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Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 3 | March 2008

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On the frigid winter evening of Thursday, January 24, Angela Davis, a former Communist Party activist associated in the 1960s–70s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party, and current Professor in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, gave the annual George E. Kent lecture (in honor of the first black American tenured professor) at the University of Chicago Rockefeller Chapel, to an overflow audience from the campus and surrounding community. The title of Davis’s talk was “How Does Change Happen?,” and, with the looming February 5 Super Tuesday primary elections to determine Democratic Party candidacy for President of the United States, Davis took as her point of departure the current contest between the first effective candidacies by a woman and a black American, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Davis also noted, with wry irony, that the current Republican presidency of George W. Bush is by far the most “diverse” administration in U.S. history.

But Davis stated that such apparent present overcoming of historical social limitations of race and gender was “not the victory for which we have struggled.” This observation of the disparity between social-political struggles and their outcomes formed a central, strong theme of Davis’s talk. Davis elaborated this further through discussion of how “collective demands are transformed into individual benefits.” In Davis’s estimation, individual women and black and Latino Americans such as Clinton, Obama, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas and others have benefited from historically more collective struggles against racial and ethnic discrimination and restrictive gender roles, without greater social justice or equality or collective empowerment being achieved.

Thus Davis came to discuss the question that she said has been presented to her on many occasions by her students of whether the struggles of the 1960s had been “in vain.” While Davis acknowledged that it could certainly appear to be so, she said that she did not wish to “believe” that this was indeed the case. So Davis raised the question of in what ways the 1960s New Left had succeeded, and how it had failed to achieve its goals.

In addressing such issues, Davis placed the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s in greater historical context, pointing to the “cross-racial” struggles of the preceding 1920s–30s Left, for example the organizing of sharecroppers in Alabama by the Communist Party, which Davis said had laid the groundwork for the subsequent Civil Rights movement. This was the strongest point in Davis’s talk. However, perhaps the weakest point came when Davis tried to show such continuity of background in her further historical narrative, after the 1960s, in which she contended that the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast community programs for black schoolchildren had led to the implementation of U.S. federal government Head Start programs. Similarly, Davis’s defense of affirmative action programs since the 1960s did not serve her intention of showing how demands for structural change and collective empowerment had been diverted into more depoliticized individual benefits, for affirmative action had never been an anti-poverty measure and had always been geared specifically to meet “middle class” demands against institutional discrimination.

This contrast in Davis’s characterization of different historical moments of movements against anti-black racism in America, in the 1920s–30s and the 1960s–70s, up to the present, posed the issue of how adequately socialpolitical struggles for improving the social conditions of black Americans and reforming American society can be understood as having been against “racism”—though of course such struggles involved confronting legal segregation and other historical forms of institutionalized racism. In her talk, Davis used the category of “race” unproblematically to reference an irreducible reality of “difference” that she took everyone to already recognize. Davis oscillated between conflicting prognoses of the present, whether anti-black racism has been ameliorated or worsened since the 1960s. The category of “race” works ambivalently in discussing two obvious changes since the 1960s: that legal and institutional racism as well as common racist attitudes have been overcome or diminished while social conditions for most black Americans have worsened. But this only begs the question, which should be at the core of trying to think about how political and social change can and does happen, of the very adequacy or lack of such categories as “race” and “racism” to address the problems facing black Americans and their greater social context today.

In the context of the global economic downturn since 1973, in which the average per capita purchasing power of American workers to meet their needs has decreased by as much as 30 percent while incomes have been massively distributed upwards to a small elite, the possibilities for the simultaneous if paradoxical outcome of overcoming legal and institutional racism while conditions for most black Americans have worsened, could be understood better in terms of changes in capitalism that have involved satisfying, even if in limited ways, historical demands for change in American society such as an end to “racial” (and gender) discrimination. In America, black “race” has coded for poverty and hence realities of socioeconomic “class,” and anti-black racism has functioned to rationalize or at least naturalize poverty in the U.S., masking fundamental structural problems of American society, but this might function differently today than in the past, especially in light of the much-deplored separation of the concerns of the black “middle class” from the greater lot of black Americans since the 1960s. In her talk, Davis missed an opportunity to challenge and educate her audience in favor of calibrating her comments to what she seemed to perceive to be her audience’s conceptions of social-political problems. But such conceptions are in fact the effects of ideas like Davis’s that bear the undigested legacy of failed politics on the Left since the 1960s. As Adolph Reed pointed out in an article on the Hurricane Katrina disaster, “The Real Divide” (The Progressive, November, 2005), “As a political strategy, exposing racism is wrongheaded and at best an utter waste of time,” a distraction from addressing the necessary socioeconomic and political problems facing black Americans.

Davis’s talk lacked a sense of how capitalism as a specific problem and context for social politics subordinates and molds issues like racism historically. But the questions Davis raised in her talk nevertheless pointed in directions of how such an understanding of capitalism might help overcome the apparent paradoxes of changes in the problem of racism since the 1960s.

In the 1960s, Davis had studied with members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, in Frankfurt, Germany with Theodor Adorno and subsequently in San Diego with Herbert Marcuse. Adorno had discouraged Davis from leaving her studies to participate in student activism while Marcuse had encouraged this.[1] But we might say retrospectively today that had Davis heeded Adorno’s advice instead and given herself the opportunity for a more thorough critical investigation of the role of changes in capitalism in how historical changes such as the transformation and amelioration of anti-black racism could be understood more adequately and hence politically effectively, then Angela Davis, along with other radical intellectuals like her, could have contributed to better thinking and politics that might have helped us avoid the present situation in which one is left with the unsatisfying choice between proclaiming the historical end of racism and trying to address present social-political problems with antiquated and inadequate categories like “race.” |P


[1]. Angela Y. Davis, “Marcuse’s Legacies” (1998), in John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb, eds., Herbert Marcuse: a critical reader (Routledge, 2004), 46-47.

Benjamin Blumberg and Pam C. Nogales C.

Platypus Review 3 | March 2008

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Moishe Postone is Professor of History at the University of Chicago, and his seminal book Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory investigates Marx’s categories of commodity, labor, and capital, and the saliency of Marx’s critique of capital in the neoliberal context of the present. Rescuing Marx’s categories from intellectual and political obsolescence, Postone brings them to bear on the global transformations of the past three decades. In the following interview, Postone stresses the importance of an analysis of the history of capital for a progressive anti-capitalist Left today.

BB: We would like to begin by asking some questions about your early engagement with Marxism and the impetus for your contribution to it. Very basically, how did you come upon Marx?

MP: I went through various stages. My first encounter was, as is the case with many people, the Communist Manifesto, which I thought was… rousing, and not really relevant. For me, in the 1960s, I thought it was a kind of a feel-good manifesto, not that it had been that in its own time, but that it no longer was really very relevant. Also, hearing the remnants of the old Left that were still around campus— Trotskyists and Stalinists arguing with one another—I thought that most of it was pretty removed from people’s concerns. It had a museum quality to it. So, I considered myself, in some vague sense, critical, or Left, or then the word was ‘radical,’ but not particularly Marxist. I was very interested in issues of socialism, but that isn’t necessarily the same as Marxism.

Then I discovered, as did many in my generation, the 1844 Manuscripts. I thought they were fantastic… At that point, however, I still bought into the notion, very wide spread then, that the young Marx really had something to say and that then, alas, he became a Victorian and that his thought became petrified. A turning point for me was an article, “The Unknown Marx,” written by Martin Nicolaus while translating the Grundrisse in 1967. Its hints at the richness of the Grundrisse blew me away.

Another turning point in this direction was a sit-in in the University of Chicago in 1969. Within the sit-in there were intense political arguments, different factions were forming. Progressive Labor (PL) was one. It called itself a Maoist organization, but it was Maoist only in the sense that Mao disagreed with Kruschev’s speech denouncing Stalin, so it was really an unreconstructed Stalinist organization. The other was a group called Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which tried to take cognizance of the major historical shifts of the late 1960s, and did so by focusing on youth and on race. It eventually split; one wing became the Weathermen. At first friends of mine and myself kind of allied with RYM, against PL—but that’s because PL was just very vulgar and essentially outside of historical time. But the differences I and some friends had on RYM were expressed tellingly after the sit-in. Two study groups emerged out of the sit-in, one was the RYM study group, called “Youth as a Class,” and the other I ran with a friend, called “Hegel and Marx.” We felt that social theory was essential to understanding the historical moment, and that RYM’s emphasis on surface immediacy was disastrous. We read [Georg] Lukács, who also was an eyeopener— the extent to which he took many of the themes of some conservative critics of capitalism—the critique of bureaucratization, of formalism, of the dominant model of science—and embedded them within Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. In a sense this made those conservative critics look a lot more superficial than they had looked beforehand, and deepened and broadened the notion of a Marxian critique. I found it really to be an impressive tour de force. In the meantime I was very unhappy with certain directions that the Left had taken.

BB: To begin with a basic but fundamental question, one that is very important for your work, why is the commodity form the necessary category of departure for Marx in Capital? In other words, why would a category that would appear to be, in certain guises, an economic category be the point of departure for a critique of social modernity capable of grasping social phenomena at an essential level?

