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What does it mean today when the challenges to the status quo are no longer clearly identifiable as originating from the Left? While it seems implausible that Left ideology has been transcended because people still explain social currents in terms of Left and right, there is a sense in the present that to end exploitation will demand a measure of realpolitik—a better tactical response—rather than ideological clarification. One has the uneasy feeling that existence of the Left and the right only persist by virtue of the fact the concept of the Left has somehow become settled, static, and trapped in history. But wouldn't this be antithetical to any concept of the Left?

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little—the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again.

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

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]

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

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

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

Historical periodization

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

1818–1883      Karl Marx

1820–1895      Friedrich Engels

1870–1924      Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

1871–1919      Rosa Luxemburg

1879–1940      Leon Trotsky

1885–1971      Georg Lukács

1889–1914      Second International

1892–1940      Walter Benjamin

1895–1973      Max Horkheimer

1903–69         Theodor W. Adorno

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

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

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

The century of Marxism: 19th and 20th centuries

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

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

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

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

“State capitalism” and Marxism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Platypus: Marxism in the 21st century?

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

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

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

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

Unprecedented historical moment

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

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

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

Unredeemable legacy of the 20th century

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

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

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

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

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

Neo-anarchism and neo-liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed with the assistance of Nikolas Lelle

[1]. See Chris Cutrone, “The ‘anti-fascist’ vs. ‘anti-imperialist’ Left: Some genealogies and prospects,” available online at <>.

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

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

[4]. See Karl Korsch, “The Marxism of the First International” (1924), available online at <>.

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

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

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

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

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Jules Guesde and Karl Marx, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” available online at <>.

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

An interview with Max Elbaum

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 30 | December 2010


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcribed by Ana Lilia Torres

Andony Melathopoulos with Brian Worley

Platypus Review 29 | November 2010


In September of this year, Andony Melathopoulos interviewed Imre Szeman, author, professor, and founder of the Canadian Association of Cultural Studies, on behalf of the Platypus Review, to discuss his analysis of oil politics in light of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the political responses to it. The interview was prepared in conjunction with Brian Worley.

Andony Melathopoulos: In your estimation, did the recent BP disaster precipitate any new thinking from the Left? How could the Left's responses be characterized and do they reveal anything about the state of the Left more generally? Did the disaster in any way change your thinking about oil?

Imre Szeman: I must admit to not following the BP disaster too closely after the initial few days of the event. The direction that the news on the Gulf spill was heading followed a path well trodden by other disasters of the present age, whether natural or social. Shock that such an event could happen, public and political accusations of government and corporate malfeasance and ineptitude, a frightful encounter with (ecological) limits, and finally mitigation in the form of high-sounding words from those in power that seem to put everything back in its place and allow more quotidian disasters and problems to roll back into the news stream. I did not want to be taken on this particular ride, even given my interest in oil; I checked in with the news but tried to keep my distance.

One might expect that an environmental disaster on this scale might prompt some change in how oil is extracted and how it is consumed. Indeed, in a televised address on June 15, 2010, President Obama declared that the BP spill showed that the US had to end its “century-long addiction to fossil fuels,” and made promises to support the creation of alternative fuel sources. It’s an eerie echo of Richard Nixon’s speech from the White House on November 7, 1973, when in reaction to the oil crisis of that year he said that “in the long run, [the crisis] means that we must develop new sources of energy, which will give us the capacity to meet our needs without relying on any foreign nation.” Or Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Address on April 18, 1977, when he stated that “because we are now running out of gas and oil, we must prepare for a… change—to strict conservation, and to the renewed use of coal, and to permanent renewable energy sources like solar power.” As the spill fades from public and political consciousness, I suspect that the outcome of the most recent presidential speech will be like those in 1973 or 1977. Not much will change in the way in which oil is used, not just in the U.S., but anywhere in the world. Our social and economic systems are designed in such a way as to be utterly dependent on oil. After the 1973 oil crisis, the U.S. consumed 14.9 million barrels per day; in 2009, it was estimated that estimated U.S. oil consumption grew more than 40 per cent, to 20.7 million barrels a day. Obama may well want to get the U.S. off its addiction to fossil fuels. But he has a much bigger oil system to deal with. His actions at the COP 15 meeting don’t exactly leave one full of hope at the prospect of change, though the BP spill might alter the political landscape on this issue in some ways.

I’m not sure that the oil spill substantially changed any of my opinions. Mostly, it has reaffirmed several facts about oil. We need it to keep our social and economic systems operating—or at least, operating in their current fashion. We are running out of it, which is why dangerous, deep ocean drill rigs like the Deepwater Horizon—or the Mariner Energy Well, which caught fire in the Gulf on September 2—are in operation to begin with. We are likely to continue to try to find oil wherever it might be, because the operations of capitalism depend on it. While there is lots of talk about changing behaviors and altering the forms of energy we use in order to mitigate such disasters, the reality is that oil remains relatively cheap, easy to store and transport, and can be used for other purposes, too, such as for fertilizers and plastics.

As for responses to the oil spill on the Left, I would say that there are positions one can take with respect to fossil fuels that are not very productive, and insofar as the Left finds itself adopting these positions, it is problematic. The first problematic approach is to insist on the need for better legislation regarding where one drills for oil, as can be found in calls for a moratorium on deep water drilling. The implicit suggestion of such calls is that drilling elsewhere—that is, on land—is fine, as long as certain protocols are followed and laws adhered to. This is an environmental version of liberal capitalism, one that takes an ameliorative approach by which Nature is protected through the strong arm of the state. A second troublesome position is a blunt call for the end to all oil drilling and oil consumption, if not in the present, then in the near future. What this position gains in ethical certitude it loses in a test against reality: It comes across as moral hectoring or bad utopianism. In general, I think the Left must take oil as a symptom and be cautious about reacting to it on the same level on which it appears, namely as a “bad” source of energy that the Left has to reign in, eliminate, or come up with a “good” substitute for. The real issue is capitalism, not oil.

More broadly, the BP disaster exemplifies the way we tend to react to disaster with a kind of “faux shock”—faux because such spills have happened before and cannot but happen, given the scale of oil drilling on the planet—followed by rapid memory loss so that things can continue much as they did before. It was weeks before the U.S. media remembered that a major spill had occurred in the Gulf three decades earlier—the Pemex-owned Ixtoc 1, which spilled an estimated 3,000,000 barrels into the ocean in 1979–1980.

AM: Given that the real issue is capitalism, the difficulty would seem to rest in how one understands capitalism and, with regard to the politics of oil, how one understands the relation of capitalism to oil. In 2007 you took issue with the Retort Collective’s attempt to locate a capitalist core governing the economics and geopolitics of oil production.[1] Rather than separating contemporary capitalism and oil out, you suggest they should be intertwined as “oil capitalism.” What are the political stakes of making or failing to make this distinction?

IS: It is a heuristic move, one designed to draw attention back to capitalism rather than back to oil. The tendency is to think of oil as an externality, an element of capitalism (energy) that can be easily substituted by some other element (solar, wind, nuclear, etc.) without much impact on the nature or character of the system. This is why, when there is talk about energy futures, it seems to be assumed that the economic system of that future will continue to be capitalism. “Oil capitalism” is intended to make us think differently and more deeply about the socio-ontology of capitalism. Could we have capitalism without oil? Plainly. Would it have the same character and form, especially on a global scale? I think not. This is more than a game of alternative histories, of asking, “What if there was no such thing as oil?” Rather, it is meant to confront some challenges coming in the future, and to get the Left to think about topics essential to social emancipation and justice. We tend not to think about the work that energy does socially, and will have to do even if political circumstances change.

