication, Artforum, dedicated its pages to the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of May 1968. The publication presented contributions by many of the leading figures in contemporary critical theory, all of whom have a distinctive sense of indebtedness to that brief period four decades ago, dubbed by Herbert Marcuse as the “Great Refusal.” Included in the issue’s contents are the reflections of the art historian, Arthur C. Danto, who, while faculty at Columbia University in 1968, witnessed firsthand the student uprising and occupation of several campus buildings; the philosopher Antonio Negri, one of the paragons of postmodern anti-capitalist political theory who earned his stripes as an activist throughout the 1970s in Italy’s Autonomia movement; and Sylvère Lotringer, founder of the journal Semiotext(e) which is credited with bringing the lessons of the Parisian May ’68 into the currents of American intellectual life in the form of French postmodernist theory. In addition to these authors, the issue includes reflections provided by several others who claim varying degrees of notoriety and specialty within the web of postmodern critical theory: Ti-Grace Atkinson, Chris Kraus, Michelle Kuo, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Tom McDonough, Liam Gillick, Sally Shafto, Tom Holert and Gerald Raunig.

In the issue’s editorial statement, Tim Griffin explains that Artforum’s intention was to “[look] at May 1968 specifically in historical counterpoint…[in order to bring] the questions of ’68 to bear on today.” Such a “reflexive” approach, Griffin claims, is a corrective to the intellectual danger that “in approaching these events today, one is inevitably in jeopardy of addressing not the events of 1968 so much as the stories already spun about them; and…one is also in jeopardy of…either succumbing to vapid nostalgia or dismissing the time as the stuff of myth.” Against these reductive modes of interpretation, Griffin counterposes the underling approach taken by the issue’s contributors. He explains, “[f]or throughout these pages, essayists repeatedly underline the ways in which the very creative models and concepts that propelled ’68…are now threads in the vast fabric of commerce and industry. Regardless of whether these observations provide a measure of the success of May’s enragés or of their appeasement…lessons for today become apparent.”

What then are the lessons revealed by reflection on the persistence of 1968’s significance? Is it enough to simply point out that the modes of thought which activated consciousness in ’68 have now become integrated and co-opted? Or, despite the best efforts of the critical inheritors of 1968, do we still lack substantial critical reflection on why 1968 still “bears” on today?

A partial key to this shortcoming is found in the predilection toward the defining ideas, passions, and actions of 1968 exhibited by Artforum’s contributing essayists. For instance, in his column “Before the Revolution,” Arthur C. Danto nostalgically remembers the occupation of several of Columbia University’s buildings as “the great student uprising,” characterized by its “singular political inventiveness.” Chris Kraus, assessing the 1970s radical sex-publication Suck, gives the glib formulation: “Perhaps the greatest promise of May ’68 arose with an eruption of spontaneity that…suggested it might indeed be possible to live differently.”

Danto and Kraus’s banal phrases of admiration indicate one side of the underlying problem with the perspective offered by Artforum. Although willing to recognize that ’68’s inventions and awakenings have been subsumed by “commerce and industry” in today’s society, the essayists nevertheless assume that 1968 was a breakthrough in regards to its own moment. This assumption remains essentially unaltered, even though the essayists are canny enough to modify it by pointing to the inconclusiveness of their understanding of exactly what constitutes 1968’s progressive content. As Sylvère Lotringer claims in his essay chronicling the Parisian events of ’68, “[s]omething happened in the “joli Mai” of 1968—just what precisely remains subject to debate. Yet no one doubts that it was…one of the most seminal political events of the twentieth century.”

Lotringer’s essay and the interview he conducts with Antonio Negri enjoy the chief role of portraying for readers of Artforum the discernable features of 1968’s breakthrough. What is decisive for Lotringer is the sense that 1968’s progress corresponded to “profound [social] changes” in which, “[e]verything was breaking down and shifting around, as in a kaleidoscope.” Lotringer understands the events of 1968 as expressions of a newly emergent political consciousness, which, paraphrasing Herbert Marcuse, he explains was based on the notion that because “[a]dvanced industrial societies [have] successfully managed to integrate the working class…only radical minorities could be counted on… to practice the ‘great refusal.’” The implication is clear. The organized working class had ceased to be the revolutionary bulwark, and therefore it was incumbent upon anti-capitalist theoreticians and practitioners to reinvent politics.