MP: I think what Marx is trying to do is delineate a form of social relations that is fundamentally different from that in pre-capitalist societies. He maintains that the social relations that characterize capitalism, that drive capitalism, are historically unique, but don’t appear to be social. So that, for example, although the amazing intrinsic dynamic of capitalist society is historically specific, it is seen as merely a feature of human interaction with nature. I think one of the things that Marx is trying to argue is that what drives the dynamic of capitalist society are these peculiar social forms that become reified.

BB: In your work you emphasize Marx’s differentiation between labor as a socially mediating activity, i.e., in its abstract dimension, on the one hand, and on the other, as a way of producing specific and concrete use-values, i.e., participating in the production of particular goods. In your opinion, why is this, for Marx, an important distinction from pre-modern forms of social organization and how does it figure in his theory of Modern capitalist society?

MP: Well, this is one place where I differ from most people that write about Marx. I don’t think that abstract labor is simply an abstraction from labor, i.e., it’s not labor in general, it’s labor acting as a socially mediating activity. I think that is at the heart of Marx’s analysis: Labor is doing something in capitalism that it doesn’t do in other societies. So, it’s both, in Marx’s terms, concrete labor, which is to say, a specific activity that transforms material in a determinate way for a very particular object, as well as abstract labor, that is, a means of acquiring the goods of others. In this regard, it is doing something that labor doesn’t do in any other societies. Out of this very abstract insight, Marx develops the whole dynamic of capitalism. It seems to me that the central issue for Marx is not only that labor is being exploited—labor is exploited in all societies, other than maybe those of hunter-gatherers— but, rather, that the exploitation of labor is effected by structures that labor itself constitutes.

So, for example, if you get rid of aristocrats in a peasant-based society, it’s conceivable that the peasants could own their own plots of land and live off of them. However, if you get rid of the capitalists, you are not getting rid of capital. Social domination will continue to exist in that society until the structures that constitute capital are gotten rid of.

PN: How can we account for Marx’s statement that the proletariat is a revolutionary force without falling into a vulgar apprehension of its revolutionary character?

MP: It seems to me that the proletariat is a revolutionary force in several respects. First of all, the interaction of capital and proletariat is essential for the dynamic of the system. The proletariat is not outside of the system, the proletariat is integral to the system. The class opposition between capitalist and proletariat is not intended by Marx as a sociological picture of society, rather, it isolates that which is central to the dynamism of capitalism, which I think is at the heart of Marx’s concerns.

Second, through its actions, the proletariat—and not because it wants to—contributes to the temporal and spatial spread of capital. That is to say, the proletariat is one of the driving forces behind globalization. Nevertheless, one of the differences, for Marx, between the proletariat and other oppressed groups, is that if the proletariat becomes radically dissatisfied with its condition of life, it opens up the possibility of general human emancipation. So it seems to me that one can’t take the theory of the proletariat and just abstract it from the theory of capital, they are very much tied to one another.

BB: I would like to turn to the seminal thinker Georg Lukács, in particular his essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” first let me ask a general question, what do you take to be the most important insight of this essay?

MP: Well, Lukács takes the commodity form and he shows that it is not simply an economic category but that it is the category that can best explain phenomena like those that Weber tried to grapple with through his notion of rationalization, i.e., the increasing bureaucratization and rationalization of all spheres of life. Lukács takes that notion and provides a historical explanation of the nature of that process by grounding it in the commodity. That opened up a whole universe for me.

Lukács also brilliantly shows that the forms that Marx works out in Capital are simultaneously forms of consciousness as well as forms of social being. In this way Lukács does away with the whole Marxist base-super structure way of thinking about reality and thought. To use slightly different language, a category like commodity is both a social and a cultural category, so that the categories are subjective and objective categories at the same time.

BB: Could you explain your critique of Lukács’s identification of the proletariat as the socio-historical subject?

MP: Lukács posits the proletariat as the Subject of history, and I think this is a mistake. A lot of people confuse subject and agency. When using the term “Subject,” Lukács is thinking of Hegel’s notion of the identical subject-object that, in a sense, generates the dynamic of history. Lukács takes the idea of the Geist and essentially says that Hegel was right, except that he presented his insight in an idealist fashion. The Subject does exist; however, it’s the proletariat. The proletariat becomes, in this sense, the representative of humanity as a whole. I found it very telling, however, that in Capital when Marx does use Hegel’s language referring to the Geist he doesn’t refer to the proletariat, he refers to the category of capital. This made a lot of sense to me, because the existence of an ongoing historical dynamic signifies that people aren’t real agents. If people were real agents, there wouldn’t be a dynamic. That you can plot an ongoing temporal pattern means that there are constraints on agency. It seems to me that by calling capital the Subject, Marx argues for the conditions of possibility that humans can become the subjects of their own history, but that’s with a small “s.” Then there wouldn’t be this ongoing dynamic, necessarily. Rather, change and development would be more the result, presumably, of political decision making. So right now humans make history, but, as it were, behind their own back, i.e., they make history by creating structures that compel them to act in certain ways.

For Lukács, the proletariat is the Subject, which implies that it should realize itself (he is very much a Hegelian) whereas if Marx says capital is the Subject, the goal would be to do away with the Subject, to free humanity from an ongoing dynamic that it constitutes, rather than to realize the Subject.

PN: It has been our experience that “reification” is commonly understood as the mechanization of human life, expressing the loss of the qualitative dimension of human experience. In other words, reification is understood solely as an expression of unfreedom in capitalist society. However, the passage below, from “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” suggests to us that, for Lukács, the reification of the driving societal principle is also the site for class consciousness, in other words, that transformations in the objective dimension of the working class can only be grasped in reified form.

The class meaning of these changes [i.e., the thoroughgoing capitalist rationalization of society as a whole] lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation. Whereas for the proletariat, the ‘same’ development has a different class meaning: it means the abolition of the isolated individual, it means that the workers can become conscious of the social character of labor, it means that the abstract, universal form of the societal principle as it is manifested can be increasingly concretised and overcome. . . .[1] For the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate in search for the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action. [2]

The passage above seems to imply that for Lukács class consciousness is not imminent to the experiential dimension of labor, i.e., that a Leftist politics is not an immediate product of concrete labor, rather, class consciousness emerges out of the dissolution of this immediacy. From this, we take Lukács to mean that reification is double-sided, in that it is both the ground for a potential overcoming of the societal principle under capital, and an expression of unfreedom. It’s both.

BB: In other words, reification is not really a structure that has to be done away with so that outlets of freedom and action can emerge, but it’s actually the site, the location, from which action is possible in capitalist modernity.

PN: That said, in what way does a one-sided appropriation of Lukács’s category lose hold of its critical purchase?

MP: Well, this is a nice reading…I’m not sure it’s Lukács. But that may be beside the point. If you read that longer quote, “the bourgeoisie regularly transforms each new qualitative gain back onto the quantitative level of yet another rational calculation,” for Lukács that’s reification. What you’ve done here is taken the notion of reification and you’ve come to something I actually would be very sympathetic to, which is the idea that capitalism is constitutive as well constraining. It opens possibilities as well as closes them. Capitalism itself is double-sided. I’m not sure whether Lukács really has that, but that’s neither here nor there.

Lukács emphasizes the abolition of the isolated individual, and this is important for me. There is a sense in Lukács that the proletariat doing proletarian labor could exist in a free society, and I don’t think this is the case for Marx. Marx’s idea of the social individual is a very different one than simply the opposition of the isolated individual and the collectivity. For Marx the social individual is a person who may be working individually, but their individual work depends on, and is an expression of, the wealth of society as a whole. This is opposed to, let’s say, proletarian labor, which increasingly, as it becomes deskilled, becomes a condition of the enormous wealth of society, but is in a sense, its opposite on the level of the work itself. “The richer the society, the poorer the worker.” Marx is trying to imagine a situation in which the wealth of the whole and the wealth of each—wealth in the sense of capacities and the ability to act on those capacities—are congruent with one another. I am not sure Lukács has that conception… I’m not sure.

BB: In some ways I think that the second quote does bring into the field certain issues with the projection of proletariat labor continuing… It depends on interpretation I suppose, because he says, “for the proletariat however, this ability to go beyond the immediate, ” which is enabled through a process of reification, “in search of the ‘remoter’ factors means the transformation of the objective nature of the objects of action,” now, if “object” is solely taken to mean the material product of concrete labor, it would be against Lukács’s sense of the commodity, by which, as we’ve already established, he means both a category of subjectivity and objectivity, so the object of action is also the proletariat itself.

MP: Yes, but you’ll notice in the last third of Lukács’s essay, which is about revolutionary consciousness, there is no discussion at all of the development of capital. Everything is the subjective development of the proletariat as it comes to self-consciousness. That process is not presented as historical. What is changing in terms of capital—other than crises—is bracketed. There is a dialectic of identity whereby awareness that one is an object generates the possibility of becoming a subject. For me, in a funny way, in the third part of the reification essay history comes to a standstill, and history becomes the subjective history of the Spirit, i.e., the proletariat becoming aware of itself as a Subject, not just object. But there is very little—there’s nothing—on the conditions of possibility for the abolition of proletariat labor. None. There is no discussion of that at all. So, history freezes in the last third of the essay.

