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The Platypus Synthesis: What is to be done?

Transcript of the plenary presentations and discussion at the 1st annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, Chicago, June 1214, 2009. (Audio recording.)

What is to be done?

Ian Morrison, President of the Platypus Affiliated Society


If the group misunderstands the task set for it by conditions of the day, if it does not know how to answer the most important of all questions in politics — that is, the question of what to do next — then the group, no matter what its merits may otherwise be, can wear itself out in misdirected efforts and futile activities and come to grief.

Our project has often been subjected to two historical fantasies.  The first draws a parallel with the Partisan Review and the second with the Frankfurt School.  Our “death of the Left” thesis and the historical gulf between us and the ’30s make the practical orientation of these two projects completely anachronistic, and confuses the needs of our time.  The Partisan Review sought to make a specific intervention in American socialism, and the early Frankfurt School was set up to provide an intellectual atmosphere which would transcend the sectarian divisions caused by the failure of the German Revolution.  There is no such comparable milieu in our time, to either intersect or transcend.  And the problem is much more thoroughgoing than simply the realization that Leftist third parties are defunct or that organized labor is fractured and weak.  The groups, which talk about the Left, justify their existence on dubious grounds and do more to muddle the issues than to clarify them — this much is certainly obvious.  Many of these groups are of an extremely conservative nature; they are often the manifestation of a new Right.

Because the Left really is dead, we must first and foremost build intellectual milieus from scratch.  As we have often said, we must “host the conversation” that would otherwise not happen, and we must demonstrate to others that the Platypus conversation can even happen at all.  We have an extremely strong track record of events, providing a space in which intellectuals are able to sound stronger than they would otherwise have the opportunity to.

Our main point of intersection, for better or worse, is at universities and the campus culture more broadly conceived.  There is simply no other institution we could realistically intersect today.  This is not a blessing.  But it can raise a great deal opportunity.  Universities are international phenomena.

Public events. — We need to modulate between different styles of events: Large fora, public interviews, teach-ins.  Our shift to a chapter model, I believe, is forcing us to change our organizational culture.  In the past we have emphasized the build-up towards the event.  And I am not proposing that we dramatically change how we plan events; creating a reading list to work up to the event is extremely helpful.  But what we need to focus on more than anything is regularity and follow-through.  I strongly believe that this will not be to the detriment of our content.  On the contrary, I think that we will only learn to improve the quality of our events though regularity.  Our inability to have regular events has been our greatest shortcoming.  This cannot continue if we have any pretension of growing the organization.

Draining-the-swamp thesis. — We believe we can impact and prevent the recruitment to sectarian “Left” groups on campuses and thus stop the demoralization and depoliticization that results from their activities.  We have already begun to do so, and we need to continue this.

The Platypus Review. — We have not fully taken advantage of our paper.  Our paper is of an extremely high quality but we have been failing on two scores.  The first and most obvious problem is our inability to acquire more content from outside Platypus.  To make this possible we need to marshal the whole organization to the task.  The interview has been a successful genre for us.  We lack reportage.  We need to act as a historical record of our time.  The Platypus Review can travel to new places before we will be able to provide an organizational structure.

Membership. — The reading group is not optional.  The texts we read are not road maps.  But, if our project has any line at all, it would perhaps be that nothing that has been passed down to us from the historic Left can be used as an adequate guide.  It is not possible to understand the group outside of attending the reading group.  The reading group must focus on “what it is that we are doing.”  We often said that we don’t have a line.  But, it is true that we have a set of concerns and they are very specific.  The concerns we are working through are not self-evident and we should be suspicious of anyone who claims to understand the project while infrequently attending our pedagogical activities.  If there is one especially surprising aspect of our project it is the way in which our ideas, once adequately grasped, seem to make a permanent impression.  Our ideas have not been met with indifference.

What are our members going to become?  Intellectuals and cultural workers.  The notion of the free intellectual, like liberalism, is dead.  There is much more at play than simply good ideas in the making of public intellectuals.  We cannot let the topics we have been trying so hard to unearth become taboo to us in our public dealings.  There really are people who have made a concerted effort to squash our project.  The sectarian Left would like us to disappear.  They are set in their ways and they would prefer it if their ideas never met the light of day.

The need to go to Left events. — Our attendance in itself will be corrosive on the existing fake “Left.”  We go and ask questions that they cannot answer.  What could be easier?  This we really need to do.

So, we should have no illusions.  Our project is time-sensitive.  We live at a crossroads.  Though it may seem like we have an overabundance of esoteric ideas forcibly bundled together, which are ridiculously challenging to impress upon others — this is our estimation of our period.  | P

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