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You are here: Platypus /Archive for tag Theodor W. Adorno

On February 17, 2017, as part of its Third European Conference, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel, “The Politics of Critical Theory.” Held at the University of Vienna, the event brought together the following speakers: Chris Cutrone, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society; Martin Suchanek of Workers Power, an international organization fighting to build a Fifth International; and Haziran Zeller of Humboldt University, in Berlin. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Whenever approaching any phenomenon, Adorno’s procedure is one of immanent dialectical critique. The phenomenon is treated as not accidental or arbitrary but as a necessary form of appearance that points beyond itself, indicating conditions of possibility for change. It is a phenomenon of the necessity for change. The conditions of possibility for change indicated by the phenomenon in question are explored immanently, from within. The possibility for change is indicated by a phenomenon’s self-contradictions, which unfold from within itself, from its own movement, and develop from within its historical moment.

From which psychological preconditions is it possible to come to a “rational” view of society—a society which, in its current mode of rationality, is arguably less than 200 years old? If such a view is putatively or provisionally achieved, to what extent are contributing psychogenetic factors overcome and left behind, and to what extent do they remain latent or dormant?

Two years before AP appeared in print, Adorno wrote what was intended to be the last chapter of the volume, “Remarks on the Authoritarian Personality.” For reasons that are unclear, the draft never made it past the editing phase. More curiously, his typescript remains unpublished until this day. Thus, for this special issue of the Platypus Review, we will publicly circulate “Remarks” for the first time.

Our probing into prejudice is devoted to subjective aspects. We are not analyzing objective social forces which produce and reproduce bigotry, such as economic and historical determinants. Even short-term factors like propaganda do not enter the picture per se, though a number of major hypotheses stem from propaganda analyses carried out by the Institute of Social Research. All the stimuli enhancing prejudice, and even the entire cultural climate—imbued with minority stereotypes as it is—are regarded as presuppositions. Their effect upon our subjects is not followed up; we remain, so to say, in the realm of “reactions,” not of stimuli.

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

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Unpublished manuscript, available on-line at: <http://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/horkheimer/content/pageview/6591478>. See the symposium on Horkheimer's essay with Todd Cronan, James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Nicholas Brown and David Jenemann published at nonsite.org (January 11, 2016), from which this essay is taken: <http://nonsite.org/the-tank/max-horkheimer-and-the-sociology-of-class-relations>. 

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

  3. Rosa Luxemburg had a half-century earlier expressed this succinctly in her October 3, 1898 speech to the Stuttgart Congress of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), that, “It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle:”
    “Think about it: what really constitutes the socialist character of our whole movement? The really practical struggle falls into three categories: the trade-union struggle, the struggle for social reforms, and the struggle to democratize the capitalist state. Are these three forms of our struggle really socialism? Not at all. Take the trade-union movement first! Look at England: not only is it not socialist there, but it is in some respects an obstacle to socialism. Social reform is also emphasized by Academic Socialists, National Socialists, and similar types. And democratization is specifically bourgeois. The bourgeoisie had already inscribed democracy on its banner before we did. . . .
    “Then what is it in our day-to-day struggles that makes us a socialist party? It can only be the relation between these three practical struggles and our final goals. It is the final goal alone which constitutes the spirit and the content of our socialist struggle, which turns it into a class struggle. And by final goal we must not mean, as [Wolfgang] Heine has said, this or that image of the future state, but the prerequisite for any future society, namely the conquest of political power. . . . This conception of our task is closely related to our conception of capitalist society; it is the solid ground which underlies our view that capitalist society is caught in insoluble contradictions which will ultimately necessitate an explosion, a collapse, at which point we will play the role of the banker-lawyer who liquidates a bankrupt company.” (Dick Howard, ed., Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971], 38–39; also available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1898/10/04.htm>.)  

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

  5. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X034u2pls3M

  6. See also Horkheimer’s “The little man and the philosophy of freedom,” in Dawn and Decline, Notes 1926–31 and 1950–69, trans. Michael Shaw (New York: Seabury, 1978), 50–52. There, Horkheimer wrote that,
    “[A]lthough [the capitalists] did not themselves create the world, one cannot but suspect that they would have made it exactly as it is. . . . But for the little man who is turned down when he asks for a job because objective conditions make it impossible . . . [n]ot only his own lack of freedom but that of others as well spells his doom. His interest lies in the Marxist clarification of the concept of freedom.”
    Horkheimer paraphrased Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family (1845), where they wrote that,
    “The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.” (Quoted in Georg Lukács, “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” part III “The standpoint of the proletariat,” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone [Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1971], 149. Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm>.)  

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

  8. See Lenin's What is to be Done? (1902), where Lenin distinguished "socialist" from "trade union consciousness:" "We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals." Available on-line at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm>.
    Furthermore, in a January 20, 1943 letter debating Henryk Grossmann on Marxist dialectics, Horkheimer wrote that, "It is no coincidence that [Lenin] the materialist thinker who took these questions [in Hegel] more seriously than anyone else placed all those footnotes next to the [Science of] Logic rather than next to the Philosophy of History. It was he who wanted to make the study of Hegel’s Logic obligatory and who, even if it lacked the finesse of the specialist, sought out the consequences of Positivism, in its Machian form, with the most determined single-mindedness [in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, 1908]. It was still in this Lenin sense that Lukács was attacked for his inclination to apply the dialectic not to the whole of reality but confine it to the subjective side of things." Trans. Frederik van Gelder at: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_mh_grossmann_letter.html>. Original letter in German: <http://www.amsterdam-adorno.net/fvg2014_T_MH_Grossmann_letter_DEU.pdf>. 

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review #82 | December 2015 - January 2016

fuchschristian_marx_spencer_highgateMarx and Spencer's facing graves (photograph by Christian Fuchs)

HERBERT SPENCER’S GRAVE faces Marx’s at Highgate Cemetery in London. At his memorial, Spencer was honored for his anti-imperialism by Indian national liberation advocate and anti-colonialist Shyamji Krishnavarma, who funded a lectureship at Oxford in Spencer’s name.