PN: Is it possible to struggle to overcome capitalism other than through necessary forms of misrecognition that this organization of social life generates? In other words: If consciousness in capitalist modernity is rooted in phenomenal forms that are the necessary expressions of a deep structure which they simultaneously mask, then how can mass-based Left-wing anti-capitalist politics be founded on anything other than progressive forms of misrecognition, i.e., as opposed to reactionary forms of misrecognition, ranging from populist critiques of finance capital, to chauvinist critiques of globalization, to localist or isolationist critiques of centralized political and economic power?

MP: That’s a good question. I don’t have an easy answer, so maybe I’ll start by being very modest. It seems to me that the first question isn’t, “what is correct consciousness?”, but, rather, “what is not adequate?” That in itself would help any anti-capitalist movement immeasurably. To the degree to which movements are blind to the larger context of which they are a part, they necessarily are going to generate consequences that are undesirable for them as well.

Let me give you an example from liberal politics. I was thinking of this recently. After 1968 when Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president, was basically given the throne, the progressive base of the Democratic Party—who where very much opposed to this kind of machine politics—attempted to institute a more democratic process of the selection of the candidate for the party. It was then that the primaries really came into their own—you had primaries before, but they weren’t nearly as important. The problem is that in a situation like the American one, where you do not have government financing of elections, primaries simply meant that only people who have a lot of money have any chance. The consequences of this push by the progressive base of the Democratic party were profoundly anti-democratic, in many respects machine politics were more democratic. So what you have now is a bunch of millionaires running in all the primaries, or people who spend all of their time getting money from millionaires. Now, there was nothing the matter with the idea of wanting, within the liberal framework, to have a more democratic process to choose candidates. The context was such however, that the reforms that they suggested rendered the process more susceptible to non-democratic influence. The gap between intention and consequence that results from a blindness to context could be extended to many parts of the Left, of course.

PN: You give specific attention to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union in your work with reference to the “temporal structuring and restructuring of capitalism in the 20th century.” Now, I understood “temporal structuring and restructuring” as an indication of how the political dimension mediates the temporal dynamic of capital, affecting the way that capitalism appears subsequently. In this sense, both forms of state-centrism, the Western Fordist-Keynesian synthesis and the Soviet Union, may in fact look the same because they were both, in one way or another, responding to a crisis in capital. Could you speak about the character of this political mediation?

MP: Yes, they were responses to a crisis. I think one of the reasons why the Soviet model appealed to many people outside of the West, was that the Soviet Union really developed a mode of creating national capital in a context of global capital very different from today. Developing national capital meant creating a proletariat. In a sense, Stalin did in fifteen years what the British did in several centuries. There was immense suffering, and that shouldn’t be ignored. That became the model for China, Vietnam, etc. (Eastern Europe is a slightly different case.) Now, the revolution, as imagined by Trotsky—because it’s Trotsky who really influences Lenin in 1918—entailed the idea of permanent revolution, in that, revolution in the East would spark revolution in the West. But I think Trotsky had no illusions about the Soviet Union being socialist. This was the point of his debate with Stalin. The problem is that both were right. That is, Trotsky was right: there is no such thing as “socialism in one country.” Stalin was right, on the other hand, in claiming that this was the only road that they had open to them once revolution failed in the West, between 1918–1923. Now, did it have to be done with the terror of Stalin? That’s a very complicated question, but there was terror and it was enormous, and we don’t do ourselves a service by neglecting that. In a sense it becomes an active will against history, as wild as claiming that “history is on our side.”

This model of national development ended in the 1970s, and, of course, not just in the Soviet Union. The present moment can be defined as a post-Cold War moment, and this allows the Left to remove an albatross that had been hanging around its neck for a long time. This does not mean that the road to the future is very clear, I think it’s extremely murky right now. I don’t think we are anywhere near a pre-revolutionary, even a pre-pre-revolutionary situation. I think it becomes incumbent on people to think about new forms of internationalism, and to try to tie together, intrinsically, things that were collections of particular interests.

BB: If one accepts the notion that left-wing anti-capitalist politics necessarily has as its aim the abolition of the proletariat—that is, the negation of the structure of alienated social labor bound up with the value form of wealth—what action should one take within the contemporary neoliberal phase of capitalism?

How could the Left reconcile opposition to the present offensive on the working class with the overarching goal of transcending proletarian labor?

MP: The present moment is very bleak, because as you note in this question, and it’s the $64,000 question, it is difficult to talk about the abolition of proletarian labor at a point where the meager achievements of the working class in the 20th century have been rolled back everywhere. I don’t have a simple answer to that. Because it does seem to me that part of what is on the agenda is actually something quite traditional, which is an international movement that is also an international workers’ movement, and I think we are very far away from that. Certainly, to the degree to which working classes are going to compete with one another, it will be their common ruin. We are facing a decline in the standard of living of working classes in the metropoles, there is no question about it, which is pretty bleak, on the one hand.

On the other hand, a great deal of the unemployment has been caused by technological innovations, and not simply by outsourcing. It’s not as if the same number of jobs were simply moved overseas. The problems that we face with the capitalist diminution of proletariat labor on a worldwide scale go hand in hand with the increase of gigantic slum cities, e.g., São Paolo, Mexico City, Lagos. Cities of twenty million people in which eighteen million are slum dwellers, that is, people who have no chance of being sucked up into a burgeoning industrial apparatus.

BB: Are we in danger then of missing a moment in which Marx’s critique of modernity would have a real significance for political action?

In other words, if the global condition sinks further into barbarism, the kind expressed by slum cities, might we—if we don’t seize this moment—end up in a worse situation twenty, thirty years down the line?

MP: I’m sure, but I don’t know what ‘seizing the moment’ at this moment means. I’m very modest at this point. I think that it would help if there was talk about issues that are real. Certain ways of interpreting the world such as, “the world would be a wonderful place if it weren’t for George Bush, or the United States,” are going to lead us nowhere, absolutely nowhere. We have to find our way to new forms of true international solidarity, which is different than anti-Americanism. We live in a moment in which the American state and the American government have become a fetish form. It’s similar to the reactionary anti-capitalists who were anti-British in the late 19th century—you don’t have to be pro-British to know that this was a reification of world capital. |P


[1]. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, p 171, emphasis in original

[2]. History, p 175, emphasis in original

The Platypus Historians Group

Platypus Review 3 | March 2008

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Why do we need a “history of the Left?”—
Platypus differs from other tendencies and organizations on the Left to the extent that we find it necessary and desirable to reexamine the history of the Left to help understand problems on the Left in the present. For focusing on the history of the Left and its problems, Platypus has been accused by a variety of Marxists of obscuring the “fundamental social divide” of the “class struggle” of the “proletariat” vs. the “bourgeoisie,” in favor of emphasizing the ideological and political difference between the Right and the Left.[1]

A central insight of Platypus is that the existence of class society and its forms of oppression and exploitation do not necessarily generate, in response, an effective let alone emancipatory politics. The “materialist” conception of the history of the Left, offered by “orthodox” Marxists, claims that the Left emerges directly from struggles against oppression, whether of a “class” nature or otherwise. We consider this to be inadequate, and, moreover, a stumbling block for understanding what it would mean to struggle for social emancipation in the present.

The first fact that must be addressed by anyone trying to understand the history of the Left is that, although class society is thousands of years old, and, in this sense, one may indeed claim in the words of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle,” such “struggles” either led nowhere or led to new social forms of oppression, that may, at best, have contained within them the seeds of further historical development. But it is only within the last couple of hundred years, since the late 18th Century (where our subsequent series on the history of the Left will begin)—and so in the history of capital—that the possibility of getting beyond all forms of social oppression has been put forward by mass social movements as a this-worldly possibility—and not as a utopian philosophical ideal or as the vision of a religiously promised Messianic future. The modern working class is not merely an object of society, like the slaves of the past were, but is an agent in the history of capital. This is where the “Left” and its history come in.

The history of capital may be seen as having a dual character: On the one hand, it opens up new possibilities for human degradation, for example, its stimulation of technical “progress” even threatens the very survival of the human species and its environment. But, on the other hand, it opens up a potential realm of human freedom that no previous stage of history could have offered. Thus socialism will either fulfill the promise of the best aspects of modern, (historically) “bourgeois” and “capitalist” culture, in socialism, or else the potential barbarism that always lurks under the surface of even the most successful phases of modern society threatens to render an emancipatory anticapitalist politics, or “Left,” impossible.

The history of a single name can illustrate the problem of understanding the history of the Left: Spartacus, the Spartakusbund, and the Spartacist League (U.S.). While Spartacus led a massive slave revolt against the Roman Republic in the 1st century BCE, his revolt to free all slaves was historically doomed to failure. As such, Spartacus is a classically tragic historical figure. The fate of Spartacus’s revolt revealed the (historical) truth of his society. While his struggle was heroic and admirable, it was incapable of being successful for reasons of social structure and historical development. (In a similar way, one may admire the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in WWII, although, as they themselves knew, their struggle was just as hopeless, but for other, more contingent reasons than for Spartacus: we can sympathize with their similar attempts to “do the right thing,” no matter how “impractical” it proved to be.)

With the Spartakusbund of the radical internationalist Marxist German Social Democrats Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht during first World War 1914–19, however, the tragedy is of a completely different order. Here the tragedy is not that of a necessary failure but of an unnecessary one. The tragedy of Spartacus is that he and his fellow slaves could not alter the structure of the socialhistorical development of Roman society. The tragedy of the Spartakists, who were crushed during the failed German Revolution at the end of WWI 1918–19, is that if they had succeeded the pattern of modern history would have been radically different than what came to be. It is the unnecessary character of the resulting outcomes of Nazism and Stalinism that makes the German Spartakists’ defeat in 1919 so tragic.

