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.
Without a socialist party, there is no class struggle, only rackets
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 ) 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
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>. ↩
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.” ↩
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>.) ↩
Max Horkheimer, “The authoritarian state,” in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1985), 117. ↩
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>.) ↩
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/>. ↩
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>. ↩
Panel held as part of the third annual Platypus International Convention, on Saturday, April 30th, 2011, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
After its apparent exhaustion as a project of social transformation, Marxism seems to remain alive as a cultural and hermeneutic endeavor. Self-avowedly Marxist theorists -- Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere -- exert a heavy, if opaque, influence on the self-understanding and practice of contemporary art and inspire research programs in the humanities. Despite its radical appeal, "Marxist" theory may ultimately flatter the political and aesthetic claims of the present. Could investigation of of the now obscure historical Marxist cultural critique of Leon Trotsky, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin bring to recognition, and therein challenge the inadaquecies of the present? What opaque historical transformations does the difficulty of such work indicate? How might the long-abused concepts of autonomy, medium specificity, kitsch, avant garde -- form part of what Marx called the "ruthless critique of the present." What might the problems of aesthetics and culture have to do with the political project of the self-education of the Left?
Platypus Review 33 | March 2011
THE UPRISING IN EGYPT, which followed soon after the toppling of the old regime in Tunisia, succeeded in bringing down Hosni Mubarak on February 11, the 32nd anniversary to the day of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Already, before this timely coincidence, comparisons between the Iranian Revolution and the revolts gripping the Arab world had started to be made. But other historical similarities offered themselves: the various “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Central Asian states and Lebanon in recent years, and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet bloc and beyond (the former Yugoslavia) starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Behind these revolutions on the pattern of 1989 stood the event of which 1989 itself had been the bicentennial, the great French Revolution of 1789. The Bastille is to be stormed again, anew. Who would not welcome this?
A more pessimistic, if no less invidious comparison offered itself, especially prior to Mubarak’s ouster: the equally dramatic but failed Green Movement in the election crisis in Iran that marked 30 years of the Islamic Revolution in 2009. Just as the Green Movement posed the question of reforming the Islamic Republic, events in Egypt have raised the specter of authoritarianism continuing, despite everything, albeit without Mubarak as tyrant. Indeed, comparisons of Egypt with Iran in both 1979 and 2009 are telling in several different respects. To be sure, the emancipatory prospects in Egypt today are even more remote than in Iran in either 1979 or 2009. If there is a more fruitful comparison to be made it is with Iran not in 1979 but in 2009.
The destruction of the Left, historically, has been naturalized more completely in present-day Egypt than it had been in Iran by 1979. Going back to the 1950s, because of Nasserism’s subordination and suppression of the Left, the strongest opposition movement in Egypt today is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a longer history and is much stronger than Khomeini-style Islamism had been in Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution. While the Khomeinite Islamic Republic has destroyed the Left more completely in Iran since 1979, it is also the case that the reform movement in the Islamic Republic has had a longer history of organization—almost 20 years now—than the opposition in Egypt has at present. The prospects for organized reform, in other words, ran deeper in Iran at the moment of the Green Movement election crisis in 2009 than is the case in Egypt today. This poses both more radical possibilities and dangers for Egypt than in Iran two years ago. The Green Movement could beat a retreat in the face of defeat in ways that the unfolding crisis in Egypt might not be so controlled. But this spiraling out of control that has raised much greater radical prospects in Egypt, as opposed to Iran in 2009, may prove to be the case at least as much for ill as for good. The military has been able to come to the rescue of the state in Egypt, and this has been met with joy not angry disappointment. What links both eruptions of democratic discontent, in Iran and Egypt, then, is their authoritarian outcome.
Putting aside the rather superficial narratives that emphasize how events in Egypt and Tunisia disprove the supposed intractability and lack of “democratic” spirit in the Arab or Muslim world—as if this needed proving—we must nevertheless ask about the legacy of the history of the Left—its defeats and failures—that condition present possibilities. The history of the Left, both locally and globally, and reaching back for generations, is important, perhaps not so much for the obvious reasons—a relative lack of “democratic institutions” in one or another part of the world, or indeed globally today, by contrast with the past—as that it raises the question of history per se. What resources does history provide to the present? For the comparisons—however invidious—with the situation in and for Egypt are all historical in nature. So the question of history and its effects presses for consideration. Whether one approaches the matter of historical precedence with hope or anxiety, still there is the question of how appropriate to the present any reach for such precedence may truly be. Like any event, the massive popular uprising in Egypt is in important ways unprecedented and new. This is its power. It demands its moment in the sun and refuses all comparisons, insisting upon its sui generis character, which it cannot be denied, even if it is not yet fully revealed. What impresses itself is how much this moment will be allowed to realize itself—to make its departure from previous history. Or, conversely, how it will be drawn back into and subsumed by history’s ineluctable force. Why should we care about history, when emancipation makes its attempt at escaping its dead hand? How is the unfolding present already history?
Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
Beneath the elation—if not euphoria—of the international Left at the popular overthrow of Mubarak is the fundamental ambiguity and so radical ambivalence of democratic revolution in our time. But this has been so not only since 1979 or 1989, but since 1789. However, unlike the French Revolution of 1789, whatever its tortured career and the opposed judgments about it, democratic revolutions since then have been dogged by the specter of failure. One thing that cannot be said of 1789 is that it failed, however ambiguous was its success. Yet a repressed, largely unknown, and importantly failed moment has haunted the history of modern revolutions: the event that prompted Marx’s famous phrase about history “weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living”: 1848. “The Spring of the Nations” in 1848, that is, the revolutions in France, Germany, and beyond, has completely escaped the imagination of present considerations of the moment of democratic revolution. This present absence is itself quite revealing, and needs to be addressed. For it may be that the comparison with 1848 is the most obscure but important of all.
For Marxism, 1848 is the canon of failure. What once made Marxism—whose founding political statement was 1848’s Communist Manifesto—such an important force in the world was its awareness of the problem of 1848; or, why 1789 has kept repeating itself over and over in modern history, but without success. The converse of the Manifesto’s rousing call to action, to treat history as the “history of class struggles,” was Marx’s writing the history of his present moment, the culminating climax and failure of the 1848 Revolution in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. But these two of Marx’s most widely quoted writings were documents of both promise and defeat.
What made the 1848 Revolution so important to Marx and subsequent Marxism was the light that it shed on the history of the bourgeois revolution. 1848 was both the last of the classical bourgeois revolutions and the first of the socialist revolutions that have marked the modern, bourgeois era. Henceforth, the fates of liberalism and socialism have been indissolubly tied—even if their connection has been extremely fraught. Liberalism could not do without socialism, nor socialism without liberalism. Every democratic revolution since 1848 has faced this two-fold task—and has, without exception, foundered on the shoals of its contradictions. Marxism was the attempt to transcend the antinomy of individual and collective freedom—or of liberalism and socialism in “social democracy”—to realize both, by transcending both. Marx and Engels emblazoned this demand in their Manifesto with the slogan of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need!,” which was to be realized in the “freedom of each” as the “precondition for the freedom of all.” Importantly, Marx and Engels were the originators of neither of these catchphrases for what “communism” meant. The twin fates of liberalism and socialism after 1848 have shared in the failure of this Marxist vision for emancipation.
An Egyptian military officer cheered on by demonstrations in Cairo.
What explains the undemocratic outcomes of democratic revolution in the modern era? Certainly one can take only so much comfort in Thomas Jefferson’s saying that a revolution every generation or so is a good thing—as if frequent revolutions are necessary to restore democracy. Or, if so, the reasons for this must still be explained, beyond “corruption,” the perennial complaint of the subaltern. Whence does this recurrent “corruption” of the democratic moment spring? And why does it manifest itself so much more dramatically at some times than others? Perhaps revolution is not always such an unambiguously good thing. Especially if, as Marx put it, it threatens to be the “first time as tragedy” and the “second time as farce.” What comes of revolution if it is taken to be fate? There is nothing so “revolutionary” as capital itself.
The 1848 Revolution had secured universal suffrage and established the 2nd Republic in France, but at the price, wryly observed by Marx, of bringing an authoritarian demagogue, Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew), to power—to the horror of liberal democratic sentiment at the time—as its first elected President, promising to “save society.” It is because Bonaparte overthrew the 2nd Republic and established a 20-year 2nd Empire that followed at the end of his term as President less than four years later that the massacre of the workers in June 1848 did not become forgotten as a historical footnote and regarded as merely a bump in the road of democracy, for it came to presage the authoritarian repression of society that followed, in which members of the bourgeoisie became subject to the same treatment first meted out to the rebellious workers. Marxists used the term “Bonapartism” to describe this phenomenon of suppression of democracy with popular assent, which has repeated itself so consistently in history after 1848—for instance in “Nasserism” in Egypt and other forms of Arab nationalism (the so-called “Arab Revolution”) in the 1950s–1960s. Such Orwellian reality of all subsequent history has its beginning, with Marx, in 1848. The soldier held aloft triumphantly on the shoulders of democratic demonstrators in the streets of Cairo already wears the mask of Bonaparte—not the greater but the lesser. For such turns of modern revolution, after 1848, do not vouchsafe progress, however dubiously, but rather wager its foolhardy chances, mocking them. As Horkheimer put it in the 1920s, after the ebbing of the failed world revolutionary wave of 1917–1919, “As long as it is not victorious, the revolution is no good.” So, the question becomes, what would be the conditions for true victory? What success can we aspire to win?
Marx attempted to capture this problem in his demand that the revolution “take its poetry from the future” rather than the past. But if this is more than the banal statement it appears at first glance to be, then it raises a rather obscure difficulty: In what way can present revolution draw upon the emancipatory energy of the future? And Marx’s dedicated follower Walter Benjamin’s caveat echoes closely behind, that faith in the future sapped the strength of the revolution, which, Benjamin wrote, needed to be “nourished with the image of enslaved ancestors rather than liberated grandchildren.” But we may need both imaginations—of emancipation and redemption—today. The question is, how so?
Marx and the history of Marxism still speak, even if their voices are drowned out in the clamoring din of the present. In history after 1848, Marx understood a world—the present—caught between past and future. Marx’s term for this historical world, “capital,” refers to the radical ambivalence of the present: its being already past, accumulating all of history and annexing the future, continually crowding the moment off stage; and its constant liquidation of that history, the incessant consumption of the moment in light of a future that never arrives. Past and future seem to recede infinitely beyond the horizons of a present that is as perpetual as it is empty and futile, trapped, static but constantly in motion. So we resign ourselves to the present’s eternal passing and recurrence, in which “everything changes” and yet “remains the same.”
Egyptians may be driven today by the specter of enslaved ancestry, provoked by the force of what Benjamin described as the “hatred” and spirit of “self-sacrifice” necessary to make a bid for history. But they are also certainly prompted, as Benjamin put it, to “activate the emergence brake” on the “locomotive” of history that would otherwise condemn posterity. They may be motivated not only to redeem past sacrifice but to prevent future loss that could yet be rendered unnecessary. It is not that Mubarak’s rule became too long or old, but that it threatened to become indefinite—the leering face of the son—that provoked the demand for its end, precisely at the risk of the present. “I don’t care if I die,” the sentiment widely expressed around Tahrir Square, is the signal moment to which Benjamin’s philosophy of history attends: to bring time to a halt. But such resolve expresses the will to live, although not merely to continue life unchanged.
Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal cast their votes in the last Egyptian election.
The problem we must face is that the imagination of emancipation—which defines the “Left” as such—is today divided between the desperation of wishing for the unprecedented new and desiring for return to the missed moments of opportunity, the potential embodied in past attempts, however failed: attempts at both the escape from and the redemption of history. 1789, 1848, 1871, 1917, 1979, 1989: they will not return—thank God! But we mourn them nonetheless. What was lost with them? Perhaps nothing. An emancipated future beckons; however, it eludes our grasp, outrunning us in the onrush of time. “Time waits for no one.” The future grants no refuge. There is no peace, not even of the graveyard. As Benjamin put it, “Even the dead are not safe.” But history remains. It may be unavoidable—as much as the future is. So the question is, what are we going to do with it? If we are trapped between past and future, perhaps we will not be crushed but can bring them together and galvanize their force even more powerfully in the present: we are pulverized all the more surely for trying to slip the vise. Past failures may dispirit, and bewildering, dystopic futures may threaten. Or, history and utopia can both be enlisted to the aid of the present. If only.
“What now?,” Egypt asks us. We do not ask it. This question should be posed, not as it is wont, as a hope or a fear, but as a task, however exclaimed or whispered. It is not to be answered with exuberance or resignation, but determination: the resolution that not only are we, inevitably, history, but the future will be. |P
. See Danny Postel, Kaveh Ehsani, Maziar Behrooz, and Chris Cutrone, “30 Years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran,” Platypus Review 20 (February 2010), available online at </2010/02/18/30-years-of-the-islamic-revolution-in-iran/>. See also my “Failure of the Islamic Revolution: The Nature of the Present Crisis in Iran,” Platypus Review 14 (August 2009), available online at </2009/08/24/the-failure-of-the-islamic-revolution/>.
. See Hamid Dabashi, “The False Anxiety of Influence,” Al Jazeera English, February 12, 2011. Available online at <http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201121215216318526.html>. Undeniably, as Dabashi writes, “From Tehran to Tunis to Cairo and beyond, our innate cosmopolitan cultures are being retrieved, our hidden worlds discovered, above and beyond any anxiety of influence.”
. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Originally published in 1852. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/>.
. See my “Marxist Hypothesis,” Platypus Review 29 (November 2010), available online at </2010/11/06/the-marxist-hypothesis-a-response-to-alain-badous-communist-hypothesis/>.
. Max Horkheimer, “A Discussion about Revolution,” in Dawn & Decline: Notes 1926–31 & 1950–69 (New York: Seabury, 1978), 39.
. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), 260.
. Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History’,” in Selected Writings vol. 4 1938–40 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 402.
. See Leszek Kolakowski, “The Concept of the Left,” in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove, 1969), 144–158.
Platypus Review 31 | January 2011
On Saturday, November 20, 2010, Platypus hosted a panel entitled “The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today” moderated by Chris Mansour at The New School for Social Research in New York. The panel consisted of Philosophy Professors J.M. Bernstein (The New School), Lydia Goehr (Columbia University), and Gregg Horowitz (Pratt Institute and Vanderbilt University), and Chris Cutrone (Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago), member of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Full video and audio is available online by clicking the above links.
J.M. (Jay) Bernstein: Some 25 years ago, I asked Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson why two revolutionary Marxists spend so much time talking about Jane Austen. They replied, “Because that’s where the bourgeoisie have pitched their tent.” I felt that answer was true, but also insufficient. If the bourgeoisie have a stake in high culture, as one of the ways society reproduces itself, then it makes sense for Marxists to critique the practices that constitute high culture. But, beyond the issue of social integration, what stake do Marxists have in art?
Chardin, The House of Cards (1735)
The Marxist story runs something like this: By a certain moment, everyday life in modernity had become formed by the reduction of use-values to exchange-values, the fungibility and exchangeability of all material artifacts, the rule of technology, the rule of bureaucracy, the domination of capital markets, and the disenchantment of nature. Now, if you were Adorno, you would say that all of this amounts to the hegemony of instrumental reason over all forms of human reasoning. You would further say that art, in becoming purposeless, could become a refuge for another form of world address. Artworks are not fungible, not replaceable by one another, and not quantifiable. Rather, artworks make a claim on us simply by virtue of their material complexion, their ordering of sensual materials.
Modern art—I see modernism as the extension of modern art—is the attempt to think through this moment. First and foremost, the autonomy of art from politics, from science, from all the functions it might have in the world, was a world-historical calamity. Modern art begins as a kind of disaster. To understand the meaning of art is to understand the nature of that disaster. Art was taken out of the world and deposited in this realm where it has to make sense of its practice wholly in terms of itself. The puzzle of modern art is this functional emptiness that is nonetheless a form of content. First for Friedrich von Schiller, then for Adorno, the autonomy of art became a sort of opportunity. I think you can read all of modern art, right through high modernism into certain versions of postmodernism, as having embarked on the same project.
Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601)
Yves-Alain Bois, along with all the writers who are part of what I will call “the aesthetic,” agree in one way or another that the primary gesture of modern art is the tearing away from materials, ideologies, and formalisms. At first—that is, with Dutch Realism in the 17th century, as with Caravaggio and, later, Chardin—this tearing away is emancipatory. It frees art from religious and related forms of reference, allowing representations to become immanent in gesture, rather than exemplifying some presumptively eternal idea. It is here that we see art becoming autonomous. In this respect, modern art was part of the secularizing of the world, but with this secularization came the idea that a wholly secular world could be infinitely valuable. Thus, with secularization came the project of sacralizing the everyday, but in a wholly secular way.
However, this project became increasingly harassed and defensive as modernity itself became an ideology, a series of forms of closure and domination. At that moment modernity ceased to be the emancipator, and became a problem. I would place that moment somewhere around 1848, with the failure of the bourgeois revolutions, though of course for some, notably Rousseau and Schiller, modernity had become a significant problem much earlier.
The notion of decoding, for Yves-Alain Bois, is broadly what Jacques Rancière means by the shift from the representational regime to the aesthetic regime. It is what Adorno means by the retreat of form in the face of materials that are in-formed, and what Gilles Deleuze means by the shift from representation to sensation. All of these I take to be riffs on the notion of purposefulness without purpose, which has this thought behind it: What painting provides is an account of our conviction in, and connection to, the world through visual experience. With modern art it became natural to find the authority of painting in its capacity to demonstrate how objects have a more than instrumental call on our capacity to live with them. That thought is fully there, for example, in Dutch Realism and in the tradition of the still life. By placing physical things in the visual environment and purifying them of any uplifting or instrumental features, by just letting them be there for our visual inspection, art returns us to this world. It allows us to be present to ourselves and for the world to be present to us.
Van Gogh, Chair (1888)
This is both enthralling and a disaster, because it means that everyday life has begun to disintegrate. I think of Van Gogh’s Chair (1888) as an eloquent moment connecting the dignity of the mere thing with the dignity of paint on canvas. Van Gogh’s moment is just that, a moment in which object and canvas speak to one another, each lending the other its authority. In the very moments of art’s so-called existential emptiness, of its not being about the world, there is the appearance of the world. This is art’s power.
Philistines hate art for that moment of emptiness. This moment, at one level, is irredeemable. But this moment of emptiness is art’s moment of fullness. Modern art imbricates and provides a refuge for a disenchanted but affirmative materialism in which objects could be meaningful in themselves, and not just in what they are useful for. These objects are sources of compelling experience amidst a world of sensory bombardment. They are a promise of happiness.
Though this promise is wildly different from Benjamin to Adorno to Rancière, these thinkers all avow some version of it. The promise is often taken to be insufficient as, after all, artworks are not life. What they promise is a different future, and in so doing artworks threaten to leave our present evacuated. This is the central difficulty of all modern art practices: If art has no other power than its mere presence, the attempt to provide it with political significance from the outside is always bound to fail. Art can only have what it offers, namely the salience of visual experience, by embracing the difficulty of that moment of protest by allowing for visual fullness.
Having said that, I need to return to where I began. This moment of protest in art only has cultural significance if the world cares about culture. I take the problem of the present not to be that art has gone awry, but that culture has gone awry. The bourgeoisie has discovered that capital can reproduce itself without social integration. Capital can get on very well with a dispersed, fragmented, wholly disarticulated cultural domain. The difficulty of modern art, in my judgement, is this: How can art address the problem of cultural weight when the bourgeoisie has disavowed it altogether?
Lydia Goehr: To Adorno critique is not the promise of happiness, nor the promise of freedom. It is always immanent critique, the turning of thought back upon itself. Asking the question, “What is critique?” might indicate that we have raised the very notion of critique to a concept. In that respect we fetishize the concept of critique, just as we have fetishized the concepts of “happiness,” “life,” “history,” and so on. Critical theory is about the immanent critique of our language, which is to say, the language of our thought and the language of our concepts. Language is our concepts, our concepts are our social logics. The way in which we think through thought is by producing a challenge to that which has authority over us, namely our concepts, like “personality,” “narrative,” and “subject.” The paradox, or the extreme difficulty, of doing immanent critique is that we have to use the tools that are the subject of our critique, so the critique always has to turn back on itself as an ongoing process. In that sense it has no external objects, although it is constantly mediated by the objects that are antithetical to our thinking—namely, things like works of art.
The real difficulty is that you can never break out of the thinking about thinking. You are constantly confronted by the things that have most authority over you, namely the concepts you are actually implying. I want to illustrate this by one example I like to use from the field of music. When we perform a musical work there’s this idea of Werktreue, of being true to the work. We know that the work has authority over our performance insofar as we are performing a work, but Adorno suggests that the way we are true to a work is precisely by being untrue to it. What he meant was that, insofar as we perform the work against its grain, by not just trying to replicate it, but by playing with it, we challenge the authority that the work-concept has over us. To be true to the work ends up being untrue to the concept of the work. Performance of music, then, becomes a way to redeem something about the musical work, if the musical work is resisting the concept under which it falls, namely the concept of “a musical work.”
This is the way that some of the so-called “social truth content” comes out of critique: It exposes the authority that concepts have over us. My suggestion is that one way to think about critique is in terms of looking for ways in our thinking to break the authority our thinking has over us. In that sense, there is nowhere to go outside of our own capacity to think.
Gregg Horowitz: I started really thinking about this panel around ten days ago. At the end of every day, it was almost tomorrow, which meant that the thoughts were already too late. I only found my way out of this conundrum through this extraordinary document that has been published in a recent issue of the New Left Review, of a discussion between Adorno and Horkheimer in 1956, which Gretel Adorno recorded.  They discussed what it would mean to rewrite the Communist Manifesto. And I thought—that’s a thought about today. It is visibly a thought about today. For such a project, you would think the main themes in connecting up the past, the present, and the future, would be something like this: The past was the revolution, the present is actually existing socialism, and the future depends on whether actually existing socialism points in a meaningful way to a socialism worth endorsing. But that’s not what they talk about. Rather, the past is the party, understood as an audience whom a writer interested in socialism might address. Marx, after all, begins the Communist Manifesto with an address to the party. The future, then, is a question of who would care about the writing. And the present, it turns out, is largely a matter of motorbikes. This is Europe in 1956, and youths are riding on motorbikes all over, making pestiferous noise. The question kept occuring to Horkheimer and Adorno, “Why does everybody love motorbikes?” Now this seems to be what it means to think about the present: thinking about the sound of motorbikes roaring in your ears as you think through the party, on the one hand, and whom to address, on the other.