But I also think that conjoining capitalism to oil is productive in a more crudely materialist way. Oil is an essential element of capitalism today—essential to its being. We live out a laughable social existence, which at its base depends on a material that resulted from a happenstance of geological history that cannot be repeated and which is rapidly dwindling. Even if we were able to access all the oil on the planet, it would still be of limited supply. I continue to find it amazing that this fact of limit seems to have no impact on the day-to-day operations of capitalism. But how could it in a system in which the crude matter of nature comes as if for free and which measures itself not by limits but by the growth of profit year over year?

When I say that in thinking about oil we should think about “oil capitalism” it is, again, another way of saying that the problem is not oil, but capitalism. No matter what system we operated within, oil would be limited. In other systems, however, we might have a greater capacity to manage the expansion of our economies and populations, and to take this fact of limits into account instead of doing what we seem so adept at today: forgetting about it.

AM: Many Canadian leftists connect Alberta’s massive oil reserves to the 40-year political domination of conservatives provincially, as well as to the growth, since the 1990s, of a conservative populism nationally. Do you agree that the ways in which oil has transformed Alberta should have necessarily led to a rightward move? Are the activities of the Left with respect to Alberta oil in any way implicated? Does the Left’s naturalization of rightwing politics in areas with oil reserves clarify or obscure the political situation?

IS: These are difficult questions, in part because I am still trying to take the measure of the politics of my new home in Alberta. I don’t think that there is anything about oil that should of necessity push a polity to the right or leave it stuck there. Norway would be an obvious counterexample of a space with a very different politics connected to its oil riches. (Though there are problems with this, too: What do we make of a left-leaning country that accumulates riches through the demand and high prices for a commodity that generates political and ecological problems? Perhaps their Seed Vault assuages a guilty conscience.)


Greenpeace activists protest bitumen conveyor belts on the Canadian tar sands mine site, during the Autumn of 2009.

On the other hand, consider the political and economic interests involved in the Athabasca oil sands, commonly called “the tar sands,” in northeastern Alberta. The tar sands have been identified by the U.S. in numerous policy documents as a source of energy so secure for the U.S. that it can be considered less foreign than national. This has been done openly over the past decade or so, beginning with Dick Cheney’s 2001 National Energy Policy. The tar sands also constitute the largest single capital project on the planet, and perhaps one of the largest in the planet’s history, with more than $200 billion invested to date, not just by all the major players in the oil industry, but also by various sovereign investment funds. Incidentally, Norway is among them. So in short, a space dominated by powerful corporate interests and the global hegemon, as areas with large oil reserves tend to be, will have enormous amounts of pressure exerted on it to fall in line politically with the interests of capital.

This creates a formidable challenge for the Left. There is a tendency among some leftists to imagine an inherent conservatism in the Alberta populace—as though a kind of ingrained, old West libertarianism makes the necks of folks out here red, and their brains difficult to change. But how would one explain, then, the founding of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Calgary, Alberta in 1932—a party which led to the NDP and which proclaimed that it would not “rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Co-operative Commonwealth”?[2] It is a mistake to write off Alberta as a rightwing dead zone; this supports a misguided notion that activity concerning the tar sands or other political issues within Alberta must always be directed outward, to the rest of Canada or even to the world. Seeing Alberta as rightwing in every possible way serves a dangerous ideological function in the rest of Canada, allowing other governments to get away with neoliberal policies disguised as social democratic measures, as Alberta serves to absorb any fears and anxieties about a shift to the right.

Have the activities of the Left somehow enriched or supported the right? I don’t think so. There are innumerable groups, institutions, and individuals who do invaluable work in the province, including the Pembina Institute and the Parkland Institute. As I said before, the challenges are enormous: This space matters for capitalism, and so it should not be surprising that there is a vast amount of work to be done to produce a new politics in the province. The fact that the right is connected to oil does, I think, obscure what the real issue for the Left should be, since leftists tend to feel they must approach politics through environmental issues. At the level of official, party politics, there is no space for the Left: Could the Liberals or NDP suggest abandoning the tar sands? Insofar as these parties are committed, at best, merely to ameliorating the status quo, the answer is no. I think the focus should be rather on the crimes and misdemeanors of the system—that is, of capitalism. How to approach this at a practical level is a genuine challenge, though the tar sands do offer openings. Norway is a beginning point; it has a huge social trust fund as a result of its oil fields. Alberta has virtually nothing. Is this a legitimate outcome of a public resource?

But this can only be a step. One certainly can speak about capitalism in other than glowing terms in Alberta. In classes I have taught at the University of Alberta, students required little convincing that the system they lived in benefited the few at the expense of the many, and was unlikely to allow them or their fellows lives unstunted by the brutal game of profit.

AM: You have identified three political narratives that take oil to be their central object—namely strategic realism, techno-utopianism, and apocalyptic environmentalism—and criticized them for their inability to inform a politics that could overcome capitalism.[3] How can this critique, and your desire for a Marxian approach to oil politics more generally, help to clarify limitations in the politics of the Left? Why should energy production be seen as anything other than an immediate effect of capitalism?

IS: Talking about oil does not mean moving away from a critique of capitalism, nor does it mean privileging a discussion of energy over the broader system in which it operates. But it does offer a new way into the problem of capitalism, and thus perhaps new political possibilities, while also raising the question of energy for Left critique. One can say energy production is nothing other than an effect of capitalism, which is to say that the latter precedes the former, comes into history fully formed, and so on. Isn’t capitalism as it presently exists, in the form we are living it, an effect of energy production as well?

AM: Certainly, but there is much political content to the history of energy production. At the end of the 19th century, the working class consciously precipitated energy crises though their organized activity around the mining and shipping of coal. In many ways the concentration of energy in hydrocarbons, and its centrality to the expansion of capital, make the worksites where energy sources are extracted and moved ideal foci for the Left. With regard to coal, the Left was once able to integrate its energy politics into a critique of capital. By contrast, energy crises from the latter half of the 20th century onwards appear unconnected to a project of expanding human freedom through the overcoming capital. These crises have been driven by other social and political forces, notably post-colonial nationalism—one thinks of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), for example. Meanwhile, during the Canadian mini-crisis of the 1980s, the politics of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy were shaped, essentially, by a clash between a centralizing nationalism and a regional Alberta populism, with neither side remotely resembling a Left. How do you account for this historically dynamic aspect of energy crises and the diminishing capacity of the Left to give these crises a determinate political character?

IS: This raises an intriguing point: Couldn’t oil workers go on strike? Couldn’t those who work on rigs stop what they are doing and create a crisis on an unheard of scale? Crises in relation to oil now come not even from geopolitical maneuvering—OPEC is unlikely to repeat its 1973 gambit for a whole variety of reasons—but from breakdowns of the system and from demand. “System breakdown” can mean, literally, when one of the aging series of large-scale refineries has to shut down due to mechanical problems, or when a port where oil is transferred from supertankers to container facilities encounters a problem. Supply chain problems and global demand matter more than political instability.


Oil workers on strike in Iran, 1978.