What would the 19th century liberal, Utilitarian and Social Darwinist, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who was perhaps the most prominent, widely read and popular philosopher in the world during his lifetime -- that is, in Marx’s lifetime -- have to say to Marxists or more generally to the left, when such liberalism earned not only Marx’s own scorn but also Nietzsche’s criticism? Nietzsche referred to Spencer and his broad appeal as the modern enigma of “the English psychologists.” Nietzsche critiqued what he took to be Spencer’s assumption of a historically linear-evolutionary development and improvement of human morality leading to a 19th century epitome; where Nietzsche found the successive “transvaluations of values” through profound reversals of “self-overcoming” (On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, 1887). Nietzsche regarded modern liberal morality not as a perfection but rather as a challenge and task to achieve an “over-man,” that, failing, threatened to result in a nihilistic dead-end of “the last man” instead. Marx regarded Spencerian liberalism as an example of the decrepitude of bourgeois-revolutionary thought in decadence. Marx’s son-in-law, the French socialist Paul Lafargue, wrote, just after Marx’s death, against Spencer’s “bourgeois pessimism”, to which he offered a Marxist optimism (“A few words with Mr. Herbert Spencer,” 1884).1 Such Marxism fulfilled Nietzsche’s “pessimism of the strong.” By the late 19th century, Marxists could be confident about transcending bourgeois society. Not so today.

Spencer’s distinction of “militant” vs. “industrial” society (The Principles of Sociology vol. 2, 1879/98) -- that is to say, the distinction of traditional civilization vs bourgeois society -- is still, unfortunately, quite pertinent today, and illuminates a key current blind-spot on the ostensible "Left," especially regarding the phenomenon of war. Spencer followed the earlier classical liberal Benjamin Constant’s observation (in "The liberty of the Ancients as compared with that of the Moderns," 1816) that moderns get through commerce what the ancients got through war; and that for moderns war is always regrettable and indeed largely unjustifiably criminal, whereas for ancients war was virtuous -- among the very highest virtues. Do we moderns sacrifice ourselves for the preservation and glory of our specific “culture,” as “militants” do, or rather dedicate ourselves to social activity that facilitates universal freedom -- a value unknown to the ancients? Does the future belong to the constant warfare of particular cultural differences, or to human society? Marx thought the latter.

The question is whether we think that we will fight or, rather, exchange and produce our way to freedom. Is freedom to be achieved through “militant” or rather “industrial” society? Marx assumed the latter.

When we seek to extol our political leaders today, we do not depict them driving a tank but waking at 5 o’clock and staying up past midnight to do society’s business. We do not speak of their scars earned in combat but their grey hairs accumulated in office. Not enjoying the spoils of war on a dais but getting in their daily morning jog to remain fit for work. We judge them not as cunning warriors but as diligent workers -- and responsible negotiators. In our society, it is not the matter of a battle to win but a job to do. Carl Schmitt thought that this has led to our dehumanization. But few would agree.

What would have appeared commonplace to Spencer’s contemporary critics, such as Nietzsche and Marx, must strike us today, rather, as profoundly insightful and indeed critical of our society. This is due to the historical regression of politics and society since Marx’s time, and, moreover, to the liquidation of Marxism. What Marx would have regarded as fatally one-sided and undialectical in Spencer, would today seem adequate to the prevailing condition, in the absence of the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. The Marxist critique of liberalism has been rendered moot, not in the sense of liberalism’s actual social supersession but by historical regression. Society has fallen below the historical threshold of not only socialism but of classical liberalism -- of bourgeois emancipation itself. Not only have we fallen below the criteria of Kant and Hegel that surpassed 18th century Empiricism, we have fallen below its 19th century successor, Positivism, as well. The question is the status today of liberalism as ideology. It is utopian. As Adorno put it, it is both promise and sham.

Militant and industrial tendencies confront each other today not as different societies, but as opposed aspects of the same society, however contradictorily and antagonistically, in capitalism. Similarly, the phases of “religious,” “metaphysical” and “positive” forms do not succeed one another sequentially in a linear development but rather interact in a dynamic of social history. What Spencer regarded as regressive “metaphysics” remains valid in capitalism, as “ideology” calling for dialectical critique. We cannot now claim to address problems in the clear air of Enlightenment.

If Adorno, for instance, critiqued sociological “positivism,” this was not as a Romantic anti-positivist such as Max Weber, but rather as a critique of positive sociology as ideology in capitalism. For Adorno, positivism and Heideggerian ontology, as well as Weberian “cultural sociology,” opposed each other in an antinomy of capitalism that would be overcome not in one principle triumphing over another, but rather in the antinomy itself being succeeded dialectically in freedom. Weber denied freedom; whereas Spencer assumed it. Both avoided the specific problem of capitalism. To take a condition of unfreedom for freedom is the most salient phenomenon of ideology. This is what falsified positivism as liberal Enlightenment, its false sense of freedom as already achieved that still actually tasked society. Freedom is not to be taken as an achieved state but a goal of struggle.

An emancipated society would be “positivist” -- Enlightened and liberal -- in ways that under capitalism can only be ideologically false and misleading. Positivism should therefore be understood as a desirable goal beyond rather than a possibility under capitalism. The problem with Herbert Spencer is that he took capitalism -- grasped partially and inadequately as bourgeois emancipation -- to be a condition of freedom that would need yet to be really achieved. If “metaphysics,” contra positivism, remains valid in capitalism, then this is as a condition to be overcome. Capitalist metaphysics is a real symptom of unfreedom. Positivism treats this as merely an issue of mistaken thinking, or to be worked out through “scientific” methodology, whereas it is actually a problem of society requiring political struggle. The antinomy of positivism vs metaphysics is not partisan but social. As Adorno observed, the same individual could and would be scientifically Positivist and philosophically ontological-Existentialist.

Spencer’s opposition to “socialism” in the 19th century was in its undeniable retrograde illiberal aspect, what Marx called “reactionary socialism.” But Marx offered a perspective on potentially transcending socialism’s one-sidedness in capitalism. Spencer was entirely unaware of this Marxian dialectic. Marx agreed with Spencer on the conservative-reactionary and regressive character of socialism. Marx offered a dialectic of socialism and liberalism presented by their symptomatic and diagnostic antinomy in capitalism that pointed beyond itself. 18th century liberalism’s insufficiency to the 19th century problem of capitalism necessitated socialist opposition; but liberalism still offered a critique of socialism that would need to be fulfilled to be transcended, and not dismissed let alone defeated as such.

