Paths to Marxism
Platypus Review 142 | December 2021/January 2022
MY PRINCIPAL TEACHERS IN MARXISM were the Spartacist League, Adolph Reed and Moishe Postone — Theodor Adorno was also a crucial teacher, through his writings, which Reed had pointed me towards when we met up in Chicago after I graduated from college. The title of this essay is an homage to Adolph’s own “Paths to Critical Theory,” which narrates his political and theoretical coming to consciousness. I first met Reed when I was in college at Hampshire, in the same entering class as his son Touré, and when I was already a member of the Spartacus Youth Club, the youth group of the orthodox Trotskyist Spartacist League.
I had previously considered myself to be a “Marxist” after having read the Communist Manifesto and other random, miscellaneous writings by Marx (also Ernest Mandel’s Revolutionary Marxism Today) in high school. I had been equivocal about the Russian Revolution and Lenin, but felt predisposed towards respecting Trotsky as a dissident figure — I had been taught not only George Orwell’s 1984 but Animal Farm as well: Emmanuel Goldstein and Snowball were sympathetic if tragic figures. But it was really Marx who got me.
I was a “Leftist” activist in high school during the 1980s, protesting against local anti-black racism (housing discrimination) and in solidarity with Central American movements and the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. I was surrounded by Catholic Worker, Quaker (American Friends Service Committee) and Secular Humanist adult activists on Long Island, but I occasionally encountered “Marxist” Leftist organizations at demonstrations in New York City. My family was apolitical or otherwise conservative. Of all my friends, only one had any “Leftist” background of any kind: his parents were Irish immigrants of the Catholic Worker Liberation Theology variety and his older sister supplied us with “Left” literature as well as music listening recommendations (Depeche Mode, New Order, et al).
In my solidarity work on Central America and South Africa, I met émigré refugee militants who told me melancholically that “socialism is impossible” because “American workers voted for Ronald Reagan.”
By the time I was applying to college, my high school boyfriend discovered Hampshire College, to which we both applied and attended together. It was during our first year that we met the Spartacist League at the nearby University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Actually, a mutual friend had first met them and asked us to attend a meeting between them and her, because as “Marxists” we could help her evaluate them: Were they for real? She was unmoved but we were interested and became contacts.
The Spartacist League provided my first real education in Marxism. One of the first things I read by them was their Lenin and the Vanguard Party pamphlet from 1978, which greatly impressed me. (My first serious college course paper was on Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin, rebutting the usual anti-Lenin misreadings of Luxemburg.) Soon after, they had me read Cliff Slaughter’s 1960 essay “What is revolutionary leadership?,” whose oblique reference to Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness I filed for a later date — I had already read Gramsci by that point in college and was intrigued but not exactly convinced by his arguments. Adolph said that the problem with Gramsci was that “he means all things to all people.” The Spartacists said simply that Gramsci was a Stalinist.
At this time the Fall of the Berlin Wall and uprisings in Eastern Europe and the USSR were taking place — the Soviet dissident Boris Kagarlitsky was an invited guest speaker at Hampshire College, who I distinctly recall telling me point-blank that there was no point to Marxism which was an outdated ideology of industrialization (when I asked him about this almost 30 years later, he denied ever saying such a thing, he claimed because he never believed it — perhaps it was someone else?).
With the Spartacist League I attended speeches with Q&A discussions by Noam Chomsky and Michael Harrington, with whom I was otherwise not acquainted. The Spartacists’ provocative questions from the audience prompted Chomsky and Harrington to articulate their anti-Leninism — their anti-Marxism: Chomsky rehearsed his condemnation of the Bolsheviks for allegedly hijacking and dominating the Russian Revolution; Harrington sarcastically confessed that, yes, he “killed Rosa Luxemburg,” with a cynicism that turned me off completely. I later came to respect Harrington more through his writings, and, if not Chomsky himself, at least anarchism to some degree, mostly through the classical writings — I had met Murray Bookchin in high school at New York City’s anarchist book store, when he came storming out of the back office to scold me after hearing me ask if they had any books by Lenin: I swear he yelled at me, “Listen, Marxist!”