If our future is anywhere, the thought usually goes, it will be in the present. No other future can matter other than the future that is here in the present. This self-conscious entrenchment in the present reminds us that critical theory, both as it was articulated but also, more importantly, as we have to receive it, was not simply a response to social regression, but a symptom of social regression. As Adorno said, philosophy carries on because its moment of realization was missed. For philosophy, as for critical theory, something has migrated into the realm of thought that is somehow not at home in the realm of thought. In this sense philosophy is struck by the same regression that critical theory takes itself to be reflecting on.
To put this point in a more general register, thinking is not self-determining, but is always shaped by the practices out of which it emerges and to which it instinctively tries to return. The more it is frustrated in this endeavor, the more insistent it is to return. The idea that thinking is not self-determining represents the decay of a certain image of philosophy. At that point one wants to assert that the whole project of spinning a system of thought out of concepts is now simply behind us. It is for this reason that we can say that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud remain the central background figures, because they sought to think through, not the future completion, but the radical incompleteness of philosophy. That philosophy, of all disciplines, would be radically incomplete implies that all practices are radically incomplete. No thought, no practice, can cordon itself off from the social world of which it is a part. Critique wants to get behind the veil, to get to the bottom of things from which we can start over in the full light of truth. But precisely this impulse, this thought, has to be treated as symptomatic—it ends up inhibiting thought.
We always start exactly where we are. This is neither to say that nothing of the past is left, nor that everything is so thoroughly mediated that the origin has disappeared. Rather, there is no starting over because nothing of the past ever goes away. The urge to start over attests to a learned distrust in our capacity to remember, to sustain experience. Memory is weak, and in response to this weakness the feeling arises that things are going away, and we want to get back to the things themselves. This weakness is crucial to reflect on. For it is not in the strength, but in this moment of memory’s weakness that the past rises up in the light of that future which we cannot determine in the present.
All understanding of the present has to start with the acknowledgement that we are not the future the past had in mind and that, for this reason, in some sense we stand in the way of the future the past had in mind. I do not know how to sustain this thought for long—it hurts. One task that we can pose to critique, insofar as we turn against ourselves in this moment of weakness, is to unlock another future—perhaps another modernity.
I am putting to critique the task of understanding the present, but to understand the present is to grasp it as if it has already passed away. In the dialogue between Adorno and Horkheimer, Adorno makes the comment that the horror of the present is that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one. To say that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one is to say that we cannot see this world as one that has passed away. We cannot see the present in the light of a future that the present does not intend. The standard line is that, for critical theory, to grasp the world as past has meant totalizing the world, or seeing it from the point of view of its completeness, with nothing falling outside the totality. But this is a limited conception of totalization. It is not merely that nothing falls outside, but that anything that does fall outside of the totality is a harbinger or an ambassador of a different world. This thought has been susceptible to a religious interpretation that I am going to do everything I can to avoid. Totalization in this respect is the precondition for opening up the cracks through which the light of the future can shine, right now, on the past and the present. Horkheimer says in his dialogue with Adorno, “I don’t believe things will turn out well.” And by “things” he means everything. But the thought that things might turn out well is indispensable. Nothing falls outside but the thought that something in the present does shine a light on the past.
With regard to art, I agree with Jay that modernist art has been taken up as a kind of self-overcoming of the present. Modernist art is not the future—Heaven forbid—but, rather, it is the light that shines from the future onto the past, the light whose uselessness is what the present does not yet know how to make use of. Adorno only articulated this thought retrospectively. That is, Adorno felt that the moment of modernist art’s capacity to be this light had already passed. Modernist art had been absorbed by the culture industry.
The contrast between the culture industry and modernist art is often articulated so radically that absorption is thought of as cancellation. But absorption is not the same as negation. Rather, I think of absorption the way I think of how, when you wash your dishes, the sponge absorbs the odor of what is being discarded. It is retained in trace form. The inevitability of the absorption is clear once the demand for a different future has been articulated. Once made, that demand is already on the way to becoming a commodity. What we need is not a demand for another future, but for another past. We need the paradoxical demand of a past that will steer us toward a future that we cannot anticipate. From this it follows that no art practice can ever be “subversive.” Art practices can be subverted, but no art practice can ever be subversive. Art is, and should be, too much in love with experience in the present to ever be subversive. For any art that is worth taking seriously, absorption in the culture industry seems inevitable.
However controversial this statement may be, I believe critical theory has before it now the task of demolishing the false overvaluation of art, in order to save us from the idea that art will save us. Perhaps critical theory is tasked with helping us to expect less of art. At one point in this exchange between Horkheimer and Adorno, Horkheimer says, “The more eager one is to break the taboo, the more harmless it is…. One must be very down to earth, measured, and considered so that the impression that something or other is not possible does not arise.”  What Horkheimer calls for here is a toning down of the rhetoric, because with every moment of melodrama in the effort to cancel the present moment, we render the weight of the present moment insignificant. It becomes the occasion for a spectacular display of pathos, which Horkheimer is trying to resist. Perhaps what we should drive toward, critically, is lower expectations for art, so that we have an opportunity to experience, not our distance from, but our proximity to, what is better—though this proximity is also a kind of distance, and what is better remains obscure.
Chris Cutrone: The scholar of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s work, Susan Buck-Morss provided a pithy formulation for defining the tasks of both art and criticism in the modern era: “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; our job as critics is to recognize this.”  Two aspects of Buck-Morss’s formulation of the work of artists need to be emphasized—“sustaining the critical moment” and “aesthetic experience.” The subjective experience of the aesthetic is what artists work on, and they do so in order to capture and sustain, or make available, subjectivity’s “critical moment.”
Adorno, in his 1932 essay “The Social Situation of Music,” analogized the position of modern art to that of critical social theory: The role of both was to provoke recognition. Adorno further warned that there could be no progress in art without that of society. His posthumously published but unfinished monograph Aesthetic Theory can be considered to have at its center, organizing the entire discussion of the modern experience of art, the theme of the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of art. In this, Adorno was elaborating in the aesthetic realm his thesis in Negative Dialectics, that philosophy and critical theory were both necessary and impossible, simultaneously.
What does it mean to practice art in an epoch of its impossibility and continuing necessity? A clue can be found in Adorno’s claim in Negative Dialectics that “philosophy lives on because its moment of realization was missed.”  Adorno’s treatment of philosophy and art is modeled on Marx’s treatment of capital. The potential for a dialectical historical transformation, in which capital would be simultaneously realized and abolished, became for Adorno the question of what it would mean to simultaneously realize and overcome the aspirations of modern philosophy and art. What would it mean to overcome the necessity that is expressed in modern practices of art? The Hegelian thought figure of art’s attaining to its own concept, while transcending it through a qualitative transformation, was mobilized by Adorno to grasp both the history of modern art and the desire to overcome its practices.
The Hegel scholar Robert Pippin, in his response to the journal Critical Inquiry’s 2003 forum on the current state and potential future for critical theory, described postmodernism as a repetition of the “Romantic recoil” from modernity.  Specifically, Pippin pointed to modern literary and artistic forms as derived from such Romanticism, of which postmodernism was the mere continuation, but in denial of its repetition. And Pippin pointed out that such repetition is in fact a “regression,” because consciousness of the historical condition of the problem had grown worse.
Hegel posed the question of the “end” of art. He meant by this not the cessation of practices of art, but rather the ability of those practices to make the activity of “Spirit” appear in a self-contained and self-sufficient manner. While religion had been superseded by art, art had come to be superseded by “philosophy.” By this, Hegel meant that art needed philosophical interpretation to be able to mean what it meant. Art needed criticism in order to be itself. This was a specifically modern condition for art, which Hegel addressed in a rather optimistic manner, seeing art’s need for criticism as a hallmark of enlightenment rather than a disability or liability.
But Adorno took this Hegelianism with respect to art and turned it from an explanation of art’s historical condition to a critique of those historical conditions. Like Marx who had turned Hegel on his head, or put Hegel back on his feet, Adorno inverted the significance of Hegel’s philosophical observation. Where Hegel had, for instance, regarded modern politics as the realm of reflection on the state, and by extension the self-objectification of civil society in the state, Marx regarded the modern distinction between state and civil society as expressing the pathological necessity of capital, in which the self-contradiction of capital was projected. Adorno similarly addressed the complementary necessities of art and criticism as expressing a self-contradiction in (aesthetic) subjectivity.
As Adorno put it, however, this did not mean that one should aspire to any “reconciliation” of art and philosophy, nor of theory and practice. Just as Marx critiqued the Left Hegelians for their Romantic desire to merely dissolve the distinction between state and civil society, so too did Marx and Adorno alike regard this separation as the hallmark of freedom. In a late essay, “Marginalia to Theory and Practice” (1969), Adorno attacked “Romantic socialism” for wanting to dissolve the distinction and critical relationship between theory and practice, maintaining that, by contrast with traditional society, the modern separation of theory and practice was “progressive” and emancipatory. So too was the separation in meaning between art, as non-conceptual knowledge, and criticism, informed by theoretical concepts.
Adorno, like Marx, looks forward, not to a return to a pre-modern or pre-capitalist unity of theory and practice, nor to a reconciliation of form and content, as had been the case in traditional culture, but to a qualitative transformation of the modern division of meaning in art and criticism, in which each would be simultaneously realized and abolished as presently practiced. The problem is that, rather than being raised to ever more acute levels, there was already in Adorno’s lifetime a retreat from the productive antagonism, the dialectic of theory and practice, or in this case art and criticism.
Adorno drew upon and sought to further elaborate the approach of his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, who argued in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer” that no art could be of correct “political tendency” unless it was also of good aesthetic quality.  Furthermore, Benjamin argued that every great work of art “either founds or dissolves a genre.”  As Benjamin put it, the work of art that fails to teach artists teaches no one. Artists do not “distribute” aesthetic experience, but produce it. New art re-works and transforms, retrospectively, the history of art. Benjamin argued that there could be no progress in society without that of art, for necessarily involved in both is the transformation of subjectivity.
The history of modern art, as Benjamin and Adorno recognized, presents a diverse multiplicity of practices, none of which has been able to come to full fruition. Benjamin described this poignantly in his Arcades Project as “living in hell.”  Benjamin and Adorno’s thought-figure for such historical consciousness of modern art comes from Trotsky, who pointed out, in a June 1938 letter to the editors of the American journal Partisan Review, that the modern capitalist epoch displayed the following phenomenon in its historical course:
[N]ew tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the [first] few decades [of the 20th century]—cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism—follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.
This was because, as Trotsky put it,
The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch…. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base.
Trotsky said of art that, “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.”  And not merely rebellion against existing conventions of art, but against the conditions of life in capitalism.
