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The politics of critical theory

Chris Cutrone, Dennis Graemer, Douglas Kellner, Doug Lain

Platypus Review 140 | October 2021

On April 3, 2021, at the Platypus Affiliated Society International Convention, Platypus presented this panel, which included panelists Chris Cutrone (Platypus Affiliated Society), Dennis Graemer (Association for the Design of History), Douglas Kellner (UCLA, author of Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism), and Doug Lain (Zer0 Books). Omair Hussain of Platypus moderated the panel, the video of which can be seen at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xo2WOy7vgN4>. What follows is an edited transcript.

Opening remarks

Dennis Graemer: The panel is called “The politics of critical theory,” and I would begin with a provocation and say that what we need to do is not really a politics of critical theory, but instead a politics of Marxism. For everyone to get on the same page: when we talk about critical theory in this context, we don’t mean the broader term often employed in the American or British discourse, but we refer to the Frankfurt School: Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, maybe Erich Fromm, these kind of characters. One of the most important aspects of critical theory, especially in the Adorno-Horkheimer current, is the separation of theory and practice. That is connected in some way with a strong emphasis on what has been called “subjective factor,” “consciousness,” and criticism of what they call “vulgar materialism,” which are points that basically go back to Lukács and his History and Class Consciousness. Even though critical theory has provided us with many important insights, especially with regard to the theory of fascism, what we observe here is some kind of deviation from the original Marxism. The critical task today is therefore to uncover the proper materialist understanding of Marx, Engels, and Luxemburg.

What does this mean? Most leftists today seem to subscribe to the belief that theory is the prime mover of class struggle, and that the problem with our current situation is that people are not radical enough, that they are caught up in some democratic-socialist or social-democrat illusions and that the lack of theoretical insight in the Left and the masses is basically the reason why things don’t move in our direction. We have to educate the people and make them understand that they have to not just fight for some small trade-unionists gains, or a little bit more minimum wage, but that they should strive for socialism. This is a rather misguided view of what is actually happening. While for Marx “being” determines “consciousness,” for the majority of the contemporary Left, according to this prevailing view I just described, “consciousness” determines “being.”

I will quote Chris Cutrone, who has said that “there is no labor movement without the struggle for socialism.” What we at ADH (Association for the Design of History) would say is that: No, it’s the opposite. There is no struggle for socialism without the labor movement; the material base of society and the development of class struggle determines the prevailing ideas that people hold or that people can hold. It would be futile to just try to change people’s ideas. Marx called this “Bewusstsein Kritik” in his The German Ideology (1846) — “criticism of consciousness” which he makes fun of, and says, “no, no, don’t these people understand that consciousness arises from material conditions?” It’s not just something you can criticize and then suddenly things change.

The struggle for socialism has to be understood — this would be our point — as a certain phase or stage of development of the labor movement. To quote Marx: “the proletariat goes through various stages of development, with its birth begins its struggle with the bourgeoisie.”[1] The basic existence of the proletariat as an economic class in-itself already implies it’s in a precarious relationship with the bourgeoisie, and this is the basic insight of Marxism, that this kind of objective opposition has to be accelerated in a way that leads to the struggle for socialism.

The struggle for socialism is basically only possible if the proletarian struggle for its immediate economic interests has reached a certain stage of development. We have to view it like a dynamic process, a process which can by some contingencies be held back or even retarded in a way that the development stage goes down, but it can also be accelerated in a way that the class struggle gains intensity. It’s an objective thing, it’s not just something that depends on the ideas that we as leftists have, right? It’s something that’s out there in society.

What does it mean concretely? I will shortly talk about four points. The first point is the practical experience of opposition. Let’s say there are some workers in a factory or in a media company or whatever: They unite to fight for better wages, shorter working hours, some other working-condition improvement. This would give them in their struggle a practical opposition between their collective interest and the company they are working for. The relationship between proletariat and bourgeoisie becomes something that can be immediately apprehended in this struggle. Whereas, before they didn’t even maybe think about it, but if they start to fight for their interests, this opposition is something they subjectively experience. Secondly, the building of solidarity, which comes with this collective organization. Thirdly, the emergence of organizations, basically labor unions which can either gain new vitality or just be founded as new organizations — it depends on the situation. And fourthly, the fighting spirit of the masses, their confidence in their ability to win, which is necessary for accelerating this kind of class-struggle process.

All of these things can only develop through struggle, and specifically through victory in struggle. Even first victories that are purely trade unionist — i.e., non-socialist victories — would still accelerate this objective tendency of class struggle. Luxemburg wrote about this:

Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. […] The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval; it forms, so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength.[2]

We should also not think that there’s a purely trade-unionist economic struggle, and then there’s the political struggle for socialism: they form a continuum of the development of the class struggle, whereas class consciousness is an emanation of the development of class struggle. There is, to use the language of cybernetics, a positive feedback loop between victory, working-class strength, and more victory. The principal task of the Left would then be to help kickstart this positive feedback loop.

What does it mean in practice? It means that we must engage not in propaganda, but in agitation and practical support. Our goal is not to make everyone a Marxist immediately, but to help the workers to win, which will create the material basis of everything that is to follow. In the current situation where the working class has really been destroyed by neoliberalism, where there’s no real organization and stuff like this, we cannot just demand that everyone must be a Marxist. First, we as Marxists must intervene in these struggles, try to get them to the point where they gain this self-accelerating dynamic.

To quote Lenin, we must “soberly follow the actual state of class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class (not just its communist vanguard), and all of the working people (not only their advanced elements).”[3] Revolutionary socialism is the necessary consciousness of the proletariat in class struggle at a certain stage, which means — this will be my final point — that the Left now has to found organizations of organizers, like trade-union organizers. We shouldn’t fall into the pitfall of either saying, “we do trade unionism for its own sake, and we are just opportunists who just try to improve the situation of the working class a little bit,” or, “we are revolutionists who immediately advocate or propagandize for expropriating the means of production.” We have to view it as a material process of building class solidarity and building the proletariat from a class in-itself into a class for-itself. This is the basic strategic task of the Left right now, and it requires some kind of abandonment of the “idealism” that is implicit in critical theory. We have to go back to a more properly Marxist, materialist understanding of class struggle and the role of consciousness with regard to this struggle, and the primacy of the material, the development of the class.

Doug Lain: What I’m going to do is reflect on the atomization of the Left by telling my own story. Usually when I’m listening to a panel like this and someone starts by talking about themselves I tune them out, so I hope people won’t be tuning me out.

I want to push against the idea that critical theory is newly of interest to the Left. I would actually say that it’s truly difficult to say what is the major trend in the Left right now and overall outside of major crises. It would be a major trend on the Left to be concerned about Greece at a certain point, or it would be a major trend to be upset about a foreign war, but what theoretical apparatus people are turning to to understand these things is impossible to say in a lot of ways.

I came to critical theory through a podcast. I started podcasting in 2009. It was after the economic crisis. I was a struggling writer working at a Comcast call center and discovered that podcasts exist when I won an iPod in a sales contest, and so decided to start a podcast. When I started out I’d been a science-fiction writer and some kind of weird Leftist for a long time. I had run a fish for president in 1992 on the Random Surrealist ticket. No one noticed but I had made some pamphlets and zines about it. My politics was eclectic, it was weird — subjectivist, anarchist in a way, influenced by the Situationists. But when the 2008 crisis came along I realized I didn’t have a good understanding of how society worked, that the politics I had embraced were not of much use. I was worried about having a job and also whether or not the New York publishing world would just evaporate. So I started a podcast and started interviewing Marxists — it’s important to note, also psychedelic warriors and New Age gurus and liberal journalists, just an array of people who had any kind of vision of a different society. My thinking then was that some of these weird fringe groups that existed like the psychedelic community were really coming out of the Left anyway, that they were what happened to the utopian drive after the failure of the 60s. I was somewhat consciously trying to reintroduce Marx — not Marx, but at least anti-capitalism to these kinds of people.

But after a while I became interested in critical theory. I studied philosophy in college as an undergraduate and I realized that the kind of interviews I was doing weren’t particularly helpful, that I needed to go deeper. I read Slavoj Žižek, and I read Althusser, and I read and talked to Andrew Kliman, and I eventually joined the Marxist-Humanist Initiative for a little while. At that point I thought that the key was understanding not the culture but political economy. I should point out — to defend myself for having this sort of “idealist” conception of society — if you look to someone like Grace Lee Boggs who was a member of the Johnson-Forest tendency, friends with C.L.R. James, and wrote some very serious work on state capitalism, by 2012 she was sounding not that different from a New Ager herself. There’s a conversation with her and Angela Davis where she said, “what the Left needs to do now is study our own interior life and change our attitudes.” I’m paraphrasing. We were up against it well before 2008 ideologically or in our own self-conception, certainly in the Pacific Northwest. But I was satisfied at that time to just try to reconceive what the struggle for socialism was about, and what needed to be changed, and how capitalism worked, and what society was.

But when Trump was elected, the fact that these ideas no longer had a political form that could be recognized in the world seemed to really be consequential. There was a feeling like, we have to hurry up and develop a politics. The only thing that was there was the Sanders campaign and the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). I didn’t join the DSA, and I was not fully onboard with Sanders, but I wasn’t completely allergic to that turn either. In the meantime I started being the publishing manager at Zero Books, so my little podcast had landed me a job. I thought that during the Trump years the key was now to understand this capitalism I thought of in terms of the categories from Marx and Capital, how capital became political, how it shaped our politics. I was still thinking in this linear way: there’s capitalism, there’s the base that does something and creates the superstructure, and then the superstructure rotates around and creates capital. Probably the truth is that politics comes first in that chain, but out of a different material base. The point is that it’s not very simple to understand how political economy creates our culture.

But that’s what I think critical theory is about. Critical theory is about being in exactly that position that I was in. Maybe only people like Horkheimer and Adorno were much smarter and much more engaged, but nonetheless being in this position of failure and trying to understand how this system of capitalist production, the life that that generates is maintaining itself and what has happened to socialism, what has happened to even the bourgeois project of human emancipation. That’s what I feel like we’re still trying to do at Zero Books. I don’t think the project is fundamentally different today than it was when Trump was elected, although the Left is, what is out there is the Left that deludes into thinking it is the form that theory is taking in action. That’s changed.

The letters between Adorno and Marcuse are really interesting because you can see that they have a Left that was a little bit better than the one we have now. I don’t think Marcuse would be arguing with Adorno if he was writing to Adorno today about something similar at the university. There wouldn’t be any question or terms to argue around that the students deserved to be kicked out of the room. I don’t think there would be debate there that the New Left was better than what we have today for some reason. We should probably think about that.

