The Fate of the American Revolution
Platypus Review 130 | October 2020
Over June and July 2020, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a lecture series titled “The Legacy of the American Revolution”. The lectures were given by Platypus members James Vaughn, Chris Cutrone, Pamela Nogales, Spencer Leonard and Reid Kotlas. The full lecture series is available on YouTube on the Platypus Affiliated Society channel. You can find the full series collated with links to background readings provided by the lecturers at: <http://platypus1917.org/2020/06/06/the-legacy-of-the-american-revolution-a-platypus-lecture-series/>
To conclude the lecture series, the lecturers convened a roundtable discussion on the fate of the American Revolution. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.
James Vaughn: The American Revolution was not simply a bourgeois revolution, and the history of the United States is not simply a history of the bourgeois revolution and its crisis in capitalism, but, in some broad sense, America is the revolution. What do I mean by that? I owe a lot to my teachers when I was a kid, who taught me something that a lot of subsequent professors and colleagues in academia have tried to disabuse me of: America is not a country or a people, but an idea. That was conveyed to people of my generation in elementary school and high school. America is not a people, but an idea. That idea, in essence, is that people, individually and collectively, should be able to freely determine the course of their own lives, to do things together that they could not achieve on their own and that the United States, as a political entity, was simply a framework for allowing that self-development of people, both individually and together. It had no inherent geographic and certainly no ethno-national boundaries whatsoever. I hope this lecture series has conveyed that: America as the revolution, America as an idea.
After my second lecture, two or three people asked why I had spent a lot of time trying to counter the so-called progressive narrative in which 1776 is seen as a radical popular revolution from below and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 was a kind of counter-revolutionary elite revolution from above. I sought to counter that narrative because, rehearse it all the time today, even if they are unaware it is the progressive narrative, calling the Constitution an 18th century framework and saying we’re stuck in the past.
A good friend of mine from France often says, “Americans sound like religious fanatics; they’re constantly talking about the Founders and the Constitution in a kind of religious sense. It’s like Moses has come down from Mount Sinai with these tablets, the Constitution.” But none of the ten commandments say that people can later alter these commandments through a consensual deliberative process, so the Constitution can always be amended.
More importantly, it’s vital to realize that the Constitution is the revolution within the revolution. The Constitution is the living, continuing, permanent revolution. When the Constitutional convention begins in Philadelphia in 1787, it’s important to understand the power on which it’s based. How can this Constitutional settlement take place? During the British imperial crisis and during the American Revolution, the legitimate existing state institutions of the British Empire fell away and they were replaced by these popular institutions that emerged from society itself — Committees of Correspondence, Committees of Safety, militias — and they gave rise to an alternative revolutionary structure of government, which gave rise to the independent states that had republican forms of government and then they confederated in the Articles of Confederation.
That system had problems. Therefore, by 1787 there was a decision to create a new form of federal government, a new form of union. Those republican states, now independent, sent delegates to Philadelphia to do that, but when those delegates decided they couldn’t simply re-create the Articles of Confederation, but had to abandon it altogether and create an entirely new federal government, it didn’t go back to the state governments to be approved. This is vital to realize. It went back to conventions in all of the states where people — the majority of adult males in most of the states — were able to vote.
Why did they do that? The revolutionary constituent power — which brought about the American Revolution and created those independent states — had to go back to the source in order to create this new framework of government: i.e., the Constitution, this new federal government, the state governments within it, and this tripartite division of power within the legislative, judiciary and executive. You had to return to the constituting and reconstituting power, which was the people who had brought about the revolution and had to approve the Constitution.
The Constitution is the return to that revolutionary constituent power, to make a new fundamental law and framework of government, which is the United States of America as it emerges in 1788. That revolutionary constituent power is embodied in the Constitution, which sets up a framework where every two years there will be a congressional election and every four years a Presidential election. During those election years, that revolutionary constituent power comes back to life and people again determine the fate of their government and their collective life together.
So, elections will always be riotous, wild times. It’s not just 2020 or 2016. They said it about Reagan, they said it about Nixon, they said it about Franklin D. Roosevelt, they said it about Theodore Roosevelt, they said it about Abraham Lincoln, they said it about Andrew Jackson and they said it about Thomas Jefferson. I cannot emphasize this enough: the revolution flares up again every time there is a national election and we are living in a moment of the revival of revolutionary constituent power. It is a moment of the people having to determine their lives and it is a moment of the people set against one another, in some sense, in revolution.
If the Left can’t take up the mantle of that revolutionary constituent power and do something with it — bring about the transformation from capitalism to socialism — it’s no one’s fault at all but the Left’s. It’s not the fault of the Constitution and the framework of government it put in place, and it’s not the fault of the American Revolution.
Christopher Cutrone: In this lecture series, we are talking about the way that the American Constitutional republic and democracy have been reconstituted several times in the course of its history. We are talking about the emergence of the problem of capitalism, the problem of politics, and the relationship between state and society in that process.
My first lecture was on the Jeffersonian revolution. That phrase elides a difference between Thomas Jefferson’s participation in the 1776 American Revolution and his electoral revolution of 1800. You could say that the first political party in the United States is Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans running for office in 1800, and that he understood this as a renewal of the original revolutionary party — small “p” party instead of capital “P” Party — in the original 1776 Revolution, namely, the Committees of Correspondence.
However, Pam Nogales’s lecture on Jacksonian democracy, really traces the emergence of the first modern political party, not only in American history, but perhaps in world history: the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. The Civil War and Reconstruction are incomprehensible without thinking about the new Republican Party that emerges in the 1850s and wins the election of 1860, precipitating the Civil War and precipitating a revolution.
The lecture that I gave last in the series was on the Gilded Age and the emergence of socialism as a mass political force in the United States, which, however, was unable to realize such a revolutionary transformation of American politics and society. My point there — as in Reid Kotlas’ lecture — was that socialism succumbed to progressivism, to progressive liberal capitalism. That is behind both the failed election of 1912 — the campaign of Theodore Roosevelt as a progressive — and the ultimate success of FDR and the Democratic Party. There was a new configuration of American politics with FDR through the New Deal coalition when he was elected in 1932. In many respects we still live in that system. That was not fundamentally modified or overthrown by the Reagan revolution of 1980, but only modified.
We are thinking about politics and the relationship between politics and society, and how much more problematic the relationship between politics and society becomes as a function of capitalism. The narrative we’ve been telling is of what might be perceived as a divergence between society and politics, as a function of capitalism and the transformations of the American political party system over the course of the history of the United States. We are perhaps living through yet another transformation of the political party system in the United States, or at least a crisis of that political party system, signaled by not only Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders.
The ghost of American socialism stalks this crisis, precisely in the way that Bernie Sanders invoked — also through his own personal political history as a New Left activist — the older history of American socialism and the socialist party of America of Eugene Debs, even while he mounted an attempt to repair the New Deal coalition Democratic Party politics in the United States, first in 2016 and again in the primaries of 2020. He sought not to win the nomination or the office of the presidency, but rather to try to rally what remains of the New Deal coalition and progressive liberalism in the Democratic Party. That he had to do that under the moniker of socialism is significant, even if it is misleading and false in fundamental ways. It is, nonetheless, significant that the industrialization of the United States in the Gilded Age did not lead to socialist revolution in the United States, and yet we are haunted by the possibility that it could and should have. Reid’s lecture was all about the folding of American socialism and the Communist Party that emerged out of the crisis in American socialism into progressive liberal capitalism in the 1930s Great Depression era, as a function of the FDR New Deal settlement of American politics and society. That is the red thread traced through the series.