With the Trotskyist group the Spartacist League/U.S., founded in 1966 and named after the German Spartakists who were in turn named after the leader of the great slave revolt, we come to be in a late, tertiary phase in the history of the Left. Unlike its predecessor namesakes, the Spartacist League has encountered no great defeat through which the truth of its historical moment could be revealed, for the SL has never been in a position to influence history at all. Its politics are rather the virtual politics of a propaganda group —like all other sectarian “Marxist” groups of the late 20th Century—and hence one can judge such groups only by the content of their ideas, in the absence of their effective historical action. This is where Platypus’s emphatically theoretical and ideological project of critique of the Left and development of critical historical consciousness of the Left might come into play.

For “orthodox Marxists,” the meaning of a Leftist politics comes down to a belief in a deus absconditus—a “hidden god”—the “class struggle,” which will, in the end, supposedly force the working class to take up its Historic Role. In the meantime all that such “Marxists” need to do is “hold the line” and repeat themselves like automata until someone, someday listens. This is called “historical”—or even “revolutionary”—”continuity.” In this way, the “progressive politics” is understood in terms of struggles against oppression instead of in terms of social emancipation.

Platypus rejects the assumption that “resistance” is necessarily a good thing. Nor, alas, can we take comfort, as our “Marxist” predecessors could, in the “struggles” of “the working class.” We do not believe that the problems of the Left over the last few decades, since the 1960s, can be understood as the result of “defeats” like that suffered by Luxemburg’s Spartakusbund in 1919. Platypus’s focus on questions of historical “regression” reveals a radically different problem and explanation from that of “defeat,” although conditioned by it. We argue that the greatest problems the Left faces—including the prospect of its own extinction—arise from within the Left itself and are deeply rooted in its own history. Indeed, for us, the Right is a secondary phenomenon and its victories are the result of failures of the Left. Hence our focus is primarily on criticizing the existing “Left” and the history of its problematic selfunderstanding, rather than “fighting the Right.” We do not share the false optimism that the “struggle continues,” but face the stark reality that the struggles that defined the historical Left ended a while ago, in failure. We try to understand the meaning of this historical discontinuity for the present.

In our next and first proper installment of this series on the history of the Left, we will turn to the historical origins of the “Left” in the late 18th Century. |P


[1]. See, for example: Spartacus Youth Club (Chicago), “Platypus: Pseudo-‘Marxist,’ Pro-Imperialist, Academic Claptrap” (November 6, 2007).

Ian Morrison

Platypus Review 3 | March 2008

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Since the 1960s the saturation of brutality and violence in Iraq has caused considerable confusion among Leftists in regards to both its political meaning and causes. One cannot fully understand the character of Saddam Hussein’s Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party without taking into account that it achieved political power by systematically killing off the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and quelling other political dissent with acts of extreme cruelty. The eight year battle of attrition instigated by Hussein, known as the Iran-Iraq War, caused over half a million Iraqi deaths, and the ethnic cleansing campaigns directed against the Kurds resulted in countless more. It is estimated that during the 1988 Anfal Campaign alone over 100,000 Kurds were massacred. In addition to the many catastrophic events that mark the history of Ba’athist society, it is perfectly clear that Hussein’s one-party-state was maintained through the use of relentless day-to-day violence directed against its citizens.

Kanan Makiya’s groundbreaking study of Iraqi Ba’athism, Republic of Fear, documents instances of institutionalized violence used to terrorize Iraqi society. In the 1998 introduction, Makiya recounts a law passed in the chaotic aftermath of the first Gulf War mandating that the state brand the mark of an X on the forehead of repeat offenders of crimes such as theft and desertion; the first offense of such crimes was punished by amputation of the hand. When a doctor who performed amputations for the state was murdered by one his patients the medical community was outraged and called a strike. However, after the state threatened to cut off the ear of any doctor who refused to enforce the law, the protest was called off.[1]

Iraqi Ba’athism, and the struggle against it, continues to confound today’s Anti-War movement. Ramsey Clark, former United States Attorney General under President Lyndon B. Johnson and founder of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), exemplifies the problematic stances that the movement has assumed. In 2004 Clark volunteered to defend Hussein at his trial before the Iraqi Special Tribunal, speaking out against the unfairly “demonized Saddam Hussein.” The sight of a prominent opponent of the Iraq War publicly defending Hussein should have caused serious alarm among the Left for the obvious reason that it directly challenged solidarity between the Anti-War movement and the Iraqi Left, which struggled against dictatorship for three decades.

The ideological roots of Ba’athism were formulated by its founding leader Michel ‘Aflaq, who during his education at the Sorbonne, first developed his political eclecticism. His speeches and writings often contradict each other but the most pronounced feature of ‘Aflaq’s thinking is his appropriation of Johann von Herder’s notions of the “soul” or “spirit” of the Nation, which he imbued with Arab/Islamic chauvinism. This is coupled with a revision of Lenin’s theory of Imperialism in what has become a typical formulation since the period of de-colonization. ‘Aflaq writes, “contrary to what happened in the West, the revolt of the Eastern peoples carries in the first place a liberatory humanitarian character, because it is directed against Imperialism… and whereas oppression in the West falls only on classes, the East is made up of Nations that are oppressed.”[2] ‘Aflaq carefully mitigates the issue of domestic class conflict; he accounts for internal strife by attributing its cause to an omnipotent external power. The notion of an uniquely “Arab socialism” coupled with nationalism also helped fuel powerful forms of racism, by galvanizing anti-Semitism and helping justify the campaigns against the Kurds. Anti-imperialism and anti- Zionism became common scapegoats for social ills often despite any logical relation to the problems in question. It should be noted that such theories created a clear divide between the Ba’athists and the Communist Parties, as the latter sought to base their politics in class struggle, domestic and international.

In the key moments after the 1958 revolution, when the ICP was at the height of its power, two paradigmatic conflicts between the Communists and the Nationalists greatly undermined the ICP’s potential as a progressive, unifying political force. Social animosities overflowed when the ICP sought to suppress a pan-Arab revolt in Mosel, in which political activity decayed into ethnic and civil violence. The Iraqi historian Hanna Batatu wrote that during the Mosel conflict, “It seemed as if all social cement dissolved and all political authority vanished. Individualism, breaking out, waxed into anarchy. The struggle between nationalists and communists had released age-old antagonism, investing them with an explosive force and carrying them to the point of civil war.”[3] The outbreak of violence first in Mosel, then in Kirkut, where Kurdish members of the ICP lashed out against their traditional rivals the Turcomans, played an essential part in legitimizing the Ba’athists.

After these two events it was reported that communists had killed civilians and committed acts of torture. In a statement just after the Kirkut incident the ICP wrote:

In well-known articles published a long time ago we stressed that “the method is the touch-stone.” But is seems that there is a deliberate intent to confuse this correct and firm attitude… with the impetuosities of some simple nonparty masses…We utterly condemn any transgression against innocent people…. or the harming or torture even of traitors…. We condemn theses methods on principle….[4]

Nevertheless the political regression was in full swing such that the ICP’s follies allowed the Ba’athists to capitalize on the populist violence and disarray. In February of 1963 the Ba’athists mounted their first coup (with smaller numbers than the ICP had in 1959), and launched an effort to liquidate the ICP. Reflecting on the forms of violence directed at the ICP in 1963 Batatu writes that,

It is, of course, possible that the reaction of the Ba’athists might not have been as fierce, had the Communists been “prudent” or, if one prefers, “timid,” and offered no resistance on the day of the coup. But in truth the violence of 1963 is largely explicable by the violence of 1959, which, on a close reading of history, certainly did not mark a new departure in the political life of Iraq....If one is inclined to attribute the violence, at least in part, to doctrinal influences, then one would have also to explain how these doctrines happened to arise, and why minds or masses of people came to be susceptible to them, in both the immediate Iraqi and the more distant and wider contexts.[5]

The violent disarray and instability proved to be the optimal breeding ground for the Ba’ath Party. It is incumbent upon the Left today to understand the roots of such violence, and to look at how these doctrines arise and realize their political outcomes.

Furthermore, it is important to take a step back, and look at how the Left emerged in Iraq, because there is no doubt that the Left is in a period of rebuilding. Historically, the Iraqi Left emerged in last the years of World War I. At that time, Husain ar-Rahhal, known as the father of Iraqi Marxism, was studying at a German high school in Berlin. According to party lore, ar-Rahhal, sitting in a Berlin pastry shop, looked on as workers began to fill the streets during the Spartakist Uprising in January 1919. His fellow schoolmates and political radicals introduced him to Die Freiheit, one of the Social Democratic Party newspapers. When he returned to Iraq he began reading The Labor Monthly, which was published by Palme Dutt, an Indian born member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a fierce opponent of the British Empire. Ar-Rahhal enthusiasm for theory led him to start the first Marxist study circle in Iraq at the Baghdad School of Law.