But what, then, would be a “liberating art?” Adorno addresses this in terms of the aspiration for “artistic autonomy,” or the self-justification of aesthetic experience. This is related to how Kant described the experience of the beautiful, in nature or art, as the sympathetic resonance the subject experiences of an object, which thus appears to embody “purposiveness without purpose,” or a telos—an end-in-itself. Except, for Adorno, this empathy between subject and object in Kant’s account of aesthetic experience is not affirmative, but critical. In Adorno’s account of the modern experience of art, the subject recognizes not the power of experiential capacities and the transformative freedom of the human faculties, but rather their constraint and unfreedom, their self-contradictory and self-undermining powers. The subject experiences not its freedom in self-transformation, but rather the need for transformation in freedom. Adorno emphasized that the autonomy of art, as of the subject, remains under capitalism an aspiration rather than an achieved state. Works of art embody the striving for autonomy that is denied the subject of the modern society of capital, and thus artworks also embody failure. Hence, the history of art furnishes a rich inventory of failed attempts. This is why this history remains unsettled and constantly returns. Modern works of art are necessarily failures, but are nonetheless valuable as embodiments of possibility, of unfulfilled potential.
The constrained possibilities embodied in modern art are, according to Benjamin’s formulation, approached by the subject with a combination of “desire and fear.” Modern artworks embody not only human but “inhuman” potentials—that is, the possibilities for the qualitative transformation of humanity, which we regard with desire and fear. They thus have simultaneously utopian and dystopian aspects. Modern artworks are as ambivalent as the historical conditions they refract in themselves, “prismatically.” But it is in such ambivalence that art instantiates freedom. It is the task of theory, or critique, to register the non-conceptual while attempting to bring it within the range of concepts. As Adorno put it, the aspiration of modern art is to “produce something without knowing what it is.”  In so doing, art acts not only on the future, but also on history.
Modern artworks find inspiration in art history. This is the potentially emancipatory character of repetition. Artists are motivated by art history to re-attain lost moments by achieving them again, but differently. Artists produce new works that, in their newness, unlock the potentials of past art, allowing us to re-experience history. But this work on history is not without its dangers. As Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe” from the ambivalent “progress” of history, because this history unfolds in capital as a “mounting catastrophe.”  The history of modern art, like that of capital more generally, furnishes a compendium of ruins. The simultaneously progressive and regressive dynamics of history find their purchase in this: that historical forms of experience and consciousness inform present practices, for better or worse. It is the work of critique to attempt to better inform, through greater consciousness, the inevitable repetition in the continuing practices of art, and thus attempt to overcome the worst effects of the regression involved in such practices.
In the Hegelian sense adopted by both Marx and Adorno, the greater consciousness of freedom is the only available path for freedom’s possible realization. Consciousness is tasked to recognize the potential that is its own condition of possibility. This is why Adorno and Benjamin addressed works of art as forms of consciousness. Art can be ideological or it can enlighten, provoking consciousness to push itself further.
The dialectic of art and criticism is necessary for the vitality of art. The self-abnegation of criticism, on the other hand—the disenchantment of consciousness that characterized “postmodernism”—has clearly demonstrated the barrenness of such abdication of responsibility on the part of critics and theorists more so than artists, who were thus left at the mercy of poor, unclarified concepts. The challenge posed by modern critical-theoretical approaches to art has been warded off rather than engaged and pushed further.
Artists’ work continues to demand critical recognition, whether the critics recognize this or not. What such critical recognition of the work of history taken up by art would mean is what Marxist aesthetic theorists like Adorno and Benjamin pursued, and from whose efforts we can and indeed must learn. For a new condition of art has not been attained, but only an old set of conditions repeated, without their repetition being properly recognized. The relation between art and social modernity, or capital, continues to task both art and theory. Art is not merely conditioned by, but is itself an instance of the modern society of capital. But, like society, for art to progress, theory must do its work.
LG: Chris, you seemed to read Adorno’s distinction between regression and progression as if progress is simply the bit we want, but it seems to me that Adorno’s point was that the progressive and the regressive are two sides of the same coin, both of which lead to catastrophe.
CC: In Benjamin and Adorno’s philosophy of history, which they are deriving from Marx, capital is simultaneously progressive and regressive. Capital progresses through a kind of recursive movement, and so they understand overcoming capital as also completing capital. Benjamin and Adorno take up the concept of Aufhebung—the sublation, the realization through negation, or the self-overcoming—to articulate this “completion.” Art, far from being outside capital, is part and parcel of capital’s historical movement. Art moves historically through a “progress,” if you will, of progress and regress—like capital. Of course, this raises the question of emancipation. Colloquially, progress is usually thought of in these terms: “Are we making progress? Is progress progress? Or, is it actually progress in domination, in which case it is not progress?” I feel that an unfamiliar aspect of Benjamin and Adorno’s thought is an idea they take from Marx, which complicates the relationship between progress and regress: Capital moves through a process of the discontents capital itself produces. The opposition to capital that these discontents engender form the basis for the reconstitution of capital in a new form, though there are important differences in the form these discontents take. You can have a system of discontents that advances capital in one way, or in a completely different way.
To take perhaps the most dramatic example, I’m sure we are familiar with the anti-totalitarian idea that communism and fascism are simply two sides of the same coin. In a way, for Benjamin and Adorno, fascism was the necessary doppelgänger of communism, in that both communism and fascism had an ambivalent relationship to the progress and regress of capital. Nevertheless, one could distinguish between communism and fascism, as Benjamin and Adorno themselves did. One could distinguish between how the contradiction of capital is being pushed through communism versus the way it was being pushed, in a more obscure manner, through fascism. One salient point here would be Wilhelm Reich’s argument, in “Ideology as a Material Force” (1933), that Marxists had failed to recognize the progressive character of fascism, which of course did not mean that Reich found fascism “progressive.” Rather, Reich meant that fascists were more in tune with the ambivalent progress and regress of capital than the Marxists were. The Marxists, in a sense, were helpless in the face of the progress of capital—therefore, the ambivalent progress of capital took the form of fascism rather than communism in Germany.
GH: Of course, after 1848, modernity becomes not the solution, but the problem. However, I resist a certain version of the argument which posits that, since modernity is the problem, there must be something which is not modernity that provides, if not the solution, at least the answer. The full secularization of history entails that there is nothing outside history. So I think modernity has to be the answer to the problem it raises. In my remarks I held up what I am calling “another modernity,” which I acknowledge to be only a sort of marker. It is possible we may have to make out this other modernity by figuring out, again, the difference between communism and fascism, though I find this possibility a bit dreadful. However, this would mean withdrawing from the language of disaster and catastrophe—a withdrawal I would justify on the basis of Adorno’s resistance to pessimism. Pessimism is the conviction that things will inevitably get worse. But, for Adorno, it is the dark gift of history that this is false. The only gift of having survived 1945 is the dead certainty that things cannot get any worse. From this anti-pessimistic thought, I think there must emerge something like an anti-catastrophic line of thinking.
JB: You would have to think past Adorno to do that, though. I keep pointing back to early modern art, and to what I have called the “secular sacralization” of the everyday. I do this because one of the things Adorno thematized, but did not see in the art he loved, was the burden of giving everyday life the intensity and fullness of satisfactions once found in religious forms of life. Adorno and Benjamin were overly impressed by the sacred, or the messianic, and this was their worst temptation. If they were alive now, I fear they would be doing political theology, which is the worst thing to happen in political thought since Carl Schmitt. As I see it, Adorno’s anti-representationalism ultimately led him to think of what was utopian in distorted ways.
Bartolomeo Manfredi, Cupid Chastised (1613)
CC: Your critique of Benjamin and Adorno points to the difference between understanding modernity as post-Renaissance, versus understanding modernity as post-1848. Art after 1848 is about disenchantment, secularization, and sacralization of the everyday, but in a fundamentally different way than the art from the Renaissance period through the Romantic period, up until the time of Hegel. This difference hinges on the difference between Kant and Hegel, on the one hand, and Marx, on the other, which should not be understood simply as a difference in thinking. Rather, it is a matter of the real historical difference between the pre-1848 and post-1848 world, which makes it necessary to pose quite differently the question of Enlightenment, disenchantment, desacralization, and resacralization.
Jay, I think you have posed art as occupying a space outside capital, outside modernity, representing a romantic response to the instrumentalization of the world. I believe there were elements of this in Lydia’s remarks as well. In contrast, I think Adorno and Benjamin challenge us to see how art also becomes instrumental reason, in the sense that art is an instrument of capital. It is not as though there is reason that is used instrumentally, and reason that is not used instrumentally. Rather, reason becomes instrumentalized by capital so that the Enlightenment becomes a more ambiguous phenomenon after 1848. There is a reversal of means and ends after 1848 such that one can no longer understand capital as the advance of Enlightenment, but can only see the Enlightenment as the means of capital. Rather than “non-conceptual knowledge,” Adorno and Benjamin see art as part of the reason of capital, but also, therefore, as bearing the ambivalence of capital and potentially making that ambivalence recognizable.
A similar difficulty, which came up in Gregg’s presentation, is getting beyond an understanding of emancipation in terms of cracks or fragments in society. This conception of emancipation traces back to a kind of Romantic Counter-Enlightenment, from which Marx and, thus, Benjamin and Adorno, would have to be distinguished. I take great issue with the claim that Adorno and Benjamin were enchanted by the sacred. Like Hegel, they were tasked with understanding continuity and change in the desacralization of the world. Hegel had to account for the ways that religious metaphysics remain with us in spite of, and even through, the disenchantment of the world. Kant and Hegel understood this in the sense that religion was a prior form of reason, but I do not think they argue for a Romantic re-enchantment of the sacred against the disenchanted world. Marx, Benjamin, and Adorno certainly do not.
LG: This treats Adorno and Benjamin as if they are producing a theory of society or a theory of art in a traditional sense—that is, taking a step back, coming up with a theory, and then imposing it upon society, art, or capitalism. What Adorno and Benjamin share in their writing is precisely this turning back on themselves to ask how, actually, does one write about this. They always turn back on the structures of thought and writing.
CC: I don’t think I implied that Adorno and Benjamin felt they could step outside their object of critique. They consider their own thinking symptomatic of capital, which means that they understand their own opposition to capital as itself being a symptom of capital. In this sense the only difference they could establish between their own thinking and others’ was the measure of self-clarification and self-awareness they achieved, which is an issue of the philosophy of history. There is a difficulty in understanding what opposition to capitalism means. The usual approach is to look at how capital breaks down—to look for apparent cracks, which provide the grounds for “resistance.” This is the typical language of the Left in the late 20th century, down to the present. In contrast, Benjamin and Adorno follow from Marx in recognizing that it is not the case that capital moves by a smooth logic, interrupted by moments of collapse representing something outside of capital. Rather, part of what makes capital an “alienated” logic is that it is no logic at all; it reproduces itself not in spite of, but precisely through breakdown, resistance, discontents, and a host of contingent or “spontaneous” factors.
There is an undigested Romantic legacy, in the wake of 1789, of positioning oneself, along with all humanity, under the treads of history. This tends toward a one-sided understanding of capital as instrumental reason, whereas in fact Adorno and Benjamin, like Marx and Hegel, are actually trying to overcome a Romantic rejection of modernity. Trying not to fall on one side of that Romantic rejection is hard without seeming to speak from some kind of objective view outside of the phenomenon, but I think that is primarily an issue of style and presentation.
Q & A
In your comments, Gregg, you said that returning to the distinction between fascism and communism seemed dreadful. But what hope for the redemptive power of art, or even of thought itself, exists outside of the hope for socialism, a movement that the revolutionary Marxist tradition understood as the attempt, for the first time, to put social relations under the dominion of social consciousness?