Only in overcoming capitalism through socialism could, as Marx put it, humanity face its condition “with sober senses.” This side of emancipation from capital, humanity remains trapped in a “phantasmagoria” of bourgeois social relations become self-contradictory and self-destructive in capital. This phantasmagoria was both collective and individual -- socialist and liberal -- in character. Spencer naturalized this antinomy. His libertarian anti-statism and its broad, popular political appeal down through the 20th century was the necessary result of the continuation of capitalism and its discontents.

Spencer regarded the problem as a historical holdover of traditional civilization to be left behind rather than as the new condition of bourgeois society in capitalist crisis that Marx recognized needed to be, but could not be, overcome in Spencer’s liberal terms. Marx agreed with Spencer on the goal, but differed, crucially, over the nature of the obstacle and, hence, how to get there from here. Not only Spencer’s later followers (more egregiously than Spencer himself), but Marx’s own, have falsified this task. It has been neglected and abandoned. We cannot assume as Marx did that we are already past Spencer’s classical liberalism, but are driven back to it, ineluctably, whether we realize it or not. Only by returning to the assumptions of classical liberalism can we understand Marx’s critique of it. The glare of Marx’s tomb at Highgate stares down upon a very determinate object. If one disappears, they both do. | P


  1. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1884/06/herbert-spencer.htm

Noah R. Gataveckas

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

[PDF]

"Think of us like the psychoanalysts of the Left."

This was one of the descriptions that a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society offered after I had made some probing, perhaps doubtful, remarks about the intentions of their organization. As someone who identified with the radical Left and psychoanalysis, I found this statement to be rather instructive and, really, born out of a genuine insight into the current state of the Left.

It coalesced with the various self-descriptive materials which are made available on the project’s website. It might as well have read:

 Dr. Platypus is for the therapy, education, and, ultimately, the practical reconstitution of the subject. At present the subject appears as a historic ruin… Dr. Platypus contends that the ruin of the subject as she stands today is of a history whose collapse was largely self-inflicted, hence at present the subject is historical, and in such a grave state of delusion that she can no longer cope coherently with sociopolitical reality. In the face of her traumatic past and present, the first task for the reconstitution of the subject is to recognize the reasons for her historical collapse and to facilitate the recovery of the subject for the present and future. If the subject is to change the world, she must first cure herself![1]

The conceptual translation of this argument from the register of the political to the psychoanalytic could perhaps proceed indefinitely. It threatens to consume the entire project, producing what would amount to an epic case study of the subject as she gets conceived through the terminology of “Marx, Lukács, Benjamin, and Adorno.”[2] It could even provide an opening into the psyche of the analyst, who has come to doctorate himself not without a desire to do so, and not without a theory which, owing to the particular lineage of the aforementioned forefathers (which, no doubt, weighs on the conscience like a "nightmare"), results in the affirmation of an endless interpretation via the trap doors of negative dialectics.

But without digressing too far down this darkened path into the abyss, reminiscent of the secret passage found in Mark Z. Danielewski’s masterful work House of Leaves,[3] the translated quotation featured above should be enough to make the following point: what is relevant about Platypus today is exactly this observation -- that the subject is sick, that she needs help. While this is not insignificant in terms of waging revolutionary struggle, it remains to be seen whether articulating the grimness of the condition constitutes the most effective therapeutic procedure, that is, in terms of resolving her case and enabling the subject to make a breakthrough.

The Marxian Left, where it is not implicated by its conspicuous absence, appears as a spurious infinity of sects and hodge-podge syndicalists who, like ambassadors of Babel, enter the world to spread dissention and misunderstanding amongst the ranks. Each group claims their own personal expression of Marxism, oblivious to why Marx, chagrined by the mongers of "radical" phraseology who went forth to proselytize in his name, once affirmed: “ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.[4] Meanwhile legislatures are run rampant with corrupt former-Leftists who have sold out to serve the status quo, with pseudo-fascists waiting in the wings; neither no longer required to pledge allegiance to a revolutionary project which promises to emancipate the masses, a political development that we should not be surprised was already anticipated by Marx and Engels in their classic description of how exploitation under capitalism goes from being “veiled by political and religious illusions” to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal.”[5]

Despite this, the various Ideological State Apparatuses, as identified by Althusser in his important essay on the subject (religion, school, family, union, media, etc.),[6] are still functional, more than ever.[7] But how can this be, if capitalism strips away at illusions? As one Lacanian put it, “in our allegedly ‘post-ideological’ era, ideology functions more and more in a fetishistic mode as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode.”[8] Hence the importance of understanding the dynamic of “fetishistic disavowal,”[9] which, aside from alluding to Marx’s scientific treatment of the phenomenon of money in Capital, clings to the simple formula of repeating some language as a fetish in and of itself: “I know very well, but still…”[10] This ellipsis, standing as it does for that X factor which cedes power to the bourgeoisie to maintain ideological hegemony over society (insofar as this factor can be isolated as independent from the physical and structural powers of politics and economy), is a riddle that has taunted every serious social critique of the advanced capitalist countries since the beginning of the postwar era.

Once one learns to see the fetishistic basis of ideology - how it operates on a pre-conscious level, how it reproduces itself as a material practice, already interwoven into social relations, despite what we tell ourselves about it - the mistakes made by past attempts to forge a totalizing critique of everything existing begin to glare. And it is understandable that mistakes have been made. It is no easy feat to mount a critique of both base and superstructure, that combines a Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie with Ideologiekritik, a task akin to climbing two mountains at once.

This is why it is difficult to have to blame the first-wave Freudo-Marxist Wilhelm Reich for mystifying the scientific theory of “repression,”[11] since this allowed him to attribute the cause of Nazism to the ‘conformist’ character which capitalism forces on people through frustrating their sexualities, through repressing them (or, at least, getting them to repress themselves), and harnessing that energy for aggressive ends. These can range from Holocausts to what Reich called the "progressive character of fascism,"[12] a question which was already answered by Trotsky in an article from 1932 that concerned "the organic character of fascism as a mass movement."[13] In any case, the approach is the same: Reich thinks as if repression was a problem invented by capitalism, and no less the main one to turn masses into fascists. But anyone with a historical interest in the alleged “repressive" character supposedly inherent in the Nazi ideology should pay particular attention to the character of Weissmann from Thomas Pynchon’s sublime novel Gravity’s Rainbow.[14] Also, see Pasolini's Salò (1976) for more commentary on the obscene knot that ties together fascism with anarchist sympathies.