If this is the case, it would seem easy for the Left to have an impact through collective action of one sort or another. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is in many parts of the world not just carefully guarded, but hidden away, sequestered underground. It is one thing to block trucks dragging coal away from mines and another to identify essential sites in the supply chain of oil. How do you stand in front of a pipeline, for instance? Coal mines are labor intensive and accumulate bodies on a different scale than oil production sites, though here again the tar sands may stand as an exception.

Unions could engage in actions that could produce larger consciousness about oil and capitalism. When it comes to oil, however, this seems unlikely after the 2009 creation of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labour-Management Committee, a group consisting of the American Petroleum Institute and fifteen labour unions that plan to work together to retain and increase employment in the oil patch for its members.

AM: But, from the Ogoni and Ijaw in Nigeria to the Achuar people in Peru to fisherman in Louisiana to farmers and ranchers in your home province of Alberta, protests against oil companies seem intent on merely resisting the dynamism of capital. Is there a viable future within these movements? What, if anything, is the upshot of “resistance”?

IS: Resistance… is futile? It seems the problem you are pointing to is the difficulty there has been thus far in developing a politics that goes beyond an immediate negation of (let’s say) a corporate decision. As an example, we could imagine someone taking an oil company to court, saying, “You have polluted my land illegally, so you must, by virtue of the existing set of rules and policies, recompense me.” This is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a politics organized against the broader logics of capital. Can this necessary condition become sufficient? I don’t see why not. But it may be that some of the impetus and direction for it to become sufficient must be applied onto these movements from points outside of them. I do not buy the idea that opposition organically or inevitably moves from part to whole, as seems to be the assumption guiding a number of Left theoretical positions today.

AM: In your work you have commented on an inability, or at least a protracted difficulty, of the Left to locate “the political, economic and conceptual significance of raw inputs into the shape of capitalism.”[4] But isn’t capitalism characterized precisely by its capacity to continually reshape the significance of these natural inputs? Surely the task of the Left would be to realize the potential latent in oil through emancipating society, rather than to naturalize the use of oil under present conditions?

IS: On the contrary, I make no insistence on the present conditions passing over into the future. Let’s put this another way: The Left needs to think about capitalism and work to bring about its end. But it should also consider what that end might look like, though one must be wary of engaging in a kind of “bad utopianism” that tries to sketch out exactly what the future is supposed to look like. When the Left adopts the view that it is a crime to use oil at all, that we should give up on this resource at once and then figure out what to do next, we are presented with neither a convincing position about the present nor about the future.

By mid-century it is estimated that we will have a global population of 10 billion. The carrying capacity of many parts of the planet, in the absence of fertilizers, would be well below what it currently is. We face a future in which we will continue needing fertilizers, whether or not this is seen as being against some inviolable notion of Nature. The planet is filled with infrastructure of all sorts, which is a history unto itself that actively shapes the direction of social life in significant ways. It is unlikely to be simply abandoned, in the manner of a ludic fantasy that the Left still tends to exhibit in some of its concrete imaginations of the future—a future that, apparently, would be filled with trees instead of computers.

The inheritance from capitalism need not commit the future to be capitalist. But it does represent a material and political reality with which we have to contend. I think the banishment of oil from our lives and our consciousness, which does constitute at least some part of the Left’s response to energy, is an error. Indeed, why couldn’t we see oil as a means of emancipating society? Granted, oil could not serve as a permanent means to maintain emancipation, since oil itself is impermanent and limited, and because there are negative ecological repercussions to its use. But imagining that there is a more general politics contained within a blunt opposition to fossil fuels seems to me an error. At best, such an opposition is a first-level response not just to environmental concerns, but to the system that generates them. At worst, it is not much of a politics at all, since it offers only the smallest negative gesture without any suggestion of what might yet be. |P

[1]. Retort Collective, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in the Age of War (New York: Verso, 2005). Szeman’s response to Afflicted Powers can be found in his article “System Failure: Oil, Futurity, and the Anticipation of Disaster,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:4 (2007): 805–823.

[2]. "The Regina Manifesto," Program of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation 1933–1956, <>.

[3]. See Szeman, “System Failure.”

[4]. Szeman, “The Cultural Politics of Oil: On Lessons of Darkness and Black Sea Files,” Polygraph 22 (2010).

M. A. Torres

Platypus Review 25 | July 2010


ONE FINDS QUITE A BIT OF NAME-CALLING among the innumerable articles and blog posts written in criticism of Hugo Chavez and his government. Although most of this invective is not very illuminating, one article by a young, Colombian, Trotsky-ish labor organizer describes Chavez perfectly in two words: a “postmodern Bonapartist.”

Chavez, his Bolivarian Revolution, and his project of “21st Century Socialism” are postmodern in the sense that they exist in a discontinuity, in an amnesiac disconnect, with the modernist project of social and political emancipation that started with the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century and withered and died sometime in the late 20th century. Since this project of freedom is inseparable from the politics of the revolutionary socialist Left, to say that Chavez’s politics are postmodern is simply to say that they are post-Left. He is not a liberal. Nor is he a Marxist. He has never theorized or organized proletarian revolution like Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, or Trotsky did. He has never even advocated for a “people’s war” like Mao or Che. One hesitates even to brand him a Stalinist. While Stalinism was, in Trotsky’s words, “the great organizer of defeats” for the working class, one would be hard pressed to call Chavez a “great organizer” of anything of such historical significance. Indeed, he is best thought of as more effect than cause. While Stalinism made Marxism into a dogma, the only dogma of the Bolivarian Revolution is whatever notion happens to cross Chavez’s mind at the moment. Chavez’s ideology is so versatile there is seemingly nothing it cannot take on board. From time to time, it even makes gestures in the direction of LGBTQ and women’s rights. This, however, should not be seen as anything more than mere posturing, since in Venezuela abortion is still illegal, and Chavez embraces numerous openly homophobic allies such as Evo Morales, Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There are no coherent, historically self-aware principles to the politics of Chavismo. It is bricolage, a precarious construction: Some ’30s vintage Pop Frontism mixed together with a little ’90s anti-globalization, molded upon an armature of ’60s-style developmentalist Third Worldism, and then sprinkled with equal parts “communitarian” participatory democracy, “multiculturalism,” and ascetic anti-consumerism. (A touch of anti-Semitism is added as and when necessary.) Although this incoherent composite can sometimes be cynical and performative, more frequently it tends to be semi-conscious and nearly involuntary—made up of vestigial impulses whose purpose has been forgotten, having been inherited from an older political project, now decomposed beyond recognition.

The historical discontinuity between Chavez’s politics and the revolutionary Left of the 20th century is not only theoretical or ideological; it is also practical. Chavez the politician emerges from no labor background or popular movement. He hardly participated in any leftist organizations before being elected president in 1998. In fact, the Left in Venezuela was dead and buried long before he appeared on the scene.