Ar-Rahhal’s circle became one of a plethora of Iraqi groups that emerged in the 1920s. Some groups stemmed directly from the Second International, others from the Communist Committee of Syria and Lebanon. Two former Massachusetts Institute of Technology students founded another key circle. The various groups solidified during the boycott of the British owned Baghdad Electrical Light and Power Co. when they focused their energy towards reforming and reclaiming civil society.

The early catalysts of the Left, labor reform and theoretical fermentation, are the demands of our time. In the post-Saddam era it is absolutely essential that the Left discern between progressive and reactionary forms of political action, as well as anti-Americanism, in their call for immediate troop withdrawal. As the International Secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, Hadi Saleh said, “Extremists who target trade unionists kill them under the notion that they are collaborating with a state created by the Americans… It’s a risk for all civil society organizations.” The fate of Saleh, who was tortured and killed by reactionary-sectarian forces, shows how high the stakes are.[6] Groups like US Labor Against the War, who have brought Iraqi labor organizers to America and fought to repeal the law against unions in Iraq, demonstrate that solidarity can be tangible and progressive. The anti-war movement desperately needs to hold fast to its self-proclaimed universal principles, acts of solidarity, demands for labor reform and calls for national reconciliation if it is to be a force for progressive politics. |P


[1]. Republic of Fear (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), ix-xi.
[2]. Quoted in Republic, 243.
[3]. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A study of the Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers (London: SAQI, 2004), 866.
[4]. Quoted in The Old Social Classes, 921.
[5]. The Old Social Classes, 993-4.
[6]. Quoted in David Bacon, “Iraqi Unions Defy Privatization,” The Progressive, October 2005.

Laurie Rojas

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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One of the highlight exhibitions of the summer of 2007 in Chicago was The Art Institute’s retrospective exhibition on the work of Jeff Wall. This occasion marked the first time that the Art Institute exhibited a solo show of a photographer. Jeff Wall’s large-scale color transparencies, mounted in light boxes, covered the same walls that have previously displayed Rembrandts, Girodets, and Manets. The exhibition provided the opportunity to reconsider the present condition of photography as art.

Predestined for extensive art historical consumption and critique, Wall’s work is characterized by a significant use of cinematic, literary, and art historical references. Following Baudelaire’s notion of “painting of modern life” and 19th century pictorial practices, his work is an attempt to redeem the task of modernism through photography. This historically motivated attempt seeks to recover photography from the detour promoted by postmodern art and criticism that emerged in the late 1960’s. As a result, Wall works through the possibilities available in the medium of photography as a response to the historical turn against modern art that still exists today under the broad banner of ‘conceptual art.’

In conceptual art practices that emerged in the 70’s photography lost its specificity as a medium and abandoned its identity as a historical or aesthetic object. Instead, photography began to be treated as a theoretical object, that is, as a means to critique formalism, representation, originality, and, notably, the claims made in favor of the autonomous work of art. This marked a refusal of everything that art practices in the mid 19th century had opened up.

Wall’s earlier photographs, the now canonical Destroyed Room, and Picture for Women, demonstrate how his work encapsulates a response to the ‘photographic legacy of conceptual art’ by alluding to a multitude of work in the history of modernism. By 1978-79, Wall reintroduces historical discourse back into art photographic practices through carefully planned and highly staged photographs that recall for example, Eugène Delacroix’s 1827 painting, Death of Sardanapalus. By recalling Delacroix’s highly composed history painting, Wall links himself to a long-standing tradition of art concerned with history.

During the 17th, 18th , and 19th centuries, history painting stood as the dominant form of academic painting. Traditionally, the subjects of history painting would cover ancient mythology, Greco-Roman history, literary and biblical subjects, but in the late 18th century modern historical subjects, current events and figures in contemporary dress, were introduced. Paintings by Jacques-Louis David depicted contemporary events of the French Revolution throughout their immediate unfolding. In the middle of the 19th century, during the rise of modernism, the traditional subjects of the paintings were replaced by commoners mired in their everyday activities. In the work of Eduard Manet, referenced by Wall in Pictures for Women, the subjects confront the beholder by returning the gaze, creating an uncomfortable tension between the beholder and the work of art. In this way, the viewer confronted by the expectation of the object is implicated as the subject of the work.

Many of Wall's photographs carry a resemblance to, or at least an echo of nineteenth-century painting. The imagery in Walls’s 1993 photograph, Restoration, is not clearly discernible from afar, and yet by standing a few feet away, one gets the momentary impression of standing within the spatial boundaries of the depicted architectural space. This impression is typical of many of Wall’s monumental photographs, but in Restoration, this effect is overtly pronounced by the scale (over sixteen feet long), the position of the camera, and the distortion produced by the wide angle of the lens. In approaching the image one begins to notice the painted landscape in the background covering a cylindrical wall that extends throughout the four corners of the photograph. The scale of this wall changes drastically, objects and individuals are much smaller towards the center of the image and function as indicators of the depth of the space. Restoration slowly reveals itself to be a photograph taken inside a panorama depicting a scene of a snow-covered town surrounded by mountains with soldiers in a field.

Panoramas emerged in the middle of the 19th century as a popular form of public attraction and entertainment satisfying a desire for an overall fictional and illusory experience. Visitors to a panorama were not deceived, but rather suspended their disbelief in order to contemplate the scene surrounding them.

The Wall photograph presents a product in high demand during the nineteenth-century, the history painting rendered as panorama. Painted in Lucerne by Edouard Castres, the Bourbaki Panorama is dated from 1881, and portrays French troops under the command of General Bourbaki. The troops depicted had been granted internment in Switzerland after the defeat of the French during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71). During this period, a new international law had established that foreign troops could find refuge on neutral ground under the conditions that they relinquish their arms in order to be stationed in camps until the end of the war. In Switzerland's case the authorities allowed General Bourbaki’s troops to cross the border at Les Verrières near Neuchâtel. The troops were to remain in Switzerland until a formal cease-fire would allow their release. Most importantly, the defeat of the French brought about the end of the French Second Empire, the reign of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, and resulted in the unification of the German Empire that would last until World War I.

Throughout the surface of this historical imagery lie small rectangular strips of paper indicating the incomplete task of the restoration process. This process was an attempt to remove over 100 years of material accumulated on the surface of the panorama, aiming to provide the clearest presentation of the work by bringing it closer to its original conception. The restoration of any work of art requires intensive, time-consuming, and meticulous labor, with the purpose of allowing future generations the possibility of experiencing the object from a past historical period anew.

Some might see Wall’s work as merely a rehearsal of old themes, as pastiche, or even as regression. And yet, if it is a manifestation of regression, this might say more about the present inability of art to move forward, to progress beyond its current limitations. However, Wall’s work is at least a re-opening of an art historical discourse that had been lost in conceptual art’s use of photography. These reminders of art’s past: the references to 19th century panoramas, history and realist painting, provoke an understanding of Wall’s work, even at a surface level, that seeks to be part of the historical development of art.

Contemporary art photography practices have yet to work through the medium-specific possibilities of photography as art, i.e., as an end in itself. It has yet to properly ask the question, what makes a photograph art? What makes a photograph more than mere representation? In other words, it has yet to ask the most difficult question of all: what makes art modern? |P

Joe Grim Feinberg

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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In the spring of 2006, after years of activity on the Left, I joined the IWW. I joined because it cared little for Leftism. And because it began every meeting with a song.

After years of dodging the crossfire of competing claims to revolutionary truth, I breathed happily at last in meetings where no one tested my position on Cuba or the Green Party or state capitalism vs. deformed workers states. At last: an organization that, instead of building walls around itself, tried to tear down barriers and build “one big union” of all workers, believing that only when we struggle together can we end the system of wage slavery. No party programs, no denunciations of false revolutionaries, only one repeated call: to organize. Is it—can it be—enough?

I decided that the problem of the Left is much deeper than its endless quarreling over trifles. I realized: the Left is bad at organizing not only because it is so unpleasant that few people want to be a part of it, but more importantly because its entire structure of being leads it in other directions.

The state of affairs was different in earlier days of the left, when the “international workers movement” was almost synonymous with the movement for “socialism.” Socialism was widely identified as the set of ideas and practices that developed when workers organized and struggled for change. Intellectuals might synthesize and add nuance to these ideas or suggest changes in these practices, but socialism as a whole was integral to the organized activity of the working class.

A crucial change took place in the twentieth century, when Leftists began to argue that simple “trade union consciousness” was not enough for revolution, and that large social democratic parties could betray the working class even when most of the working class was organized within them. The change was first inspired by the Bolshevik interpretation of the Soviet and German Revolutions, but the new attitude soon spread among anarchists as well as Communists, and later among the young radicals of the New Left. The Left became a sphere of its own, where correct revolutionary ideas could develop and compete for ascendancy. It became a base where groups of conscious militants could gather to form competing parties or cells, to agitate and show their ideas to the people, to hurl propaganda of words and deeds at capitalism, in hope that the people would follow them when the smoke clears. The Left now acted for the people, but ‘the people’ was now clearly distinct from the Left.

But this in itself is not the trouble. The Left was quite right to recognize that its ideas are not simply those of the people. But just what is the relationship between the people and Left ideas? The Left has made itself into an almost-ethereal sphere that floats above and in front of society, casting down its aspersions and advice—and then swearing in exasperation when people refuse to listen. Maybe it's time that leftists began to think of ourselves as people.