I am feeling like I am sounding very much like a Plat here. I want to point out that I am not a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, and I just want to point that out because I do think that one of the risks that we run when we try to conceive of a new party form or when we try to conceive of a politics is that we will leave out understanding that material basis of society and working through the way it functions. Bringing our understanding of both the politics and the material base together and seeing their interaction is still what I think the task of critical theory is today, and it’s unfinished.

Douglas Kellner: I was asked to speak on the relationships of Karl Korsch and Herbert Marcuse to Marxism, and in particular I was asked to address the issues raised by contemporary theory and politics in my books Karl Korsch: Revolutionary Theory (1977) and my other book Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (1984). So basically that’s what I’ll talk about today starting with Marxism.

Ironically, or interestingly, my first teaching job was to teach philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin in 1973, and I was asked to teach Marxism. It was perhaps the only university in the United States which had a position that required Marxism courses, etc. That’s where I landed in 1973 and I was hired there because I had a German government fellowship and studied two years in Germany, including with Ernst Bloch, and I also spent a year in Paris afterwards using my paper-route money. I listened to the lectures of Foucault, of Levi Strauss, of Derrida, of Jean Baudrillard, so I had basically 50 years of cultural capital from critical theory and Marxism that I had studied in Germany, and the French theory that turned out to be later called “postmodern” theory that I wrote a trilogy of books on in the 1980s. So that’s my background in academia.

When I was teaching Marxism at the University of Texas I was into critical Marxism, or neo-Marxism, which was Georg Lukács the Hungarian Marxist, Karl Korsch the German Marxist, Antonio Gramsci an Italian Marxist, and then the Frankfurt School and critical theory in particular, Marcuse and Adorno. As it turns out, there were three books published at the time when I was teaching Marxism on Lukács. My friend, Carl Boggs, was writing a big book on Gramsci. There were several books by Martin Jay and others on the Frankfurt School. So I thought I would do my first book on Karl Korsch.

I was having a meeting in 1975 with the head of the University of Texas Press, and they had just started a Marxism series of books and gave me a contract to do Karl Korsch. Two years later my first book, Karl Korsch: Revolutionary Theory, came out. Korsch wasn’t a member of the Frankfurt School; he was on the fringes of the Frankfurt School. He actually taught Marxism to Felix Weil who funded the Frankfurt School and as it turns out both Marcuse and Korsch – they hadn’t met – but they were in the German Revolution of 1918 in different capacities, and both of them had to emigrate from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. So they had some similarities but also differences.

Korsch was ten years older than Marcuse. He was born in a rural village near Hamburg in 1886. He went to study philosophy — both Marcuse and Korsch were philosophy students — in Munich, Geneva, and Berlin universities. Korsch, though, decided to get his law degree at Jena University, which was the same university that gave Karl Marx his doctoral dissertation in the 1840s. When Korsch was not involved with his studies he was involved in the free student group that was basically like SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) or the Occupy movement — it was sort of a radical student group trying to reform the university and society. He was the head of the newspaper; he was leading the socialist-speakers group that brought people like Eduard Bernstein and Karl Liebknecht, two of the top Marxists of the time, to lecture. Karl Korsch was, from his student days to his death, an activist, a revolutionary socialist, or Marxist.

World War I erupted in 1914, so Korsch’s student days were interrupted. Although Korsch was anti-war and a pacifist, he served in the war as a hospital orderly because he said he wanted to be with the masses. In 1917 he joined the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) which was a break-off Left-wing split from the Social Democrat Party (SPD) which supported the war, whereas Korsch didn’t support the war. Near the end of the war there was an uprising of soldiers and workers that Korsch participated in. He was a member of a soldier’s council that helped carry out, with the workers’ councils, the German Revolution of 1918 that basically chased the Kaiser out of Germany and instituted the democratic Weimar Republic. During the Weimar Republic, Korsch was very much an activist; he was very heavily involved in German politics, first serving with the Independent Social Democrats which was a very radical Left-wing party, but then in a split he joined briefly the Communist Party (KPD) and became a Minister of Justice in the Thuringian government in 1923 — the same year he wrote his first book Marxism and Philosophy, which stressed the Hegelian roots of Marxism, that it was a critical theory that was a theory of liberation and emancipation. He stressed the Hegelian roots of Marxism as Marcuse would do later.

Korsch became one of the first to criticize the Communist Party. He broke with Leninism: Korsch’s model for revolutionary socialism was the workers’ councils group, the soldiers’ and workers’ council groups. “Council communism” it was called. It sounded a bit like Dennis was talking about it — autonomous groups, an Occupy movement all over the world that would basically organize for local issues of all kinds. For the rest of his life, Korsch believed in council communism. In the 1930s he wrote about the Spanish Civil War and the councils movement there. Actually in Italy there was also an uprising after WWI, and Antonio Gramsci was involved in council communism.

Korsch became a persona non grata with the political parties of Germany since he attacked the Communist Party, he attacked the Social Democratic Party, and he advocated a very left-wing view of revolution. When Hitler and fascism rose to power, Korsch emigrated to the United States, where he became an independent socialist, writing on the Spanish Civil War and different revolutionary movements. My book on Korsch was the first collection of his essays on practical socialism. He wrote essays on “what is socialization?,” what does it mean to socialize the means of production, “what is revolution?” He wrote on all the revolutionary movements and became one of the influences on the New Left.

Herbert Marcuse also participated in the German Revolution, but he got his doctoral dissertation on philosophy and then immigrated to the US because he was a German Jew, worked for the OSS and the American government against fascism in WWII, and then had an academic career where he became the spokesperson of the New Left and developed a notion of critical Marxism that I’ll discuss in my next three minutes session.

Chris Cutrone: I will present on the reason why Marxism was and must be “dialectical” — to demystify this word and specify it and its necessity for Marxism. What is the necessity of the dialectic for Marxism? It is of an essentially negative character. — For instance, all degeneration of Marxism can be called “undialectical,” the abandonment of this essentially negative and dialectical character. The Frankfurt School thinker Theodor Adorno titled his last completed book Negative Dialectic, and he thus sought to recapture this original sense of Marxism, which had been progressively abandoned in Adorno’s lifetime in the 20th century. Moreover, as Adorno emphasized, the task is to “think dialectically and undialectically at the same time,” because getting beyond capitalism would mean getting beyond the dialectic, or as Adorno wrote, “no longer a totality nor a contradiction.”

Looking back upon the history of Marxism, there are three different moments for considering this problem: Marx’s own formative moment of Marxism; the height of Marxism as a political force in the world, in the time of Lenin; and the degeneration of Marxism into what Adorno called “dogmatization and thought-taboos.” — Our own moment today is the product of a century of such degeneration.

By contrast, for Marx in his own time, the necessity of the dialectic was to be found in the self-contradictory character of not only capitalism but of the struggle to overcome it in socialism. Marxism has its origins in the dialectical critique of capitalism which also includes — at its core — the dialectical critique of socialism. It is significant that Marx and Engels began with the dialectical critique of the socialists and communists of their time, of the Young Hegelians and others such as Proudhon.

In the subsequent height of Marxism as a political force, during Lenin’s time, the proletarian socialist movement and its organized parties became self-contradictory — subject to a dialectic — for instance, as Rosa Luxemburg critiqued of reformist Revisionism in Marxism, there was a contradiction between the movement and its goal, or between means and ends, which also involved a contradiction between practice and theory, etc. Lenin went so far as to say that this contradiction — division and split — within the workers’ movement for socialism was what made political and social revolution possible and necessary. How was this so?

First, it is necessary to address how Marx and Marxism understood capitalism as a problem to be overcome. What kind of society is capitalism, from a Marxist perspective?

Marx defined capitalism as a mode of production as the contradiction of “bourgeois social relations” and “industrial forces of production.” This is the essential character of the dialectic for Marxism, from which several other contradictions can be derived, for instance, the contradiction between the bourgeois “ideological superstructure” of “false consciousness” and the “socioeconomic base.” There, Marx defined the contradiction as temporal and historical in nature: the ideological superstructure “changes more slowly” than the socioeconomic base.

“Bourgeois consciousness” is of a historical and not class character in a sociological sense of a particular group of people. Bourgeois means “urban” in the original French, and workers as well as capitalists are bourgeois in the sense of not being members of the traditional rural classes — castes — of preceding agricultural civilization (peasants, manorial lords, parsons of the parish church, guild craftsmen of the village and traveling merchant traders serving the lord, et al). The new situation of society in the bourgeois epoch brought with it new forms of self-understanding that are well-established and continue in capitalism, especially the autonomous individual as social subject of production and exchange.

Another way of describing capitalism is the contradiction between social being and consciousness. For Marxism, this contradiction of capitalism began with the Industrial Revolution. The consciousness of participation in society in practice and theory is bourgeois while its actual social being has become industrial. The most important bourgeois ideology for Marxism is the consciousness of the workers as subjects of bourgeois society. The proletariat is a peculiar term referring to how the working class retained its formal rights as bourgeois citizens while substantially becoming expropriated of its property in its labor as a commodity, harking back to the Ancient Roman class of proletari citizens without property.

The Marxist critique of bourgeois consciousness as ideology is in its self-contradictory character. Hence, what distinguishes the Marxist dialectic is its critical character — from which it is distinguished for example from the Hegelian dialectic, which as a description of bourgeois emancipation of free labor from slavery and caste constraint — the bourgeois revolution — became an affirmative dialectic unable to address the problem of capitalism after the Industrial Revolution. So the critical theory of Marxist politics — to invert the title of this panel discussion — is essentially its negative character: the self-negation of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution, in which, for example bourgeois right became self-contradictory, self-undermining and self-destructive in capitalism.

It is important that most avowed “Marxists” today adopt Marxism in a false way as a positive theory, a theory of what capitalism is, for example, rather than as Marx and original Marxism approached capitalism, which was as a contradiction and crisis of society, a contradiction of its self-understanding and self-consciousness. I mentioned for instance social being and consciousness: for Marxism, social being does not define consciousness — in theory and practice — but rather consciousness, or bourgeois ideology as “false consciousness” is contradicted by the social being of industrial production in capitalism.

The temporal and historical character of this is crucially important — and usually neglected. From a Marxist perspective, bourgeois society was not capitalist — not self-contradictory — from the beginning (in the Renaissance and subsequent 16th, 17th and 18th centuries) but rather became so only in the 19th century, after the Industrial Revolution — in Marx’s own time. This means an essentially negative approach to history in capitalism. History in capitalism for Marxism does not unfold positively — as with Hegel, as the development of consciousness of freedom — but rather negatively, a broadening and deepening crisis of society, borne of the essential contradiction of industrial forces of production against bourgeois social relations.