As I said in my lecture on the Gilded Age, this is not a Marxist approach to American history necessarily. The narrative that I just laid out does not depend on Marxism. It would be widely acknowledged by liberals and conservatives that there was a crisis in American politics with the emergence of industrial capitalism in the United States, and that there was a fundamental shift in the relationship between politics and society that has put a question mark over the Constitutional republican order of American politics, ever since the progressive era and, especially, FDR.
We still live with that question. What kind of democracy, democratic republic and Constitutional order is the United States? It doesn’t take much of a crisis, but just a weakness of the major capitalist political parties, to throw the whole system into question, not only on the avowed Left, but across the political spectrum, across all varieties of political thinkers in the United States and around the world. In other words, over the past four years, and again with this election, people around the world are wondering about the United States’ Constitutional order and its political system. That is the occasion for our lectures. Marxism would have to make sense within that broader world historic narrative of the American revolution and the Constitutional republic that it gave birth to. Again, it’s not an accident that rage was directed towards the statues of American revolutionaries in this year. As I’ve written in The Platypus Review, it’s a deeply ambivalent rage. It’s not a simple rejection but it’s anger at the failure of the revolution that we’ve been facing this year.
Pam Nogales: I want to clarify the purpose of my lecture in a pithy way. I wanted to trace the transformation of the Jeffersonian tradition in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century, through the divergence between the task of American politics at its revolutionary apex and the direction of American society through the emerging capital relations, and how these two things are pulled in different directions and how people made sense of the Jeffersonian tradition in that context.
My thesis was that Democratic Party historians, including some people who may call themselves Marxisant, have drawn this thread between Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln, and specifically the birth of the Republican party. I wanted to say that there’s this transformation of the Jeffersonian tradition that happens outside of the party, with important figures, which, if one considers oneself a Marxist, one should know about. Figures such as Ira Steward and others who fought for the shorter working day, who took Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson to mean that the shortening of the working day was the advancement of American freedom and the continuation of the revolution.
Perhaps naively, I offered to a new generation of people who would like to be Marxists or think about socialism the idea that within the first half of the 19th century you can make sense of Jefferson as the inheritance of what could be American socialism: you could trace the relationship between American socialism and Jeffersonian thinking. I did that through those figures and the working men’s parties.
My comments are about Platypus, our approach to history and where we find ourselves today. Once a upon a time, in the early years of Platypus, we thought we were speaking to liberal or ‘rad-lib’ people, who were part of the milieu of the Left and seemed to have a sense that history was important, including American revolutionary history. We thought that this was a missing piece from the New Left tradition, which had largely turned against this very important part of the bourgeois ideals, the revolutionary ideals. We thought that Platypus could put these voices in conversation and thus make sense of the inherited defeats of the Left throughout the 20th century, by pointing out that these parts of the Left don’t speak to one another.
In his contribution to the Platypus Synthesis, “Four Types of Ambiguity”, Richard Rubin said that the ideal situation for Platypus would be, on the one hand, the Obama supporters and, on the other, the Spartacist League, so there would be less noise. Here we are in 2020, and what we have is the DSA and the New York Times. It makes me wonder who we are speaking to when we defend the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. It makes me wonder to what extent people want to learn. Does a new generation of hopeful Marxists want to learn about the American Revolution? If that’s not the case, are we just talking to ourselves?
I read Gregor Baszak’s piece in the American Conservative. It was a fine article, but I thought, are these the only people we can speak to? It does feel like a message in a bottle of some sort. It seems to me to be separated from the original entry of my own interest in the bourgeois revolutions through Platypus, which was this question of how to redeem this kind of liberal instinct, because that liberal instinct actually seems to be falling apart, as is shown by the New York Times, which is leading an anti-historical revolt, a sort of counter-revolution, against what we once thought was still potentially revolutionary, even in a kind of wishful thinking about the liberal tradition. The American Revolution lives and we continue but I wonder what we will make of the legacy of the American Revolution for future generations and whether we’re speaking to ourselves.
I want to end with a piece of history which I always found important. The Garrisonians, the Abolitionists, in the mid-nineteenth century, at one point considered disunion. It came up in 1837 with the annexation of Texas and flared up again in the Mexican-American War. Garrison burns the Constitution and calls it a covenant with the devil and with death. In 1845, the radical Charles Sumner, who goes on to become part of the Republican Party, has an argument with Wendall Phillips, who supports disunion. Sumner says to Phillips:
“Take your place among citizens, these are the weapons of a citizen in this just warfare. You already support the Constitution of the United States by continuing to live under its jurisdiction. You receive its protection, and owe it a corresponding allegiance. In simply refusing to vote or to hold office you proceed only half-way under your own theory. You should withdraw entirely from the jurisdiction; you should sever the great vivis cable of allegiance, not content yourself with cutting and snipping the humbler cords, by which some of your relations to the Constitution are regulated. But what new home will you seek? Where, in the uttermost parts of the sea, should you find a spot which is not desecrated by the bad passions of men, embodied in acts and forces of Government?”
If today people are saying, “Down with the constitution” and, “Topple George Washington”, what home will the future socialists seek?
Spencer Leonard: Thinking about the question of not producing a Marxist history of America, but viewing Marxism in light of the American Revolution, my talk raised that question to the highest, most immediately obvious, pitch because Marx was a figure in that discussion. But the purpose was not to endorse the American Civil War in light of Marx, but rather to see Marx as a figure in the light of the American Revolution — the way he himself framed matters. That is partly because many of the writings that I discussed were Marx’s contributions to American debates in American newspapers, where he was writing for no party, but it is also due to the way I discussed the formation of international socialism as a consequence really of the American Civil War internationally. That has been fudged in the history of socialism. You will commonly find Stalinist lies about this; for example, the extremely silly notion that an uprising in Poland was the occasion for the formation of international socialism. The occasion for the formation of the First International is unmistakably — as discussed by Karl Korsch, but simply internationally understood — the US Civil War and the imperial attempts to overthrow the American Republic in conspiracy with the Confederacy.
Marx chides his French and English so-called liberal, Leftist and socialist counterparts — Lassalle, Proudhon and many others — for their discounting of the significance of the American Civil War. He repeatedly quotes, translates at length, Americans into German and into the wider European public sphere without comment. In other words, he lets them speak for the international revolution. For instance, one entire article that he publishes in German is just a translation of a speech by Wendell Phillips about the necessity for the escalation of the American Civil War to a people’s revolutionary war which he thinks is on the verge of happening in the summer of 1862. I quoted at full length Marx’s address to Abraham Lincoln congratulating the people of America on his re-election in which he describes the epoch of modern revolution opening with 1776 and renewing in the course of the American Civil War. He’s saying that the American Revolution was the final mountain for imperialist counter-revolution to climb.
The counter-revolution of the coup-d’état [of Louis Bonaparte] of 1851 could not be complete so long as the American republic stood. The Mexican-American War — the counterpart to 1848 in the United States — was ambivalent whether it was an extension of an empire for liberty or an empire for slavery. Therefore, its aftermath really brings on the crisis that leads to the Civil War over that very question. So, the formation of this vast territorial expanse that is the United States, this continental country, this economic power-house, is a project of revolution which is in the balance in the 1850s, in the wake of the Mexican-American War.
The question of the vitality of the revolution can’t be adjudicated in terms of typical notions of bourgeois and socialist revolution when we look at the American Civil War. The American Civil War can be viewed as some kind of late bourgeois revolution, but ultimately that is inadequate. That’s what I was trying to signal by talking about the American Civil War — the Union cause — as an event that stood against international counter-revolution and turned that tide. The ambivalence of the institution of a society that involved labor forms that were worse than slavery and the crisis of international socialism are bound up together in the question of the destiny of the American Revolution.