Whereas Freud stressed the structural necessity of repression as a constitutive feature of consciousness[15] and Kultur[16] (which later got pegged to the human condition of being in language),[17] Reich proved himself to be more like an anarchist than a Marxist in wanting to overthrow repression, as it were, all at once, instead of dissolving the problem over time by coming to displace the question: taking repression for granted as a constant of human consciousness, how does one establish or maintain a sinthomatic mediation in the world today, fraught as it is with so much squalor and dissatisfaction? I can assure you that the demand is older than Mick Jagger, which is not to say that Mick Jagger is not old but that he is remembered to have not quite asked, but demanded rather emphatically: “I can’t get no satisfaction!”[18] Surely he was right to suggest that cigarettes, cars, and even useless information plays just as much a part in this demand for erotic satiety as the attraction of men and women and other bodies.

It is also difficult to have to censure the second-wave Freudo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse, whose inconsistency as a theorist is symptomatic of the Frankfurt School as a whole. He is responsible for introducing the misleading category of “one-dimensionality” to account for the sorry state of the emerging postmodern subject circa 1968. It melded together the primordial tension between sex (individuals) and economy (groups) as both take place under a capitalist society with the clunker “repressive desublimation.”[19] This clumsy term is posed to stand for nothing but an entire field of topics and perspectives which accounts for the subject matter of the full career of one psychoanalyst in particular, whose name and teaching should be on all of ours lips. That is, for those of us who want and see the need to hold the line on what accounts for proper psychoanalytic procedure, a perspective which must take into account the niceties of both its theoretical component and the method of its practice.

If therapy is what we really want and need to apply to the subject of the ailing Left, to ameliorate the fact that her psyche is self-destructively trying to flee from the immanence of her contemporary predicament – environmental, economic, and cultural – by lapsing into the false but adequate dreamworld supplied by bourgeois ideology in its “postmodern” cynical (i.e. fetishized) form, then there is no reason to not get our psychoanalysis firsthand. Here we cannot settle; we must go straight to the source. One does not reconcile the ameliorative therapy of the subject and the progressive development of class consciousness through reading a Marxist and then another Marxist who, unlike the first Marxist, happens to talk about psychoanalysis as well. We reconcile these approaches through reading both Marxism and psychoanalysis. This simple point, so simple but for so many so hard, can be captured in the following reformulation:

Not: Marx, Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno.

But: Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan.[20]

Not Marx and then a Hegelian-Marxist, but Marx and Hegel as the dual poles of logical (i.e. dialectical) thinking. Not Benjamin, whose gnomic and intertextual writing style is like Lacan’s, and Adorno, who would often employ psychoanalytic terminology without crediting Freud, but Freud and Lacan as the sources of psychoanalytic thinking. Even Adorno, late in his career, in 1959, supported the substitution of Frankfurt School critical theory with the awesome power of Freudian psychoanalysis:

above all, we should think of psychoanalysis, which is still being repressed today as much as ever. Either it is altogether absent, or it is replaced by tendencies that, while boasting of overcoming the much-maligned nineteenth century, in truth fall back behind Freudian theory, even turning it into its very opposite. A precise and undiluted [!] knowledge of Freudian theory is more necessary and relevant today than ever.[21] (italics added)

The class nods their heads in agreement, yet few read Freud. So Lacan comes to stand for the “return to Freud,” as a principle. And the “meaning of the return to Freud is a return to Freud’s meaning.”[22] Only we must note that Lacan’s return to Freud’s meaning takes place in the postwar era of so-called “late capitalist ‘permissive’ society.”[23] This makes Lacan’s meaning much more relevant and closer to our own: that is, diachronically speaking, considering that we still inhabit the same (synchronic) ideological coordinates for the most part.

This makes Lacan no less essential than Freud, as he who points out that the notion of repression is itself repressed. This comes to mean that Freud is repressed, that what we are repressing is Freud, or more specifically the discovery of the one who, it so happens, is he who first spoke of repression. What Lacan really does, then, is show the doubling of repression, as a phenomenon that reflects into itself, acts as its own double-negation. This makes Lacan, as it were, the return of the repressed, insofar as he repeatedly recalls the Freudian teaching over the course of his works, in order to indicate that the repressed is here, it has returned to announce what amounts to a humiliation of the “entire humanist tradition”[24] which had hitherto presumed to own the rights to Rationality. We no longer can allow ourselves to mistakenly view Reason as a dumb static positivity, as A=A, both because this way of thinking affronts dialectics (Hegel/Marx) and it obscures the basic insight that there is no such thing as Reason, that is, at least not without its shadow, its unheimliche, or, at the very least, its discontents (Freud/Lacan).

Lacan teaches what Freud means for the second half of the 20th century, just as Lenin taught us what Marx meant for the first half. Lacan also allows himself to involve and encompass in his Freudian discourse practically everyone else under the sun who seems to have said anything ever. While preference is given to physicians, scientists, philosophers, litterateurs, artists, patients, and priests, Lacan stumbles past an amazing diversity of signposts over the course of his theoretical tour de force, all the while carrying Freud on his back in an attempt to redeem in the eyes of the reader the name of the father of psychoanalysis. And just as Freud was hawkish in outlining his theory of psychoanalysis to prevent it from getting smudged or misstated, not so much by his outright critics but his imitators (Jung, Adler, Horney, Klein, etc.), Lacan is for the closest and most precise reading of Freud. In pointing out the (Saussurean) structuralist principles which, inherent in Freud’s discourse,[25] raise him above the rest of the neo-Freudians in terms of systemic consistency and scientificity (not to mention materialism), Lacan makes the overly simple (yet still repressed!) point that there is no better Freudian to read on psychoanalysis than Freud himself.

At the same time, as Lacan would be sure to tell you, this does not make Freud the final word on the subject. Like the science of Historical Materialism, psychoanalysis transcends its originary formulation as first found in Freud’s writings so as to develop over time upon the project for a scientific psychology which he made it his life’s work to establish. Lacan not only inherits this project but also pushes it forward,[26] through making concrete contributions to the understanding of certain Freudian principles as well as revamping its delivery and elucidation for contemporary sensibilities. Like the relationship between Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and Marx’s Capital, Lacan builds on but also refines and ultimately recasts the basic problematic that is laid out by Freud in his writings, in order to be able to think it afresh in the contemporary moment.