The story of revolutionary politics in Venezuela is short and dismal. In the late 1950s, the Communist Party of Venezuela [CP] formed a popular front with the Social Democratic Party of Democratic Action [AD] to defeat a military dictatorship and to establish, for the first time, a representative democracy in the country. But the communists were soon abandoned by their erstwhile allies. AD and the Christian Democratic Party [Copei] joined forces to exclude the communists from Venezuela’s political life. At this juncture, some of the more impatient communists, galvanized by events in Cuba, armed themselves and took to the hills. The guerrilla war that followed, planned with the help of Che Guevara himself, was a disaster. Many young leftists died, the CP was criminalized, and Moscow, largely responsible for this turn of events, scolded the revolutionists for getting lost in their dreams of Cuba. Anti-imperialist “national liberation” fighting between guerrillas and the Venezuelan government continued into the mid-1970s, having now little to do with socialist politics. Meanwhile, the CP shriveled as its cadre began its exodus into Eurocommunist-style parties or “third way” social democracy.

It was not until the late 1980s, years after this Cuban-inspired hara-kiri, that Chavez stepped onto the Venezuelan political stage. From the beginning his political career was ideologically unengaged and organizationally disconnected from the history of the Venezuelan Left. But, in fact, this discontinuity is one of the traits that gives Chavez his appeal, especially for his American and European supporters. This is because Chavez seems to stand at a remove from the Left’s sordid history of failure. He appears to offer a fresh start to the intellectually and politically exhausted, while also letting them have it both ways. For although Chavez basks in the fresh air of ahistoricism, he never ceases to piously, if disjointedly, rehearse all the old certainties and comforts. “21st Century Socialism” is appealing because it authorizes its supporters’ unwillingness to reflect upon the failures of its 20th century predecessor without denying them the moral self-satisfaction of remaining true to the good old cause.


Supporters hold up cutouts of Chavez at a rally.

Hugo Chavez came of age in the 1970s and 80s as a military man who believed that the decaying institutions of the Venezuelan government could only be fixed by a strong dose of military discipline. His early ideas of national regeneration had little to do with anti-imperialism and still less to do with socialism. At the time of his failed coup in 1992, they amounted to the belief that the causes of poverty and suffering in Venezuela were the result of nothing more than bureaucratic corruption, so that all that was needed was a strong hand to make the state into a more equitable and efficient redistributor of its wealth.

The young Chavez was right about one thing: In the late 1980s, the Venezuelan state was decaying. The old clientelistic petro-state, which for three decades had produced little political freedom but great stability and a relatively high standard of living, was corroding from within due to corruption and loss of revenue resulting from falling oil prices. The subsequent delegitimization came to a head in 1989 with the explosion of popular anger called the “Caracazo.” The debt crisis of the 1980s forced the newly elected Carlos Andres Perez government to restructure the country’s economy along neoliberal lines and to accept an IMF package that caused a sharp and sudden rise in the cost of living. On the day of the Caracazo, people from the slum city of Guarenas woke up to find they could no longer travel to work because bus fares had doubled overnight. Arguments over the new fares became fights, fights became riots, and riots became massive protests and widespread looting in the neighboring capital city of Caracas. The government cracked down hard and the frenzy of state violence that ensued was of a magnitude such as Caracas had never seen. In the end, some 3000 people were killed, most of them at the hands of Venezuelan security forces.

Despite its tragic dimensions, such a spontaneous, unfocused and disorganized uprising can hardly be called a political movement. And yet, American and British Chavez enthusiasts treat the Caracazo as if it was, as if the rioting masses in Venezuela, who had never heard of Chavez at this point, had somehow been clamoring for a Bolivarian Revolution back in 1989. But the Caracazo was no proletarian uprising, nor even an anti-globalization movement; it was a hopeless rebellion against hopelessness, a desperate protest against the desperation that flowed from Venezuela’s rapidly worsening economic situation and bankrupt political system.

The attempt to turn the Caracazo retrospectively into a proto-Bolivarian mass movement derives from anxiety at the fact that no social movement led to or culminated in the Bolivarian Revolution. When he won the 1998 election six years after his failed military coup, Chavez was not the popular leader of a social movement. He was popular because Venezuela’s political system had lost all legitimacy. People lacked faith in state institutions. Unsurprisingly then, in 1998 Chavez’s support was not drawn exclusively from the working poor, but came from all social classes. Voters responded to Chavez’s message that, as a strong executive, he would be able to shake up corrupt state institutions and save the nation. Chavez’s road to power was thus Bonapartist in that he presented himself as the ideal Venezuelan national who is necessary to reorganize a state in crisis, someone who would discipline decadent elites and facilitate reconciliation between social classes. Yet the qualification of “postmodern” should be added to this Bonapartism because, unlike Napoleon III or Benito Mussolini, Chavez was not the product of the failure of an emergent revolutionary Left. Rather, he is the result and expression of the creeping decay characteristic of a political order vacated by the Left.

At the time of his bungled military coup in 1992, Chavez was no socialist. Nor had he become one when he won the election in 1998. He was still not a socialist when, from 2002 to 2004, sectors of the ruling class banded together with a large majority of Venezuelan organized labor in an attempt to topple him, first by a military coup, then by organizing a lockout of the oil industry, and finally by demanding a recall referendum. The reason for their hostility was not that they feared that Chavez was becoming a socialist or that he might establish a socialist state; they were simply alarmed that his reckless spending, his power-driven nationalization projects, and his unpredictable interventions into legislative matters were producing an environment that was bad for business.

Critics and supporters alike recognize that it was not until the aftermath of the recall referendum of 2004 that Chavez began to move steadily leftward. Only then did he adopt the new rhetoric of “Socialism of the 21st Century.” In the aftermath of the coup and lockout debacles of 2002–03, Chavez’s popularity had hit its lowest point. He had become weak, his attitude towards his enemies conciliatory. But in the months leading up to the referendum, he discovered a new way to rapidly increase his support, especially among the urban poor. A few months before the vote, while flush with income derived from the post-Iraq invasion spike in oil prices, Chavez embarked on a massive program of social spending that targeted sectors of society known as the “ni-ni’s” (neither-nors). These were poor or lower-middle class people who did not feel strongly about the government one way or the other. The device was highly successful and it taught Chavez a lesson he has not forgotten: He could outflank his enemies and maintain his grip on power not through appeasement, but by polarizing Venezuelan society through radical rhetoric and programs for which he alone was responsible.

From 2005 on, Chavez was able to seriously weaken the opposition by making support for the regime a precondition for benefitting from the government’s petrodollar largesse. At the same time, more frequently than before, Chavez took recourse to intimidation and direct attacks against his regime’s opponents. While the most widely publicized case of this new aggressive attitude, the shutting down of the right-wing anti-Chavez TV station RCTV, was itself an unwarranted assault on free speech, other manifestations of this new willingness to intimidate opponents were even more sinister. There was, for example, the “Lista Tascón,” a database of the 2,400,000 people who signed the petition for the recall referendum. Many on this list were fired from their jobs, banned from working in the public sector, and denied issuance of official documents. Use of these and similar techniques of polarization accompanied the change of strategy that Chavez announced at the 2005 World Social Forum to begin work towards a new “Socialism for the 21st Century.” It seems, then, that the radicalization of Chavez’s discourse after 2004 is little more than part of the regime’s more aggressive and polarizing approach. Like the clientelistic spending and the electoral bullying, the turn from nationalist Bolivarianism to “21st Century Socialism” is an instrument of the regime’s larger strategy to foster a “with us or against us” political atmosphere in Venezuela. Those who oppose Chavez, from the Right or from the Left, are no longer just traitors to the nation, but also traitors to socialism and agents of American imperialism.