Of course, Lotringer and the other essayists are not so one-sided as to completely cut the working class out of their conception of revolution. Instead, acknowledging the former Marxist theoretical system—or at least their idea of it—they offer rationalizations for what Lotringer calls their “tinkering.” In his conversation with Lontringer, Negri does not style his political theory as post-proletariat; instead he claims that the proletariat has been fundamentally transformed through the “rejection of Taylorist and Fordist organizations of labor” coupled with the rise in importance of “immaterial labor.” Such statements, while seemingly insightful, are in fact equivocations. Only vulgar Marxism is rendered obsolete by the recognition that postmodern capitalism may have transformed the proletariat and the concrete labor it does. In its best exemplars, Marxism theoretically explains why the proletariat—and the society determined by its existence— is necessarily subject to ceaseless transformations (which remain however out of its conscious control). The proletariat’s dynamism is equally decisive for Marxist politics, which sets itself the goal of bringing the dynamic under conscious control in order to initiate a process of global transformation into a new form of social “metabolism.” Despite Negri’s recognition that the proletariat is subject to change, he cannot see it as the actual element of continuity binding our moment to past arrangements of capitalism. Instead, he argues that 1968 “was a jump, a division in history, a rupture.” By basing their politics on the affirmation of this “rupture,” the so-called radicals of ’68 missed an opportunity to consciously shape their historical moment. Instead, their historical moment shaped them. They ended up accepting the ideological confusions and social degradation wrought by the breakdown of the welfare-state form of capitalism, and adjusted their politics accordingly.

This accounts for why the essayists cannot help but to portray the narrative of the actual practices of 1968 as reckless posturing and festive abandonment, despite their claim to have historically advanced political theory. In his reflections on the student revolt at Columbia, Danto recalls an incident when he tried to negotiate the release of Harry S. Coleman, a dean of the school held captive in his office by students occupying the building. When Danto attempted to argue that it was wrong to hold Coleman hostage, he was howled out of the scene. Before leaving a group of students told him that he “didn’t understand what was happening, that this was the revolution!”—an assertion repudiated within days, when the police cleared the building. Lotringer, also tells a story of the Parisian events countervailant to the achievements in theory. He writes that “They [the French students] stole France, took it for a joyride, and then just as suddenly, dropped it in a back alley with no more than a few scratches.” In other words, the actual events of 1968, whether in New York or Paris, were characterized by a complete lack of goals and a delusional sense of strength. Nevertheless, Lontringer assures us that “May ’68 left a lasting trace: From its ashes arose the most vital political theories to emerge in the West over the past half century, as if the political creativity of the French May, thwarted in every other way, found in philosophy its most potent outlet.” But this begs the question of the relation between theory and practice.

The underlying premise informing all of Artforum’s essayists is that 1968 represents an unprecedented and unique political event which, as Negri argues, ruptures historical continuity. Thus, they affirm the same false sense of “progression” that lead students in ’68 headlong into the streets to confront the human masks of unknown and unalterable forces; and who, upon being beaten back, nonetheless claimed victory for having elucidating the limits of the ability to change the world. To avoid this painful problem the enragés of May ’68, and their disciples today, reinvent politics along the edges of the shattered pieces of their smashed practice. Upholding this fractured arrangement to be a theoretical breakthrough they lose contact with a fundamental aspect of Marxian critical theory— the ability to recognize continuity in change and change in continuity. It is this blindness that accounts for their inability to see in the “sui generis” political event of ’68 the imprint of the ongoing destruction of theory (Stalinism and Cold-War Social Democracy), and it accounts for their blindness to the fact that in 1968’s inept revolutionary practices laid the seeds for the future (today’s) degradation of politics. Consequently the relation between consciousness and practice is obscured by contemporary theory, which has the effect of dissolving theory into aporia and accommodating practice to a degraded reality. Theory becomes affirmative of a reality it cannot consciously affect, and therefore cannot understand. Instead of considering this complicated and still growing problem, the authors opt for the introduction of abstruse categories to re-imagine the antecedent class-conscious theory; for example, “multitude” (Negri), “youth as a class” (Lontringer), “cognitive labor” (Raunig), “difference” (Gillick), “heterotopia” (McDonough). These categories are not difficult to concretely grasp because the political philosophy situating them is so advanced; instead, their conceptual fuzziness and lack of political specificity result from the failure to discern the actual depth and contours of the problem.