Without allotting time and space to the most important texts of psychoanalysis, particularly those that pertain to the critique of ideology, a curriculum designed to educate students in the ways and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism will fall short of the task that it sets out for itself to accomplish. Not only do Marxists need to understand the nature of ideology for the sake of orienting their own messaging and communications operations, but in order to better diagnose and help the Left subject make a recovery from her current illness, to rehabilitate her to become more like the (class conscious, fighting) proletarian subject of yesteryear’s class struggle, whom it feels has not been seen in the advanced capitalist countries since the ’70s.

But this has all been written under the assumption that "therapy" and the "collapse of the subject" is the appropriate metaphor to use in describing the particular political task that we are faced with today. It has been taken for granted here that the standard Leftist political techniques of agitation, education, and organization are not working because the subject suffers from an ideological delusion of some sort, which is presumably due to the counter-stimuli of consumerist pacification, the “triumph of advertising,”[27] and direct political oppression coupled with self-perceived political impotence. What this character profile of “one-dimensional man” invites us to miss, however, is that no socioeconomic analysis is taken into account by adopting such an orientation to the problem.

As Marxists we cannot allow Freud to fall through the gaps in our understanding, or what would amount to the same thing, to become the catchall term that ‘explains’ all of the Left’s failures that have taken place since World War II. Here it should be noted how the Reagan era coincided with the speculative credit bubble that maintained the momentum of the postwar economic boom, a fact which also must be fully internalized to understand why the subject currently acts the way she does. This behavior persists even though it has become clear that the economic conditions which supported the development of an aloof "middle class" subjectivity in the advanced capitalist countries[28] will no longer hold for the emerging 21st century. Marxism entails that we should return to the primary task of orienting towards the critique of political economy, which would entail striving for a better understanding of the economic gravity of the post-WWII boom and its impending bust. This should help us to "explain" the seeming undue passivity of the workers in the advanced capitalist countries, better than any muddled appeal to ideological manipulation or repressed sexuality, since much like Althusser’s description of the superstructure as an effectivity which is “in some way dispersed into an infinity,”[29] this latter approach leads us to overcome the problem only by dissipating it into a cloud of half-finished answers.

Which is not to say that it is also not true, that the Left does not need to regroup and recalibrate its strategy. Here I second Dr. Platypus’ opinion that the Left needs therapy. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a mortifying effect on a generation of old guard Marxists who are now completely disoriented in their politics. Many of these former Marxists have abdicated leadership of the class struggle to a younger generation of activists and organizers who, inexperienced and unfamiliar with the methods and perspectives of revolutionary Marxism, repeat the mistakes of the 19th century over and over again for want of a historical education. Thus the present generation does not even resemble the French working class of 1848, described by Marx as being like “the Jews whom Moses led through the wilderness.”[30] The “crisis of the revolutionary leadership” which Trotsky, writing in Mexico, was able to isolate as the chief feature of the present “world political situation as a whole”[31] means that we have not even a Moses to guide us in our current hour of need. Instead we are like the Jews before the plagues, waiting for the staff to fall to announce the coming of a new religion and, with it, a new age of strife. We must first usurp the Pharaoh and topple his pyramid before facing the wilderness, which we shall have to wander through in order to get to the Promised Land. If Marx and Lenin both described participating in the proletarian revolution as a task akin to climbing the tallest mountain,[32] then one can perhaps see why such imagery came to mind.

But we should not doubt whether the thresher of history – fuelled as it is currently by the capitalist drive for “creative destruction”[33] – is strong enough to tear apart even the most inertial ideologies that cling to all types of prejudices and cultural detritus, in order to forestall the development of consciousness amongst the working class. As Marx and Engels stated in the glorious lines of the Communist Manifesto, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify… man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”[34] That this process of “constantly revolutionizing… the relations of production” will not also dispatch the politically blasé and cynical subject of postmodern capitalism in the upcoming years is hard to believe, especially considering the current condition and implied trajectory of the world capitalist system for the foreseeable future.[35] Hence this is why some of us are not ashamed to admit of having hope, even optimism, about the future, so long as one keeps in mind that hope is what you have when you have nothing else about which to be optimistic, and what makes “interesting times” more interesting than times of class peace is exactly the lack of it.[36]

Let us reaffirm our commitment to Marxism by taking the time to fully absorb how he saw the dialectic of crisis and revolution, which is to say, as a dialectic: “A new revolution is only a consequence of a new crisis. The one, however, can be as sure to come as the other.”[37] It will be only through keeping this tenet of Historical Materialism in the backs of our minds that psychoanalysis will not get misrecognized as to how it can aid Marxism in the task of a “ruthless criticism of everything existing”:[38] the field of psychoanalytic experience has the power to complicate our predictions of when, not if, the capitalist crisis will come to a head. |P


[1]. See “Statement of Purpose,” /about/statement. Also, the feminization of the subject is intended to depict the reality and outlook of the proletarian subject, comprised of the workers and wretched of the world, as inherently feminist, that is, as opposed to the reactionary attitudes of male chauvinism.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Danielewski, Mark Z., House of Leaves, 2nd ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000).

[4]. Marx, Karl, and Guesde, Jules, “The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier,” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.

[5]. Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich, Manifesto of the Communist Party (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.

[6]. Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation)” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm

[7]. A case for this is made by Žižek, Living in the End Times  (2nd ed.) (London: Verso, 2011), p. 414.

[8]. Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), p. 65.

[9]. For an exposition on the Freudian origins of this concept, which gets used often by Žižek, see For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (London: Verso, 2002), p. 174.

[10]. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), p. 18.

[11]. For a basic critique of “Reich’s simplistic account” of psychoanalysis, see Stavrakakis, Yannis, The Lacanian Left (Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 27 – 28.

[12]. Reich, Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933/46).

[13]. Trotsky, Leon, "How Mussolini Triumphed," Fascism: What it Is and How to Fight It (Chippendale, Australia: Resistance Books, 2002), p. 9.

[14]. Pynchon, Thomas, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Bantam Books, 1980), p. 115.

[15]. Freud calls his theory of repression “the cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests” (“The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement,” Collected Papers: Volume IV (New York: Basic Books, 1959), p. 168).

[16]. As early as 1908, Freud claims that “Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts” (“‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness,” Collected Papers: Volume II (London: Hogarth Press, 1950), p. 82.

[17]. See Lacan, Jacques, “Science and Truth,” Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), p. 737.

[18]. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones, 1965.

[19]. For an important analysis of the “pseudo-concept” of “repressive desublimation,” see chapter one of Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 2005), p. 22.