The Spartacists introduced me to various different social and political realities, through activity in their locals on the East Coast. They had me do various manual labors as proof of my “proletarian” affinities, in addition to selling their newspaper Workers Vanguard weekly. For instance, I was required to do my bit cleaning the bathrooms and scrubbing the floors of their fortified international headquarters in New York’s financial district, as well as paying regular dues and contributing to various fundraising efforts. They resented my need as a working class student to work in the summer as well as work-study jobs to help pay my tuition and other expenses at Hampshire, asking, “Couldn’t your parents just give you the money?” (No, they couldn’t.) We attended a strike at the New York Daily News newspaper, where a union shop steward carried a pistol openly in his hip holster to defend against scabs, while across the street a police sniper was set up on the roof overlooking the picket line. At a demonstration against something or other in Manhattan, the Borough President Ruth Messinger showed up — the Spartacists pointed her out as a prominent member of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America): I saw a villain.
The big issues of the day were things like the Crown Heights anti-Semitic riots over a black child struck and killed accidentally by a Hasidic Jewish motorcade, and City College of New York’s Professor Leonard Jeffries teaching students that whites were “ice people” and blacks “sun people.” A Latino gay Spartacist member with whom I was acquainted was stabbed while selling WV on the campus of Howard University by a Nation of Islam supporter, because the Spartacists pointed out that Louis Farrakhan had called for Malcolm X’s death after Malcolm had broken with Elijah Muhammad. My friends and I had read Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as well as Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice) and watched all the Roots series on television. Public Enemy and NWA kept the memory alive.
Chris Hani of the South African Communist Party spoke at UMass and said that the “wind of democracy blowing through Eastern Europe should come to South Africa” — upon his return to South Africa a Polish immigrant gunned him down outside his suburban home. I was shocked and appalled by both his speech and his murder. — Later, I would meet Nelson Mandela of the ANC (African National Congress), Jay Naidoo of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and other famous anti-Apartheid political figures, when I visited South Africa for their first Gay and Lesbian Film Festival with a delegation of American and British filmmakers, including Isaac Julien, Barbara Hammer and others, in 1994. At a reception dinner, I got Mandela to inform my fellow travelers, who were otherwise drunk on rhetoric, that the end of Apartheid in South Africa was “not a revolution,” which anyhow would only provoke a civil war and U.S. invasion. At the time, Mandela’s ANC was engaged in fierce bloody street battles against Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party of Zulu nationalists. I was critical but sympathetic to Mandela: at least he didn’t lie.
I met Adolph Reed when he visited Hampshire, as back then he was not so far away in New Haven at Yale. I had written to him in response to an op-ed in Long Island’s Newsday I read on the problem of black student activists’ demands on campus — at first, I had no idea he was a Marxist, though the Spartacists informed me that he was and spoke admiringly of his work. Adolph wrote back and said we could meet when he next came up to Hampshire.
I had read Horkheimer and Adorno’s “The Culture Industry” chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment in a Media Studies course at Hampshire, but it didn’t leave much impression on me — I was much more influenced by Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams in that context. It wasn’t until after I graduated that I started reading the Frankfurt School in earnest, and not until I was a graduate art student in Chicago that I read Adorno’s writings with any seriousness — in order for Adorno to help defend my Marxism against the postmodernism I was encountering for the first time: my Hampshire professor Margaret Cerullo, a friend of Adolph Reed and editor of the legacy SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) journal Radical America, had said to me discouragingly that, while her education was in Marxism (she later told me when applying for graduate study that “the Frankfurt School is like a second skin” to her, but no one was interested anymore, so why would I want to pursue such things?), perhaps now Foucault was more relevant; and anyway weren’t the Spartacists an FBI COINTELPRO operation?