Capitalism is not a form of society for Marxism but rather a self-contradiction and crisis of society — of bourgeois society specifically. The history of capitalism was for Marxism that of the unfolding task of socialism. But for the last 100 years, the task of socialism was abandoned in favor of the mere denunciation of capitalism, which was thus accepted as a positive fact rather than regarded properly as a negative task, something to be overcome. Involved in this was a collapse of the original distinction Marxism made between bourgeois society and capitalism — an elision of the contradiction between industrial forces and bourgeois social relations of production.

The bourgeois social relations for Marxism are those of labor — cooperative social production. As Marx early on described about “alienation” — that is, the self-estrangement of social relations — in capitalism, social relations are not only between people in society, but also between humanity and nature, and our relations with ourselves. — Marx added to this three-fold character of bourgeois social relations a fourth dimension of alienation in capitalism, namely the estrangement of labor from capital as its product. So, for Marxism, social relations in capitalism are phenomena of contradiction and crisis, and no longer (primarily) the constitutive dimensions of society, as they had been in bourgeois consciousness, for instance for Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Kant, Hegel and others. For Marxism, capitalism is not really a mode of production, but the self-contradiction of the bourgeois mode of production, that is, of the cooperative social production through the social relations of labor as a commodity.

Marx defined bourgeois society as commodity-producing society: a society of commodities that produce other commodities. Labor — and later in manufacture and industry, labor-power and labor-time — as a commodity produces other commodities. But in the Industrial Revolution, labor (including labor-power and labor-time) as a commodity becomes divided against itself: it produces two opposed commodities: use-values whose consumption reproduces labor in society; and capital as the objectification — and alienation or self-estrangement — of the social value of labor, which ends up contradicting and undermining the basis for the reproduction of labor in society — the social relations of cooperative production. Capital investment becomes divided between human labor and scientific technique in production. Marx called science and technology the “general social intellect,” which mediated social production in a fundamentally different way from that of individual human labor.

Social cooperation in capitalism was mediated by capital (hence, “capitalism”) — and for Marxism as a form of Hegelianism, what “mediates” is also what embodies contradiction: what mediates also contradicts. So capital contradicts social cooperation; but also social cooperation — the bourgeois social relations of labor as a commodity — contradicts capital, hence, the class struggle of the workers as subjects of social cooperation versus the capitalists as stewards of the social value of accumulated labor in capital. Labor and capital confront each other as aspects of social self-contradiction — capital is the self-contradiction of labor, and labor is the self-contradiction of capital in industrial production.

The workers’ demand for the value of their labor in capitalism is historically regressive in that it seeks to restore the value of labor as a commodity that industrial production has contradicted and undermined. However, although the workers demand the reconstitution of the social value of labor as a commodity, and thus the reconstitution of bourgeois society, this is also the inevitable form in which the demand for socialism will be manifested: socialism will inevitably be posed as the restoration of society in bourgeois terms, that is, in terms of the social relations of labor.

This means that the workers’ struggle for socialism is inherently self-contradictory: it is divided and indeed torn between the contradictory impulses to restore and reconstitute labor as well as to transcend labor as a social relation and value.

In the crisis of Marxism itself that came at the end of the First World War as the cataclysmic culmination of the Second Industrial Revolution, there was a division between the old Socialist and new Communist Parties over the issue of whether and how to save society from the devastation of war and political and social collapse and to revolutionize it beyond capitalism. There was an actual civil war within Marxism in the revolution that unfolded 1917–19. One side defended the working class as it existed in capitalism, while the other sought to overcome it. Socialism itself became divided between the interests of the workers. The anti-communists considered revolution to be a threat above all to the working class itself.

The socialist political party that had been built up to overcome capitalism became its last bulwark of defense. The power to overthrow and smash the capitalist state proved to be the power to save it. And both sides claimed not only to represent the true interests of the working class but the ultimate goal of socialism itself. Both had right on their side — at least apparently.

This was the most powerful demonstration of the dialectic ever in world history. And that is entirely appropriate since the Marxist dialectic was designed to address precisely this problem, as it had first manifested in the workers movement for socialism in the 1840s and the Revolutions of 1848, repeating itself on a higher level and in more drastic and dramatic — and violent — form in the Revolutions of 1917–19, and the division of Marxism between the parties of the old Socialist Second and new Communist Third Internationals.

But this political conflict within the Marxist-led workers movement was not a de novo phenomenon but had long historical roots, which pointed to the development of contradictions within Marxism itself. This demanded a dialectical critique — a Marxist critique — of Marxism itself. Just as Marx had engaged in the dialectical critique of the socialism and communism of his time, so Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and other radical revolutionaries in the Second International engaged in the dialectical critique of their own Marxist socialist movement. — Later, Trotsky engaged in the dialectical critique of Stalinism. In subsequent history, successive generations’ rediscovery of Marxism was the rediscovery of the dialectic, which however proved ephemeral and elusive, and fragile as a red thread that has been lost — broken — many times.

This tradition of negative dialectical critique was carried on by the Frankfurt School, under the rubric of “Critical Theory” — as I already mentioned, including Adorno’s magnum opus Negative Dialectics, but also Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, etc.

But the dialectic fell out of style in the 20th century, with Marxism itself rendered undialectical and discontents of the failure of Marxism blaming the dialectic for the impasse of Marxism. Undialectical “Marxists” made explicit return to pre-critical — indeed pre-Socratic — philosophy such as Althusser and his followers. Postmodernists such as Foucault rejected the “grand narrative” of history as the struggle for freedom. Unable to grasp the nature and character of the dialectic at a standstill in capitalism as the crossroads of socialism or barbarism, the domination of the contradiction of capital was blamed on the dialectic — and often on Marxism — itself. And yet the ironies of the Hegelian cunning ruse of reason were hard to shake off entirely, leaving the lingering question of meaning at the supposed “end of history.”

This is the most difficult aspect of Marxism but also the most essential; it is the most esoteric but also the substantial core of Marxism: it is the most enchanting but also most frustrating quality of Marxism. It will inevitably return, as Marxism continues to haunt the world of capitalism and its manifest contradictions: but can it be sustained? Will the capitalist world be brought back to the point of its dialectical contradiction that points beyond itself? If so, then the necessity of the Marxist negative dialectic will be felt again and anew.

Responses

DG: First, one thing about Doug Lain. You said that the New Left was better than what we have today. I tend to agree and I would certainly say that the early-20th-century Left was better than what we have today. Why is this the case? It’s a wrong and idealist point of view to say it’s the case because people now think wrong things. I think leftists talk much too much about the Left and not enough about the proletariat and the actual social movements and economic developments.

One thing about Chris. It’s very important for the Platypus theory to talk about this regression, or “degeneration” as you called it in the beginning. Here the question is: Where does it come from? What is the cause of this regression? I think you would say something like, “the self-contradiction of bourgeois society.” My problem with that is you take what for Marx are economic structural problems and turn them into very lofty philosophical ones, and this is just not a good Marxist approach. We should be talking more precisely about the proletariat, technology, the class struggle — these tangible material realities in society and how they develop over time. This regression of consciousness — which is certainly real — goes back to some kind of impasse, or a stalling of the labor movement, of the class struggle: The revolution should have happened in Germany in 1918–19, and something didn’t happen that should have happened, so now we are in this situation. There is some material reason, and it’s most clearly seen in the weakness of the labor movement today. If we want to have a more advanced consciousness, we need to accelerate these movements. Like Lenin said: We have to take them up where they are. We cannot just demand that they be Marxist; we have to accept the stage of consciousness that already exists in the masses and then try to get them through the school of class struggle — which is really a school for socialism, where trade unionists are turned into Marxists. I don’t think there’s a real contradiction between the workers’ demand for the value of their labor power and the demand for the abolition of the capitalist system. Well, there’s certainly a contradiction. But as a process there’s no contradiction, because one is the first step and the other is the second step, which emerges from the organic development of class struggle, if we prevent defeat. It’s a question of victory and defeat at every stage of this process.

DL: I don’t disagree with you that you have to ask why the New Left was in a better position than today’s Left — if you’re really going to answer or justify a claim like that. Proximity to really-existing socialist parties is probably part of the reason. The other thing you could do to try to figure out why the New Left was in a better position would be to look to the Marxists who were around then and to what their critiques of capitalism were — to see what people thought and test out whether it was true that capitalism had a different kind of character at that time. After World War II most of the radical Left Marxists believed that state capitalism had taken over the world and that this new form of monopoly state capitalism could manage the contradictions within society, not necessarily in a way that was going to be emancipatory — and this is actually a reason to be very pessimistic about the future of humanity. Nonetheless, we could say that at that time the Fordist, New Deal, state-capitalist system seemed to provide enough wealth for the working class for there to be the development of some ideas to transcend those conditions. Whereas today the working class and the Left are set up against themselves, competing for access to a surplus that’s dwindling, or at least isn’t growing at the rate that it should be. Because we’re competing with each other for peanuts, we’re more likely to be deluded as to what our real motivations and politics are. You can see that in the recent Washington Post article about the infrastructure bill, where apparent leftists within the Biden administration are arguing that spending money on physical infrastructure is an example of nostalgia for the white working class, and hidden underneath that is a white-supremacist ideology: infrastructure spending to build bridges and repair the electrical grid needs to be supplemented with a targeted spending within certain sectors of the working class and certain sectors of society. You also have to give caregivers, specifically black women, higher wages to do the work that they’re doing, which is so vital during the pandemic. This is after a proposal to increase everyone’s minimum wage to a living wage was rejected. You have a Left that can see its aims to be particular, segmented, fractured — and this obscures the fact that what’s going on is just trying to get access to state money, often enough for the NGOs that are proposing this as much as, or more than, the working people themselves.

For Chris, I would say that everything you said was very interesting; I just didn’t understand enough about 1917–19 and why it was, ultimately, that the revolutionary side of socialism that wanted to transcend labor and form a new basis for society wasn’t more successful, and why the failure of that aspect of the socialist struggle led to a failure overall, for even reformist, social-democratic movements. I want to know more; I guess that means I should sign up for one of the Platypus reading groups, but it also means that perhaps we should all re-examine what went down in 1919 and try to, as Dennis would say, think about how the economic conditions in the background were consequential at that time as well.