“21st Century Socialism” and the “revolutionary process” Chavez has spoken about for more than five years now consists primarily of intermittent and radical gestures disguising a system that is very similar to the old pre-Chavez welfare petro-state. Venezuela remains a mixed economy in constant need of foreign investment. This is evident from the way the government continues to avidly court potential American investors. This is also demonstrated, more perniciously, by the government’s practice of aggressively cracking down on inconvenient labor activism, such as the recent intimidation of protesting workers from Mitsubishi, a firm with which Chavez’s regime has many close ties. The bourgeoisie has not been expropriated, nor will it be. Aside from Chavez’s now complete control of the key petroleum industry, expropriations have been primarily symbolic or have served as means of punishing political enemies. They have not significantly changed the economy. As an article in The New Yorker put it in 2007,

If this is socialism, it’s the most business friendly socialism ever devised… The U.S. continues to be Venezuela’s most important trading partner. Much of this business is oil: Venezuela is America’s fourth-largest supplier, and the U.S. is Venezuela’s largest customer. But the flow of trade goes both ways and across many sectors. The U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter to Venezuela, responsible for a full third of its imports. The Caracas skyline is decorated with Hewlett-Packard and Citigroup signs, and Ford and G.M. are market leaders there. And, even as Chavez’s rhetoric has become more extreme, the two countries have become more entwined: trade between the U.S. and Venezuela has risen thirty-six percent in the past year.[1]

There is no dictatorship of the proletariat here, and the government certainly has no intention of “withering away.” In fact, Chavez’s state functions more or less like the old AD and Copei regimes, projecting its power through the selective, top-down redistribution of oil wealth. The difference is mainly rhetorical. Chavez makes poverty relief programs into “missions”; welfarist measures like economic stimuli for small businesses and the building of housing projects are rebranded as “revolutionary” institutions of a “new social economy.” Of course these initiatives, notably the relief missions, are most welcome to those who benefit from them. They have had significant success in alleviating extreme poverty, particularly through subsidized food and free healthcare. Were the Chavista regime to dissolve, this much needed aid might cease. But this should not obscure the fact that these programs render their beneficiaries politically powerless. Because they are intended to be politically demobilizing, this generosity comes at a very steep price. Besides, the anti-poverty initiatives have proven difficult to sustain, decreasing substantially since the economic crisis of 2008. If there were to be a significant fall in oil prices, a situation the regime has not yet suffered, the aid would probably vanish altogether without its recipients being able to do much about it. This is not socialism overcoming the tyranny of poverty. It is a charity that, for the moment, has remained affordable and politically beneficial to a government that holds all the cards.

Other programs, the ones that are actually supposed to empower the “people,” are even more problematic. This is especially the case with the “communal neighborhood councils.” It seems that Chavez has keyed in to the fact that it has become fashionable on the contemporary “Left” to replace the working class with the “community” as the agent that will overcome capitalism, and to replace internationalism with localism. The regime represents the neighborhood councils as a new form of “communal participatory democracy” destined to overcome the “elitism” of bourgeois representative democracy. These councils are localized organizations, strictly party affiliated and exclusively funded by the state, where a group of families from a neighborhood are selected to lead community work on neighborhood development and local infrastructure. Their political scope is extremely limited: They make decisions on repairing streets or building houses, all the while remaining completely dependent on the state. In this environment, “participatory democracy” simply consists of the elimination of the secret ballot and thus the monitoring of opposition within the councils. Ultimately, these organizations have been a boon for Chavez, since a law has recently been passed in which Chavez’s government can overrule decisions made by local elected officials such as mayors. Since Chavez is in complete control of these councils, they have become a useful tool for him to keep disgruntled officials in check, whether they are members of his own party or affiliated with the opposition.

Then there are the cooperatives, which are also touted as the basis of the new “social economy.” Despite the rhetoric of non-capitalist, “endogenous” development, these cooperatives function chiefly as sources of cheap, temporary labor for the public sector. Small groups of workers are given financial and logistical support to enter into short-term contracts with private companies, but as often as not they end up working for PDVSA, the state oil company. Since members of these cooperatives are legally not considered workers, but self-employed associates, their labor is exempt from labor laws and subject to super-exploitation. As a result, they are often paid less than minimum wage. The cooperatives go out of business or lose government patronage if they attempt to improve their conditions.

The fact that enthusiastic observers of Chavez’s “revolutionary process” see such initiatives as the way to overcome capitalism says more about the observers’ understanding of capitalism than it does about the process itself. For such enthusiasts, capitalism equals the Washington consensus and IMF-enforced neoliberalism. In their imagination, a charitable, paternalistic state that constantly violates workers’ right of association seems to have replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the road to socialism. This is especially shameful for self-avowed Marxist supporters of Chavez such as Tariq Ali and Alan Woods, who are either not paying attention or just playing stupid with respect to El Comandante’s approach to labor.


Noam Chomsky visits Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Chavez has been an enemy of union autonomy and organized labor from day one. As early as 1999, he suspended all collective bargaining in the public administration and petroleum sectors. The state has frequently intervened in union elections, and refused to recognize leadership unsupportive of the government. Even before they backed the coup attempt, Chavez tried to destroy the old AFL-CIO affiliated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). More recently, he has succeeded in strong-arming the National Union of Workers (UNT) to surrender their autonomy and join his newfangled United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). As with the Mitsubishi case, Chavez showed his willingness to use the police to put an end to politically inconvenient mobilizations, strikes, and factory takeovers. As he put it with cynical bluntness in one speech, “We need the party and we need the unions, but we can’t let each do as they please. Unions are just like parties, they want autonomy and they want to make decisions. This is not right, we didn’t come here to fumble around. We came here to make a revolution.” When UNT joined Chavez’s party it crippled the union for years, and today the leaders who opposed the union’s surrender of autonomy have been purged. At the moment, the UNT, now headed by Chavista organizers, is considering dissolving itself altogether. To replace it and other unions, Chavez now proposes a new program of “workers councils” which, despite their revolutionary-sounding name, will be no more than servile government organizations meant to monitor and ultimately eliminate the authority of pesky labor activists. Autonomous political action by the working class is, at this point, under a full-scale assault in Venezuela.

The Bolivarian Revolution christens everything it does with high-sounding revolutionary names. Union-busting government organizations get the name of “workers councils,” party-dependant neighborhood associations become “participatory democracy,” and unfinished housing projects in depopulated areas are trumpeted as visionary “socialist cities.” Chavez has renamed the familiar tools of holding onto power, by drawing heavily upon the vocabularies of 20th century socialism. This has been most obviously the case with the regime’s use of the language of anti-imperialism. Chavez’s clownish anti-American antics, such as calling Bush the devil, and saying he had “left a smell of sulfur” at the UN, are just so many desperate publicity stunts to get negative attention from Washington. Chavez needs the American threat. It is an awkward situation for him that there are no serious plans for U.S. invasion, and that the days have passed when the Venezuelan Right was strong enough to ask Washington for support like it did in 2003. A diffuse state of emergency is a critical element of the regime’s political effectiveness. If Chavez becomes a non-issue for the U.S., it will become more difficult for him to wield anti-imperialist rhetoric, to blame the opposition for all that goes awry, and to demonize his opponents as agents of imperialism—a practice that reached its absurd nadir when the Chavista UNT organizers accused the Trotskyist labor leader Orlando Chirino of working for imperialist counterrevolution.