[20]. On the first draft of this essay, one editor commented, “You don’t discuss Hegel enough to warrant his inclusion on this list.” Fair enough. I had mistakenly assumed it was common knowledge that, as Jean Hyppolite once said, “one doesn’t go beyond Hegel” (Lacan, Jacques, Seminar II, ed. Jacques Alain-Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 71). Furthermore, that Marx not only “openly avowed [him]self the pupil of that mighty thinker,” decrying those who dared to treat Hegel as “a dead dog,” but Lenin too supported a “propaganda of Hegelian dialectics,” demonstrates the givenness of Hegel’s inclusion in the tetrad as a precondition of Marx (Marx, Karl, Capital: Vol. I, 2nd ed. (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p3.htm; Lenin, V. I., “On the Significance of Militant Materialism,” trans. David Skvirsky and George Hanna (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/12.htm). However, for a persuasive argument on the relevance of Hegel to Lacan’s thinking, see chapter 8 of Žižek, Slavoj, Less Than Nothing (New York: Verso, 2012), pp. 507 – 556.

[21]. Adorno, Theodor, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Can One Live After Auschwitz: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Ralph Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 15.

[22]. This “return to Freud” is explicitly announced by Lacan in his paper “The Freudian Thing, or the Meaning of the Return to Freud in Psychoanalysis,” Écrits, p. 337.

[23]. Žižek, “The ‘Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy,’” The Puppet and the Dwarf (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 69.

[24]. Lacan, paper “The Freudian Thing,” Écrits, p. 334.

[25]. The cornerstone of Lacan’s unique interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis is the observation that Freud “anticipated” the linguistic perspective of structuralism found in the Course in General Linguistics.  The question of how “could Freud have become aware of that structure when it was only later articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure” is directly posed in “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principle of its Power,” Écrits, p. 520.

[26]. The introduction of the “mirror stage” to the Freudian account of childhood development is considered to be a major addition to psychoanalytic theory which is not explicitly contained within Freud’s works. See Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” Écrits, p. 75.

[27]. For a thorough analysis of what this notion entails, see Adorno, Theodor, and Horkheimer, Max, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 136.

[28]. This should be considered in relation to what Lenin says about imperialism and the production of “superprofits,” which is that “capitalists can devote a part (and not a small one, at that!) of these superprofits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance… between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against other countries” (“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” trans. M. S. Levin and Joe Feinberg (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/oct/x01.htm.

[29]. Althusser, “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Penguin Press, 1969), p. 118.

[30]. Marx, part three of The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850 (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch03.htm.

[31]. Trotsky, Leon, part one of The Transitional Program (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text.htm#op

[32]. See Marx, “Preface to the French Edition,” Capital: Vol. I (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p2.htm; see Lenin, “Notes of a Publicist” (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm.

[33]. This term, which stands for “the essential fact about capitalism,” is elaborated upon in chapter seven of Schumpeter, Joseph, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 83.

[34]. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party.

[35]. For an informed analysis of this trajectory and what we can expect in the future, see the various draft discussion documents shared by the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) on “World capitalism 2012” at In Defence of Marxism: http://www.marxist.com/perspectives.

[36]. “In China, so they say, if you really hate someone, the curse to fling at them is: ‘May you live in interesting times!’ Historically, the ‘interesting times’ have been periods of unrest, war and struggles for power in which millions of innocents suffered the consequences. Today, we are clearly approaching a new epoch of interesting times” (Žižek, Living in the End Times, p. 403).

[37]. Chapter four of Marx, The Class Struggles of France, 1848 to 1850 (Marxists.org): http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1850/class-struggles-france/ch04.htm

[38]. Marx, “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” (Platypus):  http://platypus1917.home.comcast.net/~platypus1917/marx_earlyphilosophicalcritique_mereader9-15.pdf

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 51 | November 2012

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FOR MARXISTS, the division of modern socioeconomic classes is not the cause of the problem of capitalism but rather its effect.

Modern classes are different from ancient separations between castes, such as between the clergy or priestly caste, and the noble aristocracy or warrior caste, and the vast majority of people, “commoners,” or those who were ignorant of divinity and without honor, who, for most of history, were peasants living through subsistence agriculture, a mute background of the pageantry of the ancient world.

Modern, “bourgeois” society, or the society of the modern city, is the product of the revolt of the Third Estate, or commoners, who had no property other than that of their labor: “self-made” men. During the French Revolution, the Third Estate separated itself from the other Estates of the clergy and aristocracy, and declared itself the National Assembly, with the famous Tennis Court Oath. This fulfilled the call of the Abbé Sieyès, who had declared in his revolutionary pamphlet What is the Third Estate?, that while under the ancien régime the Third Estate had been “nothing,” now it would be “everything.”

As the 20th century Marxist Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno put it, “society is a concept of the Third Estate.” What he meant by this was that unlike the previous, ancient civilization in which people were divinely ordered in a Great Chain of Being, the Third Estate put forward the idea that people would relate to one another. They would do so on the basis of their “work,” or their activity in society, which would find purchase not in a strict hierarchy of traditional values, but rather through a “free market” of goods. People would be free to find their own values in society.

Modern society is thus the society of the Third Estate, after the overthrow of the traditional authority of the Church and the feudal aristocrats. Modern, bourgeois society is based on the values of the Third Estate, which center on the values of work. The highest values of modern society are not religion or the honor of a warrior code, but rather material productivity and efficiency, being a “productive member of society.” From this perspective, the perspective of modern bourgeois society, all of history appears to be the history of different, progressively developing “modes of production,” of which capitalism is the latest and highest. The past becomes a time of people toiling in ignorance and superstition, held back by conservative customs and arrogant elites from realizing their potential productivity and ingenuity. The paradigmatic image of this state of affairs is Galileo being forced to recant his scientific insight under threat by the Church.

With the successful revolt of the Third Estate it appeared that humanity attained its “natural” condition of Enlightenment, in relation both to the natural world and in humans’ relations with each other. Seemingly unlimited possibilities opened up, and the Dark Ages were finally brought to an end.

With the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th to early 19th centuries, however, a new “contradiction” developed in bourgeois society, that of the value of capital versus the value of the wages of labor. With this contradiction came a new social and political conflict, the “class struggle” of the workers for the value of their wages against the capitalists’ imperative to preserve and expand the value of capital. This came to a certain head in the 1840s, known at the time as the “hungry ’40s,” the first world-wide economic crisis after the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to go beyond a mere adjustment of the market, but pointed to new and deeper problems.