DK: I want to respond to the issues that all the speakers have brought up — and what we were told to do as our mandate, which is the relevance of critical theory to contemporary politics. I want to discuss that in relation to Korsch and Marcuse. I mentioned, in terms of Korsch, his relevance, in that he was a practical socialist. He saw Marxism as an activist theory. He thought the role of a Marxist intellectual was to relate theory to practice — so constantly struggling against capitalism, imperialism, and for socialism. That’s what Korsch did all of his life. He’s an example of a practical socialist, a Marxist activist, as is Herbert Marcuse. Unlike the other members of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse was seen as the father of the New Left, and he championed the New Left, the student movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement — all the movements of the 60s — which makes him relevant, I think, to the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders movement. I was astonished when I first heard Bernie Sanders start his talks. He said, “How many of you want to have a revolution?” – and everyone would cheer. “How many of you want socialism?” — and all the young people would cheer. It was astonishing to find out that 40% of the people in Iowa identified themselves as socialists. Marcuse was this kind of activist in the 60s and into the 70s. But Marcuse was also the first Marxist to advocate for the ecology movement. He wrote essays on ecology, and, in view of the climate crisis today, Marcuse’s brand of ecological socialism is highly relevant to the current issues in ecology. Marcuse was also one of the first Marxists to embrace feminism. He wrote an article in the early 70s on Marxism and feminism, and argued that the women’s liberation movement was the most radical movement of the time, and supported women’s liberation, sexual liberation. Marcuse was notorious for his book Eros and Civilization (1955) as a sexual liberationist. He influenced the gay and lesbian movement. Finally, Marcuse was the professor of Angela Davis, and so supported her and the Black Power movement throughout his life. He also wrote an essay on the importance of the Chicano movement as early as the 1960s. Marcuse anticipates and is relevant to Black Lives Matter, to the Dreamers, and to the Latino movements of the time. This is a model of a radical intellectual — to embrace all of the movements that are the most radical, oppositional, and emancipatory at the time.

CC: You’re going to have to forgive me, Doug Kellner, I’m going to dispute that. Maybe for St. Peter, greeting Marcuse at the pearly gates, these might be crimes — sins — that Marcuse might have to answer for in giving solace and comfort, in educating Angela Davis — and also in inspiring the identity-politics movement that came out of the New Left, that created the framework for neoliberal capital, and for “woke capitalism” today, the Democratic Party, and the whole business that we’re now living under. I would say that’s a regression. In other words, there’s a reason why someone like Rosa Luxemburg polemicized against feminism. The collapse of the Marxist critique of feminism is a real loss. Now it might have been inevitable, given the fact that there was no socialist movement, and I think that’s what really conditioned Marcuse’s choice. I’d also say that there’s a similarity between Marcuse and Korsch, in that Korsch really abandoned Marxism. He adopted a very eclectic pan-working-class perspective, in which he said, “Bernstein, Lenin, anarchism — they all have to be considered part of the history of the workers’ movement.” And so he actively liquidated Marxism by the end of his life, and he was rehabilitating Bakunin against Marx. That came from the manifest failure of Marxism as a movement. For someone like Korsch and someone like Marcuse — it throws them back: “We attempted to overcome capitalism and change society in a particular way. That failed, and therefore we have to go back and reconsider all these things that Marxism had thought that it had overcome, but actually had not.” Of course, Marxism had thought that it could lead the women’s movement for equality and emancipation. It failed to do so, and that’s why feminism had to arise in the New Left — because the old Marxist parties looked rather conservative, like they had abandoned the goal of women’s equality and liberation. Similarly, Marx wrote in his program for the French Workers’ Party, towards the end of his life, that the struggle for socialism is to transcend all races and nationalities and to transcend the gender divide — and so the idea that you needed a Black Power movement in the 1960s, a second wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s, or a gay liberation movement — because after all the old socialist movement, including Marxism, was for sexual emancipation, was for the decriminalization of homosexuality. August Bebel gave a six-hour speech in the Reichstag about the history of homosexuality, very famously. The fact that these things had to emerge as they did in the latter part of the 20th century is an index of the failure of socialism and the failure of Marxism. I don’t think we should accept that as progress, especially because now we have “woke capitalism.”

That takes us way off the subject, which is the politics of critical theory. However, of course, I think that this is what critical theory has become, through postmodernism, etc. Critical theory has become a kind of modality of discontent in capitalism that actually helps renovate capitalism. We have Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018) being taught in major capitalist corporations, we have all the language of the most radical strands of PC identity politics being adopted by corporate America, and we have corporate America waiting at the ready to boycott states that pass legislation that don’t toe the line of “woke capitalism.” That’s a problem.

DK: I’ll refer to my book, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, that I didn’t get a chance to discuss. Marcuse’s whole life was dedicated to the dialectic, to reconstructing Marxism, and to responding to the historical crises of the moment. When the German Revolution failed in 1918, Marcuse wanted to reinvigorate Marxist revolutionary theory, so he wrote Reason and Revolution (1941) about Marx, Hegel, and the roots of revolution. He defended revolution and socialism his whole life. He did not in any way advocate identity politics; he always advocated socialist politics. But Chris, as you said yourself, within the socialist movement at different times there were feminist groups, there were gay and lesbian groups, there were race groups, etc. This is the way Marcuse saw New Left politics, the movement — which is the category we use. It’s a politics of alliance and solidarity, connecting the socialist movement with the feminists, etc., and I think this is what Bernie Sanders also is doing. It’s sort of a big-tent movement that is primarily socialist in inspiration, but also addresses race, gender, sexuality, ecology, and other issues. That’s how I see a living Marxism. It basically develops and reconstructs the Marxist theory and relationship to the social conditions, the crises of capitalism, and the political movements of the day. That’s my defence of Marcuse – but also of my own position.

CC: That’s fair. I just think that we have to consider what’s happened between then and now, in the last 50 years. Maybe the legacy of the New Left is not simply to be affirmed at this point, given the fact that it leads us to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Biden, Kamala Harris, AOC, etc. These are the new masters of capitalism.

DK: But also the New Left leads us to the Occupy movement, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, to all these other radical movements of the day. There are always dangers of Marxism falling into some sort of dogmatism. And there are also dangers of the splintering of the Left. We had a joke that if you had four Marxists in the same room in the 1960s you’d get five opinions on every topic — because most of us were not dogmatic. When I studied in Germany I kept meeting Trotskyists and Maoists and Communist Party people that had these dogmatic ideologies of Marxism, and they could answer every question — but this was a splintering of Marxism. I see Marcuse and the New Left trying to bring all these tendencies together.

CC: That was the great part of your initial remarks — when you pointed out that Korsch as a student activist invited speakers to campus as disparate as Karl Liebknecht and Eduard Bernstein. In other words: members of the same party. By the way, that’s what we need today.

DK: I agree.

DL: Can I say one thing about what you two are saying? Marcuse turned to the feminist movement and the Civil Rights movement and other kinds of movements in the face of what he thought was a completely dominant monopoly capitalism that could provide, through redistribution, for the working class — and it pacified them. And he was wrong.

CC: It turned out not to be true, within a few short years.

DL: That has to be understood as well. You can’t just affirm critical theory as it was at that time either.

Q&A

Isn’t the central insight of the Frankfurt School that class society posits a totality from which no class can free itself by simply following their class interests? The basic tenet of critical theory is the formation of an anti-class of emancipated individuals. What Dennis Graemer proposes seems like a revival of tried, true, and failed Marxist strategies.

Dennis says that the working-class movement has to reach a certain stage of development before socialism can arise. But hadn’t this stage already been achieved in the 19th century? Does this past history offer anything for the present theory, positively or negatively? Can theory even recognize positive success if it involves avoiding historic defeats?

DG: To the first question, yes, we should go back to classical Marxism. This is how I began my talk: we have this idea in critical theory that you have this big, bad totality, and this means that even the proletariat isn’t the revolutionary class anymore; it’s part of this totality, and its capitalist interests are the same as the bourgeoisie’s, so it becomes a racket. This is just anti-Marxist. Of course the proletariat has capitalist interests in the beginning, but the whole idea is that the dynamic of class struggle propels it on a path towards socialism, which doesn’t have to be conscious in the beginning. The proletariat says, “I want to have more money!” or, “Fuck this employer; he has been rude to us, so let’s fight against him.” These immediate interests that the workers lead to a process of class struggle which over time can accelerate. At first you just have some kind of low-key trade unionism; if you have enough success then this can develop into mass movements, bigger movements, which might be radical social-democrat or even softcore socialist. But when they win and the party or some conscious revolutionaries guide them in the right direction — not by immediately giving them the end goal but by nudging them a little bit — and they have real practical success, this dynamic can radicalize, and we can have a bigger, real, militant mass movement. But this takes time; it has to be developed. It’s like a plant that has to grow. You can’t just say that by spreading pure theory we can conjure up the revolutionary proletariat. It’s a social process, it’s a really complex socio-economic process. I think, for example, of Bernie Sanders. A lot of leftists are crying, “he’s not a real communist.” You can’t be a real communist and just talk about it all the time and then think that you could mobilize the masses. There has to be a process of gradual development. It’s really important. I totally affirm this — in this sense I think that the classical Marxist perspective is right.

With regard to the development of the proletariat and class society, the lesson is that it’s not linear. There can be defeats, and if you have a defeat of the material movement of the proletariat then you will also have the regression of consciousness. This is simply the case. We shouldn’t view it as a linear development; it can be advanced, but it can also be retarded. We shouldn’t think, “Because we didn’t have a revolution until now this means that Marx was wrong.” No. There are contingencies in history, and there are uneven developments between, for example, the consciousness of the proletariat and the revolutionary party and the economic structures. In Russia you had an agricultural country with no urban working class, with a majority of the population, who were simply peasants who couldn’t even develop this kind of consciousness, because they were not urban proletarians. Horrible things can happen in history, and it’s not always Marx’s fault if something goes wrong. Now we have to try to do something, to get this mass movement going again.

