Panel held at the Marxist Literary Group Summer 2011 Institute on Culture and Society at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago on June 22, 2011
The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) — what they called “revolutionary social democracy” — in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: “[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.” Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being “on the basis of capitalism” itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century — as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “against the grain” of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?
Panel held at the Marxist Literary Group Summer 2011 Institute on Culture and Society at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago on June 20, 2011
The “bourgeois revolutions” from the 16th through the 19th centuries — extending into the 20th — conformed humanity to modern city life, ending traditional, pastoral, religious custom in favor of social relations of the exchange of labor. Abbé Sieyès wrote in 1789 that, in contradistinction to the clerical 1st Estate who “prayed” and the aristocratic 2nd Estate who “fought,” the commoner 3rd Estate “worked:” “What has the 3rd Estate been? Nothing.” “What is it? Everything.” Kant warned that universal bourgeois society would be the mere midpoint in humanity’s achievement of freedom. After the last bourgeois revolutions in Europe of 1848 failed, Marx wrote of the “constitution of capital,” the ambivalent, indeed self-contradictory character of “free wage labor.” In the late 20th century, the majority of humanity abandoned agriculture in favor of urban life — however in “slum cities.” How does the bourgeois revolution appear from a Marxian point of view? How did what Marx called the “proletarianization” of society circa 1848 signal not only the crisis and supersession, but the need to fulfill and “complete” the bourgeois revolution, whose task now fell to the politics of “proletarian” socialism, expressed by the workers’ call for “social democracy?” How did this express the attempt, as Lenin put it, to overcome bourgeois society “on the basis of capitalism” itself? How did subsequent Marxism lose sight of Marx on this, and how might Marx’s perspective on the crisis of the bourgeois revolution in the 19th century still resonate today?
Spencer Leonard, “Marx’s critique of political economy: Proletarian socialism continuing the bourgeois revolution?”
Pamela Nogales, “Marx on the U.S. Civil War as the 2nd American Revolution”
Jeremy Cohan, “Lukács on Marx’s Hegelianism and the dialectic of Marxism”
On May 19, 2011, Platypus invited Carl Davidson, formerly of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Guardian Weekly, Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency, and Mel Rothenberg, formerly of the Sojourner Truth Organization, to reflect on “The Marxist turn: The New Left in the 1970s.”
The original description of the event, which was moderated by Spencer A. Leonard at the University of Chicago, reads: “The 1970s are usually glossed over as a decade of the New Left’s disintegration into sectarianism, triggered by the twin defeats of Nixon’s election and the collapse of SDS in 1968–69. But the 1970s were also a time of tremendous growth on the Left. The embarrassed silence retrospectively given to the politics of this time contradicts the self-understanding of 1970s radicals’ finally “getting serious” about their Leftism, after the youthful rebellion of the 1960s. After a decade of searching for new revolutionary agents, and faced with the reordering of global capital towards post-Fordism, the 1970s saw a return to working class politics and Marxist approaches, in both theory and practice. The conventional imagination of the 1970s as the long retreat after the defeat of the late 1960s occludes an understanding of the political possibilities present in the 1970s. Our contemporary moment provides an opportunity to rethink the politics of this period. The collapse of the anti-war movement and the disappointments of the Left’s hopes for a reform agenda under Obama have exhausted the resurgence of 1960s-style leftism that took place in the 2000s. The reconsideration of Marx in the wake of the current economic crisis, which parallels the neo-Marxism of the 1970s (if much attenuated by comparison), raises the question of the possibility of a Marxian politics that could fundamentally transform society. Therefore, in this panel discussion we will investigate the neglected significance of the legacy of 1970s-era Marxism for anticapitalist and emancipatory politics today.”
A panel discussion held on November 9th, 2010, at the University of Chicago.
The memory of the 1960s, which has long kindled contestation and debate on the means and ends of freedom politics, is rapidly fading into the political unconscious. The election of Barack Obama and the collapse of the anti-war movement mark the end of a period that has now come full circle. After a half-century of rebellion, many old New Left-ists now call for a “new New Deal” to return to welfare-statist and authoritarian society against which the New Left rebelled. History threatens to repeat itself, this time in an even more dimly recognized and ferocious form. “In the United States today there is no Left,” C. Wright Mills declaimed in the waning months of the 1950s, making him one of the most beloved intellectuals of his generation, âpolitical activities are monopolized by an irresponsible two-party system; cultural activities — though formally quite free, tend to become nationalistic or commercial — or merely private. If Mills continues to speak to us, it is as a reminder of tasks long deferred, memories long repressed.
This panel attempts to address the current moment, in which many who participated in the moment of the New Left’s beginnings have survived a full cycle of history. Rather than a rehash of old debates or yet another nostalgia- ridden recap of the era, interventions which have ceased to offer critical perspective on the present, this panel seeks to ask the simple but fundamental question: What, if any, is significant for us today in the thwarted attempt by 1960s radicals to re-found emancipatory politics?
Spencer A. Leonard