Thus to Griffin’s suggestion that we have lessons to learn from 1968’s continued significance, we say: the only lesson worth learning is how not to repeat the past. Artforum’s example shows us that remaining beholden to 1968 offers no way out of the mire it created through its political impetuousness and confused beliefs. Griffin may be correct in pointing out that a “pro” versus “con” framework for understanding 1968 is inadequate because it assumes an anachronistic condition of possibility—that one could somehow choose or reject what has already transpired. Yet we can still reject ’68 as our model of “progress,” whether in theory or practice. For the critic of today’s barbarism, this is an essential lesson in brushing history “against the grain.” |P

Michael Löwy

Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008

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Walter Benjamin occupies a unique place in the history of modern revolutionary thought: he is the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. His thinking has therefore a distinct critical quality, which sets him apart from the dominant and “official” forms of historical materialism, and gives him a formidable methodological superiority.

This peculiarity has to do with his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of civilization and from the Jewish messianic tradition. Both elements are present in his early writings, particularly in “The Life of the Students” (1915), where he already rejects “a conception of history, whose confidence in the infinity of time only distinguishes the speed by which men and epochs roll, quicker or slower, along the track of progress”—a conception characterized by the “inconsistency, the lack of precision and force of the demands it addresses at the present”—opposing it to utopian images such as the messianic Kingdom or the French Revolution.

Benjamin’s first reference to Communism appears in 1921, in his “Critique of Violence,” where he celebrates the “devastating and on the whole justified” critique of the Parliament by the Bolsheviks and the Anarcho-syndicalists. This link between Communism and Anarchism will be an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism will to a large extent take a libertarian colour.

But it is only after 1924, when he reads Lukács’s “History and Class Consciousness” (1923), and discovers practical Communism through the beautiful eyes of Asja Lacis—a Soviet artist and political activist he met in Capri—that Marxism will become a key component of his world-view. In 1929 Benjamin still refers to Lukacs’s opus as one of the few books which remain lively and topical: “the most achieved philosophical work of the Marxist literature. Its uniqueness lies in the assurance with which it grasps in the critical situation of philosophy the critical situation of class struggle, and in the coming concrete revolution the absolute presupposition, and even the absolute implementation and the last word of theoretical knowledge. The polemic against it by the hierarchy of the Communist Party under the leadership of Deborin confirms, in its way, the scope of the book.” This commentary illustrates Benjamin’s independence of mind towards the official doctrine of Soviet Marxism—in spite of his sympathies for the USSR.

The first work where the influence of Marxism can be felt is One-way Street, written from 1923 until 1925, published in 1928. Benjamin’s former neo-romantic criticism of progress is now charged with a revolutionary Marxist tension: “if the abolition of the bourgeoisie is not completed before an almost calculable moment in economic and technical development (a moment signaled by inflation and poison-gas warfare) all is lost. Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut”. Will the proletariat be able to fulfill this historical task? The survival or destruction of “three thousand years of cultural development” depends on the answer. In opposition to the vulgar evolutionist brand of Marxism, Benjamin does not conceive the proletarian revolution as the natural or inevitable result of economic and technical progress, but as the critical interruption of an evolution leading to catastrophe.

This critical standpoint explains why his Marxism has a peculiarly pessimistic spirit—a revolutionary pessimism which has nothing to do with resigned fatalism. In his article on Surrealism from 1929—where he again tries to reconcile Anarchism and Marxism—he defines Communism as the organization of pessimism, adding ironically: “unlimited confidence only in the IG Farben and the peaceful perfectioning of the Luftwaffe.” Both institutions were soon (but after his death) to show, beyond his most pessimistic forecasts, the sinister usage which could be made of modern technology.

In 1933, as Adolf Hitler seized power, like many other Jews and antifascists, Benjamin had to leave Germany. Exiled in Paris, he survived precariously with a small stipendium from the Institute of Social Research in New York, where the Frankfurt School was exiled. During those years he worked on his unfinished project on the Parisian Arcades, while producing some remarkable Marxist essays on Baudelaire and on the “Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction” (1935).