CC: If I could just say something briefly in response to the question — and I tried to bring this out in my opening remarks, but maybe neglected to emphasize this point — which is that for Marx, and for Marxism, the proletariat is a negative category. In other words, the proletariat is the negation of bourgeois society — there is a contradiction between the proletariat as a bourgeois urban working class, constituting the social relations of society through their labor, and their being the negation of those social relations, insofar as industrial production undermines those social relations. Now, to take it one step further, that means the task of the proletariat is to abolish itself — the problem being that capital does abolish the proletariat already. So it’s a matter of taking the negation of bourgeois society that capitalism already is and turning it into an actual emancipation. Meaning people are freed from labor all the time — which means that they starve to death, or become drug addicts, or whatever. Marxism is very peculiar and different from any other form of socialist or communist thought, any other form of bourgeois thought (and I don’t mean that negatively), any radical, democratic, liberal thinking, in that it takes as its subject what is essentially a negative condition in society, namely proletarianized labor. In other words, the interest of the working class is to abolish itself as a working class, which is different from what we were talking about earlier — feminism, black power, etc., which would be to affirm, which would be to say, “I am woman, hear me roar” or “black is beautiful.” And there’s a way that you could posit the interests of the working class in positive terms, too — that what you want is for the working class to realize its rights under bourgeois social and political norms. But Marxism understands that, in fact, the fundamental condition of society is negative, and that what unites the working class, including — the proletarianized working class was always largely women and racial minorities, that needs to be remembered; from the very beginning, from the industrial revolution, it was disproportionately women and minorities, whether national minorities or racial minorities. And one bad legacy of the New Left is that we have this spontaneous image of the working class as straight white guys. That is not the working class. That is not the proletariat. It isn’t. So the question is, how do they understand their condition; how do they put forward their claims on society; how do they form their discontents; how do they posit themselves politically? Marxism is very tricky in that it somehow convinced the working class in many advanced metropolitan capitalist countries to basically say, “Capitalism is destroying us, and we are going to be the generation that sacrifices itself so that future generations don’t have to be sacrificed to capital in the way that we are.” And I think it’s very unfortunate that you only get that around the edges now — you get black nihilism in the Black Lives Matter movement, Afropessimism, the idea that black people from 1619 onwards are just chattel, that Black Lives Matter, which means actually the society of the United States is defined by the negation of black life, by anti-blackness. That’s a funny kind of misrecognition of something real: proletarianization. But to call proletarianization white supremacy and racism prevents the struggle for socialism from ever happening.

Dennis, what is your mode of explanation of success and failures of the working class? How do you distinguish between false assessments of the necessity of failures and right ones?

DG: Yesterday, when I read the Kinderkrankenheit, the Infantile Disorder text by Lenin, he talked about how to distinguish opportunism from necessary, tactical movement. For example, when do you know when you’re just being childishly radical or whether you are doing the right thing? In this case, compromising, working with the reactionary trade unions or with parliamentary parties — when do you know whether it’s betraying the proletariat and being a shitty Bernsteinian opportunist, and when is it being a good Leninist and not an ultra-leftist? And the answer he gives is: There is no formula. There is none. It’s dependent on our judgment about history, about the conditions of victory, and stuff like this. It’s not a question of what we would call, in the abstract sense, theory. It is theoretical in a wider sense, as everything is theoretical in the way that I have some conception in my mind about how the world works — but it’s not something where some philosophy dude can give you the answer. You have to look at the concrete social relations and what actually happened. For example in the Russian Revolution you can point to the underdevelopment of society, which the Bolsheviks knew. They said, “We need the revolution in Germany. If we don’t have it, then it’s for nothing. We need this revolution in Western Europe.” So they only did it because they counted on this revolution. Why did it fail in Germany? I think there are many reasons. The rise of opportunism in the SPD – we can analyze this. Why did it happen? How was it connected to the trade-union movement, the new party people who made a career in the party? We can talk about simple technical mistakes, for example when they had the Reichsrätekongress, a big congress of the councils, they were debating three questions. First question: “Should we be a council republic like the Soviet Republic, Räterepublik, or a parliamentary republic?” The Left obviously wanted the Soviet Republic, and the opportunists and traitors wanted the parliamentary republic. But the congress said no, “we want a parliamentary republic.” Second question: “Should we abolish the professional army of Germany and make a popular militia?” And there the delegates said, “Yes, make the popular militia.” Third question: “What about the big industries? Should we put them all into the hands of the state? Should we expropriate the big capitalists?” And the congress said, “Yes.” The opposition leftists instead of participating in this government, said, “Oh no, because these delegates didn't want our soviet republic, now we will throw a tantrum and just retreat,” and this was a mistake. So basically, you can make mistakes, tactical mistakes, in this situation, and there can also be some deeper material reasons, and it's always a combination of all of them, and there's never this simple philosophical answer to these questions.

The terms “materialism” and “idealism” have been raised with the assumption being that Marxism is materialist. But is there not an ambiguity here? Some Marxists have sometimes distinguished between historical materialism and dialectical materialism. Does this distinction make sense? Is Marx’s materialism only a theory of society or of all of reality? Also through Hegel does not Marxism partake of an idealist heritage? Please clarify what you mean by materialism.

DK: Marx's materialism always included consciousness, practice, and the will. There was always a Hegelian moment in Marx whether it was his dialectical theory, his emphasis on action, on individual agency, on collective agency, etc. But this issue that was raised in the question is what has separated Marxists in the 1920s to the present. Certain Marxist-Leninists — this comes out of the Soviet Russian Revolution and Lenin — believed, and Engels also believed this, that dialectical and historical materialism were two sides of Marx's science: That dialectical materialism was the science of nature as Engels wrote in his book Dialectics of Nature (1883), whereas historical materialism was the theory of society and history, e.g. class struggle, the development of capitalism, revolution, etc. The critical Marxists basically tried to overcome these dichotomies between idealism and materialism and between historical and dialectical materialism. All the people that I mentioned who were critical Marxists, and that’s of the 1920s Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, and Frankfurt School, didn't make these dualisms that the question raised. But there's a lot of Marxists that see Marxism as a science and think in these terms. So this has been a big battle throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century between orthodox Marxism that believes in these dualisms and a critical Marxism that has a more dialectical view of idealism, materialism, and historical dialectical materialism, society, history, and nature that sees them as a sort of dialectical totality.

DG: Let's forget this idea of dialectical materialism because I think historical materialism is really clearly defined, and you can find it everywhere in Marx's work, especially when he attacks the Young Hegelians but also in Capital. It's not something fancy; it's something really easy. You have this primary system, which is the economy, which consists of mainly two parts. (Firstly,) the relations of production, which is basically who owns the means of production. For example, in feudalism the peasants work fields and the lord extracts from them basically their pure labor and the stuff they produce. Under capitalism, you have the wage laborer who is free in a double way, so she can sell her labor power, but she has no means of production on her own. Others own the means of production. So all of this kind of stuff (makes up the relations of production). (Secondly,) you have the productive forces, which are basically the technology, the management techniques, and all of the techniques that are used to produce things. Marx says that the primary mover is the productive forces, and then they create certain relations of production, whereas I think in some sense they influence each other, but I still would say that there's a primary influence from the productive forces. When they come into conflict with each other, this can create a revolution, this can create some kind of contradictions of problems in societies. Part of this historical materialism is to say that ideas of the time, what people think on a large scale, is dependent on these material relations. And of course, class struggle is part of these relations. The relations of production incorporate the relationship between the classes. This means that if we say that consciousness derives from this economic base, it means that if something changes in the relationship between the classes, which could mean that, for example, we have more unionization and more activity of the working class to organize itself, this will also create a different consciousness. I think there has been this move later in Marxism, and I think what Doug Kellner said I agree with, but I think it's a bad thing. I think there has been this move in Marxism to obfuscate this primacy of the economy as if to say, “No, it's just the totality and they just all influence each other and stuff,” and I think, no, let's go back to a more substantial, materialist view of history. Of course, it's not 100% true, of course ideas have some impact on society, but we have to go back to this primacy of the material base, and I think that has been forgotten in some sense, even by today's Marxist Left.

DK: We also shouldn't forget that nature is a part of our concrete reality. I mentioned the ecology issue, but for Marx too there's human nature, there's the senses, there's the emancipation of the full human being etc. So Marxism is this dialectical theory that brings together society and nature and history. But I agree that historical materialism is probably the key idea of Marxism and the issue of the primacy of the economy under capitalism and class struggle. Those are probably the basic ideas of Marxism that are still relevant today and have been from the beginning.

CC: I would just say something in defense of dialectical materialism, which is to say that nature is, as I pointed out in my opening remarks, a social relation. Or as Emile Durkheim says, it's not that society takes place in nature but rather nature takes place in society, meaning nature is how we relate to it, and really we have to think about our changing relations to nature. I do think that bourgeois society and therefore capitalism is cosmological in character. In other words I think that the fact that society has become economic is actually a function of the crisis of capitalism. I don't think that feudalism was an economic system, I don't think the Asiatic mode of production — I don't think that these things were economic systems, I think they were cosmologies, and I think that it's capitalism that economizes society, that makes social relations economic, that makes nature an object of economic calculation, and that makes even labor a quantifiable economic fact. And so I think that the danger of saying, “let's get to the economic base of things as the material substance of things,” is that the economy is itself a phenomenon. I would say the fact that society has become economic is a phenomenon of the crisis of capitalism, because bourgeois society was not meant to be economic. In other words, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “liberty, equality, fraternity,” the humanism of the renaissance, or even with the work ethic, the Protestant theology of the Reformation — none of these intend to produce an economic society. I think that we should not naturalize that. Now, because Marx did define human nature and capitalism as homo faber and homo economicus, as this kind of new human nature but in an ironical way — and actually he had a critical perspective on the fact that the workers were presenting economic demands. He criticized both the political demands of the workers for citizenship and suffrage, the right to vote and this kind of thing, but he also criticized the economic demands as such. I think that that's important because otherwise what we end up doing is falling into the very antinomies that capitalism itself generates, for instance the antinomy between economics and politics, or between labor and capital, or a bunch of different things, or between humanity and nature, as if we're not nature. Of course we are nature, we're part of nature, it's not like nature's out there. And so, again, nature is what we are in relation to it, including ourselves, and it's just very tricky to say, “The old socialist movement was very economic in its motivation.” It was very much based on things like economic crises and the boom-bust cycle of capital, crises of value that manifested as economic crises. But I think Marxism always had a larger context and critical frame with which to see that. Again, historical materialism, would that be an economic theory of history, and then dialectics of nature would be some kind of trans-historical philosophy of nature? I don't think so, I don't think Engels meant it that way. So I also kind of detect a little bit of “We want Marx not Engels.” No, Engels was pretty good on this stuff, if you actually read it, in terms of understanding emancipation as an emancipated new relationship to nature, not just an economic change.

DL: When we get a chance, I'd like to hear what everyone thinks as far as why Corbyn and Sanders both lost, why are we in this moment where what we invested in, what Dennis suggests, I think, that we should continue to invest in, lost, just lost.