It's time that we developed ideas not only of what should be done and what the world should be, but of how our ideas relate to the people we are, organized in the ways we are organized, relating to other people in the ways we really and potentially relate to them. It's time that we asked how people could participate in remaking our ideas and in changing the world with them. It's time, in short, that we took to heart the realization of Feuerbach that “even in thinking and in being a philosopher, I am a man among men.”

It is not just that Leftists should act humanely to other people, but that we should understand ourselves as a part of the people, in specific social relations that structure our actions and ideas. We should study our own sociality and transform it as we transform society around us. And we should organize as people who aim for a world governed not by the Left, but by us all.

And so I joined the IWW, a group of people dedicated to working together through our world and our ideas. Turning from Left to left, descending from rarefied heights, I lived through a minor Copernican revolution, learning to look at the world and its transformations “from below.” A Copernican revolution, because it was not simply a change in strategy, but a change in perspective. The task of the left now appeared to me anew: not to ignore the goal of revolution, but to see the goal constituted in a process of social organizing. Not to think up how (other) people should act to change the world, but to place ourselves and our ideas among people who might change the world, and to find the standpoint necessary for this change.

The IWW became, for me, such a point on which to stand. It is not the only possible standpoint, and it faces many problems. But what sets the IWW apart from most other organizations is that it organizes toward revolution. Beginning from the premise that not all “trade union consciousness” is the same, the IWW develops ways of organizing that can generate revolutionary consciousness: by organizing democratically and autonomously, we feel our collective power, and we come to understand the obstacles that lie ahead.

Democratically: because socialism will come not when Leftists take power, but when people, together, turn leftism into revolution.

And autonomously: because our organization enables us to control our own destiny, however slightly, in ways not fully determined by the structures of capital. Because it is not so much our Leftism that enables us to act democratically and autonomously, but our forms of organization that enable us to be leftists.

And with a song: because a song that brings people together is also an organization. In song, the Industrial Workers of the World develop together our ideas. We look together at the wage system. We build up our fellowship and our resolve. And we strike. |P

The Platypus Historians Group

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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The present-day crisis in Pakistan resists adequate historicisation in pithy news headlines. Yet its concrete expressions include the autocratic state-of-emergency imposed by General Musharraf; the violent rise of Islamic fundamentalism, first in the anarchic north-west, but increasingly also in the cities; the over-dependence on economic as well as military assistance from the U.S.; the massive expansion of the army into civilian sectors, especially commerce; and the ever growing socioeconomic disparities—in short: the failure of Pakistan. And while, at first blush, it appears that Pakistan was riven from the start by contradictions, it is anachronistic to think that the “choice” politically was always between theocratic Islamism or secular despotism. For what this view effaces is that there was once a vital left in Pakistan. The aim in the brief political history that follows is to argue that the contemporary meltdown in Pakistan is the stark consequence of the cumulative (self-) defeats of the left.

Pakistan inherited a left under the ruinous impress of Stalinism. Committed to the theory of revolution in stages, the Comintern under Stalin entreated communists in India to support the creation of Pakistan in 1947, in effect prolonging the policy of the “Popular Front.” The incipient Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) floundered in West Pakistan: its attempts to organize workers under the rubric of the All Pakistan Trade Union Federation were undercut by the state favored All Pakistan Confederation of Labor which had lined up with the American Federation of Labor; its ranks were further thinned after its hand in plotting a coup d’état, the thwarted Rawalpindi conspiracy, was revealed in 1951. Meanwhile in East Pakistan, the CPP tried a different tack—galvanizing the peasantry. The militant, CPP-backed All Pakistan Kisan Sabha, was able to exact modest land reforms—the main effect of which was to drive out Hindu landlords—that were implemented in East Bengal in 1950. However, the resolve to arm the peasantry on the model of the Chinese Revolution marked another volte-face in policy, one that was now in step with the “ultra-left” blueprint outlined in the first report of the newly formed Cominform. During 1948-58 there were no parliamentary elections in Pakistan; when regional elections were held in East Pakistan in 1954 as a first step toward enfranchisement, the main party in the west, the Muslim League, was routed by a coalition of Bengali nationalists, the United Front, which had succor from the CPP. For its role the CPP was banned in late 1954. On the international front, as India allied itself with U.S.S.R, Pakistan steered toward an anti-Soviet alliance in the Baghdad Pact of 1955. To skirt the authorities a leftist umbrella group, the National Awami Party (NAP), was founded in 1957. NAP was expected to be a member of the coalition that was touted to win the national elections scheduled for early 1959 when, in October 1958, General Ayub Khan wrested the reins of the state.

For a decade General Ayub stewarded Pakistan on a state-centric course of development. During 1955-65, the first “Five-Year” schemes led to increases in the GNP, the rate of industrialization, and total capital imports, but also underlined the limits to the developmentalist model. On the one hand, the influx of capital from the U.S. allowed Pakistan to find its role in the world-market. However, in its effort to build a national economy the state mandated a series of impediments on capitalization; in addition, the state siphoned off surpluses to fund projects that favored West Pakistan while permitting high unemployment rates and landlessness to fester in the East, which further alienated the incongruous halves. The left fueled this sense of difference in counter-intuitive ways after the Sino-Soviet split in 1964. Once “Red” China made overtures toward General Ayub, the Maoists in NAP, based primarily in East Bengal, made strange bedfellows with the military dictatorship. Stalinists, who had reservations about the role of the “peasantry,” found themselves opposing the regime by emphasizing the relative backwardness of the East. After another disastrous war with India in 1965, the rust on General Ayub’s armor started to show.

Like their French and Latin American counterparts, the student-led demonstrations set into motion in 1968 had a modest start but quickly spread to all the main cities—Karachi, Lahore, Dacca, Peshawar, Multan, Hyderabad, and Jehlum. The call to mass strike from the student left in December was heeded by workers, trade unionists and segments of the peasantry. Five months of activity on the left had a momentary success: General Ayub was forced to resign in March 1969. Nevertheless, when faced with the task of proclaiming control of the state no leftist party was on board, the left had failed to think beyond the collapse of the regime.

It was in this context that a new social-democratic party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), surfaced in West Pakistan under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, an ex-minister in the Ayub cabinet, while an older Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League, was revitalized in East Pakistan. Both were bolstered by the incorporation of leftists who brought with them trained cadres as well as an attractive ideological program. Pressured further by the growing labor unrest of 1968-69, the interim head-of-state, General Yahya Khan, was made to hold parliamentary elections in 1970. The outcome of these elections led to the secession of East Pakistan. For much of the seventies, especially after the world-wide economic collapse in 1972-73 that reached Pakistan on the heels of the Bangladesh War, the nation limped on in spite of the PPP’s slogans: “Food, Clothes, and Shelter” and “'Islam is our faith; democracy is our polity; socialism is our economic creed: All power to the people!” Bhutto tried to salvage the beleaguered state apparatus, including the military, but was unable to stem the exodus of unskilled workers and the middle class.

Developments in Pakistan in the eighties shadowed events globally. The decimation of the left in the seventies had culminated with the election of Thatcher in the U.K. and Regan in the U.S., both of whom raised the shrill Cold-War rhetoric in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. General Zia ul-Haq, who had overthrown Bhutto in 1977, tendered Pakistan as an Islamic bulwark in the proxy war. Thus while the C.I.A. trained the mujhideen in the mountains, General Zia set about promulgating fire-brand Islamism; there was the introduction of Shar’ia courts, interest-free banks, mandatory prayer in schools, blasphemy was outlawed: in other words the mullahs were allowed to run amok. After General Zia’s mysterious helicopter crash in 1988, what can only be characterized as neoliberal cronyism set-in in the nineties, that is, in the absence of a left or middle-class, the army, blessed by the clerics, asserted itself as a dominant capitalist. The lack of a progressive left in Pakistan continues to be felt in the politically opaque milieu after 9/11.

From within Pakistan the news is abject. There were food shortages reported in the markets in Lahore. Eid al-Adha celebrations in rural Sherpao were undone by a suicide attack at the local mosque. Karachi remains terrorized in the run-up to elections by the gang violence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement loyal to the prevailing regime. In the capital, Islamabad, the last challenges to the presidency of General Musharraf were smoothed over by a new bench on the Supreme Court. The truth is that there is little to be hopeful about politically; the entire field of actors—Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, the embattled judiciary led by the ex-chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, or the panoply of Islamists (this includes the Taliban-like Jamaat-i-Islami as well as the softer Islamism of the Tablighi Jamaat and the Tarikh-i-Insaaf, led by the ex-cricketer Imran Khan)—is marked by its opportunism. The perfidy of Bhutto and Sharif is well-known, as is the threat by groups such as the Jamaat-i-Islami; the sole liberal light appears to be the group of attorneys protesting in the streets (backed up by a small number of human-rights activists). But theirs is a battle, while commendable, that offers little to build on; their demands mean a return to the corrupt status-quo of what was, replete with its tolerance for Shar’ia. The absence of the left only heightens the sense that it would take a revolution to secure even modest reforms in Pakistan. Yet there is a certain resignation or possibly even a kind of libidinal satisfaction amongst Pakistanis in the knowledge that the election of whomever follows General Musharraf will only substitute one form of incompetence with another. |P

M. A. Torres

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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There was a gathering of about fifteen people on the evening of December the 13th at Mess Hall, a small artist-run storefront in Rogers Park dedicated to community education and organizing. Sponsored by the 49th St. Underground and the Industrial Workers of the World, the topic of the event was described as “anti-capitalist street protest,” but the presenter made it clear from the beginning that he was going to talk about the Seattle anti-WTO summit protests of 1999 and their aftermath. He said that he was associated with a Black Bloc, but emphasized that he was not a representative. According to him, less than an organization, a Black Bloc is a strategy, a kind of network of small affinity groups who, by using their own brand of “direct action,” have been attempting to undermine events such as the one in Seattle, or, in another well-publicized example, the G8 summit at Genoa in 2001.