This new conflict between the workers and capitalists that raged in the mid-19th century was expressed in the desire for “socialism,” or of society becoming true to itself, and the value of the contributions of all society’s members being recognized and their being allowed to participate fully in the development and political direction of humanity. This was expressed in the Revolutions of 1848, the “Spring of the Nations” in Europe that resulted from the crisis of the 1840s, which called for the “social republic” or “social democracy,” that is, democracy adequate to the needs of society as a whole.

For the socialists of the time, the crisis of the 1840s and revolutions of 1848 demonstrated the need and possibility for getting beyond capitalism.

In late 1847, two young bohemian intellectuals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, were commissioned by the Communist League to write a manifesto ahead of the potential revolutions that appeared on the horizon. Issued mere days ahead of the revolutions of 1848, the Communist Manifesto was a survey of the contradictory and paradoxical situation of modern society, its simultaneous radical possibilities and self-destructive tendencies in capitalism.

For Marx and Engels, as good followers of Hegel’s dialectic of history, the phenomenon of contradiction was the appearance of the possibility and necessity for change.

Marx and Engels could be confident of the apparent, manifest crisis of modern society and the need for radical change emerging in their time. They were not the originators of socialism or communism but rather tried to sum up the historical experience of the struggle for socialism in their time. They did not seek to tell the workers their interest in overcoming capitalism, but rather tried to help clarify the workers’ own consciousness of their historical situation, the crisis of bourgeois society in capital.

What Marx and Engels recognized that perhaps distinguished them from other socialists, however, was the utterly unique character of the modern, post-Industrial Revolution working class. What made the modern working class, or “industrial proletariat” different was its subjection to mass unemployment. Marx and Engels understood this unemployment to be not a temporary, contingent phenomenon due to market fluctuations or technical innovations putting people out of work, but rather a permanent feature of modern society after the Industrial Revolution, in which preserving the value of capital was in conflict with the value of workers’ wages. Unlike Adam Smith in the pre-industrial era, who observed that higher wages and lower profits increased productivity in society as a whole, after the Industrial Revolution, increased productivity was not due to workers’ greater efficiency but rather that of machines. This meant, as the director of the Marxist Frankfurt Institute for Social Research Max Horkheimer put it, that “machines made not work but the workers superfluous.”

On a global scale, greater productivity increased not employment and wealth but rather unemployment andimpoverishment, as capitalism destroyed traditional ways of life (for instance of the peasants) but failed to be able to provide meaningful productive employment and thus participation in society for all, as originally envisioned in the revolt of the Third Estate and promised in the bourgeois revolution against the hierarchy of theancien régime. The promise of the modern city is mocked by the mushrooming of slum cities around the world. The old world has been destroyed but the new one is hardly better. The promise of freedom is cruelly exploited, but its hope dashed.

Marxists were the first, and have remained the most consistent in recognizing the nature and character of this contradiction of modern society.

The difference between Marx’s time and ours is not in the essential problem of society, its self-contradictory form of value between wages and capital, but rather in the social and political conflicts, which no longer take the form primarily, as in Marx’s time, of the “class struggle” between workers and capitalists. “Class” has become a passive, objective category, rather than an active, subjective one, as it had been in Marx’s day and in the time of historical Marxism. What Marxists once meant by “class consciousness” is no more.

This lends a certain melancholy to the experience of “class” today. Privilege and disadvantage alike seem arbitrary and accidental, not an expression of the supposed worth of people’s roles in society but only of their luck, good or bad fortune. It becomes impossible to derive a politics from class position, and so other politics take its place. Conflicts of culture, ethnicity and religion replace the struggle over capitalism. Impoverished workers attack not orders whose privileges are dubious in the extreme, but rather each other in communal hatred. Consciousness of common class situation seems completely obscured and erased.

Not as Marx foresaw, workers with nothing to lose but their chains, but the unemployed masses wield their chains as weapons against each other. Meanwhile, in the background, underlying and overarching everything, capitalism continues. But it is no longer recognized. This is not surprising, however, since proper recognition of the problem could only come from practically engaging it as such. The issue is why it seems so undesirable to do so, today. Why have people stopped struggling for socialism?

We hear that we are in the midst of a deepening economic and social crisis, the greatest since the Great Depression of the early 20th century. But we do not see a political crisis of the same order of magnitude. It is not, as in the 1930s, when communism and fascism challenged capitalism from the Left and the Right, forcing massive social reform and political change.

This is because the idea of socialism—the idea of society being true to itself—has been disenchanted. With it has gone the class struggle of the workers against the capitalists that sought to realize the promise of freedom in modern society. It has been replaced with competing notions of social justice that borrow from ancient values. But since the sources of such ancient values, for instance religions, are in conflict, this struggle for justice points not to the transformation of society as a whole, but rather its devolution into competing values of different “cultures.” Today in the U.S., it seems to matter more whether one lives in a “red or blue state,” or what one’s “race, gender, and sexuality” are, than if one is a worker or a capitalist—whatever that might mean. Cultural affinities seem to matter more than socioeconomic interests, as the latter burn. People cling to their chains, as the only things that they know. |P

David Brian Howard

Platypus Review 50 | October 2012

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[N]egative dialectics seeks the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true—today, in any case—it must also think against itself. If thinking fails to measure itself by the extremeness that eludes the concept, it is from the outset like the accompanying music with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.

— Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

NEGATIVITY AND REVOLUTION seems to fly in the face of the Adorno revival over the last twenty years. The editors bravely assert in the introduction to their book that their focus will not be on Adorno, nor about the body of his work, and, above all, that it is not written by Adorno specialists. The intent of this book, which is the outcome of a seminar at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades Alfonso Vélez Pliego of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, is to elaborate on what Adorno called negative dialectics and how it might serve as a counter-strategy to other forms of theorizing the present, and could thus be of benefit to radicals, political activists, and Adorno scholars.