GH: My expression of despair was only at the prospect of having to frame the problem that way. The articulation of socialism necessarily involves the retrieval of the emancipatory moment of “actually existing socialism.” But what must we return to in order to retrieve this emancipatory moment? I don’t have an answer to that, but if there is an answer afoot, we need to hear it. Several times in the last month I have heard the following remarkable thought—and when I say remarkable I simply mean I want to know more—that Khrushchev represented an actual breakthrough, from which we might retrieve a different practice of communism. That is the kind of thought that I do not know how to make use of, even in trying to think about what you and I share, which is a view of socialism as the horizon of emancipatory political practice.
Jay, in your remarks you have described our culture as being problematic in its relation to art, which I took to mean that we have a “wrong culture.” What do you mean by this?
JB: “Wrong culture” would be optimistic. I am interested in how the culture question has lapsed. It was standard even in the 1960s to articulate how system integration, the way in which various institutions make capital reproduction possible, required social integration, whereby people would have harmonious beliefs, values, and ideals. At a certain moment, capital recognized that this was not strictly necessity, and that people did not actually need a whole lot of ideological forming. My claim is that an image of radical culture was parasitic on the idea that there was a dominant culture. There is no longer a coherent dominant culture against which to mount a critique that could push forward the formation of an alternative political will. This is what requires us to rethink the notion of critique.
CC: I think the world appears to lack a common culture holding the system together because the common culture that exists is poorly recognized. Counterintuitively, I think there are a great deal of assumptions shared by Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, postmodern bohemians, and so on, but these common assumptions go unrecognized and unremarked. These assumptions have become ideology in a classic sense. The task would be provoking recognition of this commonality in order to make legible the unity of the opposites in our world, rather than thinking that we live in some sort of cultural plurality that resists any attempt to understand it as a totality. That this appears to be the case is simply an artifact of our failure to understand it. One could just as well make a plausible argument, from the standpoint of the 19th century, that the world was being held together without a hegemonic culture in 1830, 1848, or 1870. The task would be to find the hegemonic culture that is there, but which is completely naturalized.
LG: But are we talking here about culture with a small C, or Kultur with a capital K?
GH: I had a version of that question in mind. In a review of the Anselm Kiefer art show that appeared recently in the New York Times, Roberta Smith hauled out of the dustbin of history a critical concept you almost never see anymore: She referred to Kiefer as a “middlebrow painter.”  The concept seemed archaic to me. Even though it was clearly meant as a slander, “middlebrow” had none of the negative charge it used to have. Suddenly there was, in the concept of middlebrow, a whiff of democracy. It sounded optimistic, as though it is something to aspire to. So, I don’t mean to imply by this that Anselm Kiefer is a great painter or anything, but reading this review of his work suggested to me that, whatever might come to count as a common culture, it is definitely not going to be culture with a capital K—it is not going to be a matter of cultivation, in that sense.
JB: With respect to what I am calling the breakdown or the loss of culture, I am thinking about what goes on, for instance, in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, which captures how ideality or hopefulness is no longer available as something that could be transformative. It is not simply “ideology,” or a series of false beliefs, that make a culture, even with a small C. There has to be a notion of ideality. That notion, which appeared in Germany under the phrase “critique of pure cynicism,” really has its American moment now, and it is that difficulty I was pointing to.
LG: From that, it follows that the real confrontation now would not be between critical theory and capital, directly, but between critical theory and democracy. This is really where the issue is for politics.
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (1913)
CC: The word I want to introduce into the discussion is “kitsch.” Maybe we now have kitsch culture and kitsch politics. There are interesting parallels between Clement Greenberg and Benjamin and Adorno. It is interesting that Greenberg foregrounds the question of democracy by treating avant-garde and kitsch as symptoms of democracy. But in this way Greenberg also raises the question of the relationship between capital and democracy. The culture industry was a concept that Adorno meant to embrace high art as well. Schoenberg and Stravinsky were also a part of the culture industry. In that respect I think one has to see how avant-garde and kitsch practices subsist on a common ground and how Schoenberg and Stravinsky are two sides of the same coin. Adorno certainly was not just a partisan for Schoenberg over Stravinsky, which is how Adorno is usually read.
A few of you tonight have touched upon the concept that an artwork is not successful unless critique is doing its job. But what is critique’s job description, so to speak, in relation to art today? And what should it be?
Beethoven, Symphony 5 (1804–08), I. Allegro con brio
LG: It is not that art will not function unless critique does its job, but that critique is this ongoing process of rethinking what is being asserted. One of the reasons Adorno admired Schoenberg was that he thought you could not reduce Schoenberg to whistling, and this meant that in some way Schoenberg was not assimilable by the culture—in its form it would always rub up against culture. If you understood what it was that made Schoenberg so difficult and so unassimilable, so unwhistleable, you could perhaps understand again what was amazing about a Beethoven symphony or even, in my view, a Puccini opera like La Bohème. This is where I think even Adorno got himself wrong, in that he made too many blanket statements about the kind of music that was subsumable by this society. The real resistant potential is to try and listen to Puccini as a great composer, not to listen to Puccini as a composer under the conditions of commodification.
Puccini, La bohème (1896), O soave fanciulla
CC: I don’t think Schoenberg was unassimilable—if anything, his work was assimilated. But I also do not think that Adorno thought Schoenberg was unassimilable, and so I don’t think unassimilability is what Adorno valued in Schoenberg. Adorno talks about Schoenberg and the culture industry in terms of “the inevitable” versus “the incomprehensible,” as a sort of antinomy within a historical moment of the culture industry. Inevitability and incomprehensibility are, to Adorno, two aspects of the same thing. The operation of capital is not comprehensible by individuals but it is clearly socially assimilable. In this sense, capital is inevitable and incomprehensible. What Adorno valued about Schoenberg was that, in Schoenberg, you cannot escape that simultaneous inevitability and incomprehensibility as easily as you can escape it by putting on Puccini, for instance, or Stravinsky, who gives you the comprehensible sublime.
In your comments, Jay, you have proposed the everyday as a different route to go besides the messianic or sacred. But how is the everyday supposed to get beyond all the problems you have raised with shareability, for instance? Doesn’t everydayness run into all the same problems we run into with culture?
Schoenberg, Erwartung/Expectation (1909)
JB: I think the everyday has always been the question for modern art. Whatever we might mean by modernity, it has to be the thought of a wholly secular form of life. What we don’t know is what shareability is going to look like. That is something art practices will need to invent, in the sense of figuring out, as they go along, variations on this idea of immanent sharebility, which comes out of the practice itself and yet remains a practice. What makes art particular, at least for me, is that it bears this burden.
I think the theme of the failure of postmodernism to advance historical consciousness has not been fully fleshed out. What is it about how postmodernism saw art that has left us with less access to historical self-awareness or consciousness?
CC: There have been assumed but, unfortunately, naturalized and invisible categories we have used in discussing art and critique, and I think the invisibility of these categories points to problems of historical consciousness. In a sense, we necessarily read figures like Adorno or Benjamin—or, as I pointed out before, Marx—in terms of categories that they themselves wanted to transcend. One thinks of how the classic postmodernist art critics, the October group, separated the avant-garde from modernism. I do not think critics like Benjamin and Adorno, or Clement Greenberg for that matter, would have accepted the opposition of the avant-garde to modernism in the way that postmodern critics superimpose on the history of modern art. Similarly, the relationship between Romanticism and modernism has been a troubled one throughout our discussion. To the degree there has been a critique of Adorno and Benjamin, the critique was of a residual Romanticism they purportedly exhibit. That they appear to retain a Romantic understanding of modernity is itself a signal of how much influence postmodernism, and particularly postmodern art criticism, has exerted on how we think about modernism. Thus, for instance, modernist art becomes a kind of secular religion. A return to these figures as points of reference—especially Adorno, as someone who anticipated but preceded emphatic postmodernism in art criticism—is salient today precisely to the extent it allows us to estrange ourselves from these kinds of rhetorics. We should resist the notion of Adorno and Benjamin as mandarin intellectuals and holdover Romantics, and we should resist a Romantic conception of modernism, whether we use that term positively or negatively. I say this in hopes of at least pointing to how our discussion bears the damage that has been done by the way we talk about art after postmodernism. Our discussion bears the traces of an abdication of criticism over at least the last 40 years, since Adorno’s time. In all the ways we have talked about the modern work of art—in terms of whether modernism is finished or unfinished, how it subsists, how and why it is still necessary, and so on—I think we have been forced to concede something. |P
Transcribed by Andony Melathopoulos
. Susan Buck-Morss, reply to “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” October 77 (Summer, 1996), 29.
. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 3.
. Robert Pippin, “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing,” Critical Inquiry 30:2. Available online at <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v30/30n2.Pippin.html>.
. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Reflections (New York: Schocken, 1986), 220–238.
. Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 201.
. Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century: Exposé of 1939,” The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1999), 14–26.
. Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm>.
. Theodor Adorno, “Vers une musique informelle,” Quasi una Fantasia (New York: Verso, 1998), 322.
. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, 253–264.
. Roberta Smith, “A Spectacle with a Message,” The New York Times, November 18, 2010. Available online at <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/arts/design/19kiefer.html>.
Posted below are two videos from the day-long symposium, What is Critique?, held on November 20th, 2010, at Parsons, the New School for Design, New York. The first video is from the afternoon panel,Â The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices. This panel consisted of Tom Butter, Simone Douglas, and James Elkins; it was moderated by Laurie Rojas. The second video is documentation of the evening panel, The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today. The panel consisted of J.M. Bernstein, Chris Cutrone, Lydia Goehr, and Gregg Horowitz; it was moderated by Chris Mansour. Both videos can also be found at http://streamingculture.parsons.edu/the-art-critique-its-history-theories-and-practices/.
The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices
The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today
What is Critique? was a day-long symposium that consisted of two panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students and investigated the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day focused on the nature and function of art critiques as a form of criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day was a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and reception. More information can be found at http://newyork.platypus1917.org/critique/.
Platypus Review 29 | November 2010
ALAIN BADIOU'S RECENT BOOK (2010) is titled with the phrase promoted by his and Slavoj Žižek’s work for the last few years, “the communist hypothesis.” This is also the title of Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review on the historical significance of the 2007 election of Nicolas Sarkozy to the French Presidency. There, Badiou explains his approach to communism as follows:
What is the communist hypothesis? In its generic sense, given in its canonic Manifesto, “communist” means, first, that the logic of class—the fundamental subordination of labour to a dominant class, the arrangement that has persisted since Antiquity—is not inevitable; it can be overcome. The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away.
Badiou goes on to state that,
As a pure Idea of equality, the communist hypothesis has no doubt existed since the beginnings of the state. As soon as mass action opposes state coercion in the name of egalitarian justice, rudiments or fragments of the hypothesis start to appear. Popular revolts—the slaves led by Spartacus, the peasants led by Müntzer—might be identified as practical examples of this “communist invariant.” With the French Revolution, the communist hypothesis then inaugurates the epoch of political modernity.
Badiou thus establishes “communism” as the perennial counter-current to civilization throughout its history.