Looking at the foundational documents in the history of Marxism, you can see that Chris’s question, “where does socialism stand in relation to the American Revolution?”, is the question Marx is asking. This is most clearly stated in the inaugural address to the First International where Marx is saying that the question of political power, of the necessity of proletarian political power, is raised by the American Revolution and is a task that has been placed by the American Revolution on the table of English trade-unionists and French anti-imperialists, the main constituents at that time of the First International, and that they cannot conceive their tasks in simply social terms, but must take up the question ultimately of proletarian political power. In its essence, more clearly even than the 18th century American Revolution, the American Civil War, properly understood — though never understood in this way — is a moment in the unfolding of world revolution, in the question of the reconstitution of that republic.
The revolutionaries at that time, as hard to imagine as it is, see no bottom to the potential of imperial regression. The revolution of 1848 commonly put into question for liberals the significance of the modern revolution itself. The revolution of 1848 threw into question the significance of 1789, and the American Civil War is a continuation of that questioning. Could the legacy of the 18th century be, in a sense, slave empire? Engels has a great retrospective where he says, “when we were in exile in the 1850s it seemed like imperialism would last for a thousand years.” Marx is hopeful when he argues that the coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte returns the state to its core of rule by force, that it returns the state to the character of the ancient pharaohs. The task of freedom, as made clear in the 1860s, is one of socialism or something “worse than slavery” as an entire civilizational inheritance of human history.
Reid Kotlas: I want to address a potential ambiguity my lecture may have left open, namely, that the Communist Party USA’s claim on the legacy of the American Revolution was made by leaders of the communist movement’s Right-wing, specifically Jay Lovestone and Earl Browder, and, hence, that any such claim should be considered a Right-wing gesture. The American Revolution should not be consigned to Browderism. Lenin’s assessment in his letter to American workers, which was obviously referring to Eugene Debs among others, should be taken seriously. He said: “The American people have a revolutionary tradition which has been adopted by the best representatives of the American proletariat who have repeatedly expressed their complete solidarity with us Bolsheviks. That tradition is the war of liberation against the British in the 18th century, and the Civil War in the 19th century.”
What I hoped to demonstrate was that despite Lenin’s judgement in 1918, the revolutionary tradition was subsequently adopted by the worst representatives of the American proletariat, specifically the Communist Party under Browder’s leadership. Although, this adoption occurred in response to the exhaustion of, and discontent with, the third period orientation and the brief reconsideration of the United Front before the shift to the Popular Front in 1935. It was not specifically related to the embrace of the New Deal at first, nor to the later support of the war effort, although it did end up serving to justify both of those positions.
The worst thing about Browder, his Right-wing character as it were, was his total pliability with respect to the demands of the Stalinist Comintern even where this led to absurdly abrupt changes in tack and, worse, to the liquidation of revolutionary socialism into the progressive capitalist statism of the Democratic Party. Ironically, to the extent that his legacy is remembered at all, it is usually condemned for the supposedly patriotic nationalist chauvinism of the Americanism campaign, rather than its opportunistic vacillation between anti-fascism — both the ultra-Left radicalism of the Third Period and the Popular Front-style apologia for the Democratic Party as the last bulwark against the fascist menace — and the anti-imperialism of the Hitler-Stalin-pact period, parameters that have defined the degenerative trajectory of the Left up to the present, and presumably will continue to do so for the indefinite future, unfortunately.
Browder’s Americanism didn’t prevent James Cannon and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party from also claiming the American Revolutionary tradition. Although they, rightly or wrongly, were not nearly as exuberant about it as either the Lovestonites in the late 20s or the Browderites in the 30s and 40s. But as much as we might admire Cannon, it’s not as if the Socialist Workers Party managed to provide the kind of revolutionary leadership it aspired to provide. It never even really came close. Cannon and his party may have been the best representatives of the American proletariat in this period but that sadly isn’t saying much other than to laud the consistency of their attachment to the critical perspective of Trotsky, in spite of its practical impotence as a political force. To what measure this had to be paid for with delusion is certainly an open question. Of course, even that consistency turned out to be impermanent.
In my lecture I had hoped to raise the question of why today, or in the future, the best representatives of the American proletariat, whoever they may turn out to be, and of the world proletariat as a whole for that matter, should adopt the revolutionary tradition, not of 1776 and 1865 — as they will inherit this legacy whether they want to or not — I wanted to raise the question, rather, of whether they should adopt the revolutionary tradition of Marxism in spite of its failure, degeneration, and disintegration. I hope to indicate that it is not the legacy of the American Revolution which must justify itself to the working class, but the legacy of Marxism, and that the latter will only be able to do so if it proves itself adequate with respect to the former legacy, as pointing the way forward to the next act of the great drama, to the inevitable third revolution whose necessity flows from the unresolved crisis of history beginning in 1848.
The question of whether Browder was right or wrong to embrace the legacy of 1776 — of whether such an embrace is therefore Right-wing or not — is wrong to begin with, and can only be answered wrongly. The problem with Browder is that he neither lived up to this legacy, nor to that of Marxism. He failed even as a bourgeois revolutionary — let alone a proletarian socialist. His party played no leading role in advancing the American Revolution towards socialism or anything else. But that no more invalidates the task of further advancing the American Revolution beyond its crisis in capitalism and of redeeming that legacy than it invalidates the task of proletarian socialism as understood by Marx and Lenin. Browder fell beneath the standards not only of Marx and Lenin but also of Lincoln and Jefferson. As such, he represented the failure and liquidation of Marxism that was affirmed under Stalin in the name of Marxism, and he likewise succumbed to the failure and liquidation of the bourgeois revolutionary heritage in capitalism precisely in embracing it while dutifully accepting Stalin’s capitulation to, and integration into, capitalist counter-revolution. Marxism must not serve to justify this liquidation of the bourgeois revolution or it thereby liquidates itself and its own aspirations as well. Rather, this legacy will only be put to rest in its redemption whatever that may ultimately require. This task will remain before humanity so long as we survive. If Marxism will not serve this redemption, fidelity to Marxism, no less than to the American Revolution itself, obliges us to ask, what will?
Richard Rubin: Since I wrote “The Four Types of Ambiguity”, which Pam mentioned, there’s been a general political degeneration. I was already speaking nostalgically when I spoke about liberals and Spartacists in 2009, and since then there’s been a deterioration in both. I agree with Pam’s meta-question about how that affects Platypus. I think that the general Right-wing trend has subtle effects not only on liberals and the Spartacists, but also on Platypus.
The general emphasis in Platypus is on the general continuity and unity of the bourgeois revolution. But there are individual bourgeois revolutions. I wonder to what extent you see differences, as well as continuity, specific to the American Revolution, both from those that preceded it — like the Anglo and Dutch revolutions — and also perhaps the French Revolution succeeding it.
Two of the dates that were set up in this whole series were the opposition between 1619 and 1776. If we move to a period that follows the period that was covered in this lecture series, namely, the Cold War — Chris’ quote from John F. Kennedy brought this up, as well as comments by Reid — couldn’t you say that after 1945 the two dominant states in the world were states that were born in revolution, the Soviet Union and the United States, in whatever deformed ways they represented those revolutions? Is there not a way that after 1945 the fundamental opposition in world politics begins to seem an opposition between 1776 and 1917? What is the relationship between those two dates?