Like the talk given by the presenter, the pamphlet distributed at the meeting, “How to Fight a War?” had at its center the assumption that the “Battle of Seattle” of 1999 had been an unqualified victory for “radical politics” (a term that was used by the presenter and most of the attendees as something with unquestionable value and self-evident meaning.) The Black Bloc strategy had gained currency during these protests, since they provided the most public exposure to their tactic of confrontational, open protest—a tactic of property destruction and rioting. A great amount of nostalgia surrounded the events in Seattle, and the question that the discussion at Mess Hall was meant to address was that of the diminishing impact of “radical politics” in the years since these protests. According to this account, despite the satisfactory results of mobilizations such as the one in Genoa, the “summit hopping” model of anti-globalization protesting had become exhausted. The anti-war movement that followed, in turn, had been taken over by what the presenter described as “Marxists and other authoritarian types.” Since the high point of Seattle, things had thus gone downhill, and a new wave of radicalization was now in order.

The two-hour long open discussion that followed the presentation thus focused primarily on tactics. There were many questions: Is property destruction a good idea? Should this kind of anarchist direct action be allied with trade unions? Should there be a centralized organization for this kind of protest or should it continue be based on affinity groups? The issue that seemed to be present in everyone’s minds but somehow necessarily ignored was the issue of purpose¬––of determining a goal to these activities. The answer for many in the room, especially those associated with the Black Bloc, was something along the lines that life should be lived as class struggle; that the end-goal of being a “radical” was to cause enough damage so that the “spells cast by corporate hegemony” could be destroyed. It is important to mention that, despite using the verbiage of class struggle—this terminology was not used in the Marxian sense. While for Marx class struggle was the expression of a contradiction in society to be overcome by producing real historical change, for those associated with the Black Bloc, class struggle consisted of a kind of lifestyle. That is, it consisted of a way of living somehow “outside capitalism”—a way of life that constantly gives the finger to those in power in solidarity with those who are oppressed.

Underlying the perspectives on tactics and strategy in this meeting—which was populated by self-avowed anarchists—was the conviction that in spite of the necessity to fundamentally change society, to even think of taking power was out of the question. Throughout the discussion a palpable and irrational fear that any kind of empowerment for an organized movement on the Left could produce horrible “hierarchies” was coupled with a belief that real change in society is ultimately impossible. The stasis to which those associated with the Black Bloc conceded seemed to be the inheritance of a long series of defeats on the Left throughout the 20th century. And this is no wonder: from Russia in ’17 to China in ’49 to France in ’68, the most substantial attempts of the Left to overcome capitalism have produced little but more of the same horror and waste. What the undercurrents of the discussion summed up to was a sense of desperation—a sense of desperation that made the central question in the minds of those in the meeting not “why should we fight this fight?” but instead “how much damage can we make?”

The darkest manifestation of this kind of attitude was that from time to time those involved in a black bloc would bring up the question of whether hurting people would be right or wrong in their struggle. This kind of preparedness for violence was deeply unsettling. It was as if, having run out of options, all that anti-capitalism had before it was not only property destruction but also, possibly, terrorism. |P

Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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Socialism is the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind . . . to try to take its history into its own hands; instead of remaining a will-less football, it will take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history.
— Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis of German Social Democracy (1915)

Platypus has earned recognition from the new British publication Mayday: magazine for anarchist/libertarian ideas and action, in its inaugural issue #1 (Winter 2007-08) "Introduction: Open letter" (pp. 2-7). Mayday cites the initial Platypus statement, "What is a platypus? On surviving the extinction of the Left:"

Attempts at progressive political renewal are occurring all round the world . . . Platypus in their 2006 document 'On Surviving the Extinction of the Left' say: 'We maintain that past and present history need not indicate the future. Past and present failures and losses on the Left should educate and warn, but not spellbind and enthrall us. Hence, to free ourselves, we declare that the Left is dead. — Or, more precisely, that we are all that is left of it. This is less a statement of fact than of intent. — The intent that the Left should live, but the recognition that it can, only by overcoming itself. And we are that overcoming!' (2-3)

Mayday goes on to say:

This is a spirit which Mayday has much in common with, although we include the anarchist movement in this assessment, and it is through engagement with such groups who are beginning again that serious progress may occur. (3)

The Platypus assessment of the "death" of the "Left" also applies to anarchism.

But we should distinguish a Marxian approach from anarchism to clarify our engagement. A key distinction is the relation of political organization and historical consciousness. Critical historical consciousness is primary for Platypus, and we are currently addressing classical issues in the history of revolutionary Marxism 1900-40 through a series of discussions in Chicago, reading Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky to approach the relation between history and organization on the Marxist Left, how and why theory and political programme are essential forms of historical memory and consciousness on the Left. Platypus asks: What is the purpose of "revolutionary" organization? Revolutionary "leadership?" — Or, as present "anarchist" aversion to organizational leadership would have it, are such formulations contradictions in terms?

The Mayday "Introduction: Open letter" states that "Mayday was produced because experience within political movements led to dissatisfaction with what already passes for politics and political organisation" (3). Mayday critiques the organizational "conservatism" and "hierarchies" of political groups "more concerned with the continuation of themselves rather than the growth of an independent and free workers movement" (3). Mayday ascribed this phenomenon to "Leninist tactics which are designed to perpetuate the organization not the class struggle" (3). But Mayday thinks "anarchist" groups are not exempt from this problem: "Rather than enabling progressive politics, existing practice was rather sectarian in approach; they practice self-isolating politics, rather than an inclusive and growing approach, and this even from anarchists" (3). Mayday notes the legacy of 1960s New Left activism that the "movement is full of lions led by donkeys," due to an "anti-intellectualism" that is "also suggestive of hidden hierarchies inside outwardly democratic appearances" (3). Mayday thereby disarticulates a usual but unwarranted and problematic identification of intellectualism with pitfalls of leadership.

Platypus considers that there might be reason for the self-perpetuation of avowedly "revolutionary" organizations, but that this should not be taken for granted and needs to be justified. Perhaps there is a specific relation of organization to consciousness and emancipatory action that is lost in the classic antinomy of spontaneity vs. organization. As Rosa Luxemburg's biographer J. P. Nettl pointed out, Lenin and Luxemburg each addressed different, complementary questions, but towards the same purpose: How does political action enable transformative organization; and how does political organization enable transformative, emancipatory, and not foreclosing action? How can the Left "live" and take form not deadly to itself?

Nicholas Spencer, in his 1997 essay "Historicizing the Spontaneous Revolution: Anarchism and the Spatial Politics of Postmodernism," stated the issue as follows:

[T]he Marxist model of a rational or scientific understanding of historical processes . . . culminate[s] in a class-based revolution at the end of dialectical time. . . . Conversely, those of an anarchist persuasion have often criticized the Marxist emphasis on rational history as a counter-revolutionary justification for the authority of the state and political party leaders. Both anarchists and Marxists consider themselves the spokespersons for the authentic political revolution . . . Luxemburg supported the need for party leaders and organization to guide revolutions according to the historical science of dialectical materialism . . . According to anarchist philosophy, belief in history is the guarantor of political authority, since change over time implies the need for a centralized body to guide the processes of change. The anarchist appeal to spontaneous revolution is one symptom of the rejection of history.
[http://www.ags.uci.edu/~clcwegsa/revolutions/Spencer.htm]

Platypus pursues the revolutionary Marxist tradition to ask questions of the relation between organization and historical consciousness. What role, if any, does historical consciousness play in emancipatory politics? What is meant by "historical" consciousness?

The relevance of history is not given but made. But "made" in a dialectical sense. As Marx put it in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, humanity makes history but not under conditions of its own choosing. History is made but in ways that also produce us. We make history with what is given under certain conditions, and so need to be conscious of how history is made and reflect upon its significance, rather than taking it for granted. This is why Walter Benjamin spoke, in his 1940 "Theses on the Philosophy of History," of the "writing" of history, historiography on the Left being urgent for emancipatory politics.

From a Marxian approach to capital, there are two registers for apprehending history: the specificity of modern, capitalist society as an epochal problem distinguished from other historical forms of society; and the historical transformations that occur within the epoch of capital in which social-emancipatory movements take part, since Marx's time of the Industrial Revolution and related social and political changes starting in the mid-19th Century and the emergence of the modern workers' movement, to the present. The issue of capital thus becomes the question of: What changes while remaining "the same?"

Benjamin's concept of "constellation" refers to the sense that historical moments might not have pertinence to the present in a linear-progressive way. Rather, these historical constellations appear as structuring figures in the constitution of the present, as sets of enduring problems yet to be worked through. As Benjamin put it, this is a matter of making the past present. Hence something that happened more recently might not have a more immediate relevance to problems of the present than something that happened long ago. Something later might expire faster because it is less essential to the present than something earlier might allow us to grasp.