I definitely think everyone should address that question, especially seeing as that seems to be where I think Dennis should respond to your point there, that he's continuing that politics. But I want to address you directly first, Doug Lain, because you quibbled with the panel description; you disputed that there's a kind of return to an interest in critical theory in the aftermath of why an attempt to explain why Corbyn and Sanders failed. I think you should take a bit of responsibility there or recognize yourself. It's you, with your YouTube channel educating 20 somethings in what you're describing as critical theory. So maybe you don't need to go to a Platypus reading group, maybe you do, but you should take ownership over the fact that you are educating people in this. You're making certain specific claims in recent videos, for example about Lukács or about Grossman over Adorno and Horkheimer, and you should kind of be less bashful about that and basically take responsibility for it. My question is on a podcast, millennial leftist type stuff, Aufhebunga Bunga. I recently heard an episode where they had Amber Frost from Chapo Trap House and Jacobin talking about the January 6 protests, and she said, “Oh well, I've been reading a lot of Adorno lately, and I can't help but read Adorno into everything,” and she was talking about a psychology of mass society and authoritarianism and all that stuff. The hosts responded by saying, “You should be careful, that's very dangerous.” And so my question is, what is dangerous about Adorno? What did they mean by that? I would like all the panelists to respond, and I'd like to specify slightly further: It has something to do with what Doug Kellner was bringing up about the Marcuse-Adorno dispute in the New Left about whether practice was blocked in the present, and what that means for Marxism. That also goes to the point Dennis Graemer opened with, which is the separation of theory and practice, and what that means. So the question is, why is Adorno dangerous, and what does it have to do with the question of whether practice is not immediately available to us in the present?

DL: You're right, I am bringing critical theory to this moment, but I would just say that I've been interested in and focused on something that I called critical theory for longer than this moment. If you wanted to know when I returned to critical theory as a primary focus in my own thinking, that is the kind of critical theory where you're trying to understand how the economy and capitalism is developing as it influences ideology and politics. That goes back to when Trump was elected and not the failure of Sanders and Corbyn, and that also goes back to a moment where the organization I was a part of went into crisis, and I think they went into crisis because they didn't have a politics. They had a critique, a really solid critique of capitalism, a theory called TSSI (temporal single-system interpretation), and a critique of the very social-democratic types that dominated the Sanders movement. They had a critique of the redistributive approach, the under-consumptionist approach to understanding capital, all sorts of things like that, but they didn't have a politics. I returned to critical theory to see what was going on so that Marxism didn’t have a politics. Then the question of what's dangerous about Adorno: It really depends on who you're asking. Why did the Aufhebunga Bunga gang say that? I'm publishing one of their books soon, At the End of the End of History. My guess is that Adorno and critical theory, amongst people who are trying to be Marxist today, is blamed for a shift from working-class politics and struggle which, whether that's defined as social-democratic working-class politics, which I think it often is by “dirtbags,” people at Chapo and maybe Aufhebunga Bunga, or something more radical. It is a question I couldn't answer, but it's blamed for a shift away from the working class towards woke politics, towards the postmodern approach to politics. You could probably turn to one of my videos critiquing Adorno or Marcuse or Friedrich Pollock and kind of level that kind of charge against the critical theorists and against the Frankfurt School. But I would just say, I'm not sure I'm right, and certainly it's a bad idea to ever say that reading the history of the Marxist struggle and socialist struggle is dangerous. It's only dangerous if you're dogmatic in the way you approach understanding socialism. I think that what it speaks to is the way that the Left is always immediate in its responses to things. We approach Left politics, especially online, especially around these media entities which have their own material basis and which is an unhealthy one, as like a bunch of different fan clubs, and which club are you going to be in is kind of the question. If you're on team Adorno then that puts you probably eventually with Kamala Harris or something like that.

CC: I would agree with Doug that what makes Adorno dangerous is that he's dangerous to dogmatism, and so if one has a dogmatic perspective, Adorno is going to threaten to demoralize you or to somehow undermine you in some way. I think the salience and currency of Adorno since Trump's election is rather unfortunate, as if we need a critique of the authoritarian personality to explain Trump, but somehow we didn't need a critique of the authoritarian personality to explain Obama or Hillary Clinton or whomever. I think that that's really unfortunate that it becomes the Frankfurt School as the critics of fascism, whereas the entire point of the Frankfurt School was that they didn't really care about the fringe fascist groups in post-war Bundesrepublic Germany: They cared about fascism in liberal democracy, the inherent fascism within liberal democracy. And by the way, that's a long-standing issue, that's not an issue that just starts in 1933 or even starts in 1919 with the Freikorps, etc. It's more of a long-standing issue in terms of the capitalist state and mass politics, and the struggle for socialism is bound up in that. I was just teaching Adorno last week to my Art Institute students, and Adorno says, “can you distinguish between the communist activists and the fascists? Not really, you can't. Unless you look at Marx's definition of the proletariat, which remains unshaken in its essence even if it has nothing to do with people's consciousness.” It's just a funny thing that we're living through. I don't know when Judith Butler discovered Adorno, but it was a bad thing, she would have been better off staying a Foucauldian, that’s more true. She might have put in the memo to her check to the Kamala Harris campaign, “Love, Adorno,” possibly, I don't know. What does critical theory have to say about the failure of the Sanders and the Corbyn campaign? Not much. In other words, you don't need a laser drill to poke a hole in caulk board. In other words, I don't think that Sanders and Corbyn's failure demands a very sophisticated explanation. Both of them came to their political careers as capitalist politicians, in the Labour party, and as an independent in the case of Sanders in the United States, in the 1980s against Thatcher and Reagan as anti-neoliberal politicians. And so the crisis of neoliberalism and the Great Recession allowed them to rise to the occasion and say, “We've been saying this all along about this neoliberalism,” and they offered to go back to pre-neoliberalism, and that's just not going to happen. I don't know if you need sophisticated theory to explain why we're not going to go back to pre-neoliberalism, we're not going to go back to the old Labour or Great Society Democratic Party. The world experienced a crisis in the 70s, that you pointed out Doug. The assumption that post-WWII prosperity was never ending proved to be an illusion. It should always have been seen as an illusion, but proved to be an illusion in the 1970s, and you can't go back. Neoliberalism was the necessary new form of capitalism. We're not going to go back to pre-neoliberal capitalism. I think the Millennials, as a boom generation, as a bunch of college-educated kids who were shocked to not find work after graduation, I think they embraced “socialism” as some kind of, “why isn't there a GI Bill for me? Why isn't there a Great Society for me? Why aren't there corporate jobs for me?” And they wanted Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders to give them that. That's just not in the cards, that's just not possible. Do you need Adorno for that, or Pollock or Grossmann? No, you don't. I don't think you need that kind of sophisticated critical theory to explain why we're not going to go back to the Great Society and old Labour and that world.

DL: I think you do, if you think the reason why is because we're not going to have the prosperity that came after WWII. If you recognize that the prosperity disappeared for not just social-political reasons but also for economic reasons, then you do need to at least understand what the thinking was around the Great Society on the Left and then ask yourself what kinds of things might, theoretically, as a science-fiction writer would, what kinds of things would have to happen to get that back and would they be at all acceptable? I mean they wouldn't be. The kind of collapse that you'd have to suffer and how much damage the world would have to take in order to get that kind of prosperity back, from my perspective, is obviously unacceptable. So when people are offering to go back, they're offering to go back to a horror show. And that needs to be understood, and I don't think that's obvious to everybody.

CC: Early on Jacobin published an essay by Peter Frase called, “Four Futures,” that I always like to make reference to. He talks about the different configurations of capitalism and post-capitalism that might happen, one of which is communism, but he doesn't think that's very likely. He's got these different categories, and also socialism as a kind of social democracy. It's a pretty sober look; it's from the Occupy Wall Street moment. It’s from 2010–11, so it's in the height of the Great Recession and it's not particularly Marxist, it isn't, it's purely descriptive. It's just saying, “What are the tendencies of capitalism? What are the possible options that capitalism can take given the way it exists now and the crisis that it's in? How can it save itself? it can save itself in these various ways.” I think that they would have been better off to take that more seriously. In other words, that was an attempt, a theoretical attempt to prognose the future of capitalism that then they just abandoned in favor of “Bernie's going to give us Medicare for All.”

DG: There's a problem with this explanation. Let's assume it's true that the program of Bernie Sanders wouldn't be a solution. I also think it's not a long-term solution for the problems we're facing. But this kind of explanation would perfectly work in an imagined universe where Bernie Sanders won the presidential election and then couldn't really deliver. Then you could say, “the reason why he failed was because the program he had was not adequate; it was just a return to the Fordist-Keynesian welfare state, and this was not sustainable so he had to fail.” Like some kind of SYRIZA-esque situation but without the German pressure, just like it didn't work out. Then we would be totally on board with this analysis, but what happened is that he lost the primaries so —

CC: There's no way he would have gotten the nomination ever; with the Democratic Party that would never have happened.

DG: But this is something else, he failed in the sense that the Democratic Party didn't let him win. But the question is, did he really fail, what do we mean by “fail,” from which perspective? From his perspective, yes, he did fail, but I think he didn't fail from our perspective, because this was an important thing to strengthen the Left in America. Now I agree the U.S. Left is still seriously really shitty, and there's all of this wokeness, etc., and I wouldn't say that they are really socialists, but it doesn't matter: The Left today in America is totally more advanced than it was before the Sanders campaign. This is what matters.

CC: I thought that you were interested in the working class, meaning, what you have to say is, what did Bernie Sanders do for the workers? Because as soon as these DSA kids and these middle-class kids, as soon as they get jobs whether as Democratic Party operatives or in corporate America, their socialism is going to be forgotten, like tomorrow.

DG: But most of them are workers, most of them are wage laborers. Most of them will not be owners of the means of production.

CC: You know what I mean. Yes, they're employees, they're paid a wage, often they're also paid stock options, like Google-type people, you know there's all that. I'm just saying, the proletarianized working-class people voted for Trump. Let's get real.

DG: But this is a mistake, that we still have this view that, for example, someone with a college education cannot belong to the working class.

CC: I'm not saying that. I'm saying if it's only that, if it's only college educated people, that's not really representative of the working class.

DG: No it's not. One sentence: it's a gradual development —

CC: Corbyn lost the working class too. Corbyn lost the workers over Brexit.