CC: I think that it came up in one of the preceding lectures that in the 19th century the United States and Russia were seen, however differently, as resources, wellsprings for the counter-revolution. Russia as a political force of reaction in Europe, and the United States was a kind of pressure release valve for the European proletariat to emigrate to. Hegel, in his introduction to the Philosophy of History, observed that Russia and America were not in his consideration because they were the lands of the future. He left very unspecified what that meant, but we might assume that he meant they are the lands of the future of freedom since that was the subject of his lectures on the introduction to the philosophy of history. Certainly, the counter-position of 1776 and 1917 featured for the New Left, both the early New Left and figures who come out of the Trotskyist tradition, such as Raya Dunayevskaya, who wrote a book on “the spirit of 1776”, precisely as a Hegelian Marxist or Marxist-Humanist. This contention has been occasionally explicitly referenced, for instance in the John F. Kennedy quote from 1960 that I gave in my American Revolution and the Left public form panel discussion opening remarks.
But after the Cold War we don’t really have the juxtaposition of 1917 and 1776 any longer. Rather, we’re left with what Christopher Hitchens called, from the early days of Platypus, the “last surviving revolution” — the American Revolution — to which he dedicated himself in his émigré status, as a New Leftist who became an American citizen and champion of American democracy, American liberalism and the American Revolution.
I hope that we are not living in a completely different era now than when Richard, Ian and I spoke in 2009 on the Platypus Synthesis. That was right after the election of Barack Obama. I hope that we don’t think that politics has qualitatively degenerated only with the election of Donald Trump. I hope that we don’t concede to that canard, because I think that that would be a serious mistake.
At the same time, I do want to say something rather outlandish and provocative myself. The 2020 election promises to be quite tumultuous, and after 2016 we already had the specter of what James brought up: secession. People have said that now is the time, perhaps, for progressive liberal America to secede from conservative liberal America. Insofar as the results of the 2020 election might occur under some cloud of doubt, the specter of civil war is raised. I want to recall from comments from our panel back on the American Revolution in New York, that the US accomplishes through elections what in other countries requires civil wars, and in that respect every election is a little civil war, however peacefully conducted. We are looking at that in a particularly extreme form in 2020, precisely because, in many respects, the Democratic Party has never quite accepted the election results of 2016 and it would be an irony of history if the Democrats did lead a new secessionist movement that precipitated another civil war after 2020.
JV: Richard asked, “how does it differ from preceding revolutions?” The Dutch war of independence against the Spanish Empire is undertaken by existing institutions, existing political bodies. There’s a revolutionary constituent power in the English Civil War, the English revolution in the mid-17th century, but, ultimately, it’s defeated and rolled back. And the Glorious Revolution was undertaken by the existing political order. In the American Revolution, that revolutionary constituent power not only wins out but creates a new fundamental framework of government — i.e. the constitution. It does not return to the existing bodies: the state governments. It returns to the source of itself, the revolutionary constituent power, by holding popular conventions.
The majority of historians of the United States miss this. People talk about it as though it’s a union between states. No, that was the Articles of Confederation. The United States constitution is a union between people. That’s why Abraham Lincoln constantly calls it the people’s union. It is not a union between states. And if we think about regime changes, it is the only revolution in which that successfully happens in the epoch of the classical bourgeois revolutions. A version of that happens in the French Revolution but it itself ultimately collapses in restoration. Of the classical era, the pre-capitalist era, of bourgeois revolution, only in the American Revolution does the revolutionary constituent power have that success in not only constituting itself but reconstituting itself as a new regime and continuing on into modernity. Really, there’s no other revolutionary regime that has that inheritance in the world today. There’s no other regime that isn’t founded by the existing bodies of the previous regime but is actually founded by the revolutionary people themselves. In that sense, it’s unparalleled.
SL: If we want to talk about different bourgeois revolutions, what is distinctive about the American Revolution is the fact that it survives into the 19th century. The fact that it becomes this refuge for Europe from reaction, a character that it had that is then amplified, or intensified, by the defeat in 1848 and the massive waves of immigration of revolutionaries, of politically motivated immigration in the 1850s. The question of the relationship between the fact that it survived the global counterrevolution earlier, and the fact it proved — through immense sturm und drang — equal to its crisis, to the crisis of the 19th century, is a very profound historical question. In other words, what was it about the durability, the deep connection of the American people to the constitution, to the inheritance of the revolution, that lead them to fight so desperately to preserve the union, and to meet the crisis of the 1840s, in the way that they did, to preserve that revolution in some important critical sense? That question cannot be posed with reference to any other revolution. In 1776, in its endurance, and in its crisis and in some meaningful sense the survival of that crisis, it is international. It is inherently part of the world revolution.
RK: I want to address this question of the apparent conflict between 1776 and 1917, and the revolutions that those dates represent which sort of defines the later 20th century, the Cold War. That apparent conflict represents the elision of the underlying problem that haunts both the United States and the Soviet Union, and really the whole world, during the period, which is essentially an elision of what the problem of capitalism actually is. What was the problem of the 19th century, the period between 1776 and 1917? Of course, the regression of historical consciousness in the 20th century is summarized in the fact that capitalism is simply identified with bourgeois society, rather than being understood as the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations, and of the bourgeois revolutions.
In the Cold War, the United States represented capitalism —understood as a positive term rather than a critical concept — as the culmination, fulfilment and truth of the bourgeois revolution. Its historical importance is understood as capitalism rather than capitalism being understood as the self-destruction of that revolution’s significance, and the crisis of that process. Likewise, the Soviet Union is understood as anti-capitalism — its opposition to the capitalist pole — not as the overcoming of capitalism through its self-transformation, but as separation from and opposition to capitalism from without. But, at the same time, the Soviet Union actually represented the liquidation of socialism into a particular form of capitalist statecraft, a particular way of managing capitalism within the context of its endurance in the defeat of the socialist revolution — accommodation to defeat. This problem still hangs over us not simply because of the Cold War; it's the crisis of the regression of historical consciousness that made that war necessary, and that continues beyond its end.
PN: The decline of liberal ideas isn’t somehow spurred on by Trump, but maybe we misdiagnosed the character of liberals as early as 2009.
In “Four Types of Ambiguity”, Richard Rubin says, “the nature of social reality itself seems to become increasingly opaque, and the decline of Marxism is accompanied by a simultaneous disintegration of bourgeois culture itself, the ground out of which Marxism emerged”. We thought that was still alive in 2009. The disorientation that happened under Trump maybe shows that that was not the case. There’s a real question about what we expected our intervention to be in public discourse, in civil society, when there was this liberal tradition, and what we might imagine it to be now. Certainly, we’re not going to be smarter versions of Christopher Hitchens.
It’s somewhat old fashioned to ask, but I'm wondering how people respond to the issue that Socialism has always been historically weak in the US, and is this related to the American Revolution? It does appear that greater democracy in the US has made it such that parties like the SPD were not the right model. What is at issue? is American civil society different? Is it constitutional? Or, is it simply a deficiency in organizing?
In our summer reading group on Kautsky’s Marxism, I was very surprised to see Kautsky say that the Second International had thought at its inception that America would have one of the fasted growing parties, and this was halted by the Haymarket affair in 1886, when suddenly public opinion side-lined the socialists. I was also struck by Spencer and Pam pointing out that a lot of these revolutionaries and socialists came to America in the 1850s, and the First International does seem to play some sort of role in the American Revolution. Could you clarify the relationship of the First and Second International to the American Revolution and within America?
CC: There is an important parallel between our two different summer activities: our summer reading group on Kautsky’s Marxism and on Second International Marxism more broadly, and this lecture series on the legacy of the American Revolution. They complement each other in a particular way. When Kautsky said that the expectation of the growth of American socialism taking off more rapidly was contradicted or checked by the reaction against the Haymarket uprising, that's perhaps true in the 1880s but by the end of the 1890s and the early 1900s that had been reversed. The Socialist Party of America did grow very rapidly. It was belated in comparison to the SPD but their rapid growths are contemporaneous, in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Regarding the comparative weakness of American socialism, for instance as addressed by someone like Werner Sombart, the SPD has a much more proportionally significant place in German society and politics than the Socialist Party of America does in that era. But I wouldn't draw too sharp a distinction between the two because in the United States the Socialist Party of American was not merely a sect, it was not marginal the way we might imagine. I think that historical imagination is affected by later Stalinism. Stalinism starts the history of Marxism in 1917 and therefore the only significant socialist party in American history becomes the CPUSA, specifically the CPUSA of the 30s and 40s, before McCarthyism.