Adolph Reed spoke on campus and made a special visit to my class taught by Margaret Cerullo and Carollee Bengelsdorf. The following week after Adolph spoke, some (white) students in class complained about him as an “African-American who was interested in an obscure 19th century Jewish philosopher (Marx).” When my professors failed to challenge this, saying, “That’s a good question,” I stood up to defend both Adolph and Marx, shouting, “No, it’s not!”
The anti-war movement around the Gulf War U.S. intervention against the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait was a key moment for me. The utter futility of the protests, which were met by counter-protesters with lurid signage against “Sodom Insane” (Iraqi Baathist leader Saddam Hussein) charging anti-war marchers with American flagpoles wielded as weapons, seemingly permitted to pass through police lines to do so, left me dejected as President George H.W. Bush declared, unhindered, the “New World Order.”
By the time I graduated from Hampshire in 1993, I was done with the “Left” — but not with Marxism. Events of my final year in 1992 — the “Left” protesting of the quint-centenary of the Columbian Discovery, the Los Angeles riots against the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King that the “Left” called a “rebellion,” and the election of William Jefferson Clinton after 12 years of Republican Presidents, which was met with jubilation by my fellow “Left” students as well as by our “Leftist” professors at Hampshire — convinced me that my moment was not apt for Marxism or socialism. I was depressed that the world seemed forever frozen and stuck in a dead-end 1960s New Left framework that I could not abide. During the Rodney King protests, I witnessed black students take over an administration building at Hampshire, but proceed to kick out first the white students, then the non-black students of color and finally the black women for supposedly not sharing the plight of black men’s abuse by police. When soon afterwards the Spartacists decided to try to “break” me with accusations of “petit bourgeois intellectualism,” I had had enough.
Richard Rubin, an acquaintance from the Hampshire Spartacus Youth Club chapter, and I kept alive the idea of trying to carry on the Spartacists’ outlook without their organizational insularity and paranoia: we toyed with the idea of starting a “Leviné League,” named after the martyr of the 1919 Bavarian Workers Republic, Eugen Leviné, but it amounted to nothing. All the former Hampshire Spartacus Youth members I had recruited except me and Richard scattered to the wind. We maintained our subscriptions to Workers Vanguard. I dutifully checked in with the Chicago local — and reunited with Richard, who had always kept his distance from the Spartacists as an avowed heterodox “Menshevik Centrist” — when I moved there. But I settled depoliticized into the 1990s Clinton regime, struggling to make my way in the world as a young adult.
I became a video artist and publicly continued to avow and promulgate my Marxism — mostly through quotations from Adorno’s cultural-critical writings in artist statements — but this made me into more of a curiosity than a militant ideologue in the art world. I met the poet Reginald Shepherd, who was the first to recommend Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (as well as his Notes to Literature) to me — Adolph had recommended Negative Dialectics, Minima Moralia and Prisms. Reginald told me that Adorno would cure me of my Marxism, but ended up only confirming it — and deepening it. I became convinced I had to read everything by Adorno — eventually, I realized I must write a dissertation on Adorno, on his Marxism.
Eventually, I earned first my Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and my Masters and PhD from the University of Chicago, launching my teaching career, first as a graduate student, and then thereafter, up to the present.
At SAIC, I studied in the Video Department, which was staffed with avowedly “Marxist” professors, one of whom had made a documentary on Mumia Abu-Jamal that the Spartacists used to promote Mumia’s case. — I recall vividly attending with the Spartacists a “Free Mumia!” rally in Philadelphia, which was denounced by the local Fraternal Order of Police head, who said on TV that we protesters should be put on an “electric couch” to join in Mumia’s execution. But my art work was accused of being “too aesthetic” by my professors and fellow students at SAIC. The separate Film Department was also staffed by “Marxist” filmmakers but was regarded by the Video Department as being too interested in art as opposed to “politics.” But I knew the difference between politics and art.
