June 4, 2011 discussion of Mike Macnair's critique of Platypus for the Communist Party of Great Britain in The Weekly Worker (see links below to articles under discussion, especially the May 19 article by Macnair, "Theoretical dead end").
"Platypus: Is it a sect? Is it an academic grouping? Is it a theoretical dead end?"
The Communist Party of Great Britain's Mike Macnair's critique of Platypus in their paper The Weekly Worker is based on a conception of Marxism as practical politics that we don't share.
Macnair's critique provides an opportunity for clarifying and further developing the self-understanding of our organized project in Platypus.
While Macnair shares our priority of learning from the history of Marxism in the era of the 2nd International 1889-1914, Macnair challenges our philosophy of history, following Lukacs, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno, of the "crisis of Marxism" 1914-19 and subsequent "regression."
The question is not whether Platypus has a political "line" or program, but rather whether Platypus is, like other "Marxist" organizations, a "propaganda group."
Macnair, for instance, divides political activity into 2 broad categories: 1.) propaganda ("many ideas to few people"); and 2.) agitation ("few ideas to many people"). In such a characterization of this distinction, Platypus would be more propagandistic than agitational. In either sense, however, there is the assumption of our project being *political* at all. -- Are we, as many on the "Left" suspect, evading matters in insisting that our project is "pre-political?" Macnair thinks that we are thus evading responsibility. Or, "to not have a line is to have a line" (of tacitly supporting the status quo, i.e., "imperialism").
In what way *is* Platypus a political project? And, if political, how "propagandistic?" For in either case, it is not a matter of *whether* (we are political and propagandistic), but *how* are we so? And why would we be political and propagandistic in ways different from the CPGB, RCP, ISO, Marxist-Humanists, Spartacist League, et al.? -- Not simply by avoiding taking a "line" or not formulating a "program."
Marxism could be considered (today, and perhaps also in the past) as either:
1.) a guide to action; or
2.) a guide to history
We would pose the latter, Marxism as a guide to history, against the typical sectarian "Left" rationale for (or, e.g., anarchist or liberal, *rejection of*) Marxism as a guide to action, due to both the nature and character of our project in our own, present historical moment.
There is possible disagreement or at least tension *within* Platypus between:
1.) treating our project (of "hosting the conversation") as being necessitated by our historical moment in a largely *negative* sense, as the lack of possibility for doing otherwise (what else *could* we do, now?); or
2.) treating the necessity, possibility, and (importantly) *desirability* of our project in a more "positive" sense, according to our sense that what we are trying to do was not only possible and necessary but also would have been desirable in previous historical moments. -- In other words, the nature and character of our project is not (merely) unfortunate.
We would, indeed, maintain (controversially) that Marxism has *always* been primarily a "guide to history" rather than a "guide to action," or, more precisely, that it has only been a guide to action through being a guide to history.
There are to be considered 2 different conceptions of what we do, either: 1.) "hosting the conversation" is a *means* towards the end of promulgating our own ideas; or, alternatively, 2.) there is the idea of "provoking and organizing the pathology [symptomology] of the Left" through hosting the conversation. In either case, Platypus serves an educative function.
The question is whether Platypus is primarily about teaching or learning. Teaching would be about the former, an essentially propagandistic task; learning would be about the latter, meaning providing the possibility for *our own* as well as others' learning how to grasp the present through engaging it symptomatically. -- How can the conversation we host be critically transformative? How could our project be made to advance beyond itself?
Hence, Macnair's critique of Platypus is a good occasion for us to clarify and deepen our sense of the raison d'etre of Platypus as an organized project.
* * *
May 12: "No need for party?" by Mike Macnair
May 19: "Theoretical dead end" by Mike Macnair
June 2: "The study of history and the Left's decline" by Mike Macnair
Platypus letters and article in response:
May 26: "Fish nor fowl" by Chris Cutrone
June 3: "The philosophy of history" by Chris Cutrone
One of the plenary sessions held at the third annual Platypus Affiliated Society international convention, hosted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between April 29–May 1, 2011, set about exploring the legacy of Trotsky’s Marxism.
Speakers Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Bryan Palmer of Trent University, Richard Rubin of Platypus, and Jason Wright of the International Bolshevik Tendency were asked to consider:
“What is the relevance of Trotskyism for the Left today? On the one hand, there is a simple answer: The mantle of Trotskyism is claimed by many of today’s most prominent and numerous leftist parties in America and Europe (and beyond). The International Socialist Organization in America, the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France all have their origins in Trotskyism. Evidently, the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 left Trotskyism’s bona fides, as anti-Stalinist Marxism, intact. On the other hand, Trotskyism has been infamously associated on the Left with sectarianism. Certainly, the ISO, SWP and NPA long ago made their peace in crucial ways with the politics of the post-Marxist New Left — a revisionism that their sectarian brethren (for instance, Trotskyism’s bête noire, the Spartacist League) have proudly and doggedly opposed. However, despite their differences, all varieties of Trotskyism today evince the conditions of the New Left’s ‘return to Marxism’ in the 1970s, for which the legacy of Trotsky provided one significant vehicle (the other being Maoism). For instance Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, strongly influenced the journal New Left Review. And yet there is something peculiar about this legacy. As one Platypus writer has suggested, Trotsky is as out of place in the post-World War II world as Voltaire or Rousseau would have been in the world after the French Revolution. Trotsky, unlike Trotskyism, exemplifies the classical Marxism of the early 20th century, and that tradition certainly died with him. Thus, before we can understand how Trotskyism’s legacy has influenced the Marxism of our time, we must first answer the question: What has Trotskyism made of Trotsky’s Marxism?”
Mike Macnair, Communist Party of Great Britain (Oxford Univ. St. Hugh College)
Bryan Palmer (Trent University)
Richard Rubin, Platypus
Jason Wright, representative of the International Bolshevik Tendency
Representative of the International Socialist Organization (Declined to attend)
Mike Macnair of the Communist Party of Great Britain introduces his party's politics and project to an audience at the Third Annual Platypus International Convention in Chicago in 2011.