Benjamin’s Marxism was a new and original re-interpretation of historical materialism (nourished by Romantic culture and Jewish theology) radically different from the orthodoxy of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. It should be considered as an attempt to deepen and radicalize the opposition between Marxism and bourgeois ideology, to heighten its revolutionary potential and to sharpen its critical content. This was also the aim of the Arcades project (Passagenwerk): “One can perceive as one of the methodological aims of this work to demonstrate the possibility of a historical materialism, that has annihilated in itself the idea of progress. Here is precisely where historical materialism has to dissociate itself from the bourgeois habits of thought.” Such a program did not aim at some sort of "revision" but rather, as Korsch tried to do in his own book (Karl Marx [1936], one of Benjamin’s major sources) a return to Marx himself.

In 1939, as the war began, Benjamin was interned as an “enemy alien” by the French government. He managed to escape the internment camp, but after the German victory and occupation of France in 1940, he had to leave Paris for Marseille. In these dramatic circumstances, he wrote his last piece, the Theses on the concept of history, perhaps the most important document in revolutionary theory since Marx’s celebrated “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845).

In these few but extraordinarily dense pages, the ideology of progress—also inside the Communist movement—is criticized in its philosophical foundations, the linear and empty time, with the help of a “theological” Messianic conception of time.

A few decades after Benjamin’s death, the idea of a theology at the service of the poor in the struggle for their self-liberation, a theology intimately linked with Marxism, comes to life again, but this time in a very different cultural and historical context: the liberationist Christianity of Latin America. But there is a secret affinity between Walter Benjamin and liberation theology…

In August 1940 Benjamin tried, with a group of German antifascist refugees, to cross the French border at the Pyrenées Mountains; they were arrested by the (Franco) Spanish police, taken to the village of Port-Bou, and told they would be delivered to the French and/or German police. Benjamin preferred to commit suicide. It was his last act of protest. |P

Soren Whited

Platypus Review 1 | November 2007

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In 1871 the Paris Commune, a revolutionary body formed during the deep unrest following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, rose against the post-war provisional government of Adolphe Thiers and briefly held power in France. Two months after it took power, the Commune was brutally suppressed by the French army. In his film "La Commune," released in 2002, director Peter Watkins orchestrated and documented a theatrical re-enactment of the Commune. At nearly six hours, the film explores the events of the Commune as well as its relevance for the present, and in so doing it is compelled to negotiate the myriad ways in which history bears on the present. It is through its investigation of the relation between past and present that the film arrives at its most insightful as well as its most shortsighted conclusions.

“La Commune” was filmed over a 13-day period on a soundstage in Paris. The filmmakers conducted historical research for two years prior to filming. The cast included more than 200 people, many of whom were not actors by trade. Many of these participants were respondents to ads placed in newspapers by Watkins. Each one of them did his or her own historical research prior to filming. It is of note that these participants played characters to which they were politically sympathetic. A set was designed and built to suggest the 11th district of Paris in 1871, the poorest area at the time and the epicenter of the Commune.

Why make a film about “La Commune?” And why now? It becomes evident early in the film that Watkins revisits this failed but highly charged revolutionary moment because the present is completely lacking in even the potential for such a moment. Watkins clearly hopes that by exploring the history of the Commune – which is rarely studied in depth, or at all, even in France – he might entice his audience to question the nature of the present and search for ways in which anti-capitalist politics might be forged in it.

Watkins’ key insight is that the communards (and the world population at large) were subject to the same form of social organization – capitalism – that we are today. More importantly, he recognizes that despite differences in the form it takes, the nature of capitalism is today the same as it was in 1871 and, furthermore, that this form cannot change other than to be overcome entirely.

However, in recognizing this sameness Watkins often conflates the past and the present. He fails to recognize that any particular moment in history has its own particular manifestations and that this specificity must be accounted for in the analysis of the moment. In other words, one must recognize and take into account the differences between the respective historical moments in order to be able to identify that which is fundamentally the same. Only then can one form an adequate analysis of the unchanged factor and from it derive a truly revolutionary politics. By neglecting this crucial aspect of any consequential historical critique Watkins is unable to take his film beyond an under-specified and flat-footed opposition to capitalism.

But the film does demonstrate the importance – the necessity – of interrogating history, as well as the inherent obstacles and dangers in doing so. While it may not, in the final analysis, offer a completely satisfying critique of the Paris Commune, of the present, or of the relation of the one to the other, it succeeds in stressing the importance of critically appropriating history, and specifically those moments in history when possibilities of social emancipation opened only to be slammed shut again. |P