DL: He didn't get blocked by the Labour Party; he was defeated by the loss of the voters. The Democratic Party ultimately couldn't stop working-class people from going and voting in the primaries. So if Sanders had had enough working-class support he would have won the primaries, whether he could have gotten anything accomplished once he was elected is a different question, but he lost because the political forces in society weren't aligned around him to give him even the primary. I also don't think he lost from his perspective: I think his perspective and yours are the same, that he didn't run to win the nomination or the presidency.

CC: He ran to introduce into the conversation —

DL: Symbolic socialism.

CC: Yeah, and I think that that's a problem.

DK: I think that's great. I want to take the position that Sanders won because he put socialism on the agenda but also, he addressed the working class and working-class issues as a key part of his agenda. Bernie Sanders is an old-fashioned social democrat: It's health, it's welfare, it's workers' rights, it's the labor movement, etc. So he actually put on the agenda working-class issues that hadn't been put on previously, as well as making socialism viable. And it remains to be seen to what extent Sanders and others of the Left will be able to influence Biden, but they're certainly going to contest any neoliberal regression on behalf of Biden and the Democrats, and I think they're pushing them. The Party is further to the Left than it's been any time in my lifetime and I think it's because of Bernie Sanders and to some extent Elizabeth Warren and other progressive candidates.

CC: Let me just say, I'm from a working-class background, my family's working class, they voted for Obama, they voted for Trump. They hear Bernie Sanders say that Trump is the most sexist, homophobic, racist president ever, and that's a done deal for them. In other words, they don't believe that. And while my family is white, I also imagine that a lot of people of color who voted for Trump who are working-class people also don't buy it. They don't buy the Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders woke capitalism, because there is a woke capitalism afoot. And progressive capitalism being called socialism is a major ideological defeat for any kind of notion of socialism, because working-class people will think socialism means woke capitalism, they'll think that socialism means social-justice, equity capitalism that's to their disadvantage, that doesn't speak to them as people who are not educated and acculturated into PC identity politics. In other words it actively alienates the working class.

DG: Sometimes you say that the working class is not a sociological category, it's a political and historical category. I would say no, both are wrong, the working class is an economic category. I think you're regressing to a very much sociological view of what the working class is, that you say for example because they are not educated — No, this is not the working class. The working class are those who don't have the means of production, who have to sell their labor power to the capitalists in order to survive. And these college kids that you talk about, or the urban working class, they are workers, they have to sell their labor power, they are a segment of the working class. I think that by mobilizing these people, even though they have a wrong consciousness, there is the opportunity for the Left to channel this energy maybe into the trade unions. Look at, for example, Amazon: Organize some strikes there. Take these people—the most advanced elements of them, and say, “Come on, fuck this Wokeness bullshit.” Learn how to organize; go into the Amazon warehouse — people who are already working there, I think there are some Sanders supporters in there — and start to organize the workers. From there on, we can go on and build the movement. And I think that Sanders has given us the tools necessary that we can now use to advance this thing. We don’t have to stand on the sidelines and say “Oh, fuck they don’t read Rosa Luxemburg all the time—”

CC: I don’t care about that. It’s about the lie.

DL: I want to say something about the Washington Post article, that the White House is going to not spend as much on infrastructure directly, but also be funnel it into giving money to —

CC: Equity.

DL: And equity. And so what is that? That is representing in some ways the working class interest; their economic interests, right? The economic interests of the care workers, which are real, are being represented by the Democratic Party in a fractured way, In a way to divide the working class—

CC: To divide the working class, that’s right. And that’s the real meaning of it.

DL: And so, we are going to fund—and it probably won’t be very effective either—

CC: No, it’s going to be a pittance; it’s a pure gesture.

DL: They’re racializing the way they are distributing the funds of the state—which are stepping in between capitalism and the wage. You can’t just say, “A struggle for wages is going to be the way in which the working class directly expresses its economic interest, which will then lead to a revolutionary struggle, because there is this mediating institution —”

CC: The Democratic Party.

DL: The Democratic Party and the Republican Party —

CC: The Democratic Party — and it’s real, and it’s the most powerful party in the world. It’s the majority party in the United States, and the United States is still the dominant world power. The Democratic Party is the most powerful party in world history — ever.

DL: I think we have to be dialectical: The Republican party exists as well, right?

CC: The Republican Party is always the clown car.

What is the continuity between Marx and the Frankfurt School? That seems to be at issue—and Dennis, maybe you could speak as to what you think is their discontinuity.

What is the difference politically between a Marxist critical theory, and a postmodern critical theory? How did this distinction occur, and reflect wider changers in the Left, from the New Left moment to the 80s and 90s?

DG: First, I would also say there is continuity obviously: Critical theory was heavily influenced by Marxism. I think I see the strongest continuity actually with Marcuse, because he also took this idea of the revolutionary subject — I don’t agree with him, but he said, “we have this peace that has been imposed by the welfare state, and so we have to find some Randgruppen,” groups on the periphery, which, later in Maoism, might be a precursor of identity politics. But I agree with this basic idea, to stick to the revolutionary subject which is faithful to Marxism, whereas in Adorno and Horkheimer you have the idea that the revolutionary subject is simply gone, and therefore we just do Flaschenpost, a message in a bottle, and just throw it for someone else to read later. But obviously there are continuities. The Frankfurt School is a Marxist school. But I think the discontinuity is simply that historical materialism, and the notion of class struggle have been put to the side. Maybe we should just stop pretending that there is this one real Marxism, and everyone just tries to steal some quotes and say that their own position is the only real Marxist position. Maybe Marxism, from the beginning had some internal — you can have different accents — you can say this part of Marxism is really important to me, and I want to accentuate it and therefore you have to do some injustice to another part, etc. It’s basically a question of truth, and we have to find our forgotten history, and our praxis and everything; what’s really true? So I wouldn’t say that they are not Marxists — they are certainly Marxists. But I believe that historical materialism and class struggle are really important parts of Marxism. I think especially in Horkheimer and Adorno, they don’t get enough attention. This would be my position, but I would never say that they are not Marxists. It was a little bit polemical that I did it in the beginning.

CC: Could I specify what it means to say that the revolutionary subject no longer exists? They didn’t mean the working class. They meant the party. That’s very important. Because of course they thought the working class and proletarianized labor and the proletariat as the negation of bourgeois society still existed. But that’s not the revolutionary subject. The revolutionary subject is the party, and the party didn’t exist anymore. Now it’s interesting in their own time: Of course the party did exist, and it was this major oppressive force. It was Stalinist parties. It was the Stalinist parties, which became fragmented between Moscow and Peking, or, you know, Maoism, and old-line Stalinism and Brezhnevism, etc.

But, you know, we have to be very specific about what they meant by that. So the revolutionary subject didn’t exist; that didn’t mean that the problem of capitalism didn’t exist in a historical materialist or economic sense. It meant that there was no political subject of revolution. Because revolution is a political proposition. They didn’t necessarily think that was forever, but it was true in their own time. In other words, they acknowledged the profound defeat of fascism and Stalinism. Right, the 30s were a profound defeat for the working class and the struggle for socialism, and it took decades to overcome that. The New Left tried to lift its head out of the rubble and to grope its way back, but ultimately didn’t, because it didn’t want the party. It’s not about just the workers who have to struggle, and first we have the class struggle and then we can have socialism, and then we can have theory — but don’t impose the theory on the workers because it’s unmotivated — but that’s also true! But the question is: Between here and there — like, between socialism — there is going to have to be the party.

DG: Yeah, of course. But then the task is to build it. And basically, I think what I would say to Adorno and Horkheimer is, “If this party doesn’t exist, then let’s build it.”

CC: How do you build it?

DG: Yeah.

CC: Well you know, in their time we should not underestimate the repressive power of the SPD. I helped discover this text that was published: the 1956 discussion of theory and practice, published in English as Towards a New Manifesto, by Adorno and Horkheimer. And they just say, “we should re-write the Communist Manifesto.”And they say, “Wait, but there’s no audience for it.” It can’t be distributed in the Soviet Union, Americans wouldn’t be interested, and in Britain it would immediately lead to the Labour Party — in Germany it would just lead to the SPD. Maybe in France or Italy, because in these Communist parties maybe somebody could understand what we’re talking about — maybe. There was “the party,” but it wasn’t a revolutionary subject; it was a counter-revolutionary subject. And it was powerful. And it really stopped a lot. The Communist parties, the social-democratic parties, and the Labour Party in the UK stopped a lot. You know, the Democrats weren’t as much of an obstacle. That’s why you could have the New Left coming out of the free speech movement and the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement. The Democrats were an obstacle — they were much more of an obstacle then than they are now, by the way. They were much more thoroughly organized, and controlled people a lot more then, than they do now. The control is softer and more elusive now, and over a narrower portion of the population. But, again I kind of forgive Horkheimer and Adorno, because look: They’re right there. They’re dealing with the Socialist Unity Party in East Germany, and they’re dealing with the SPD, and they’re dealing with—you know, the Soviet Union exists, and the Labour Party, and these are formidable obstacles in their time, to the emergence of a real socialist party. Because that’s what they say. They say, “Look, we’re talking about re-establishing the socialist party. And the problem is that, immediately everything gets shunted into these other things, that kills it.” And that’s happening in our time now. It’s been happening. It continues. That’s real.

DK: Let me just say a quick word about critical theory and postmodern theory. By the way, I agree completely with Dennis on the continuity and discontinuity between Frankfurt School and classical Marxism. But I would also argue that with postmodern theory, and critical theory, there are continuities and discontinuities, and Habermas has made a dichotomy between them. I’ve had face-to-face arguments with Habermas on this issue. Habermas basically says, “Postmodernists are irrationalists. They want to throw out the Enlightenment, and we need to defend the Enlightenment as good social democrats, as good people, etc.” That’s just an oversimplification. It’s very complex — the relationship between Marxism, critical theory, and postmodernism. All the postmodern theorists — Baudrillard, Leotard, Deleuze, Guattari — had Marxist moments. There’s many overlaps with critical theory, and there’s big differences. So this requires a very complex, dialectical discussion to answer the whole issue of postmodern theory.

DL: Which is, after the revolution, the followers of Baudrillard and Leotard and those people will probably do well in a re-education camp. [Laughing] They have their moments!

There is a philosophy of history here that Dennis is operating with, and I wanted us to reflect on it. Earlier, when we talked about this problem of regression. Dennis, you’ve addressed the kind of retardation of the movement. In Platypus we contend with this — we face this as this conflict that comes from the Left itself. In Chris’s presentation, he pointed out that sometimes the strength of the socialists lead to their demise — right? So social democratic parties become the last bulwark of capitalism. This problem is something that we have to contend with. But it seems like, in your presentation and your response, you see these problems as contingencies, as problems of contingencies, problems with external factors, of material factors. I wanted you to reflect — and maybe others can talk about this — how we understand the history of the Left, and the history of defeat. Not simply as a kind of accumulation of material problems, and if it’s not that, how should we think about this?