This willful neglect and forgetting of the Socialist Party of America before the first world war is tendentious and distorting in a particular way, and suppresses history in a particular way. This false memory hides the question of socialism behind the question of progressive liberalism and progressive capitalism. Of course, the Stalinists also claim that the New Deal is somehow a response to the pressure of American socialists or American communists, which is simply not true. It's far less true in 1932 and 1933 when FDR took office and implemented the New Deal, than it was in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt ran as a progressive. Theodore Roosevelt running as a progressive was less of a response to the growth of the Socialist Party of America than it was a response to the growth of capitalism itself and the political crisis it brought about. The Left likes to claim that progressive liberal reforms are a response to the pressure of socialists or communists but that's really a rationalization for their own social movement activist pressure tactics on elected officials which is essentially the model adopted by the Left ever since the 1930s Stalinist era continuing through the New Left and up to today.
PN: This came up in my lecture on Jacksonian democracy. We have to consider what we mean by “the socialists”. There are communal experiments. There are Fourierites, such as at Horace Greely’s New York Tribune — a major newspaper in the United states. Robert Owen’s factory model sat in the White House. There’s a rather rich civil society conversation between liberal reformers, labor reformers and socialists. Wendell Phillips defends the Paris Commune. There are marches through New York streets led by the communists in the 1870s. There’s a buried history which I dedicated myself to uncovering and certainly the Lassalleans are quite powerful already by the 1870s. It raises the question of what the socialists are for when the 1877 Great Railroad Strike comes out — are they going to lead? You see American politics responding to it in political cartoons because they feel the threat of an emerging social movement for socialism. The Stalinists rewrite the history of American socialism as socialism after 1917 eliding this deep history which is important to recognize: the emergence of revolutionary socialism which has to go through several phases and factional disputes and regroupments.
JV: I will give the reverse side of the coin as a provocation. I believe Chris raised the possibility in his Gilded Age lecture that socialism is the birth pangs of the second industrial revolution. In the early days of Platypus, we used to read Eric Hobsbawm’s histories of the 19th and 20th centuries. There was something very provocative in his fourth book, The Age of Extremes, about the short 20th century from WWI and the Russian Revolution to the full collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Hobsbawm at the end of a long life as a Stalinist, as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and one of the overseers of the translation of the Marx-Engels collected works into English, says in that book, in a kind of despairing moment, that it may be that Marxism only took hold as a function of the transition to modernity. And we do have to really raise that question: that Marxism, or more broadly socialism, really took root in only partially bourgeois areas of the world and not in the most fully bourgeois parts of the world. I’m not saying that to dismiss Marxism. We need to countenance that possibility. I say that in the spirit of Platypus that we all always talk about which is to concede nothing and to take nothing for granted. But we do have to confront the fact that Marxism may have just been the birth pangs of the transition to modernity; socialism may have been just the birth pangs of a second industrial revolution and that these things seem to have life they did in only partially bourgeois areas of the world. As Chris, Spencer and Reid have emphasized, we are thinking about Marxism in light of the American Revolution, not the American Revolution in light of Marxism.
CC: In that case, America would be the great exception. The history of American socialism goes all the way back to the early 19th century and does have a vital role in American civil life and maybe an indirect role in American political life, all the way up through WWI, in a way that it doesn’t really subsequently. If we are going to say that the American Revolution is the one that endures in the 19th century — it’s not about enduring today but enduring in the 19th century — not only liberal democracy as a political form, but bourgeois civil society is particularly vibrant in the United States in the 19th century, all the way up through the Gilded Age. Obviously, there is a certain brutality to the second industrial revolution in the United States but this doesn’t contradict the fact that the United States remains bourgeois society throughout that period. That is why the question of progressivism, of a kind of progressive statism, is dated to either Woodrow Wilson or FDR. In other words, it is a fairly late development and the vibrancy of American socialism coincides precisely in the historical era of the 19th and early 20th century in which you could say that civil society had the advantage over the state and its politics; and, loses that purchase in civil society precisely with the rise of a kind of statist, progressive liberal capitalism, first with Woodrow Wilson through WWI and then finally with FDR and the New Deal.
PN: The progressive politicians knew that that’s what they were doing. That was part of the lessons that they learned from the Europeans.
SL: This is why we handled the transition from the Civil War to the post-Reconstruction era in exactly the way that we did. It isn’t about agonizing over the fact that the Republican party was the party of capital. There are issues about the political resolution of Reconstruction and the fate of the freed slaves in the South, but that is very much itself a social question in the longue durée of the 19th century, in terms of the real fate of Reconstruction in the South. But the issue was not really the direct development of the Republican party into being a socialist party, that's really a misunderstanding of the political potential.
Chris said that you can say that the first party was Jefferson's Democratic Republican party. Aren’t the British Whigs the first real party, and Britain in the 18th century the first one-party state?
CC: Jefferson had to win the election of 1800 against a growing consensus among the ruling class, in terms of the John Adams administration and Alexander Hamilton and what becomes of Federalism, so he has to mount a political campaign in the election of 1800 that perhaps he didn't anticipate ever having to do when the Constitution was ratified in 1787 and 1788 and under the Washington administration.
This raises the question of what a political party is. It is the dominant party until its crisis, which Pam addressed, with its splitting and the rise of the new Jacksonian Democratic Party. That's why I distinguish between the first political party, because the Federalists didn't have to be a political party and there really is no place for political parties in the American Constitution in its original conception. It isn't set up to be a two-party system; it’s set up to be a no-party system. And yet it becomes a party system, first with this push to renew and properly interpret the Constitution through the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800, but then in a totally different way with the rise of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party.
It’s interesting that the party in the US that opposes the Andrew Jackson Democrats call themselves the Whigs, and are precisely harking back to a kind of non-party democracy — namely, that of the 18th century in the United Kingdom. It would be a little bit anachronistic to call 18th century Britain a one-party state, in the sense of what we take that to mean. I think that it would be more accurate to say that it's really a no-party state, in the sense of modern political parties.
JV: It is anachronistic to think of the Whig regime in 18th-century Britain as a one-party state. The Whig and Tory parties emerged in the 17th century in and around the struggle between crown and parliament. But they are emphatically not what Pam discussed with the Democratic Party, that is, a mass democratic party during the onset of capitalism. They are not really even the Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Furthermore, the Whigs have something like a permanent control of the British state because the monarchs prescribe Tories. Tories are not viewed as loyal subjects, as good defenders of the glorious revolution. The early Hanoverian monarchs explicitly say, “I don't care who wins the parliamentary elections, the king's servants” — because after all remember the government are his majesties leading servants — “they will be Whigs!” Therefore, everybody, in some sense, who is in government for most of the 18th century considered themselves a Whig, because to be in government one needs to be a defender of the Glorious Revolution and its principles and so politics really becomes a question of the content of that. What was the Glorious Revolution? What does it mean, what are its principles and the kind of ongoing development of society?
So, no, I would not call 18th century Britain a ‘one-party’ state in that sense. The American revolutionaries — Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and John Adams, for all of their later differences — did think of themselves as Whigs, as true Whigs as against what they had thought had become the false Whigs that were dominant in Britain.
