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You are here: Platypus /Jan 25 Discussion, Cliff Slaughter, "What is Revolutionary Leadership"

Jan 25 Discussion, Cliff Slaughter, "What is Revolutionary Leadership"

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

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

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

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

-Soren W. (Boston)


  • Posted 12 years ago

    Thanks for the post Soren.

    At SAIC, we had 4 new people show up, so we were less immediately connecting the Slaughter text to platypus as an organization. However, we did spend time with certain issues brought up in the reading: vulgar Marxism and problems of economic determinism; on the question of leadership in the party and the relationship of the workers to a political party (we were mostly talking about Lenin here); the consequences of the failure of the SPD and the collapse of the second international in WWI (often referring to “socialism or barbarism” and Nazi Germany); and the problems of the critique of Stalinism as being simply about structure and organization (anti-bureaucracy) instead of an actual political critique (where we expanded on problems inherent in participatory democracy as being anti-Stalinist form of organization that does not take into account politics, simply the problem of organization).

    These and other issues were discussed. I hope the other participants post/reiterate the particularities of those conversations here.

    Very broadly, it must be said that the majority of the arguments pointed at how de-politicized the present is and how important it is for us to develop an understanding of how that happened in the 20th century (continuity and discontinuity in history).

    The highlight of the meeting, I will argue, was when one of our first time participants, a high school student from the LAB school, asked us a series of questions like: who cares? whats the point? why are you reading and discussing this text? why are you here on your Sunday?

    We all had to work through the reasons why something like platypus was necessary. I hope some of those responses get shared. I’ll add more specific stuff later.


    ps: ‘… every shortcoming in historical duty increases the necessary disorder and prepares more serious catastrophes.’
    – Antonio Gramsci.

    by Laurie R on January 26, 2009 2:39 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    If platypus’ goal is to create a situation that needs revolutionary political leadership but isn’t shaping itself to actually claim that role, on whom does platypus seek to place the mantle of leadership? Will Chris Cutrone be able to step up and handle the situation himself, pushing the group members off the cliff of extinction, or will Platypus reinvent itself as a revolutionary vanguard, having achieved the correct revolutionary consciousness?

    by x on January 27, 2009 11:35 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    As Soren notes above, we have described our project as being “pre-political” in certain respects, meaning we acknowledge the difficulty of taking traditional “political positions” of being “for or against” something or other, and therefore do not have such agreement as the common basis for our organization and membership, but this designation of “pre-political” is not entirely accurate, especially if understood in a certain way. This confusion also points to difficulties understanding the relation of education and politics that is Platypus’s mandate in helping to reconstitute a Marxian Left adequate to the present and future.

    I wrote an article reflecting on the relation between organization and consciousness for the Platypus Review issue #2 (Feb. 2008), in dialogue with the fledgling anarchist publication in Britain, Mayday:

    As I pointed out in this article:

    “Perhaps we need to be “conservative” in our “revolutionary” politics in order to be actually radical in the present.”

    In other words, Platypus is motivated by, but needs to justify its orientation of a “back to the basics” approach to Marxism, that, because the present has been determined by the failure of Marxism, the history of that failure needs to be read “against the grain” to see what historical possibilities existed but went unrealized, also informing the present and our possibilities for emancipatory consciousness.

    To this degree, the educational work of Platypus is political. Our historical consciousness is our theory of the present.

    At this stage, we are engaged in activities that lay the groundwork for the further development of consciousness and potential action. But laying this foundation, doing this historical investigation, and doing this critique of the problems of consciousness on the “Left” today, is our politics, is our political intervention — is our attempt to change the world.

    The mistaken impression that such activity is entirely virtual or otherwise pointless (the Spartacists, for instance, say that our activity is merely “academic claptrap”) is to mistake, as Soren points out above, the relation of theory and practice. Theory is a form of practice, thinking is a form of action, and consciousness does have a bearing on reality, if much of the time an obscure one.

    Platypus is trying to change consciousness, and thus clear away ideological obstacles to other kinds of political action.

    But we do in fact already attempt to answer Lenin’s question of “What is to be done?” (or, as in the title of the essay he wrote prior to the book, “Where to begin?”).

    We in Platypus begin our activity with the problems of consciousness because we think that this is where political activity has become bogged down — unclear of its ends/goals, and therefore stuck in a downward spiral of adaptation to a reality that remains unrecognized: a seemingly inexorable slide to the Right, regression, and depoliticization.

    We in Platypus seek to repoliticize and therefore reinvigorate/reconstitute the Left by fermenting consciousness, reminding of the lost horizon of truly radical emancipatory social-political possibilities that once informed a Marxian Left (i.e., the revolutionary Marxism of the 2nd International radicals Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky) as a way of illuminating possibilities in the present.