From what standpoint does one criticize a “socialist” regime that threatens striking workers with arrest and prosecutes labor leaders who seek to maintain union independence? From what standpoint do we oppose a military strongman who has called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “brother revolutionary”? Despite the obvious opportunism, ideological incoherence, and anti-labor politics of the regime, the question of whether it is possible to oppose Chavez from the Left is not cut and dried. Although Chavez’s regime is indeed an obstacle for truly emancipatory politics in Venezuela and around the world, it is difficult to even point this out when such an emancipatory politics has ceased to exist. As things stand, it is as if the only perspective from which to point out the incompetence, authoritarianism, corruption, and most of all, the hypocrisy of the regime, is from a desire to return to the incompetent, authoritarian, and corrupt neoliberal order that preceded it. And as things stand, such a return is the only possible result of the end of Chavez’s rule. Must the Left simply hold its nose in solidarity for what might or might not be the lesser of two evils? Should it just be glad and thank the heavens that something somewhere looks remotely like its distorted memory of what socialist revolution used to be?

Seasoned personages of the anti-capitalist Left are aware that their politics have run out of steam, and that self-deceiving optimism is the only option. In his book Pirates of the Caribbean, the 1960s radical Tariq Ali depicts Chavez, Fidel Castro, and Evo Morales as a new “axis of hope” against the evils of the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, Z Magazine contributor Gregory Wilpert continues to maintain his website, which reads like little more than the American public relations page for the Chavista bureaucracy. The International Socialist Organization’s Lee Sustar routinely publishes articles in support of Chavez’s PSUV and its Stalinist tactics of absorbing or destroying every other leftist organization. And Parecon author Michael Albert found no problem in signing Chavez’s farcical call for a 5th International, presumably failing to notice that among the parties invited was Mexico’s PRI, infamous for its 71-year long iron grip of the country and, among its many crimes, the notorious massacre of hundreds of protesting students in October of 1968.

For someone familiar with the history of revolutionary politics it is tempting to reproach sycophants as traitors of “real Marxism” or of “authentic socialism.” Certain Trotskyist groups would even go so far as to call these self-deceivingly optimistic intellectuals petty bourgeois anarchists, revisionists, Shachtmanites, Pabloists, or some such deviation. Unfortunately, the truth is more prosaic: the sycophants are not ideologically deviant. They are simply exhausted. They have come to terms with the fact that revolutionary anti-capitalist politics have ceased to exist as a material force in the world and are ready to grasp at the next best thing—their simulacrum. Bolivarian “21st Century Socialism” is the socialism that today’s “Left” deserves. It is the socialism that makes sense in a world where the Left is dead. It is an adequate representation of the state of emancipatory politics today.

The question stands: If authentic internationalist Marxism is dead, from what standpoint does one launch a critique of Chavez and his followers without joining the Venezuelan opposition nostalgic for neoliberalism? The only answer is history: The consciousness that the present has fallen short of what once seemed politically possible, and that this possibility could once again become available. The knowledge that there was once such a thing as an international Left that was able to intervene, transform, and lead social movements around the world in the direction of the overcoming of capitalism. The awareness that the mass politicization of the Bolivarian Revolution, which has put the word “socialism” on the lips of hundreds of thousands of working people, will end up as yet another wasted opportunity if such a Left is not reconstituted.

Admittedly, this standpoint is not much to start with. It is clearly not as immediately gratifying as the self-deceiving “optimism” of supposedly Marxist publications such as the International Socialist Review and the Monthly Review. But the game they are playing is no more than a spectator sport. Cheering for team Chavez is a way for such post-mortem leftists to hold on to dear life. It is how they justify their existence and convince themselves that they are still serving a purpose: The good fight is still being fought; even if they are helpless, they can be complacent in this helplessness, since they can always look at the next populist strongman or, even better, wait for the next American invasion of a Third World country to give them a new lease on life. But if we are to reconstitute an international revolutionary Left, the first step will be to stop kidding ourselves. People continue to struggle, but the struggle to overcome capitalism has not really been sustained. Revolutions with a hope of actually overcoming capitalism around the world are now a distant memory, at best. The current changes in Venezuela cannot contribute to any real revolution until a genuine Left challenges the regime that has instituted them. But such a feat will be impossible if we do not finally get it into our heads that the fatalistic slogan, “¡Patria, socialismo o muerte!” means the exact opposite of the visionary words, “¡Proletarios de todos los países, uníos!” |P

[1]. James Surowiecki, “Synergy with the Devil,” The New Yorker, January 2007, <>.

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 20 | February 2010


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


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

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

If, to make an exception for once, one risks what is called a grand perspective, beyond the historical differences in which the concepts of theory and praxis have their life, one discovers the infinitely progressive aspect of the separation of theory and praxis, which was deplored by the Romantics and denounced by the Socialists in their wake—except for the mature Marx.[2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5]. Karl Marx to Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Selected Correspondence, 1846-1895, trans. Dona Torr (New York: International Publishers, 1942), 387, <>.

[6]. As Luxemburg put it in 1915 in The Crisis of German Social Democracy (aka The Junius Pamphlet, available online at <>),

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

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

David Black

Platypus Review 18 | December 2009


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

— Herbert Marcuse[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dietzgen, a self-proclaimed “materialist,” had recog­nized that thinking as well as objects could be the object of thought. But in a somewhat neo-Kantian manner, he argued that whilst “our brains do not grasp the things themselves but only the concepts,” the concepts were quite adequate for “practical living” in a rational human society run by the workers.[22] This is another world from Adorno’s Lukácsian view expressed in his letter to Walter Benjamin quoted by Cutrone: “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces con­sciousness…. [P]erfection of the commodity character in a Hegelian self-consciousness inaugurates the explosion of its phantasmagoria.”

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

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

Cutrone writes,

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

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

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

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

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16]. Korsch, “Ten Theses.”

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

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

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

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

[21]. Pannekoek, Lenin and Philosophy, 35

[22]. Quoted in ibid., 36.

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

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

The nature of the present crisis in Iran Chris Cutrone Confusion on the Left around the 2009 electoral crisis in Iran has been expressed both in defense of President Ahmadinejad's claim to victory as well as by support of Iranian dissidents and protesters. Slavoj Žižek has weighed in, questioning prevailing understandings of the nature of the Iranian regime and its Islamist character. Responses to the current crisis have recapitulated problems on the Left in understanding the Islamic Revolution since 1979. All share in attributing to Iran an autonomous historical rhythm or logic of its own, rather than as a symptomatic effect of a greater history. Žižek has come closest to addressing this issue of greater context, but even he has failed to address the history of the Left.
[Andrew Kliman wrote:]

Reply to Chicago Political Workshop, Chris Cutrone, and Principia Dialectica

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: Andrew Kliman | Filed under: Organization, Philosophy | Tags: concreteness, plagiarism, Postone |

On plagiarism, Postone, and “the” present

May 27, 2009

Dear Comrades,

1. First, I want to respond to the charge that I plagiarize Moishe Postone, by categorically denying it. When, last July, Sean of Principia Dialectica put forward the allegation of plagiarism (using somewhat different words), I tried to overlook it. I thought that the charge wouldn’t be taken seriously, given that Sean left it wholly unsubstantiated. But now I see that the charge has indeed been taken seriously, repeated, and perhaps implicitly endorsed, by the Chicago Political Workshop, in a posting two days ago.