Was not the main difference between the Democratic Party coalition in FDR’s day and today the trading away of the southern racist vote who filled their shoes?
CC: This is why I emphasized in my talk the fact that it’s utterly forgotten that the Republicans were the black party. That’s really the trade that occurs as a function of the Civil Rights movement. The Dixiecrats are abandoned in favor of the black vote. The Dixiecrats go from the Democrats to the Republicans and blacks go from the Republican to the Democratic Party. I would say that the difference between the Democratic Party of FDR’s day and today is that it has a black constituency that it didn’t have when FDR was elected, quite obviously.
But there was a black Republican patronage system, a very strong patronage system. They were given all sorts of jobs and offices in the federal bureaucracy throughout the US. When Woodrow Wilson is elected in 1912, there’s a kind of purge of the federal government of blacks and part of that is seen in the segregation of Washington D.C. which up to that point had not been segregated. People forget that Martin Luther King's father famously said he’d never vote for a Democrat.
Why doesn't Platypus start talking to the Right, since the Republican Party is ideologically bankrupt, and since the New Left is atrocious and undermining the country?
Pam, it might be nice to give a sense of why you despair at the thought that perhaps the only people reading us are the readers of American Conservative.
PN: In Platypus’ statement of purpose, we have an organization insofar as we’re interested in the history of the Left and the possibility for socialism. It’s not about being talking heads for an audience, historians for a group of people who may care about the American Revolution. We would do away with the goal of Platypus if that were the case. But it’s a real quandary. How do we sustain the mission of the organization given that within civil society there is a rejection of the bourgeois revolutionary ideals? We do, unfortunately, come off as somehow, I guess, smarter Hitchens types. But that’s nothing to aspire to, so we have to be careful in our own self-conception, certainly.
I remember watching Hitchens in 2006. We got a lot from these debates around the Iraq war. But, ultimately, we’re not trying to reconstitute some kind of New Right movement, like “ex-Marxists” that go to the Right. Richard also points that out in “Four Types of Ambiguity”. It’s always a kind of danger. I don’t want to have the repetition of “Well, maybe Hitchens didn’t leave the Left but the Left left him.” If that happened already then, we should know better. We’re not going to make the same mistake. We’re not interested in the Right, because, as Kolakowski says, it's the Left that is guided by utopia, and it's the Right who responds.
I am struck, because it's the end of this series, by who’s going to listen to this series and what’s going to happen with this knowledge that we’ve provided. What kind of historical education are we giving to new generations and how we can provoke the desire to learn. That’s a real problem but I don’t think we should be looking for it in Right-wing circles.
CC: We always recognized that someone like Christopher Hitchens was Right-wing. But we also recognized — and this is really the stakes of my Gilded Age article and the whole question of progressive liberalism versus conservative liberalism and where socialism fits into that — that since FDR, in fact, certainly since the New Left, the degree to which the Left abandons the struggle for freedom then that’s expressed by the Right. That’s why there’s the whole question of the New Right — neoliberalism and neoconservatism — both of which have roots before they emerge in the 1970s as a strong political force and feed into the Reagan revolution.
I always like to point out that, in a very literal sense, the neoliberals and neoconservatives are defectors from the Democratic Party. In other words, the Reagan revolution is really about dissent and defection from the ruling New Deal liberal progressive Democratic Party. There’s an anecdote about the famous Mont Pelerin society where Ludwig von Mises, a classical liberal libertarian type, shows up and screams, “You’re all socialists!” to people like Hayek and Milton Friedman, the ordo-liberals who became the neoliberals, because they had already accepted the prominent role of the state in society. They had already given in to progressive liberal capitalism. Even though they were dissenters from it in certain respects, they’d already conceded to it too much and therefore were already “socialists”.
This problem is really a long standing one. And I think it’s the one on which the Millennial Left was defeated. How is socialism fundamentally different from progressive liberal capitalism?
RK: I think it’s also worth pointing out that many of the leading intellectual figures of neoconservatism and neoliberalism in their inceptions up to their ascendency were not only former Democrats but also former socialists, communists, and Trotskyists.
I think it's worth recognizing that to the extent that we’re talking to anyone with a developed political perspective of any kind, we’re talking to the Right, because there is no Left! Of course, the question really asks, why don’t we start talking to the avowed Right, people who embrace the legacy of the political Right-wing of conservatism as something to uphold?
Our entire perspective on the nature of the distinction between Left and Right in Platypus is informed by Kolakowski’s recognition that the Right doesn’t have a positive content unto itself but it’s defined by its opportunistic appropriation of whatever ideas and, really, tactics are necessary to accommodate itself to the prevailing status quo. For that matter, to the extent that people still embrace the legacy of the Left today, they embrace it for Right-wing reasons, for conservative, and even reactionary reasons. You only need to look at how many people under the age of 30 today on the internet will embrace Stalin as a revolutionary figure, for example.
That doesn’t mean addressing people that are attached to the legacy of the Left is a dead-end. If that were a dead-end it would pose the question of whether our project is worth pursuing into the future at all. I'm always reminded when thinking about this question of the Socialist Party of America’s platform of 1904, in which the Socialist Party announced itself to the American public by embracing the legacy of the American Revolution, and the defense of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and declared itself as the only conservative force defending this legacy in the country. In other words, explicitly embracing the conservatism of its appeal but not, as it were, simply preserving the status quo as necessary. They saw a conservative attitude to this legacy as itself revolutionary. That raises this question of whether people on the avowed Right are embracing things like the American Revolutionary tradition for revolutionary reasons against the perceived reactionary role of socialism and communism, as simply a statist absorption of society, and tyranny over the public and so on.
I just want to point out that people embracing the Left today are not the Left. There’s a reason we refer to them as the dead Left. They aren’t the Left. And people that embrace the Right today, maybe they do want to embrace the Left at some level. There’s maybe some of them. But we’re not going to make that appeal by engaging them as the Right, in terms of the tradition of the Right. It’s only by pointing out how perhaps some of the things that they are themselves laying claim to, are really legacies of the Left and not the Right.
PN: Let me just clarify. Obviously, we think that the existing Left is an obstacle to the possibility of socialism. When we talk about the conservation of freedom, American freedom, I just want to emphasize again that I don’t think we’re going to find, as Chris likes to put it, “the human material” for the future of Marxism in existing conservative circles so we have to create the conditions. Otherwise we would be giving up on the mission of Platypus as well. “The Gramsci-ist cultural Marxists” in the universities are clearly obstacles to the revolution. But so are the young conservatives. It’s not like we can’t win people over because they’ve been miseducated by the academic Leftists, so we’ll move to this other milieu. That would undermine our own mission as well. If the mission is more difficult, we have to think about how we create the conditions for a future generation of Leftists. But the mission is the Left.
SL: There’s a connection between these two questions: the idea of talking to the Right — meaning not talking to Democrats. Embedded in that is this issue of the liquidation of the Left into the Democratic Party and its connection to the issue of the FDR coalition abandoning its Dixiecrat base.
The Democrats became the party of governance in the United States when they replaced the Republicans after more than half a century at the federal level. The whole project of Jim Crow was essentially at odds with the federal government under the Republicans, until FDR constitutes the Democratic Party as the party of governance in the United States, and, in that sense, really brings the legacy of treason to the American Revolution into the heart of the state. That legacy of treason endures after the Dixiecrats leave. That’s what we mean when we say that we live under the government that was erected by the New Deal that was only modified under neoliberalism. There are other emphases involved in that too, but that was not changed by the New Left’s transformation of the constituency basis of party politics in the United States.
CC: Right,the northern Democratic Party, which continues, is also the party of the anti-draft riots during the civil war in which blacks were set upon by violent mobs.