    The priority of consciousness is necessary because we recognize that, at this point in history, it is a matter not simply of demonstrating the relevance of Marxism to the present, but of making it so.

    Because we are simultaneously intervening in history as well as the consciousness of the present, we do in fact need that ideologically “compact, homogeneous” organization called for in the tradition of Lenin to which Cliff Slaughter’s essay points. But the basis of this ideological consolidation of the Platypus project is different from the kinds of dogmatic sectarianism that characterizes the fossilized groups on the pseudo-“Left” today.

    We in Platypus are engaged in the remaking of history as part and parcel of reestablishing the potential for emancipatory change in the present. This might seem idealist or voluntarist, but this is due to a mistaken understanding of the relation of theory and practice. We need a rigorous determination of history in order to open possibilities in the present, because such determination of the significance of history is our intervention into what Leszek Kolakowski in his 1968 essay on “The Concept of the Left,” called the “hardened mass of the historical present,” for which the consciousness of the Left is the necessary “fermenting factor.” As Kolakowski put it, the Left’s role is to “unite those dispersed and often hidden atoms whose movement is what we call progress.”

    The reason Platypus is not merely “pre-political,” as if we were holding off from politics, is that Platypus is the Left, is what the movement of history has called forth in the form of consciousness of the present. We are doing what is possible and necessary in the present.

    As such, our project is the only authentically conscious political project (in terms of a Marxian approach, or one that is in any way adequate to the epochal problem of capital) that exists. Our rudimentary and preliminary form is characteristic of our moment, but is no less urgent for this. — And is therefore no less needing of a solid and principled organizational form, with a concomitant homogeneous ideological basis, to sustain it.

    As evinced by our modest but nonetheless real successes since we began 2 years ago, this project is viable. It is up to us now whether we as individuals fail the project. But we owe it, not only not to allow it to fail or not succeed as much as it might, but also to help it grow as much as possible. We ourselves bring the only limits on our project.

    By establishing ourselves as an organized project and thus joining the history of the Left, we have thus thrown our own efforts into the balance of the future. Our failure now or in the future would mean not only not serving, but actually further harming its possibilities.

    Whether we recognized it properly or not, we have in fact offered ourselves as a leadership body for the present and future Left, even if only in a basic, remedial pedagogical role — which is what we think a Marxian approach is limited to at present. But having done this, we must make good on it, and not fail to pursue but accept and push the envelope of the task of the inexorable logic of its development.

    The only way to prevent our going off the rails (and thus failing in a profounder sense than if we just gave up) is to constantly reinscribe our point of departure and constantly deepen its impact in everything we do, rather than leaving it behind as a mere residue. Our dual statements of purpose remain indispensable in this way:

    We are trying not merely to recover, but to actually make the history of revolutionary Marxism relevant to the present. (This is what “reappropriation” means: making Marxism appropriate to the present, and making the present appropriate to a Marxian approach.) This involves the reciprocal action of transforming history and transfiguring the present, in consciousness.

    As such, we must acknowledge that we are trying to do something our forebears either failed to do (Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky) or didn’t try so much to do (Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno — and, later, and much worse, Bayard Rustin, C. Wright Mills, Juliet Mitchell, Kolakowski, Martin Nicolaus, Fred Halliday, John D’Emilio, Adolph Reed, Moishe Postone, and the Spartacists, et al.).

    We are trying to succeed at something that has only ever failed or otherwise not been adequately attempted, but because we think its success has remained nevertheless possible. We seek to reestablish the problems that our forebears were not able to overcome, to succeed precisely where they failed.

    We seek to become conscious of the difficulties faced and failed in the past. But we think consciousness of such difficulty must begin with reestablishing a foundation in that problematic past — hence our readings in the history of the Left, which we always do with an eye to the radical reinscription, stripped of all banalization and vulgarization, of its relevance, however apparently dim or obscurely tenuous, in the present.

    As Sebastian Haffner, the historian of the failed German Revolution 1918-19 (in which Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacus League participated), put it in 1968, when viewed from the proper angle, even a history of failure and defeat cuts the present like a searing laser beam. But such historical relevance can otherwise remain invisible, if it is nonetheless cutting for its lack of recognition.

    Fostering such recognition is a political act, and one which must be defended and fought through with coordinated conscious determination, like any organized politics.

    by Chris Cutrone on January 27, 2009 2:46 pm
  • Posted 12 years ago

    On our Yahoo! group discussion list, Jeremy posted a very good early statement from Marx and Engels, from their 1845 book The Holy Family (excerpted in Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., on “Alienation and Social Classes,” pp. 133-135), that raises important points related to the issue of consciousness:

    This excerpt (from “Proletariat and wealth are opposites” to “constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.”) thematizes nicely the issue of self-overcoming/self-abolition of the proletariat in overcoming capital that Postone emphasizes so much in his reading of Marx, as well as the issue of negation, which Kolakowski articulates so well in “The Concept of the Left” (1968). It also does well to emphasize the specifically historical character of proletarian socialism as a potentially emancipatory force.