[Principia Dialectica allegation of plagiarism of Postone by Kliman:]

[Chicago Political Workshop posting:]

That Sean first encounters some idea in Postone, and then encounters a somewhat similar idea when he hears Kliman, tells us something about the process of Sean’s intellectual development. It tells us nothing about the process of development of the ideas. It is not evidence of plagiarism.

But as far as I can see, when Sean alleges that “Postone’s book is having a much more profound effect on” Kliman than he is “prepared to admit,” and that at “Kliman’s talk in London it was evident that Postone’s influence had rubbed off … although … he was loathe to admit it,” the case against me rests wholly on the sequence in which Sean personally encountered the ideas.

For the record: My understanding of capital(ism) and Marx’s critique of it were pretty much fully formed by or before 1988, when I completed my Ph.D. at the age of 33. The key thinker who influenced my views on these matters was Marx himself. (It is strange, indeed, to allege that I appropriate Postone without acknowledgement when his Time, Labor, and Social Domination is not a primary text, but an interpretation of a work to which we both have access, Marx’s Capital!)

My views were also deeply influenced by the work of Raya Dunayevskaya, and there were lesser influences—such as I. I. Rubin and various authors of the 1970s and 1980s who discussed “abstract labor” and “value-form.”

I read Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination in the mid 1990s, but it did not make a strong impression on me, for three reasons: (a) my views were already well formed; (b) much of Postone’s argument was not new to me, since it was quite similar to things developed in the “abstract labor” and “value-form” discussions of 10-20 years before (as Chris Arthur noted in his mid-1990s review of Postone’s book in Capital and Class); and (c) Postone’s view of abstract and concrete labor is so different from Marx’s, and his exegetical interpretation of Marx’s concepts of abstract and concrete labor is so wrong, that I didn’t find his book particularly helpful in order to further develop my own thinking.

But what have I said that sounds so Postone-like to Sean (and perhaps also the Chicago Political Workshop)? I’m guessing it is the following: “In his talk Kliman spelt out in a clear manner that value – as the mediator of human relations – is the subject that needs to be overcome if we are all to move towards creating a fully human society.”

Well, I arrived at this perspective by studying the work of Dunayevskaya (principally from Marxism and Freedom and from her writings of the 1940s which argued that the USSR was a state-capitalist society because the law of value operated there), and then from Marx himself, when I re-studied Capital in light of her interpretation. Here’s something Ted McGlone and I wrote about this issue that was published in 1988—i.e., well before the appearance of Postone’s book:

[R]adical economists’ views on value theory have seemingly crystallized into two main approaches, characterised by de Vroey (1982) as the `technological’ and `social’ paradigms. As students of a third, humanist problematic, we hope in this paper to create a dialogue with proponents of other approaches …. Our own view is neither ‘technicist’ nor market-oriented, but a production-centred value theory of labour . In short, we take capitalist technological relations themselves to be social relations, class relations of dead to living labour in production . `[L]abour is expressed in value’ because `the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite’ (Marx, 1977 : 174-75) . We do not de-emphasise the quantitative aspect of Marx’s value theory, however; this paper, for instance, attaches great importance to the aggregate equalities which obtain in Marx’s transformation procedure.” [pp. 56-57 of Andrew Kliman and Ted McGlone, “The Transformation Non-Problem and the Non-Transformation Problem,” Capital and Class 35, Autumn 1988]

I request that a link to the above response be published wherever the allegation appears that I appropriate Postone without acknowledgement, and that the allegation itself be withdrawn.

2. I am pleased that the Chicago Political Workshop and I agree that “those on the left who treat all attempts to understand the political economy of capitalism as rank economism” should be taken to task. I hope that this can be the beginning of a fruitful dialogue.

3. The Chicago Political Workshop writes, “It is our sense that Kliman’s work thus far is inadequate to his own charge, but that he is right that understanding capitalism is essential to overcoming it.” Okay, I’ll bite: why is my work thus far inadequate to my own charge? (And what exactly does this mean—what charge, exactly?) I’m not trying to pick a fight here; I’m always seeking to improve my work. And maybe there are different views here about the kinds of things that need to be developed, which would then be a potentially fruitful topic for discussion.

4. In response to the Chicago Political Workshop post, Chris Cutrone engaged some of the issues yesterday. It is not clear to me whether Chris is criticizing me, and if so, why. But his posting can be read as one that links me to “traditional Marxism”—“Instead, it becomes a matter of one form of analysis (Postone) as better than another (Kliman, et al., or, as Postone puts it, ‘traditional Marxism’)”—and to an alleged call for “for some new empirical *economic* analysis of present-day capitalism” to the exclusion of other analyses and inquires.

[Chris Cutrone response to the Chicago Political Workshop:]

Again, I’m not sure of Chris’s intent, so I’ll just discuss this possible reading. The “traditional Marxism” notion is strange and ill-informed. What is “traditional Marxism” about the Marxist-Humanism developed by Raya Dunayevskaya, which the Marxist-Humanist Initiative is now attempting to renew organizationally? She was no traditional Marxist in the eyes of the traditional Marxists who turned her into an un-person (the historical-literary allusion is intentional). What is “traditional Marxism” about the temporal single-system interpretation of Marx’s value theory, the proponents of which, myself included, have been turned into un-persons (the historical-literary allusion is intentional) by the traditional Marxist value theorists?

As for the alleged call for “for some new empirical *economic* analysis of present-day capitalism” to the exclusion of other analyses and inquiries, I have no affinity with it. I am not calling for people to come down on one side or the other of a rigid, binary, either/or choice between “economics” and everything else. I think the notion that we have to pick and choose is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, Chris doesn’t agree that it is ridiculous. For reasons that are unclear to me, he presents the options open to us as a rigid either/or choice: “As if the reproduction of capital is primarily a matter of *economics* (and not politics, culture, or ideology)!” Why do we have to choose? Can’t it be a matter of all four? And why the word “primarily”? This seems to suggest that there must be a hierarchy of determinants that’s the same in all cases, and that “economics” is separate from–if not indeed opposed to–politics, culture, and ideology, rather than all of them being mutually constituting moments of one total process.

The need to choose also seems to be implicit in the following phrases of Chris’s: “THE problem of capitalism” and “THE problem of capital” (my caps). I don’t really understand these phrases, but I’m skeptical of the reduction of a very complex set of processes to one “problem”—THE problem. But note that if there’s just one problem, then it’s more plausible that there’s just one best approach to THE problem, and thus it becomes more plausible that we have to choose THE best approach.

And then Chris says, “We do indeed need an adequate analysis of our contemporary situation. Platypus chooses, quite deliberately, to analyze the present in terms of history, the present as the accumulation of a history of unresolved problems on the Left.” I have no problem with analyzing “the present as the accumulation of a history of unresolved problems on the Left.” That’s also what Dunayevskaya did, again and again, and it’s what my comrades and I in Marxist-Humanist Initiative are trying to do today.
But here again, Chris burdens us with a dubious “the”: “analyze THE present in terms of history … a history of unresolved problems on the Left” (my caps). The only sense I can make of this is that Chris means that Platypus chooses, quite deliberately , to ignore any dimension of “the” present that can’t be sliced and diced so as to fit the Procrustean bed of “a history of unresolved problems on the Left.” For surely, to take just one key example, the current NON-reproduction of capital—the current economic (and therefore political, cultural, and ideological) crisis—is a significant aspect of “the problem of capital” today, an important aspect of “the present.” But there just ain’t no way that one can fruitfully discuss it “as the accumulation of a history of unresolved problems on the Left.” Unless one wants to just ignore this significant dimension of “the present,” I think it would be more useful to seriously study the theories of value and crisis in Capital and the daily news in the financial press.