The attempt to maneuver Adorno’s thought into a place of relevance in the lifeless field of radical politics is, I think, a very worthwhile endeavor. However, the reader quickly confronts the danger of prioritizing Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, which is that the concept of negative dialectics itself is much abused and misunderstood. Another, secondary impediment, is the fact that Adorno is still vilified by many on the Left for having called the police when the Frankfurt Institute was occupied by the student movement in 1969, and for agreeing with Habermas’s formulation that the students were “left-fascist.” This book asks, Why is Adorno a hero of revolution and political activism? For one of the editors, John Holloway, Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics and its Hegelian pedigree offers an enticing vision of theoretical depth that is “both libertarian and revolutionary.” He argues

 It is libertarian because its pivot and driving force is the misfit, irreducible particularity, the non-identity that cannot be contained, the rebel who will not submit to party discipline. It is revolutionary because it is explosive, volcanic, and refuses compromise with the capitalist totality. If there is no identity other than the identity that is undermined by non-identity, then there is no possibility of stability. All identity is false, contradictory, resting on the negation of the non-identity which it suppresses, which it seeks to contain but cannot. (13)

For Holloway, Adorno’s concept of non-identity, elucidated most rigorously in Negative Dialectics, is “the hero, the centre, the moving force of the world.” By contrast, Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, published in 1968, distances itself from the dialectical legacy of Hegel and the arguments of Adorno, arguing that

History progresses not by negation and the negation of negation, but by deciding problems and affirming differences. It is no less bloody and cruel as a result. Only the shadows of history live by negation: the good enter into it with all the power of a posited differential or a difference affirmed…. That is why real revolutions have the atmosphere of fêtes. Contradiction is not the weapon of the proletariat but, rather, the manner in which the bourgeoisie defends and preserves itself.[1]

By contrast, the emphasis throughout Negativity & Revolution is placed on rescuing the negative dialectical moment from the short-circuiting of theory by the demands of practice, “a practice which in its anti-theoreticism is left at ‘the prey of powers,’ whether that of charismatic leaders or revolutionary parties” (35). While there have been attempts to bridge the gap between theory and practice in the work of Adorno, for instance Espen Hammer’s Adorno and the Political (2005), this book presents a unique spectrum of the political application of Hegel and negative dialectics to the twenty first century and an attempt to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of neo-liberalism and anti-dialecticism.

Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) was one of the key leaders of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists that emerged in Germany between the world wars and played a crucial role both in the re-establishment of Marxian Critical Theory in post-WWII Germany and in providing intellectual inspiration to much of the New Left in Western Europe and North America during the same period. This Frankfurt School group was instrumental in developing variations in Marxist theory that had neither the vulgar, didactic quality of the “official Marxism” of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s, nor the progressive evolutionary quality of the late nineteenth century Second International Marxism. Both of these forms of Marxism were seen by the members of the Frankfurt School as a fundamental betrayal of dialectical materialism as Georg Lukács elaborated in his important book History and Class Consciousness and as found in Marx’s so-called humanist manuscripts of 1844 that were rediscovered in the early 1930s. Both of these publishing developments gave renewed emphasis to the Hegelian dialectic within Marxism, but with a twist. Whereas in Lukács’s Hegelian Marxism one could assume that the working class was available as the potential subject of history that would lead to the overthrowing of its antithesis, for the members of the Frankfurt School, the rise of Hitler and Fascism as well as the destruction of the working class as a potential subject of history meant that the Hegelian dialectic needed to be rethought in the absence of a powerful counter-subject to capital. As suggested in Negativity & Revolution, what would later emerge as a full-blown theory of negative dialectics that culminated in the book by the same name in 1966 is indistinguishable from the question of practice. However, equally inseparable from the thought of Adorno is Lucács’s elaboration of the concepts of totality, reification, and the commodity.

adornohorkheimer (2)

Horkheimer (front left) and Adorno at the Max Weber-Soziolo- gentag, with Habermas (back, far right) and other students.

Adorno, whose early training in the European Enlightenment philosophical tradition began at fourteen when he started studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason with Siegfried Kracauer, was an accomplished musician as well as philosopher who studied modernist piano technique under the guidance of Alban Berg, whom he had met in 1924 when he was completing his doctorate. This intertwinning of philosophy, aesthetics, and music imparted to Adorno a unique skill set that, I would argue, to this day is what gives Adorno’s work such longevity, theoretical vibrancy, and ongoing relevance. The mutual interaction and contrapuntal intricacy of these different registers in the various modes of his thought and compositional technique within his writing are seldom legible to contemporary writers.

Ironically, Adorno’s admiration of Lukács would come after the latter had recanted his youthful work, including History and Class Consciousness. Thus, by the time Adorno appropriated many of Lukács’s concepts, Luckás summarily dismissed Adorno and his colleagues as occupying “the Grand Hotel Abyss,” a caricature meant to mock their culturally elitist positions as well as their distance from any meaningful relationship between theory and practice. This dismissal was easily adopted by many members of the New Left in Europe and North America in the 1960s and, from a different theoretical perspective, by many practitioners of postmodernism and post-structuralism who perceived in the work of Adorno a rigid adherence to a kind of Hegelian Marxist doctrine that was seen to be totalizing, elitist, and pessimistic. Even Adorno’s most well-known student, Jürgen Habermas, distanced himself from the Hegelian philosophical and utopian idealism implicit in his mentor, in favor of the kind of social science popular in mid-century America, tinged in various ways with the tradition of pragmatism, as well as an intersubjective theory of communicative reason that sought to displace subject-centered language models. In addition, followers of the French post-structuralist theorist Gilles Deleuze and his “politics of difference” or the students of Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, and Paolo Virno, who pursue a concept called “the politics of the multitude,” all claim to have found a more productive and direct route to radical change that avoids the dialectical legacy of Adorno. Even in the current, more radicalized atmosphere of the Occupy Wall Street era, there is immense pressure to move towards forms of praxis that bypass the impediments to direct action that Adorno’s theories would seem, as a function of their overtly negative political outlook as well as their almost impenetrable complexity, to pose.

The weakest sections of Negativity & Revolution are those dealing with art and its relationship to politics. Adorno, who was working on his magnum opus Aesthetic Theory when he died of a heart attack after hiking in the Swiss Alps in 1969, was specifying how aesthetics inflects his political and theoretical analysis. Assuming that Adorno’s aesthetics reflects his philosophy rather than informing it profoundly, on the level of form and content, what this book fails to consider is, How does Adorno alter our understanding of the relationship of negative dialectics, as well as art, to revolution and political activism? A book dealing with the subject of art and negative dialectics is vitally important at this historical juncture, when increasing demands for more “relevant” forms of political art threaten the kind of critical tension and dialectical negativity that Adorno’s aesthetic theory implies. |P


[1]. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum International, 1994), 268.