Badiou divides what he calls the modern history of the “communist hypothesis” into two broad periods, or “sequences,” from 1792–1871 and from 1917–76. The first, from Year One of the revolutionary French Republic through the defeat of the Paris Commune, Badiou describes as the “setting in place of the communist hypothesis.” The second, from the October 1917 Revolution in Russia to Mao’s death and the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, Badiou calls the sequence of “preliminary attempts at… [the] realization [of the communist hypothesis].”
The two periods remaining in this historical trajectory sketched by Badiou, 1871–1917 and 1976 to the present, Badiou describes as “intervals” in which “the communist hypothesis was declared to be untenable,” “with the adversary in the ascendant.”
But the period from 1871–1917 saw the massive growth and development of Marxism (alongside and indeed bound up with the last great flowering of bourgeois society and culture in the Belle Époque), and culminated in the crisis of war and revolution, which Badiou’s account avoids—or, more precisely, evades. That is, this period raises the question of Marxism as such, and its significance in history.
The Marxist hypothesis
A very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the specifically modern society of capital, the different historical phases of capital as characterized by Marx’s and other Marxists’ accounts, beginning in the mid-19th century. But, as Nietzsche scholar Peter Preuss put it, “the 19th century had discovered history and all subsequent inquiry and education bore the stamp of this discovery. This was not simply the discovery of a set of facts about the past but the discovery of the historicity of man.”
Marx's grave, Highgate Cemetery, London.
Marx is the central figure in developing the critical recognition of history as an invention of the 19th century. (The other names associated with this consciousness of history are Hegel and Nietzsche; relating these three thinkers is a deep problem, long pondered by Marxists.)
The Marxist hypothesis is based on Marx’s theoretical and political engagement with the problem he articulated throughout his life, from the Communist Manifesto to Capital, and includes the political thought and action inspired by and seeking to follow and develop upon Marx. This problem is the historical specificity of capital—and hence of history itself. For the Marxist hypothesis is that capital is the source of what Kant called “universal history.”
By contrast with Badiou’s history of the “communist hypothesis,” a history of the “Marxist hypothesis” will be complicated, layered, not quite linear, and non-evental. It is divided into the different periods in the history of Marxism: from 1848–95, the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto to Engels’s death, to 1914–19, the crisis of Marxism in war and revolution; and from 1923–40, post-Bolshevik Marxism, to 1968–89, the “New Left” and the collapse of “Communism.” These are periods in the history of Marxism, which are conceived as the history of what Marx called “capital.” This is the history of capital and its potential overcoming, as expressed in the history of Marxism.
Such history is motivated by the need for what Karl Korsch called, in his 1923 essay “Marxism and Philosophy,” the historical-materialist analysis and critique of Marxism itself, or a Marxist history and theory of Marxism. This would be a history of the emergence, crisis, and decline of Marxism as expressing the possibility of getting beyond capital, as Marx and the best Marxists understood this. Today, as opposed to Korsch’s time in 1923, this would include consideration of the possibility that the potential Marxism expressed missed its chance, and has carried on only in a degenerate, spectral way, until passing effectively into history. That such an account is possible at all is what motivates the fundamental “hypothesis” of Marxism, or the Marxist hypothesis—the hypothesis that Marxism, as a perspective and politics, could be the vital nerve center of modern history. For Marxism is the grandest of all Grand Narratives of history, with reason. Today, the question is what was Marxism?
For most Marxists in the 20th century (and hence also for Badiou), the period of Marxism from 1871–1917, which saw the foundation and growth of the parties of the Second International, was the era of “revisionism,” in which Marxist revolutionary politics was swamped by reformism. But this was also the period of the struggle against the reformist revision of Marxism by Marx and Engels’s epigones, such as Bebel, Bernstein, Kautsky, and Plekhanov. This struggle against reformism was conducted by the students of these very same disciples of Marx, and involved a complex change, itself an important historical transition, in which the students were disappointed by and came to surpass their teachers.
The greatest achievement of the struggle against reformism in the Second International was the Bolshevik leadership of the October Revolution, followed by the (however abortive) revolutions in Germany, Hungary and Italy, and the establishment of the Third “Communist” International. The world crisis of war and revolution 1914–19 should be regarded properly as the Götterdämmerung of Marxism, which raised the crisis of capital to the realm of politics, in a way not seen before or since. The crisis of Marxism 1914–19 was a civil war among Marxists. On one side, the younger generation of radicals that had risen in and ultimately split the Second International and established the Third, most prominently Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, led the greatest attempt to change the world in history. They regarded their division in Marxism as expressing the necessity of human emancipation. That their attempt must be judged today a failure does not alter its profound—and profoundly enigmatic—character.
The stakes of the Revolution attempted by the Second International radicals, inspired by Marx, cannot be overestimated. For Marx and his followers, the epoch of capital was both the culmination of history and marked the potential end of pre-history and the true beginning of human history, in communism. As Walter Benjamin put it, “humanity is preparing to outlive culture, if need be”—that is, to survive civilization, as it has been lived for an eon.
The specter of Marx
While Marx and Engels had written of the “specter” of communism, today it is the memory of Marx that haunts the world. This difference is important to register: Marx and Engels could count on a political movement—communism—that they sought to clarify and raise to self-consciousness of its historical significance. Today, by contrast, we need to remember not the historical political movement so much as the form of critical consciousness given expression in Marxism. This must be traced back to the thought and political action of Marx himself.
If Marx is mistaken for an affirmer and promulgator of “communism” as opposed to what he actually was, its most incisive critic (from within), we risk forgetting the most important if fragile achievement of history: the consciousness of potential in capital. As Marx wrote early on, in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge that called for the “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction and… only a particular manifestation of the humanistic principle and is infected by its opposite, private property.”
The potential for emancipated humanity expressed in communism that Marx recognized in the modern history of capital is not assimilable without remainder to pre- or non-Marxian socialism. Marx’s thought and politics are not continuous with the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome or the teachings of the Apostles—or with the radical egalitarianism of the Protestants or the Jacobins. As Marx put it, “Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.” Communism, as a form of discontent in capital, thus demanded critical clarification of its own meaning, and not one-sided endorsement. For Marx thought that communism was a means and not an end in itself.
So what does it mean that, today, we continue, politically, to have “communism”—in Badiou’s sense of demands for “radical democratic equality”—but not “Marxism?” Badiou’s periodization of the history of modern communism in the history of civilization dissolves Marxism into one of its constituent parts—or at least submerges it in this history. But Marx sought, in his own thought and politics, to comprehend and transcend the specifically modern phenomenon of communism, that is, the modern social-democratic workers’ movement emerging in the 19th century, as a constituent of capital, as a historically specific form of humanity. So, what would it mean, today, to view the history of the modern society of capital through the figure of Marx? The possibility of such a project is the Marxist hypothesis.
It goes a long way in making sense of the most important historical figures of communism after Marx, such as Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin, Lukács, Stalin, and Mao, among others, to evaluate them as followers of Marx. It is significant that they themselves sought to justify their own political thought and action in such terms—and were regarded for this by their political opponents as sectarian dogmatists, disciples of Marxism as a religion. But how did they think that they were following Marx? What are we to make of the most significant and profound political movement of the last two centuries, calling itself “Marxist,” and led by people who, in debate, never ceased to quote Marx at each other? What has been puzzled over in such disputes, and what were—and are still, potentially—the political consequences of such disagreement over the meaning of Marx?
Certainly, Marxism has been disparaged as a religion, and Marx as a prophet. (For instance, Leszek Kolakowski dismissed Marxism as the “farcical aspect of human bondage.”) But what of Marx as a philosopher? If Marx has been widely discredited as a political thinker, nevertheless, in 2005, for instance, a survey of BBC listeners polled Marx as the “greatest philosopher of all time,” well ahead of Socrates, Kant, Nietzsche, and others. On the face of it, this does not seem like a particularly plausible judgment of Marx, either in terms of his own thinking and practice or of “philosophy” as a discipline, unless Marx’s philosophy is understood as indicating how we have not yet overcome the problems he identified in modern society. As far as the reputation of Marx as a thinker is concerned, we seem to have been left with “Marxism” but without Marx’s own “communist” politics: “Marxism” has survived as an “analysis,” but without clear practical importance; “communism” has survived as an ethic without effective politics. How might we make sense of this?
The Marxist hypothesis is that the relation between Marx and “communism” needs to be posed again, but in decidedly non-traditional ways, casting the history of Marxism in a critical light. For it is not that communism found a respected comrade in Marx—perhaps more (or less) estimable than others—but that Marx’s thought and political action form an irreducibly singular model that can yet task us, and to which we must still aspire. Hence, the continued potential purchase of “Marx-ism.” The question is not, as Badiou would have it, what is the future of communism, but of Marx.
To address any potential future of Marxism, it is necessary to revisit Marx’s own Marxism and its implications.
Marx in 1848
Marx pointed out about the revolution in Germany, in which he immediately involved himself after writing the Manifesto, that the capitalists were more afraid of the workers asserting their bourgeois rights than they were of the Prussian state taking away theirs. This was not because of a conflicting class interest between the capitalists and Junkers (Prussian landed aristocracy), but rather because of the emerging authoritarianism in post-Industrial Revolution capital, at a global scale. For such authoritarianism was also characteristic of the revolution of 1848 in France, in which Napoleon’s nephew Louis Bonaparte’s rule, as the first elected President of the Second Republic (1848–52), and then, after his coup d’etat, as Emperor of the Second Empire (1852–70), could not be characterized as expressing the interest of some non-bourgeois class (the “peasants,” whom Marx insisted on calling, pointedly, “petit bourgeois”), but rather of all the classes of bourgeois society, including the “lumpenproletariat,” in crisis by the mid-19th century. As Marx put it mordantly, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), bourgeois fanatics for order were shot down on their balconies in the name of defense of the social order. The late 19th century rule of Napoleon III and Bismarck—and Disraeli—mirrored each other. Marx analyzed the authoritarianism of post-1848 society, in which the state seems to rise over civil life, as a situation in which the bourgeoisie were no longer and the proletariat not yet able to master capital. This was the crisis of bourgeois society Marx recognized. Badiou’s account, on the other hand, is rather a history of ruling class power opposed by the resistance of the oppressed. As early as 1848 Marx was not a theorist of classes but capital, of which modern socio-political classes were “phantasmagorical” projections. Marx sought to situate, not capital in the history of class struggle, but history in capital, to which social struggles and their history were subordinate.
Capitalism, communism, and the “state of nature”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau had raised a hypothetical “state of nature” in order to throw contemporary society into critical relief. In so doing, Rousseau sought to bring society closer to a “state of nature.” Liberal, bourgeois society was a model and an aspiration for Rousseau. For Rousseau, it was human “nature” to be free.* Humans achieved a higher “civil liberty” of “moral freedom” in society than they could enjoy as animals, with mere “physical” freedom in nature. Indeed, as animals, humans are not free, but rather slaves to their natural needs and instincts. Only in society could freedom be achieved, and humans free themselves from their natural, animal condition. When Rousseau was writing, in the mid-18th century, the promise of freedom in bourgeois society was still on the horizon. Bourgeois society aspired to proximity to the “state of nature” in the sense of bringing humanity, both individually and collectively, closer to its potential, to better realize its freedom. With Marx, communism, too, aimed for the realization of this potential. The imagination of a “primitive communism,” closer to a “state of nature” of unspoiled human potential, recapitulated the Rousseauian vision of bourgeois society as emancipation. But, in capitalism, bourgeois society had come to violate its own promised potential. It had become a “state of nature,” not in Rousseau’s sense, but rather according to Hobbes, a “war of all against all”—a conception that Rousseau had critiqued. Society was not to be the suspension of hostilities, but the realization of freedom. Moreover, humanity in society exhibited a “general will,” not reducible to its individual members: more than the sum of its parts. Not a Leviathan, but a “second nature,” a rebirth of potential, both collectively and individually. Human nature found the realization of its freedom in society, but humans were free to develop and transform themselves, for good or ill. To bring society closer to the “state of nature,” then, was to allow humanity’s potential to be better realized. Communism, according to Marx, was to follow Rousseau, not Hobbes, in realizing bourgeois society’s aspirations and potential. But, first, communism had to be clear about its aims.