DG: There are multiple different factors involved. Some of them are hardcore material things. For example, what’s the situation of the economy, is there a crisis or not and how strong is the bargaining position of the proletariat with regard to the bourgeoisie? These things massively influence the outcome of struggles. Then there’s just tactical mistakes that the actors make, like compromising at the wrong time or something like this — some kind of tactical mistake, a contingency, etc. But there’s also some way I think where the Left impedes itself, and it has to do with inertia of organization. If you have this kind of class struggle which accelerates over time, then in all of the stages of development, organizations will form, which are adequate to the current state of class consciousness in the proletariat and the current stage of the development of the proletarian class struggle. But when — because of this positive feedback loop that Rosa Luxemburg describes — the proletariat gains a new stage of consciousness, the old organizations will create an obstacle to the new consciousness of the proletariat. They will try to keep them down, because organizations are more passive than the spontaneous masses. This is where, for example, the party or some kind of more conscious revolutionaries are necessary, to anticipate this, and to create some countermeasures which we have to develop. I have some ideas of how to do it, but it’s a complicated issue, and I can’t deal with it now. This certainly does exist, but we also shouldn’t discount the other factors. History is not a simple philosophical game; it’s a very complex interplay of material reasons, of tactical mistakes — contingencies and randomness — and these inherent contradictions where the success of the Left creates obstacles to its further development. All of these things have to be combined, in our view. We shouldn’t just say that there’s just one cause when asking why there is a stoppage of the development of proletarian movements.

I wanted to ask about this term, “critical theory.” Is critical theory a kind of code for Marxism? It is a shorthand that is useful to a degree, but it is also misleading in that obviously the Frankfurt School is a very different thing than the socialist intellectualism of the 19th century before the Second International or the kind of party intellectuals of the Second International. There is the question, was critical theory in the sense of the Frankfurt School? In terms of their stance, their distance from politics, their abstention from party politics. Douglas Kellner brought up the way that, for instance, Korsch and others of that generation trace a kind of parallel development in that they were intellectuals within social democracy, broadly speaking in his case in the USPD and in the KPD — but eventually ends up a kind of intellectual unaffiliated, or, in the Frankfurt School kind of a loose affiliation of intellectuals with a common inspiration, versus the aftermath of critical theory. Because we can’t really say that there’s been critical theory — there’s the idea of a second generation and a third generation of critical theory — but again that masks the discontinuities. I would ask Doug Kellner to reflect on a generation that wrote books about critical theory, but wasn’t in direct continuity. What does it mean to inherit that tradition today? Obviously Platypus is one kind of response to that problem — and we don’t do Frankfurt School type critical theorizing. Doug, I think you’ve also thought about this: What does it mean to inherit this tradition today? For Dennis, the question is: Apart from your dissatisfaction with young intellectuals who want to write books, talk on podcasts, and aren’t doing something more tangible politically, how do you understand the historical phenomenon of a generation of young people who are sifting through these ideas, pretty distantly related to anything in the political world, caught in a similar, but distinct circumstance or predicament to that of what we designate by the term “critical theory”?

DK: Let me start off on that by taking up the issue of the party. One of the biggest divisions within the critical Marxist tradition that I talked about — Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci, Marcuse, Frankfurt School — was the party. Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci were basically party activists, although at different times they got kicked out of this or that party — particularly Korsch was continually changing parties. Whereas the Frankfurt School were always independent intellectuals. Actually this brings us also to the present, the Bernie Sanders issue, and socialist politics today. The Left has not had a radical party— or a democratic socialist party that would be consistent with the emancipatory theory of critical theory since maybe the Debs socialist party in the early 20th century. The socialist party afterwards has become just social democrat now — and I think Chris said this — a wing of the Democratic party, etc. Today, young people don’t really have a revolutionary party they can go to, so then it’s a question of groups that you find, or movements. Bernie Sanders tried to create a revolutionary movement. In that sense, he won — in that he did create a movement for socialism that had some impact, etc. But what do you do now? What’s the next step? Again, I’m gonna leave it to the youth to decide what movements they’re going to create. The young have always, in my lifetime, created their own movements. I was part of the creation of the New Left. There were feminists, there was the Civil Rights Movement, the ecology movement, the Occupy movement, the Sanders movement. Young people, progressives and radical intellectuals have the challenge of deciding what movements are the most progressive, or the ones that you can affiliate with. This is probably a failure of the Frankfurt School — with the exception of Marcuse — to affiliate themselves with radical political movements. They tended to be too distanced from the politics and struggles of the day, and Marxism says — and Korsch says — you have to get involved, that this is what it means to be a Marxist, or radical intellectual.

DG: Totally. All of my thinking is inherently linked to our relatively small organization of ADH. We try to grow, but everything is linked with this organization, and I’m thinking within that structure. People that do media work with us, who do design, who do trade-union organizing,  who program the internal communication structures and stuff — only within this framework, can I think about theoretical issues. I would have a totally different perspective on these things if I would sit there and read books. I don’t hate people who sit and read books and try to write books — I am one of these people — but if you really want to think about those things then maybe get involved with a movement, with an organization, with a group, and work in a cooperative way. I have my problems with Lukács as well, but he is still much more of a real revolutionary than Adorno and Horkheimer could ever be, because he was involved: He fought on the front lines, he was involved with the struggle, and this has such a big impact on your consciousness, that I think you can’t emphasize enough. I want to thank everyone and also the Platypus Affiliated Society for inviting me here. Thank you all for your nice questions and all of the other panelists for their input.

DL: I have something that came to mind. When one of the questioners put to me that I was being too bashful and I wasn’t counting myself in terms of the impact that I might be having on bringing critical theory back after the failure of the Sanders campaign, that actually really hit home, and it hit home also as a critique of what Kellner just said about the young people: leaving it to them to be the creative force to start new movements and bring the Left forward, and bring socialism either into existence or further down the road. I think of my own kids. Specifically, one of the organizations that is emerging now, because of my own kid, Ben Lain, who has started a group called the Pacific Northwest Communists. I went to a park to witness the opening of the Portland branch of the Pacific Northwest Communists — the first one was in Eugene — and what did I find? I found a bunch of 20-something-year-old men who were organizing around a project to do what? Publish zines. It was like I had returned to the 90s. Paper zines! This was something I could have done, and in a way did, when I was their age. It was definitely a sense of repetition, and so the youth are going to pick up what we leave behind, and try to create movements based on what they can interpret of what we’ve done. Just because I’m 50 doesn’t mean I don’t have any responsibility for the future anymore, and I should probably take responsibility for the young, too, and try to step in and say, “I’ve been here before, here are some of the dangers from that approach, and you should think of these kinds of things,” without the expectation that they’re just going to do exactly as I say because I’m “Dad.” I think one of the bad remnants of the New Left  was this investment in youth as itself a revolutionary force: As if capitalism itself is progressive just through sexual reproduction. That just isn’t enough. That’s my final comment. We shouldn’t count ourselves when we count the number of people in the room, and I’m the first one who needs to learn that.

CC: Doug, when I was at Hampshire College in the early 90s there was a fan zine of Judith Butler called Judy. I came up with my own nickname for Judith Butler, “Judy Bats,” because that harps back to the 50s, and the sexism that the 60s rebelled against. I always thought zines sucked. I guess the one advantage of zines is that they can’t be cancelled as easily, right? If you have print media, it’s harder to digitally erase, whereas the online stuff you can go down the memory hole, you can have your existence “cancelled” pretty easily. I think an unfortunate thing has taken place in the dynamics of the discussion with respect to Dennis and me — in that Platypus got kind of pigeon-holed as “idealist” and only caring about theory and consciousness. In helping to start Platypus early on with my students I made a choice, which is to say: I’m probably not going to be able to do much organizing the workers, given my position in society, given the state of the working class, given all sorts of factors. But one thing I can do is make an intellectual intervention. The Left mostly exists at the level of ideas, and mostly at the level of miseducating people at the level of ideas. I can perform a negative function, which is to say, “You know what the Left says? That’s not the idea, actually, that’s kind of a bad idea.” But otherwise, of course I know that what has to happen is for the working class to actually organize itself in all sorts of ways — not just in trade-union struggles, not just as employees in a labor contract. They need to organize themselves into a social force, and a political force, ultimately. But I also knew my own limitations: I’m a college professor. I also took a long break from the Left in the 90s and in the early 00s. When I came back to it, I was in my late 30s, and Platypus kind of offered itself as a way of intervening. I said to myself, “You know, I probably got another 10 or 20 years to do something, what can I actually do in that time? What can I do? I can do this.” Maybe it’s to leave an esoteric — a very esoteric, beguiling, mysterious,  indecipherable — set of ideas there, something to figure out, something for the future generations to figure out. That’s the Flaschenpost, the message in a bottle. The Frankfurt School did that too. It’s an acknowledgement that that’s part of the story — it’s not the whole story, it’s part of the story. So I would never say that that’s going to decide everything. But I would say, if we forget that the workers’ struggle within capitalism and for socialism is self-contradictory, if we forget that revolution and counter-revolution are inextricably tied, if we forget that capitalism is more revolutionary than we are — objectively — and we’re always catching up with it, in trying to overcome it, we’re still trying to catch up with it — if we forget the dialectic, I don’t think that the self-consciousness necessary when the rubber hits the road will really get us beyond capitalism. In other words, I don’t know that there’s a relevance to critical theory today, politically, I don’t think that critical theory is particularly needed politically today. I don’t think that organizing workers means you need some ideas from Lukács and Adorno — or Marx for that matter — you don’t, you really don’t. You don’t need to be a Marxist to fight against oppression and exploitation and to organize the workers as a social and political force. But at some point it will be necessary, and my concern has always been that these ideas will just be lost. In other words, that they will disappear. Because they can, and they have, and they do. And they get re-discovered, kind of, but it’s very fragile, very thin, very brief — it’s of a moment. That doesn’t mean idealism versus materialism; it just means there were some dearly bought ideas, paid for by a history of suffering, the last 200 years. I don’t think those can be afforded to be lost entirely. And so, it’s not the end-all-be-all — it’s not — but it’s necessary. Not sufficient, but necessary. |P


[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), available at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm/>.

[2] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions” (1906), <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/>.

[3] Vladimir Lenin, “Left-wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920), <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/>.

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