During this time of the mid-1990s, I met and became friends with the up-and-coming “New / Post-Black Black Artists” such as Isaac Julien, Glenn Ligon and others, as well as meeting the faculty at the new Harvard University department organized by Henry Louis Gates Jr., such as Cornel West, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhabha and others — including meeting Stuart Hall on a visit — when Isaac Julien was teaching there (in New York, Isaac introduced me to bell hooks, who objected to my existence). As an artist, I spoke individually and on panels about — dissenting against — racial and sexual identity, at film festivals, art museums and galleries, and colleges and universities around the world.
Many conversations about Marxism were had: the consensus was that it was finished.
Back in Chicago, I was living through the brunt of neoliberal capitalism. I participated marginally in Adolph’s anti-Clintonite Labor Party USA organizing, meeting his local colleagues in the venture (mostly Maoist labor union activists). I made my skepticism about the Labor Party clearly known to Adolph, and suggested that we should be working towards a socialist party instead. He said that I sounded like the “Trotskyite sectarians” he was struggling against in the Labor Party — the ISO (International Socialist Organization), Solidarity, and others — and accused me of being “too abstractly theoretical” in my politics. The Labor Party USA project seemed to me to be just Democrats dissenting against Clintonism. He was opposed to running Labor Party candidates against Democrats — he didn’t want to be a spoiler. Nonetheless, he called for voting for the Green Party’s Ralph Nader against Al Gore for President in 2000 — and regretted it ever since. Adolph amused me driving around Chicago: just missing an open parking space, he would exclaim, “Racist yuppies!” He introduced me through the Labor Party activities in Chicago to his then-girlfriend, Stephanie Karamitsos, a PhD student at Northwestern University, with whom I bonded as a fellow artist, reading and discussing Adorno widely and at great length.
Adolph is a follower of the later “council communist” Karl Korsch and of thinkers who were students of the later Lukács such as Istvan Meszaros and others such as Karel Kosik, whose book Dialectics of the Concrete Adolph opposed to the alleged bad “idealism” of the Frankfurt School. Both the later Korsch and Lukács had turned away from their Hegelian Marxism circa 1917 towards “materialism.” In Korsch’s case this meant turning against Lenin and ultimately against Marxism as a whole — including Marx — because of their alleged “bourgeois elitism and vanguardism” contra the working class. Adolph disliked Trotskyism on this basis. He worked out a very elaborate argument concerning this issue in his book on W.E.B. Du Bois on which he was working when I was in my period of closest contact with him.
Adolph ascribed my resistance to his Labor Party USA project to my supposed “abstract idealism” that he attributed to my Trotskyism and strong affinity for Adorno. It was precisely Adorno who, in his Negative Dialectics, had helped me sort out the vexed issue of “materialism vs. idealism” in Marxism, which he taught me to see as a historical symptom of the defeat of the revolution rather than a matter of ahistorical principle as Adolph and others did. There was no need to raise the failure of Lenin and Trotsky to achieve socialism through the Russian Revolution to a matter of principle; indeed, Adorno taught me that it was important to remember them and Marxism against the grain of subsequent history, as an important attempt not easily explained away.
In addition to working various odd jobs — for instance at Kinko’s photocopy shop, where I met a couple of young Zapatista militants visiting Chicago who came in with literature to print, and including as support staff for engineers at the local Shure Electronics factory, drafting assembly-line instructions for workers (mostly Mexican women) there as well as at their sister location across the border in Juarez — I taught film and video production to aspiring workers in the media industry at Columbia College in Chicago.
Meanwhile, local “Leftist” activists were protesting against “big box stores” such as Borders Books and Walmart, Target, et al, trying to defend local businesses from them — I saw them rather as opportunities for organizing — and shopping — for the working class. Adolph said of mom-and-pop stores that “exploitation begins at home.” Cynical city aldermen would hire insta-crowds to picket the stores. I encountered race-baiting at the NGO level with local arts and media “Left” organizations descended from the 1970s–80s post-New Left cultural activist scene, which lost their government funding and, seeking private foundation support, were attacked for being too “white” — and promptly confessed their guilt and disappeared, leaving a void artistically, culturally and politically. It was the end of an era.