Communism: not opposed to, but in, through, and beyond the bourgeois society of capital
The Marxist hypothesis is that Marx’s thought and politics correspond to a moment of profound transformation in the history of modern society, indeed, in the history of humanity: the rise of “industrial capital” and of the concomitant “social-democratic” workers’ movement that attended this change. This was expressed in the workers’ demand for social democracy, which Marx thought needed to be raised to greater self-consciousness to achieve its aims. Marx characterized the moment of industrial capital as marking the crisis in modern society—or even, an event and crisis in “natural history”—in which humanity faced the choice, as Luxemburg put it (echoing Engels) of “socialism or barbarism.” This was because classical bourgeois forms of politics that had emerged in the preceding era of the rise of manufacturing capital in the 17th and 18th centuries, liberalism and democracy, proved to be inadequate to the problems and tasks of modern society since the 19th century—Marx’s moment. With Marx, humanity faces a new, unforeseen task. However, unfulfilled, this task has fallen into neglect today.
In the transformed circumstance of capital, liberalism and democracy became necessary precisely in their impossibility, and thus pointed to their “dialectical” Aufhebung—completion and transcendence through negation, or self-overcoming. Liberalism and democracy became not only mutually contradictory but each became self-contradictory in capital. It is thus not a matter of communism versus liberal democracy—as Badiou and Žižek take it to be. Communism was, for Marx, the political movement that pointed to the possibility of overcoming the necessity of liberalism and democracy, or the transcending of the need for “bourgeois” politics per se. But this was to be achieved through the politics of the demands for the bourgeois rights of the working class. Marx regarded the socialism and communism that had emerged in his time as expressing a late, and hence self-contradictory and potentially incoherent form of bourgeois radicalism—expressing the radicalization of bourgeois society—but that demanded redemption. Marx sought the potential in capital of going beyond demands for greater liberalism and democracy. Subsequent “communism” lost sight of Marx on this, and disintegrated into the 20th century antinomy of socialism and liberalism. The Marxist hypothesis is that Marx recognized the possibility, not of opposition, but of a qualitative transformation, in, through, and beyond bourgeois society. |P
. Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis (London: Verso, 2010). The book is printed in a pocket-sized red hardcover on which is emblazoned a gold star—a Little Red Book (viz., Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung) for our time?
. Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” New Left Review 49 (January–February 2008), 29–42.
. The other book to originate from Badiou’s 2008 essay in New Left Review is The Meaning of Sarkozy (London: Verso, 2008).
. Badiou, “The Communist Hypothesis,” 34–35.
. Ibid., 35.
. Ibid., 35–36.
. Ibid., 36–37.
. See Theodor W. Adorno, “Those Twenties,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 41–48, originally published in 1961, in which Adorno stated that, “Already in the twenties, as a consequence of the events of [the failure of the German Revolution in] 1919, the decision had fallen against that political potential that, had things gone otherwise, with great probability would have influenced developments in Russia and prevented Stalinism.” So, “that the twenties were a world where ‘everything may be permitted,’ that is, a utopia… only seemed so” (43). Indeed, according to Adorno, “The heroic age… was actually around 1910” (41). See note 13, below.
. Peter Preuss, Introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 1.
. See Louis Menand’s 2003 Introduction to the republication of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003), originally published in 1940, in which Menand cites Wilson’s statement that “Marx and Engels were the philosophes of a second Enlightenment” (xvi). Furthermore, Menand points out that,
Marxism gave a meaning to modernity…. Marxism was founded on an appeal for social justice, but there were many forms that such an appeal might have taken. Its deeper attraction was the discovery of meaning, a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself. (xiii)
. See, for example, Adorno, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964–65, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2006).
. Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” trans. Lewis White Beck, in Kant on History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), 11–25.
. For instance, the title of Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) indicates what the historical era of “imperialism” meant to Lenin and other contemporary Marxists: the eve of revolution. The self-understanding of the Marxists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries grounded the history of Marxism itself in the history of capital, even if their propagandistic rhetoric had the unfortunate character of calling the crisis of capital expressed by Marxism “inevitable.” See note 18, below.
. See Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008). Originally published in 1923. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1923/marxism-philosophy.htm>.
. See Lars T. Lih’s extensive work on Lenin’s “Kautskyism,” for instance in Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).
. In a portentous first footnote to his book What is to be Done? (1902), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/i.htm>, Lenin put it this way:
Incidentally, in the history of modern socialism [there] is a phenomenon… in its way very consoling, namely… the strife of the various trends within the socialist movement…. [In] the disputes between Lassalleans and Eisenachers, between Guesdists and Possibilists, between Fabians and Social-Democrats, and between Narodnaya Volya adherents and Social-Democrats… really [an] international battle with socialist opportunism, [will] international revolutionary Social-Democracy… perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe?
. See Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” a June 18, 1938 letter to the editors of Partisan Review, available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm>:
Not a single progressive idea has begun with a “mass base,” otherwise it would not have been a progressive idea. It is only in its last stage that the idea finds its masses—if, of course, it answers the needs of progress. All great movements have begun as “splinters” of older movements…. The group of Marx and Engels came into existence as a “splinter” of the Hegelian Left. The Communist [Third] International germinated during [WWI] from the “splinters” of the Social Democratic [Second] International. If these pioneers found themselves able to create a mass base, it was precisely because they did not fear isolation. They knew beforehand that the quality of their ideas would be transformed into quantity. These “splinters”… carried within themselves the germs of the great historical movements of tomorrow.
. See Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy:
[A] transformation and development of Marxist theory has been effected under the peculiar ideological guise of a return to the pure teaching of original or true Marxism. Yet it is easy to understand both the reasons for this guise and the real character of the process which is concealed by it. What theoreticians like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia have done, and are doing, in the field of Marxist theory is to liberate it from the inhibiting traditions of [Social Democracy]. They thereby answer the practical needs of the new revolutionary stage of proletarian class struggle, for these traditions weighed “like a nightmare” on the brain of the working masses whose objectively revolutionary socioeconomic position no longer corresponded to these [earlier] evolutionary doctrines. The apparent revival of original Marxist theory in the Third International is simply a result of the fact that in a new revolutionary period not only the workers’ movement itself, but the theoretical conceptions of communists which express it, must assume an explicitly revolutionary form. This is why large sections of the Marxist system, which seemed virtually forgotten in the final decades of the nineteenth century, have now come to life again. (67–68)
I have elaborated further on the significance of Korsch’s important essay in my review of Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (2008), Platypus Review 15 (September 2009), available online at </2009/09/03/book-review-karl-korsch-marxism-and-philosophy/>.
. Adorno, in “Reflections on Class Theory” (originally written in 1942), provides the following unequivocally powerful interpretation of the perspective of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto:
According to theory, history is the history of class struggles. But the concept of class is bound up with the emergence of the proletariat…. By extending the concept of class to prehistory, theory… turns against prehistory itself…. By exposing the historical necessity that had brought capitalism into being, political economy became the critique of history as a whole…. All history is the history of class struggles because it was always the same thing, namely, prehistory. (Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 93–94.)
. Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty,” Selected Writings vol. 2 1927–34 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 735. Originally published in 1933.
. The term used to describe this effect is the “Anthropocene.” Jeffrey Sachs, in the second of his 2007 Reith Lectures, “Survival in the Anthropocene” (Peking University, Beijing, April 18, 2007, available online at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/lecture2.shtml>), characterized it this way:
“The Anthropocene”—a term that is spectacularly vivid, a term invented by one of the great scientists of our age, Paul Crutzen, to signify the fact that human beings for the first time have taken hold not only of the economy and of population dynamics, but of the planet’s physical systems, Anthropocene meaning human-created era of Earth’s history. The geologists call our time the Holocene—the period of the last thirteen thousand years or so since the last Ice Age—but Crutzen wisely and perhaps shockingly noted that the last two hundred years are really a unique era, not only in human history but in the Earth’s physical history as well.
. Marx, “For the ruthless criticism of everything existing,” letter to Arnold Ruge (September, 1843), in Robert Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), 12–15. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm>.
. Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 93. Also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm>.
. Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents in Marxism (New York: Norton, 2005), 1212.
. See Robert Pippin, “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing,” Critical Inquiry 30.2 (Winter 2004), 424–428, also available online at <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v30/30n2.Pippin.html>. Pippin wrote that,
[T]he dim understanding we have of the post-Kantian situation with respect to, let’s say, “the necessary conditions for the possibility of what isn’t”… is what I wanted to suggest. I’m not sure it will get us anywhere. Philosophy rarely does. Perhaps it exists to remind us that we haven’t gotten anywhere. (428)
. See Marx, The Class Struggles in France 1848–50 (originally published in 1850) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (originally published in 1852).
. Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader:
Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most insipid democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an “attempt on society” and stigmatized as “socialism”…. Bourgeois fanatics for order are shot down on their balconies by mobs of drunken soldiers, their domestic sanctuaries profaned… in the name of property, of family… and of order…. Finally, the scum of bourgeois society forms… the “saviour of society.” (602–603)
 Engels summed this up well in his 1891 Introduction to Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 620.
. See Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 165.
. See my “Capital in History: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left,” Platypus Review 7 (October 2008), available online at </2008/10/01/capital-in-history-the-need-for-a-marxian-philosophy-of-history-of-the-left/>.
. See Platypus Historians Group, “Introduction to the History of the Left: Changes in the meaning of class struggles,” Platypus Review 3 (March 2008), available online at </2008/03/01/introduction-to-the-history-of-the-left-changes-in-the-meaning-of-class-struggles/>.
. See Rousseau, The Social Contract, Ch. 8 “Civil Society,” trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin, 1968), 64–65. Originally published in 1762.
. See Marx, “For the ruthless criticism of everything existing.”
. See note 21, above. See also Adorno, “The Idea of Natural History” (originally writen in 1932), trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor, Telos 57 (1985): “[I]t is not a question of completing one theory by another, but of the immanent interpretation of a theory. I submit myself, so to speak, to the authority of the materialist dialectic” (124).
. See Luxemburg, The Crisis in German Social Democracy (AKA The Junius Pamphlet, originally published in 1915), available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/index.htm>.
. See Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy:
[Marx wrote, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), that] “[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence.” This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch. (58)
. On this point, see some of Marx’s earliest writings, which provided the points of departure for his more mature work, such as “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (1843), “On [Bruno Bauer’s] The Jewish Question” (1843), and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).
. But, for Marx and Engels, there was no necessary contradiction between the freedom of the individual and that of the collective, or, in this sense, between liberalism and socialism: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 491, also available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm>).