To the extent that we recognize that Marxism should be judged by the standards of 1776, rather than that 1776 should be judged by the standards of Marxism, are we not relinquishing Marxism as the determinant of our philosophical, historical, and political perspectives?
CC: Well, 1776 can’t survive unaltered in capitalism. The question is, what does Marxism mean to bourgeois freedom? Is it the negation of bourgeois freedom? Or is it rather the fulfilment of bourgeois freedom? Well, really that's the question of capitalism. Reid pointed out the fact that when, during the Cold War, the United States became the upholder of capitalism, the question of bourgeois freedom was submerged in a particular way. I would modify something about that, which is to say that in the Cold War, the East bloc called the West bloc “the fascist bloc”. And the West called the Eastern bloc “red fascism”. They both upheld the revolution but accused the other of betraying the revolution. That second part is really important.
Marxism remains important insofar as capitalism is a specific problem. If, however, capitalism is not a specific problem, in other words, if the problem of today’s society is not capitalism but white supremacy, for example, then neither 1776 nor Marxism are relevant. Our point is that Marxism is only relevant if we’re living in bourgeois society in crisis in capitalism and not living in white supremacy. If we’re living in white supremacy, then of course Marxism is irrelevant because the bourgeois revolution is irrelevant.
In what ways do the bourgeois revolutionaries give license to the self-transformation of their own movement? Marxism may be incoherent from their perspective (pre-crisis, pre-industrial revolution) but I assume they still had a sense that this revolution would last beyond them. In what ways?
JV: Yes, they give a license to the self-transformation of what they’re creating. For my second lecture, I referred to George Washington’s circular letter on disbanding the troops of the continental army in 1783. He essentially says something, which was popularized by Christopher Hitchens in our own era, that this was the first Enlightenment revolution. We have a view of the Enlightenment, largely thanks to postmodernism, as if what is being suggested is that there's some achievement of a final end state or eternal state. No, it's not that at all. One of the central conclusions of the Enlightenment is that we’re on a ship at sea, and we don’t have a compass or map, that someone else has given us to figure out where we’re going. Together, we the passengers, will have to figure out where we’re going. Who knows what lands or areas we’ll arrive to? Who knows what freedom makes possible? The Enlightenment and the American Revolution, as the first and only lasting achievement politically of the Enlightenment, is precisely an open-ended process.
Think of the quotes from Jefferson that Chris gave in his lecture about the mystery of the Declaration of Independence and the pursuit of happiness. He didn’t promise happiness, he only promised its pursuit. Because to promise happiness would’ve been to promise finitude: some definite sense of what life could be for us as individuals and collectively together. The pursuit of happiness is an open-ended pursuit. It’s infinitude. There’s an open-ended sense. To speak of this in a more mundane way, the Constitution is not meant to be a once-and-for-all Ten Commandments tablet, it's meant to be a framework for society constantly transforming itself, and there was an expectation by many of them that there would be in fact further revolutions. They absolutely do give a license to continuing transformation.
RK: Kant said we don’t live in an Enlightened Age but in an Age of Enlightenment. In other words, the process of Enlightenment is constantly ongoing. It’s a constant process of overcoming our self-incurred immaturity. Rather than finally putting an end to that process, we live in an age in which that process is unfolding. Of course, he also said that the achievement of a universal cosmopolitan civil society would only be the halfway mark in the process of human history, rather than its end state — the halfway mark that we have yet to even reach in his day.
PN: Jefferson wrote to Frances Wright about the experiments in freedom. You can see there that Jefferson is open to considering the goals of the revolution in the new social conditions of the 19th century. I think that that’s lost to people, somehow.
Chris raised whether we’re living in capitalism or white supremacy. In the panel on “Police brutality and the Left”, Andrea Pritchet, who is ostensibly the liberal on the panel, rejected the formulation that police are specific to unemployment in capitalism, and she said that the police predate capitalism, that they are in any kind of society that’s built in hierarchy and compulsion, and that It doesn’t necessarily have to be coupled with capitalism. I thought, wow, there's no recognition that we live in a new epoch.
James’ first two lectures were both very exciting for the viewers, but also kind of baffling, because he proposed an epochal transformation. I find sometimes that is the most difficult argument to make as a Platypus member when you’re speaking to someone, when you’re appealing to their reason: that capitalism is bourgeois society in crisis, and it’s not just the extension of compulsion and hierarchy. I wonder to what extent that makes our thesis of the American Revolution a difficult one. That there's a fundamental misrecognition about the epochal transformation that makes the American Revolution possible. And that people just see it as an expression of a hierarchical oppressive system, and we’re stuck in making the claims that we make.
Richard Rubin: If one accepts the diagnosis that everything is Right-wing because the Left is dead, is Platypus in some sense already Right-wing like everything else?
RK: In “What is a Platypus?”, we recognize that Platypus itself is part of the dead Left and can’t distinguish itself as if we’re somehow free of the problem that the dead Left exhibits in its continuous regression.
RR: But, surely, we show different symptoms?
RK: We aspire to attain a level of self-consciousness of the problem that is not present among the Left or the Right.
RR: Is the question “Is Platypus in danger of becoming Right-wing?” a misplaced question?
RK: I think the danger is that we simply remain beholden to the problem of being assimilated to the status quo and being Right-wing in that sense. We’re not going to be able to overcome that problem, we can only register the problem and raise consciousness of it. Overcoming that problem is not something that we can do, because we’re not a political project seeking to reconstitute the Left directly.
CC: I would say, also, about the colloquial sense of Right-wing — Reid, you brought up the avowed conservatism of the Socialist Party of America and it’s 1904 platform, meaning that it sought to conserve the values of the American Revolution. When Platypus first started, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago simultaneously, the students at SAIC who were involved in starting Platypus were told by one of my colleagues, one of the faculty members there, “Oh, Platypus is trying to take us back 50 years?” So, conservative in that sense. My response to that was: “A hell of a lot longer than that! I want to take us back 100 years.”
In this respect, built into our project is an emphasis on the question of history and how the past critiques the present, how the past surpasses the present, and consciousness of that. I think in the colloquial sense we’re already seen as conservative, or as reactionary. I’m often called a reactionary and what’s meant by that is that I want to take the Left back to some older style, more precisely, before the new social movements. Whether it's 50 years or 100 years, the accusation is that you want to undo the New Left. Yes! So, is that Right-wing? What would be Right-wing about that? Especially if the Socialist Party of America was trying to reclaim 1776 in 1904, does that mean they want to turn back the 19th century? Well, of course, in some ways they do: they want to overcome the effects of capitalism. And we want to overcome the effects of the 20th century, absolutely. But, as Reid just pointed out, because we’re not a political project, we never aimed to do it ourselves, but rather to perform a necessary function in facilitating the possibility of that happening.
PN: There is the thesis of regression. Platypus doesn’t just want to goback. We are not the Spartacist League, upholding orthodoxy and mischaracterizing the barbarism that has been accumulated through the 20th century. That leaves us in a difficult position. In some respects, it would be easier if we just upheld Lenin somehow. But it's Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Adorno. How do we deal with the deep regression that we find ourselves in? How does the Adorno part of our project impact how we now act in civil society? How do we actually make inroads, given that the regression is so deep, recognizing that there’s something new in the present as a result of regression?
CC: Adorno called this the dialectic of progressive and conservative viewpoints. Also, we should just admit that Adorno’s usually seen as Right-wing, or at least conservative. But he’s seen as Right-wing in the sense of a kind of cultural mandarin, someone stuck in the 19th century — very anachronistically because of course he’s a 20th-century person. Also, interestingly, Lenin is often characterized as some kind of hold-over from the 19th century as well, as a conservative-bourgeois type of person in his sensibility.