At the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, Adolph pointed out that single cases never serve well as rallying-points politically because the facts are always complicated and reality is not symbolic or allegorical, though the capitalist politicians and news media try to make it so. About Simpson himself, Adolph observed that “even a guilty man can be framed” and the police frame people, innocent or guilty, routinely. O.J. was found not guilty, though he was not innocent. I learned later as a victim of crime that the trial court, if not the criminal justice system as a whole, exists — at least ostensibly — for the benefit of the accused defendant against the state — as it should be. The police are there not to protect society against crime but to enforce the law; and prosecutors try to win cases, not achieve justice — which cannot be found in court anyway, especially not in capitalism. A bitter truth, but true nonetheless. — Life is not a morality play.
At the University of Chicago, I again met my Irish-American high school friend, who was then finishing his PhD in Musicology, writing a dissertation on Weimar Republic popular music, and who told me that a German professor had said that unless one is a native German language speaker one can never truly understand Adorno. He studied German, found a German boyfriend and relocated there, claiming his Irish citizenship in the EU. Before parting, he warned me against studying with Moishe Postone because Postone didn’t tolerate any dissent from his students — I ignored his advice and became Moishe’s student anyway. Adolph warned me archly that Moishe was perhaps too “tribal” — a veiled reference to Moishe’s (famous, but as-yet unknown to me) criticisms of Palestinian solidarity and “anti-Zionist Leftism.” For his part, Moishe said that, while he appreciated Adolph’s work a great deal, he found it too “angular:” Moishe couldn’t countenance Adolph’s fierce criticisms of black Democrat politicians.
Before studying with Moishe, I first took Adolph’s friend Kenneth Warren’s courses in African-American literary history and theory at the University of Chicago, and Ken became one of my advisors, eventually serving as my dissertation chair. My dissertation was on Adorno, and when a professor, editor of a prestigious critical theory journal, heard my subject of study, he exclaimed, incredulously, “I didn’t know Adorno was gay!,” to which I replied that as far as I knew he wasn’t — I certainly hoped he wasn’t. Who knows what he thought of Ken chairing my committee?
I started out as an Art History — Media Studies — student, and earned the ire of the department chair when I corrected a fellow student’s misreading of Walter Benjamin’s essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as a culturally conservative rejection of modern mass media rather than a dialectical critique, which the chair blamed me for the student, the one black member of our cohort, eventually dropping out — he cut me from the program as punishment. Or perhaps it was for another reason: when discussing my Masters thesis on Benjamin, the chair chastised me that Lenin and Trotsky relished “killing the innocent as well as the guilty” — I learned later that he was an ex-Marxist.
At Univ. Chicago, I took courses with the Hegel scholar Robert Pippin, who had been a member of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in the 1960s and became an acolyte of Marcuse when he taught at University of California at San Diego. We conversed in and out of class on issues of German Idealism and Marxism, with Adorno and Benjamin figuring prominently. The question regarding Hegel and Marx was the philosophy of freedom.
The Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once replied to a question I posed at a Univ. Chicago event about his account of Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary — that perhaps it was about freedom and not merely happiness — that “freedom is a Right-wing concept.” Adolph responded to my question in a graduate student colloquium he co-taught with Ken on the history of anti-black racism in the U.S., regarding the issue with the Taft-Hartley Act of official government-recognized labor unions as a historical gain or setback for workers, that “freedom is in the eye of the beholder,” a version of the usual Leftist “freedom for who?” dismissal of the question of social freedom — the freedom of society as a whole, over which Marxists such as Lenin and Adorno considered capitalism to be dominating as an impersonal force, affecting all of its members.
As Postone did later, Pippin confessed that he felt he “couldn’t really understand” Benjamin and Adorno, which made sense to me as ignorance of the Marxism at the core of their work. Pippin highlighted a sentence in one of my course papers on Marxism about the philosophical difficulty of “recognizing oneself as a subject of change from within the process of self-transformation.”