    To tie back into the Cliff Slaughter reading we did in Platypus last week, on “What is Revolutionary Leadership?” (1960), one of the concluding lines from Slaughter serves well:

    “Just because the rise of the working class is the most universal and world-shaking of all historical transformations, against the strongest ruling class in history, so it requires a higher level of consciousness and a higher degree of organization than any previous class in history.”

    It is important that here, in Slaughter’s 1960 conspectus of the tradition of revolutionary Marxism of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky (and Lukacs and Gramsci), the historical rise of the working class is seen as symptomatic, as itself the problem to be worked through, for which private property, and its imperatives on whose behalf the capitalist ruling class acts as social “agents,” are not the cause, but the result/effect. This ties back into Marx’s treatment of property, as the expression of “estranged labor,” in the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Mauscripts, and his polemic there against the founder of anarchism Proudhon’s one-sided and ahistorical attack on property as “theft.”

    This selection from The Holy Family is an excellent complement for Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.

    The only wrinkle I would introduce is that it is always easy to read in Marx and Engels’s language of “dehumanization” a presupposed “human nature” that already existed and comes to be violated by capitalism. Because M-E’s conception of human “nature” is Hegelian, and hence historical and dialectical, it is easily missed, and one can lose the deeper point in a more colloquial understanding of the rhetoric of “alienation.”

    To use the language of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, it is human “nature” to have a historically transformable “species being.” — In a sense, it is humans’ “species being” not to have a “species being” like other animals, but to create it — socially — for themselves.

    The Marxian point of departure (unlike for, e.g., the anarchists, all the way up to Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, et al., who ground their critique of capitalism in human nature, and have no concept of capital as a specifically historical problem of freedom) is to say that it is precisely in our conscious practical activity — or praxis — that we have created a system “behind our own backs” that is defeating for this self-conscious self-creation in freedom, and so need to become conscious of this problem in order to overcome it, and practically attack it in order to recognize and become conscious of it, or else we risk taking it for granted and naturalizing our condition of self-alienation.

    So consciousness becomes important — as a problem — in a new and profounder way than humans ever faced, hitherto. Social being and consciousness become “opposed,” but in a dialectical unity — mutually constitutive, and thus needing to be mutually transformed and overcome.

    In the very short Adorno aphorism we read in the Platypus reading group, “Imaginative excesses,” orphaned from Minima Moralia (1944-47), there is a strong echo of what Marx and Engels write here in the Holy Family:

    “Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself.”

    But the rhetoric of “inhumanity” (like “dehumanization”) needs to be understood as also indicating transformative potential: the new emancipatory possibility appears precisely as the inhuman.

    In Adorno:

    “What the rescuers would be like cannot be prophesied without obscuring their image with falsehood. What can be perceived, however, is what they will not be like: neither personalities nor bundles of reflexes, but least of all a synthesis of the two, hardboiled realists with a sense of higher things. When the constitution of human beings has grown adapted to social antagonisms heightened to the extreme, the humane constitution sufficient to hold antagonism in check will be mediated by the extremes, not an average mingling of the two. The bearers of technical progress, now still mechanized mechanics, will, in evolving their special abilities, reach the point already indicated by technology where specialization grows superfluous. Once their consciousness has been converted into pure means without any qualification, it may cease to be a means and breach, with its attachment to particular objects, the last heteronomous barrier; its last entrapment in the existing state, the last fetishism of the status quo, including that of its own self, which is dissolved in its radical implementation as an instrument. Drawing breath at last, it may grow aware of the incongruence between its rational development and the irrationality of its ends, and act accordingly.”

    by Chris Cutrone on January 29, 2009 8:53 am
  • Posted 12 years ago

    Hello All,
    I presented the Slaughter essay, I figured I would post my notes. It is ordered in the way I planned to present his ideas (sifting through certain points rather than go through the text step-by-step from start to finish). Of course, the presentation didn’t go as my original planned method, but I still more or less stuck to this format. I hope it is found to be helpful.