Chris writes, “Whereas Marx critiqued the bourgeois philosophy and political-economy of the heroic period (of Kant and Hegel and Adam Smith and David Ricardo, et al.) and the ideology of his contemporary socialist “Left” (of Proudhon, et al.) … we in Platypus start with the problematic consciousness on the present-day “Left” and its historical roots, what the present “Left” has abandoned as being symptomatic of its fatal problems.” Again, I have no trouble with subjecting to scrutiny “the problematic consciousness” of the contemporary Left. But Chris’s historical analogy suffers, I think, from an insufficient appreciation of the Kantian sense in which Marx “critiqued” political economy. It was a critique not just of ideology and philosophy and economic thought, but a critique of the conditions needed for them to exist—a critique of the mode of production and corresponding social formation upon which this ideology and philosophy and economic thought arise, and which make them possible.

Now, I’m not saying that the consciousness of the Left needs to be understood by deriving it from the vicissitudes of the mode of production. I’m just saying that critique in the sense of Marx’s phrase “ruthless critique of all that exists” is not a critique of “consciousness” detached from all else.

Chris’s rigid binary emerges the most clearly, however, in the following: “The spirit of Marx today is not to be found in the immanent-ideology critique of the New York Times columns of Paul Krugman et al., let alone an analysis of ‘economic’ phenomena, BUT RATHER in the political and ‘philosophical,’ cultural and psychological critique of the supposed (but actually pseudo-) ‘Left,’ and its critical recognition as the product of a *regression* in theory and practice since the time of Marx and the best Marxists” (my caps). Again, I have nothing against looking at the issue that Chris wants to look at, but what’s this “but rather” about? Why do we need to choose? And is it really in “the spirit of Marx” to ignore the worst economic crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, possibly soon to become the worst slump since the 1930s—or maybe worse? No, of course it isn’t. That’s absurd. One matter “of consciousness” continues to intrigue and trouble me: the effort to declare that there’s one best way of looking and thinking, and that it is the same best way for everything. This effort, as I suggested above, goes hand in hand with a stringent reduction of complex processes and phenomena to single units—“the” problem of capital, “the” present.

Chris Cutrone did not invent this approach. I’ve encountered it again and again among critical-theory-type folks, Western Marxists, whatever. For instance, at a New York book party for my book, Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A refutation of the myth of inconsistency, Bertell Ollman kept counterposing his way of approaching Capital (as a discussion of alienation) to mine (which is evidently to focus narrowly on the myth of inconsistency, or on “economics”—because, if I write a book about the myth of inconsistency, then, well, obviously, that’s how I approach Capital !). I just as insistently kept repeating that there was no need to choose—pointing out the cheese and focaccia that we had as refreshments at the event, I kept reminding the audience, “you can have cheese AND focaccia”—but Ollman would have none of it.

This got me to thinking: Why would anyone want to defend the importance of alienation to Capital by dismissing the issue of Capital’s internal inconsistency and by dismissing a defense of its internal consistency?

And how could anyone think that he was actually defending Marx’s discussion of alienation by projecting the attitude that the logical consistency of what Marx wrote is unimportant?!

So I came up with the following conjecture: The tendency toward rigid, totalizing either/or oppositions flows from a relativist or perspectivist position that has infected Western Marxism. As we all know, there are different ways of looking at and thinking about the world. But relativists and perspectivists go further. They claim that these different ways of looking and thinking are the ultimate determinants of the conclusions at which we arrive. In other words, they claim that, in the end, one’s perspective dominates over any input from logic and facts—or that what counts as facts and logic, too, is determined by one’s perspective.

If that is so, then there are no “external” facts and logic that determine the results of any inquiry. All results depend on the perspective one adopts, and the adoption of a perspective is just a matter of choice—no “external” facts or logic induce one choice rather than another. So what becomes paramount is not to investigate the phenomena and answer the questions, but to struggle over the choice of perspective. Since the perspective determines the results, the hegemony of THE RIGHT way of looking and thinking is all important. And since there are no “external” facts or logic that would allow us to say that this method might be helpful to answering this kind of question, while that method might be appropriate to the investigation of that problem, there’s a strong tendency to TOTALIZE the struggle for the hegemony of one’s perspective. If one accepts that one’s perspective is partial, one is accepting the legitimacy of a different perspective, and since there are no “external” facts and logic that would determine the boundaries of either perspective—this is appropriate for exploring the crisis of the Left, that’s appropriate for explaining the current economic crisis, etc.—there is just an interminable turf battle, ranging over the entire turf. So in order that one’s perspective not be globally defeated by an alien perspective, one must struggle for the global defeat of the alien perspective.

In the real world (and in intellectual endeavors where getting real results, not just panache, matters), no one thinks like this. We don’t wipe our butts with spatulas; we don’t cook with toilet paper; and we don’t ask which one we primarily need in order to grapple with “the” problem of daily living. Thank goodness.

[Chris Cutrone replied:]

1 comment: Chris Cutrone said at 11:15 pm on May 27th, 2009:

I agree that there is no question of plagiarism of Postone by Kliman. I think Principia Dialectica’s argument is tendentious, at best.

Similarly, I must admit to giving a rather one-sided polemical argument in my critique of the Chicago Political Workshop.

I was arguing against an economic-determinist approach. If I were to put it dialectically, I would say, following Marx, that one needs to inquire into the philosophical underpinnings of the economy as much as one might need to interrogate the political-economic conditions of thought.

I agree that a Kantian approach is appropriate, i.e., inquiring into conditions of possibility [inquiring into the conditions of possibility for capitalism].

So I would not want to be mistaken for giving an either/or view of economics vs. philosophy, etc.

On the other hand, I would stand by the formulation of a question of “the” problem of capital. For the totalizing process of capital is not a matter of an apparent static heterogeneity, as if there is no difference at any moment (there is), but rather how the concrete and particular play out over time (and this in a complicated way).

And so I would not chalk up emancipatory potential to such difference, which I see as potentially (and usually) contributing precisely to the reproduction of capital, rather than its overcoming over time.

I don’t think it’s a matter of adopting a (single) perspective, but rather, looking back over history, there was a trajectory from Marx to Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky that brought to a head the crisis (for humanity, in a historical sense) of capital, which has been abandoned since then. In other words, I think the contradiction of capital was manifested by historical revolutionary Marxism, rather than the latter just responding to it. I think -- and it’s Platypus’s point of departure -- that the history of the Left is the history of capital brought to its highest expression. This history offers us a potential perspective, perhaps not the only one, but the best one, or, more accurately, the most necessary one that is available.

In the words of Sebastian Haffner, author of Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-19, this history illuminates the present -- reveals it in definite relief -- like a piercing laser beam.

* * *

P.S. I would encourage everyone interested to review my exchange with the Marxist Humanist Peter Hudis in the Platypus Review on capital in history:

My original article:


Peter Hudis reply:


My rejoinder:


-- Chris