Postone’s courses — which I attended with Stephanie and sometimes Richard as outside auditors — on Marx and the Frankfurt School as well as on the post-1960s “Left” criticisms of capitalism, were a welcome respite from the otherwise unrelenting anti-Marxism of postmodernist academia — if however, as I soon came to realize, they were their own form of anti-Marxism. Moishe would say that, while Marx himself was politically a “traditional Marxist,” his theoretical work pointed beyond this. When teaching Adorno’s work, Moishe confessed that he wasn’t sure he really understood it: I replied simply that Adorno was a Marxist; and maybe Marxist politics was more and other than what Moishe thought.
In Moishe’s classes, I met a new friend, Spencer Leonard, with whom I immediately engaged on issues of Lenin, Trotsky, the Russian Revolution and historical Marxism more generally. Spencer, Stephanie and I formed a close friendship circle; we were joined by fellow graduate student friends Atiya Khan, Sunit Singh and James Vaughn.
I appreciated the pedagogy in Marx and the Frankfurt School we were receiving from Postone, but felt it all made sense only if one took certain things about Marxism for granted, politically, which Moishe did not and indeed opposed. Still, I was a little shocked when Moishe told me point-blank, angrily, that I was inappropriately trying to reconcile his work with what it was designed precisely against, Marxism — more specifically, Lenin. But it was clear to me that Marx and Lenin wanted to overcome labor as a social relation and not hypostatize it politically, as Postone alleged. James’s old Trotskyist professor Robert Brenner (and member of Solidarity) said that Moishe’s insights into Marx were nothing new to actual Marxists, and his political apprehensions were misplaced. But I knew that most “Marxists” were exactly what Moishe said they were, not really followers of Marx at all: they were the socialists and communists that Marx himself had critiqued in his day. Marxists had always complained of the constant degeneration into “vulgar” and pseudo-“Marxism” and relapse into pre-Marxian socialism, for instance Luxemburg’s critique of reformist Revisionism of Marxism.
Moishe objected to what he called my characterization of “Luxemburg and Lenin as bosom buddies walking arm-in-arm,” and was incensed when I produced evidence that Luxemburg spoke and wrote fondly of Lenin and that they were indeed good friends who spent many an evening together, walking arm-in-arm, to which he responded dismissively that, “Of course Luxemburg was a traditional Marxist anyway.” Moishe ended up protesting stridently during my dissertation defense on Adorno’s Marxism, but relented when I talked him down, admitting, “Perhaps everything ended in 1919, but we’re still thinking,” to which I replied, “But are we really thinking, Moishe?” Meeting for coffee several weeks later, he said, “You know, Chris, you might have a point about Lenin, but you need to support it better.” I thought Lenin supported it best himself.
In any case, I remained independent from Postone in ways that always irritated him and made him distrustful of me. He told others that while he admired that I am “always thinking,” he thought that I was, problematically, “once a Spartacist, always a Spartacist.” — Here Moishe agreed with Adolph. Nonetheless, Moishe hired me in the College Core Curriculum of the Social Sciences, teaching undergraduates courses on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Freud for the next decade and a half — until, after Moishe’s death, his students were purged from the staff.
When I began teaching Adorno and the Frankfurt School at SAIC, 9/11 had happened and the War on Terror was already underway, and Iraq had been invaded, but the U.S. occupation was facing difficulties, and the anti-war movement was regaining ground. My students attended protests and encountered the “Left” and its “Marxist” organizations, and the effects of this filtered back into my classes, raising many questions.
My students at SAIC and Univ. Chicago asked me to start an extra-curricular reading group in early 2006, wanting me to inform them more explicitly of the political implications of the Marxism I was teaching, outside the academic classroom. I warned them that this would become very intense and very political very quickly. Among the first writings we read together was something recommended to me by Adolph Reed more than a decade earlier, Korsch’s 1923 essay on “Marxism and Philosophy.” We attended “Left” events as a group, including the first national conference of the new Students for a Democratic Society, held at the University of Chicago in summer 2006. These activities soon led to founding an organization, the Platypus Affiliated Society, in 2007.
The rest is history. |P