Such constellations in the appearance of history are importantly involuntary: as Benjamin put it, they "flash up;" as Marx put it, they "weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living." So history cannot be a simple matter of an inventory of "lessons already learned." For, as Benjamin put it, "even the dead are not safe." The significance of the past changes as a function of the present. History haunts us as a problem in the present. This is why Benjamin spoke of regarding history from the standpoint of its redemption. What value, if any, do past thoughts and actions have for us now? The history of the Left furnishes us with a set of questions and problems that we are tasked to answer in the present. But, as Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics (1966), "What has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations."

The question of organization can be seen in a limited, one-sided respect if it is treated merely in terms of effective action in the present, if it is not also seen as a problem of historical continuity, through moments of change in which conscious actors have taken part. The organization of emancipatory politics should be understood properly as a matter of self-transformative action. What organization allows for itself to be transformed in and through actions it makes possible? Thus we can see that the present fossilization of the Left, in both theory and practice, presents problems of organization in a certain light. We need to understand the reasons for and significance of this inertia, and how it is a problem that we don't have the choice to bypass but must try to overcome.

Programmatic organization might be necessary precisely because it can objectify and thus make available for critical reflection problems of changes in consciousness. Problems of organization are not only deplorable in terms of resulting incapacity for effective and sustainable transformative action under changing conditions, but might be important symptoms whose task it is for us to work in and through, and not merely oppose. Perhaps we need to be "conservative" in our "revolutionary" politics in order to be actually radical in the present.

"History" can be accumulated in forms of organizational programme as a problem of consciousness in and of the present, in the results of attempts (but failures) to consciously act effectively. But organization transcends the immediate act; it is its own cause and effect. Hence this is a problem of how we recognize history in the guise of problems of organizational forms, not simply as a matter of their inevitable obsolescence. Not simply that groups and programmes on the Left have become "dead," but how and why this has become so, for what they were trying to accomplish has hardly become irrelevant but remains to be fulfilled. Such is the only way this history can be made relevant, if at all, to the present. So Platypus asks: What did historical Marxism seek but fail to accomplish that might yet succeed through our efforts?

Hence, the Platypus declaration that "the Left is dead!" is not only a characterization of the present as a place or condition in which we happen to be, but is more importantly a historical characterization of the present, a hypothesis and provocation for recognition of what has led to the present and what it might take to lead ourselves out of it. So it is not merely a question of "where" we "are" vs. where we "were," as Mayday, among others, asks, but also and perhaps more importantly "when" we are — and "when" was the historical Left? How can the historical Left, specifically the history of revolutionary Marxism, help us situate ourselves in and despite the historical moment of today?

For we do not live in some timeless and perpetual present of oppression and struggle against it, but in what Benjamin called the "time of the now" (Jetztzeit), a time of particular and fleeting possibilities and the ambiguously obscure history that brought them — us — into existence.

The present might not be an opportunity for a break so much as for recovery and reinvention. As Lenin wrote, in the title of his 1901 article that became the basis for What is to be done?, "Where to begin?" — Or, how? Platypus proceeds now that emancipatory social politics is necessarily at a preliminary phase of potential development. Beginning this way gives the history of the Left and questions and problems of our consciousness of it relevance for being able to grasp the very possibility of emancipatory politics today, and what is most essential towards this. |P

Amanda Armstrong

Platypus Review 2 | February 2008

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On two occasions, Sigmund Freud observed that politics, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis are all impossible professions. Cornelius Castoriadis attempted to make sense of this cryptic observation in a 1994 essay entitled “Psychoanalysis and Politics,” in which he argued that, not only are these three “professions” structurally analogous, they are also entangled with each other such that the “impossible” realization of pedagogical or psychoanalytic aims is ultimately conditional upon an emancipatory political transformation.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis as well as of pedagogy lies in the fact that they both attempt to aid in the creation of autonomy for their subjects by using an autonomy that does not yet exist. This appears to be a logical impossibility…. But the impossibility also appears, especially in the case of pedagogy, to lie in the attempt to produce autonomous human beings within a heteronomous society…. The solution to this riddle is the “impossible” task of politics—all the more impossible since it must also lean on a not yet existing autonomy in order to bring its own type of autonomy into being.[1]

Castoriadis’s analysis of the “impossible possibility” of emancipatory politics, while deformed by his tendency to treat dynamic social formations as static states of being (i.e. “autonomy”), conveys, in a partially veiled form, certain important dimensions of Marxist politics. First, by analogizing social emancipation to pedagogy and psychoanalysis, Castoriadis squarely positions social emancipation along a temporal axis, indicating that Marxists should strive to bring about a break, in time, between an era characterized by “personal independence founded on objective dependence,”[2] and a subsequent era characterized by a more thoroughgoing form of social freedom. The essentially temporal (rather than spatial) nature of this hoped-for “break” has often been forgotten on the Left—an amnesia that has had disastrous consequences for the project of social emancipation.

Second, Castoriadis’s paradoxical formulation concerning the (non-)existence of the conditions for social autonomy indicates, albeit in a highly attenuated manner, something significant about the ground upon which a possible socialist future might be built. As Marx argued in the Grundrisse, an emancipatory transition to a post-capitalist society would entail the abolition of the value form of social mediation and the freeing up of the social wealth and human capacities accumulated in alienated form under capitalism[3]. In other words, the social form that currently frustrates social emancipation—namely, capital—would also constitute the ground upon which a socialist society would be built. Thus, in a sense, it is right to say that there is no currently-constituted social basis for emancipation, but that the basis for emancipation can nevertheless be found in contemporary society. Were this not the case, as Marx observed in the Grundrisse, “then all attempts to explode [capitalist society] would be quixotic”.[4] As Moishe Postone argues:

The specificity of capitalism’s dialectical dynamic, as analyzed by Marx, entails a relationship of past, present, and future very different from that implied by any linear notion of historical development….In capitalism, objectified historical time is accumulated in alienated form, reinforcing the present, and, as such, it dominates the living. Yet, it also allows for people’s liberation from the present by undermining its necessary moment, thereby making possible the future—the appropriation of history such that the older relations are reversed and transcended. Instead of a social form structured by the present, by abstract labor time, there can be a social form based upon the full utilization of a history alienated no longer, both for society in general and for the individual.[5]

In a brief footnote attached to this passage, Postone observes:

One could draw a parallel between this understanding of the capitalist social formation’s history and Freud’s notion of individual history, where the past does not appear as such, but, rather, in a veiled, internalized form that dominates the present. The task of psychoanalysis is to unveil the past in such a way that its appropriation becomes possible. The necessary moment of a compulsively repetitive present can thereby be overcome, which allows the individual to move into the future.[6]

With this footnote, we return to the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics with which we began. In what follows, I want to try and open up some inroads into thinking through the significance of this analogy—is it merely a coincidence, or can we offer an explanation as to why Freud formulated a theory of individual emancipation that was so strikingly analogous to Marx’s formulation of the relationship between history and emancipation?

One way to make inroads into this comparison of Marx and Freud’s conceptions of time and emancipation is through an examination of Freud’s theorization of the “compulsion to repeat”—a hypothesized compulsion that, in his metapsychological essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud finds evidence for in a number of social and psychological phenomena (from a number of developmental phases and historical eras). He goes so far as to suggest that this “compulsion” might properly be understood as an “urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces”.[7] The paragraph in which this quote is embedded is directly preceded by a discussion of the psychotherapist’s attempt to help their patient overcome a compulsively repeated present, indicating that Freud conceptualized the psychotherapeutic aim of helping a patient move into the future as somehow continuous with, or relevant to, a broader world-historical problem concerning the socially general “death instinct”—a problem that he would explore more extensively in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Freud’s rapid and under-theorized switching of levels of analysis in these paragraphs, as well as at other points throughout his writings, leads me to hypothesize that Freud partially identified his individual patients with society, and that, in developing his psychoanalytic practice, he was—in part—formulating a veiled model for how society might overcome the “compulsion to repeat” imposed by the value form of social mediation and thus realize the possibilities for human emancipation immanent in the present. Assuming that this explanation of the analogy between psychoanalysis and emancipatory politics is plausible, we (as Left historians) can formulate an ambivalent historical evaluation of Freud: on the one hand, he fostered a conception of the temporal dimension of emancipation at a historical moment during which many Left social theorists were shifting into a spatial frame of reference—a shift that still haunts the Left; on the other hand, by partially identifying individuals with society (instead of—like Marx or Adorno—analyzing the manner in which, under capitalism, the individual mediates society), Freud prepared the ground for Herbert Marcuse and other New Left Freudo-Marxists, who replaced social emancipation with a reified “desire” as the desideratum of Left politics. |P


[1]. Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, Ed. & Trans., David Ames Curtis (Stanford University Press, 1997) 131.

[2]. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Trans. Martin Nicolaus (London: Penguin and New Left Review, 1973) 158.

[3]. Ibid, 704–712.;

[4]. Ibid, 159.

[5]. Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1993) 377.

[6]. Ibid, 377, n. 131.

[7]. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” The Freud Reader, Ed. Peter Gay (New York: Norton and Co., 1989) 612. Emphasis added.