It's all very loaded and, again, the legacy of the New Left is actually quite deep, in the sense that the Left is seen as necessarily counter-cultural, and if you’re not counter-cultural, then you’re Right-wing and you’re conservative in the pejorative sense. That is the legacy of the New Left’s own antinomianism, its own counter-culture but also more politically it’s the way that the cultural revolution, the Maoist cultural revolution, was taken up as a model, very broadly.
SL: It’s unfortunate that this question should arise in relation to a lecture series on the American Revolution. I think it relates somewhat to this idea that judging Marxism from the perspective of the American Revolution means judging Marxism from the perspective of “bourgeois revolution”, and from the perspective of “liberalism”. I think that’s very tricky, because it assumes that those categories are available in some obvious way: that bourgeois revolutionary thought or liberalism exists.
This refers to what Pam was talking about before: the idea that there might be liberals to talk to. Whereas in fact there is no such thing as a liberal. There are bourgeois social relations and the kind of thoughts that people incoherently and in fragments and in shards come back to, but it’s never a coherent liberalism.
Even in the 19th century, this was understood, and it was understood in the American Revolution. The reason I selected the particular documents that I selected in relation to my lecture, especially from Abraham Lincoln, is that Lincoln is recognizing that something wrong has happened and that liberalism is somehow in crisis. Slavery was the most obvious symptom of this. The way in which it was set in train of ultimate extinction in the revolution had failed and reversed. He didn’t think “Now we have to take on this beast and set it on the train of ultimate extinction because it's a task that was ignored.” It was a task that was addressed, in all sorts of ways. As well as the Northwest Ordinance, there are many other examples of the way in which this was the legacy of the 18th century. In my own lecture, I mentioned the fact that Lincoln thought that the idea that you would expand slavery into new territories was something foreign, as he put it, not only to all the signers of the Constitution and all of the revolutionary patriots, but, as he said in the Cooper Union speech, to everybody in the 18th century.
PN: I was not saying that there are liberals to talk to, but that in 2009, we understood our own intervention in civil society. There was a reason, for example, why Danny Postel was in our panel, “What is Imperialism and why should we be against it?”. We thought that he was the rad-lib, not the upholder of some kind of classical liberal tradition. We thought that among the Left we were also speaking to these people and that it would help us triangulate a conversation or intervention.
I was trying to contrast that moment of the founding of the organization and Richard’s article to 2020, where the ostensible rad-libs are the New York Times, and part of the constituency of the DSA, and how maybe we’ve misdiagnosed how this rad-lib milieu was going to help us advance the mission of Platypus. Here they are, in the post-Obama moment, completely collapsed, undoing some of the values that at one point they seemed to be so married to: having civil society discourse, free exchange of ideas, basic things. That leaves us with a new terrain.
CC: Even when Richard invoked the Nation magazine as the Right-wing of the Left and the Spartacist League as the Left-wing of the Left, the Nation magazine was no longer what it used to be. Adolph Reed, my old mentor, used to write for the Nation, but then he had a falling out with Katrina vanden Heuvel and the editorial mandate of the Nation magazine became more inimical to an Adolph Reed perspective. He saw that as a caving in to the racial politics of the Democratic Party which it, of course, was. When we see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writing for the New Yorker and we see Bhaskar Sunkara writing regular op-eds in the New York Times, I think that it’s nothing new. I think rather that something has been revealed, that already was the case when Platypus started out. Of course, when we said the Left was dead, when we started out in 2006-2007, we were saying liberalism, social democrats, Marxists, Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, were all dead in this respect. The reason that we wanted to include the broad Left was to include all of the symptoms of the death of the Left and our consideration of the historical legacy of the failure of Marxism and the disintegration — liquidation — of socialism. It is very unfortunate if we allow the suspicion that the very topic of the American Revolution is somehow Right-wing.
PN: I don’t think that anyone’s saying that. But the breakdown of the symptomatology of the rad-libs in that broader Left means a difficult terrain for us. I think we need to recognize that. We were never talking to Danny Postel to try to turn him into a Platypus member. But he certainly did something in the panel. And he’s just one example. The fact that there is a disintegration of that part of the Left raises new questions about how to present the problem of Marxism. It’s not about steadying the road or just moving ahead, but we have to consider how we make our intervention, to talk about the defeat of the Left in the 20th century.
SL: At the time of the founding of Platypus there were a lot of symptoms on a spectrum between the Nation and the Spartacist League, people like Andrew Arato, who’s since been cancelled at his own university, the New School in NYC, and Paul Berman, who was voicing extreme skepticism around the anti-war movement in a different way than Hitchens, who was also a writer for the Nation at the time that Adolph Reed was writing for it. There was a whole range of phenomena at that time that didn't take the Bush administration, war in Iraq plunge that Hitchens took, but in many ways signaled a kind of discontent that foreshadowed what we’re seeing now, in terms of deep reservations about the hostility towards the legacy of the American Revolution.
What’s changed is the remarkable fact that Donald Trump got up and gave a speech a few months ago declaring that the Democratic Party was hostile to the American Revolution, and it was essentially unanswered by the Democratic Party. That a one-sided conversation is kind of incredible. That indicates a sea change which we experience as the passing of a generation. I’m not sure that what the millennials or zoomers think today is so stably held. It's a legacy of the New Left that’s undigested and less coherent. Maybe, there’s some kind of opportunity in that incoherence. |P
Transcribed by Grant Tyler, Jonny Black, Fleet Simmons, and Ryan Mickler.
 Chris Cutrone, “Republicans and riots: The Left in death, 1992 and 2020,” Platypus Review (July-August 2020), available online at https://platypus1917.org/2020/07/01/republicans-and-riots/
 Richard Rubin, “The Platypus Synthesis: Four types of ambiguity,” (panel discussion, Platypus Affiliated Society International Convention, Chicago, June 2009), transcript available online at https://platypus1917.org/2009/06/14/the-platypus-synthesis-four-types-of-ambiguity/
 Gregor Baszak, “How woke politics keeps class solidarity down,” The American Conservative, (June 2020), available online at https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-woke-politics-keeps-class-solidarity-down/
 Charles Sumner, 4 February 1845, (4941) Phillips, Wendell, 1811–1884 (98 letters, 1 telegram, 18–18, 7 folders) in Charles Sumner Correspondence, 1829–1874 (MS Am 1), Houghton Library, Harvard University. Wendell Phillips makes the case for disunion in The Constitution a Pro-slavery Compact: Or, Extracts from the Madison Papers, etc. (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1856).
 V.I. Lenin, “Letter to American Workers,” in Collected Works Vol. 28, ed. & trans. Jim Riordan, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965) 62-75, available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/20.htm
 Chris Cutrone, “The American Revolution and the Left,” Platypus Review (March 2020), available online at https://platypus1917.org/2020/03/01/the-american-revolution-and-the-left/
 Rubin, op. cit.
 Platypus Affiliated Society, “Kautksy’s Marxism,” (summer reading group series, Platypus Affiliated Society, international, June 2020), reading list available at https://platypus1917.org/2020/05/09/summer-2020-readings-kautskys-marxism/
 Platypus Affiliated Society, What is a Platypus? (Chicago: The Platypus Affiliated Society, 2007), available online at https://platypus1917.org/project/what-is-a-platypus-english/
 Kevin Anderson, Chris Cutrone, Nick Kreitman, Danny Postel, and Adam Turl, “Imperialism: What is it, why should we be against it?” Platypus Review (July 2010), available online at https://platypus1917.org/2010/07/09/imperialism-what-is-it-why-should-we-be-against-it/