    “The alternative of socialism or barbarism did not pose itself only after Hiroshima, but was clearly before the eyes of the Bolsheviks and Rosa Luxemburg during the First World War. We are in an epoch which has been correctly characterized as one of a crisis of leadership.” (10) [Italics mine]

    “Unless the crisis of leadership is solved there will be no ‘natural’ growth towards Socialism but there will be all the danger of war and barbarism.” (10)

    THESIS: “In this article I want to take up another argument closely bound up with these same ideas, viz., that the root of the trouble lies in the Leninist concept of leadership of the working class by a centralized party and Lenin’s ‘party of a new type’.” (3)

    THESIS: “One aim of this article is to make a little clearer the reasons why Marxists concentrate so much attention on theoretical discussion, even on questions which appear at times to be obscure and remote from the struggle. There are always critics who say: the important thing is to get on with the struggle and get away from this arid and doctrinaire wrangling.” (16)

    “…What is required is a completely new analysis to tell us what sort of contradictions dominate the new society and in what sense a revolutionary class might overthrow it, whether that class is the working class, etc.” (17)

    “Because the whole of capitalist structure must be grasped in consciousness and because this whole and its laws of development are different from the immediate consciousness and experience of the proletariat, dialectical theory, advanced theory based on the notion of developing contradictions in the material world, is the basic element of revolutionary theory.” (11)

    “Just because the rise of the working class is the most universal and world-shaking of all historical transformations, against the strongest ruling class in history, so it requires a higher level of consciousness and a higher degree of organization than any previous class in history.” (19)

    “This is the meaning of revolutionary discipline: that the consciousness represented by the Marxist party constitutes a higher consciousness of the historical tasks of the working class than does the immediate consciousness of the class itself. Only by accepting the discipline of the party, then, does the individual Marxist achieve the prospect of playing an independent historical role.” (4)
    These two men laid great stress on the role of human consciousness, and of revolutionary leadership. (2)

    The proletariat must constitute themselves] from being a ‘class in itself’ the proletariat must become a ‘class for itself’.” (5)

    “For the task we need, not an abandonment of discipline and centralized authority, but it’s heightening to an unprecedented degree.” (18)

    “Such a task requires the ability to learn from all past class struggles in society, particularly the failures and successes of the working-class movement, and an understanding of this history in relation to the total existing structure of society, not only in relation to daily experience of the working class. The consciousness and organization required to achieve the greatest social overturn in history, these are the basic reasons for what has to be known as democratic centralism, the bogey of so many ‘Left-wingers’.” (4)

    *Democratic centralism is the name given to the principles of internal organization used by Leninist political parties, and the term is sometimes used as a synonym for any Leninist policy inside a political party. The democratic aspect of this organizational method describes the freedom of members of the political party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction, but once the decision of the party is made by majority vote, all members are expected to uphold that decision. This latter aspect represents the centralism. As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” [cited from Wikipedia]

    “In the constitution of a revolutionary party, there is a constant need to strive to maintain a correct relationship between democracy and centralism. The balance of this relationship tends to change with the objective situation.” (15)

    “In their effort to run away from centralism they embrace a theory of spontaneity and proceed to liquidate the party into the class.” (16)

    “Certainly no workers’ party will be successful which is not responsive to changes in the moods of the working class, but that is a matter of tactics, of timing, of the form of propaganda, etc., and certainly not a question of programme, policy, constitution, which are determined on a basis of theory. The correctness of the policy of a Marxist party is not the extent to which it corresponds to the immediate consciousness of the workers. It is a matter rather of correct theoretical appraisal of all the social forces at work in a given period, including the role of the class and the party itself.” (8)

    Gives example of the bourgeois developing their own kind of culture and institutions to overcome feudalism. (11)

    “But the bourgeois power is total social power: capital dominates all relationships like an elemental natural force. In order to seize in consciousness the nature of this power and to organize for its overthrow, there is necessary a scientific consciousness of the whole system of social relationships…” (11)

    “The elementary mistake of supposing that in the Marxist view of consciousness and organization directly reflect economic need is one that must be conquered if there is to be a victorious revolution. The ideological reflection of changes in the economy lags behind. The machinery of this ‘lag’ is the structure of ruling-class power and education.” (10)
    Claims that Stalinism or Social Democracy could not achieve either of these goals. (2)

    “Reformism and opportunism are tied to the existing structure of power…” (2)

    “Nor are the Stalinists in any better position; in the ‘Communist’ movement Marxist doctrine has hardened into an ideology: that is to say, particular phrases are taken from Marx and Lenin and used to justify the particular course taken by Soviet Bureaucracy.” (2)

    “As part of this process, certain theoretical distortions of Marxism play an important part. Above all, Marxism is twisted into an economic determinism. The dialectic is abstracted from history and reimposed on social development as a series of fixed stages. Instead of the rich variety and conflict of human history we have the natural series of slavery, feudalism, capitalism and socialism through which all societies pass. The USSR’s present structure is thus sanctified as an ‘inevitable’ successor of capitalism and any ‘criticism’ of its social and political structure must be regarded as ‘secondary’.” (2-3)

    “This is of course a mechanical caricature of historical materialism.” (3)

    by Media manager on February 3, 2009 10:45 pm

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