For further discussion of this antinomic degeneration and disintegration of the original Marxian perspective, see my “1917” in The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century: Toward a theory of historical regression, Platypus Review 17 (November 2009), available online at </2009/11/18/the-decline-of-the-left-in-the-20th-century-1917/>. See also: Platypus Historians Group, “Friedrich Hayek and the legacy of Milton Friedman: Neo-liberalism and the question of freedom (in part, a response to Naomi Klein),” Platypus Review 8 (November 2008), available online at </2008/11/01/friedrich-hayek-and-the-legacy-of-milton-friedman-neo-liberalism-and-the-question-of-freedom/>; and my “Obama and Clinton: ‘Third Way’ politics and the ‘Left’,” Platypus Review 9 (December 2008), available online at </2008/12/01/obama-and-clinton-third-way-politics-and-the-left/>.
* As James Miller, author of The Passion of Michel Foucault (2000), put it in his 1992 introduction to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992),
The principle of freedom and its corollary, “perfectibility”… suggest that the possibilities for being human are both multiple and, literally, endless…. Contemporaries like Kant well understood the novelty and radical implications of Rousseau’s new principle of freedom [and] appreciated his unusual stress on history as the site where the true nature of our species is simultaneously realized and perverted, revealed and distorted. A new way of thinking about the human condition had appeared…. As Hegel put it, “The principle of freedom dawned on the world in Rousseau, and gave infinite strength to man, who thus apprehended himself as infinite.” (xv)
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
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” (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.”) 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.” 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, 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.”
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.
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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.
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. 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.
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. |P
. Quoted in Seyla Benhabib, introduction to Hegel’s Ontology and the Theory of Historicity, by Herbert Marcuse (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), xviii.
. Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1987), 26.
. 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.
. Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity, 249–247.
. George Lichtheim, Lukács (London: Fontana Modern Masters, 1970), 64–5.
. Sam Bernstein, Auguste Blanqui and the Art of Insurrection (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 227.
. 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.
. Karl Marx, Herr Vogt (London: New Park, 1982), 28, quoted in ibid., 114.
. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 626–8, quoted in ibid., 116.
. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 628–9, quoted in ibid.
. Marx and Engels, CW, vol. 10, 587, quoted in ibid., 117.
. Korsch, “Ten Theses.”
. Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1982), 175–91.
. Karl Korsch, “Lenin’s Philosophy,” appendix to Anton Pannekoek, Lenin and Philosophy (London: Merlin, 1975) 114–5.
. 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.
. Pannekoek, Lenin and Philosophy, 35
. Quoted in ibid., 36.
. I discuss Korsch’s influence on the Situationists in my forthcoming essay, “Critique of the Situationist Dialectic.”
I am writing with some very brief notes on Adorno's last writings from 1968-69, the "Marginalia to Theory and Praxis," "Resignation," "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society? (AKA "Is Marx Obsolete?")," and the Adorno-Marcuse correspondence of 1969.
The center of Adorno's critique of the 1960s New Left was their romantic opposition to capitalism, found, for example, in their desideratum of the unity of theory and practice. Rather, Adorno asserted the progressive-emancipatory aspect of the separation of theory and practice.
As Adorno put it, in the "Marginalia,"
"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."
As Korsch put it in our earlier reading, "Marxism and Philosophy" (1923),
"As scientific socialism, the Marxism of Marx and Engels remains the inclusive whole of a theory of social revolution . . . a materialism whose theory comprehended the totality of society and history, and whose practice overthrew it. . . . The difference [now] is that the various components of [what for Marx and Engels was] the unbreakable interconnection of theory and practice are further separated out. . . . The umbilical cord has been broken."
What is important to note in the above passage from Korsch is that the unity of theory and practice is not being asserted as the norm, but rather their interrelation/interconnection, something quite different. The "umbilical cord" becoming "broken" means not that theory and practice have become separated, merely, but that they are no longer being interrelated properly. Theory and practice remain different things.
The following passage from Adorno's Negative Dialectics (1966), from a section titled "Relation to Left-Wing Hegelianism," describes well Adorno's conception of the theory-practice problem as a historical one, in which past moments (in modern history/the history of the Left) have a non-linear relation to the present:
"The objection has been raised that, because of its immanently critical and theoretical character, the turn to [the] nonidentity [of social being and consciousness] is an insignificant nuance of Neo-Hegelianism or of the historically obsolete Hegelian Left -- as if Marxian criticism of philosophy were a dispensation from it. . . . Yet whereas theory succumbed . . . practice became non-conceptual, a piece of the politics it was supposed to lead out of; it became the prey of power. . . . The liquidation of theory by dogmatization and thought taboos contributed to the bad practice. . . . The interrelation of both moments [theory and practice] is not settled once and for all but fluctuates historically. . . . Those who chide theory [for being] anachronistic obey the topos of dismissing, as obsolete, what remains painful [because it was] thwarted. They thus endorse the course of the world -- defying which is the idea of theory alone. . . . If [one] resists oblivion -- if he resists the universally demanded sacrifice of a once-gained freedom of consciousness -- he will not preach a Restoration in the field of intellectual history. The fact that history has rolled over certain positions will be respected as a verdict on their truth content only by those who agree with Schiller that 'world history is the world tribunal'. What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations."
Korsch's "Marxism and Philosophy" also poses this complex, non-linear historical temporality of the problem of theory and practice:
"'[Humanity] always sets itself only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely it will always be found that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or are at least understood to be in the process of emergence' [Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)]. This dictum is not affected by the fact that a problem which supersedes present relations may have been formulated in an anterior epoch."
Adorno's point, following Korsch, is that earlier formulations of the problem of emancipatory theory and practice could and indeed did "supersede present relations," or, as Adorno put it elsewhere (in "Sexual Taboos and the Law Today," 1962),
"The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he might contribute were expressed long ago -- and usually better the first time around."
Adorno is, in his late writings, continuing the ruminations of Korsch and Lukacs on what Korsch called the "crisis of Marxism" in which the crisis of capital necessarily expressed itself by the time of world war and revolution 1914-19. Precisely what Lukacs and Korsch subsequently forgot, after their seminal writings of 1923 we read, Adorno remembered, that the Marxian project was characterized fundamentally by awareness of the problem of theory and practice. Instead, Korsch and Lukacs later fell victim to what Adorno calls "identity [or "reconciliation"] thinking;" like other "vulgar Marxists" they assumed the coincidence of social being and consciousness, rather than the dialectic of the two.
Adorno's problem is somewhat different from what Korsch and Lukacs sought to address. Whereas they had to contemplate the self-contradictory character of both social being and consciousness under capital, expressed precisely in the attempt to overcome capital in theory and practice, Adorno had to try to address the degradation -- the regression -- of both critical theory and social-political practice.
The dual, simultaneously linear and recursive temporality of capital means that, as Korsch had put it, the development and transformation of the Marxian point of departure necessarily takes the form of a "return to Marx," the attempt to get back to an "original, pure Marxism" (of Marx and Engels themselves). Such "return" is both actual and illusory.
Adorno seeks to address his own return to Marx in ways that are self-conscious of this paradox. Hence, in "Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?," also known as "Is Marx Obsolete?" (1968), Adorno answers that Marx is both permanently relevant this side of emancipation from capital, and obsolete in the sense that the problem of capital necessarily appears differently than it did to Marx. Adorno's point is that it is only via Marx that one can overcome the obsolescence of Marx.
Lukacs had already broached this paradox when he offered that one could potentially disagree with all of Marx's conclusions and still return Marx's "method." But this is a dialectical conception in Lukacs and Adorno because of course method and conclusion cannot really be separated. But they can appear to be separated and opposed, and necessarily so. Means and ends can appear to be at odds. The point is to work through this separation -- not only this, but worked through on the very basis of this separation.
The paradox is that, as Lukacs put it, a "radical change in perspective is not possible on the soil of bourgeois society," or, that, with Marxism, "it would appear that nothing has changed."
All that can be done is to advance the dialectic -- and crisis -- of capital, the degree to which this has been critically recognized. And this must necessarily take the form of advancing the dialectical crisis of Marxism, in both theory and practice.
As Adorno put it, in a 1935 letter to Benjamin,
"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."
It was precisely this advancement through crisis, through bringing forms of necessary misrecognition to critical self-awareness while advancing their practical problems, that had been taken up by Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky (in the revisionist dispute and the subsequent crisis of war and revolution 1914-19, i.e., in that Luxemburg et al. recognized the revisionist reformism of Bernstein et al. as a necessary outcome of the growth of Marxism as a political movement), that was abdicated and abandoned in the early 20th Century, with social democratic reformism (i.e., the succumbing to the essence of reformist Marxist revisionism even by the stalwarts of "orthodoxy" such as Kautsky), Stalinism (the degeneration of "Leninism" into a variety of the same) and the disintegration of "Trotskyism" in the wake of Trotsky. (Trotsky's "Leninism" amounts to his recognition of the necessity of a split in Marxism as the result of -- as bound up with -- the advancement of Marxism in practical politics and theoretical consciousness.)
Adorno recognized this degradation and disintegration, aborting and avoiding the crisis and potential advancement of Marxism in theory and practice, as a problem of regression.
The crisis of capital has been expressed as the crisis in Marxism. The problem is that the significance of the crisis of Marxism has not been recognized as the necessary form of appearance of the crisis of capital. Instead, Marxism has been either abandoned/rejected -- or "upheld" and banalized -- as if Marxism itself had not become (had not always been) self-contradictory. Marxism, whether as critical theory or practical politics, necessarily becomes "vulgarized" (ceases to be itself) if it is experienced as naÃ¯ve consciousness rather than being recognized with at least some reflexive self-awareness as a dialectical problem of consciousness.
Adorno ends his final essay, on "Resignation" (1969), with rumination on "thinking." On the one hand, Adorno recognizes that what is thought can be forgotten and lost, and, on the other hand, Adorno recognizes that what was once thought can be thought again, that thought has as its medium the universal, but only in a critical sense. The universal -- capital -- remains to be critically recognized. Hence the thought of its critical recognition remains possible. We can recognize the thought that was once thought. We can read Adorno -- and Benjamin, Lukacs, Korsch, Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx -- and still recognize the problems of our own thinking about the issue of capital. The question is how we explain this continued recognition to ourselves. This prompts the further thought of theory and practice.
But this thought of the relation of theory and practice threatens to fall short if it does not take the form of how Adorno closes his "Marginalia," that "[practice] appears in theory merely, and indeed necessarily, as a blind spot, as an obsession with what it being criticized. . . . This admixture of delusion, however, warns of the excesses in which it incessantly grows."
Marxism is both true and untrue; the question is how one recognizes its truth and untruth, and the necessity of its being both.
Platypus seeks both to refound and continue and to transform Marxian critical theory and political practice through the self-consciousness of the limits and necessity of Marxism as the limits and necessity of capital. We seek, theoretically, to make out the crisis of Marxism as the crisis of capital, in consciousness of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it was recognized once before, in the revolutionary moment of 1917-19, and, conversely, practically, to make the crisis of capital take the form of the crisis of proletarian socialism, in the social-political practice of capital's emancipatory possibilities, as it had been, however abortively, once or twice before, what Adorno, following Benjamin, Lukacs and Korsch, contemplated about the limits and failure of the revolution of 1917-19, following what Marx had spent the rest of his life -- in theory and practice -- contemplating about 1848.