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Platypus Versus the Weekly Worker: Negative Dialectics.

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Platypus and Mike Macnair: Negative Dialectics.

“Un coup de dés, jamais n’abolira le hasard.”

A Dice Throw Will Never At Any Time Abolish Chance.

Stéphane Mallarmé.

The Platypus Affiliated Society takes it name from their elaboration of a few lines in Engels’ correspondence. Challenged on the relation between the rate of profit and the theory of surplus value, he pondered the “essentially infinite process” by which we develop concepts for natural phenomena. As an illustration, Engels mentions that when he first saw eggs from the Australian mammal, he refused to believe in the existence of the monotreme (Engels to Schmidt. March the 12th 1895). It was only when he saw a live one in a Zoo, the Society continues, that Marx’s friend changed his mind.

To the American group, “Engels came to respect that “reason” in history, natural or otherwise, must not necessarily accord with present standards of human reason.” Engels himself stated, “the day when concepts and reality completely coincide in the organic world development comes to an end.” Sports of nature and society will always crop up. He felt confident enough in his economic theory’s scientific standing to admit that while there is never a “coincidence of total value and total price” to deny its law-like status could be compared to failing to place the duck-bill within the evolutionary process. In retrospect the interminable Marxist debate on surplus value indicates that Schmidt’s queries have yet to be answered more than “approximately”.

For Platypus this tale serves a higher philosophical purpose. It is first of all a reminder of the bounds of historical sense. “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.” Next, after the left that “destroyed and liquidated itself” we may still call for its original potentials to be fulfilled. “The history of modernity is not finished yet, nor will it be, short of redeeming its promise.” Finally, we have to address the “improbable but not impossible tasks and project of the next Left.” Unforeseen transformation can come about in a following, succeeding, emancipatory movement.

There is an eschatological strain, a wish for hope amidst death, in these declarations, as in many of Platypus pronouncements. They seek Grace from the midst of Hell. As Adorno put it, “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption”. (1) As atonement Platypus has acquired some notoriety through criticism of “what exists”, principally the “dead” of the “pseudo-left”. But can the “reconstitution of a Marxist left” offer the Good News for the times to come? That is, the tantalising possibility that Emancipation may one day free us from servitude, be its laws as unfamiliar at the moment as Antipodean wildlife was to 19th century German Hegelians. After the Left’s Destruction, from the Slough of Despond, Platypus prepares for the Next Coming. Humanity’s future depends on it.

Perhaps the story about Engels demonstrates a different point. Tristram Hunt’s says that Engels’ scientific forays were marked by “provisional humanity and capacity for revision.” (2|) The socialist was a rationalist, his Darwinian beliefs part of his enthusiasm for modern science. Engels was interested in how the existence of the Platypus was “proved”. He did not evoke the argument – that drifts towards Pyrrhonist scepticism – that ‘anything’ in nature could turn up to weaken the quest for certain knowledge. When he saw the webbed egg-laying creature he placed it in evolutionary terms within the laws of nature. With less ado, for Mike Macnair the story illustrates a narrower philosophical lesson. That “concepts are necessarily in imperfect agreement with the perceptible world.” (Weekly Worker 19.5.11)

But what if doubt seized us by the throat and would not let us go? Adorno said that the function of art was “to bring chaos into order” – showing the turmoil of modern society. Mallarmé’s explores this contingency in poetic language. A shipwreck lies in the depths of the sea where “toute realité se dissout” (all reality dissolves). Julia Kristeva believed that his symbolist allusions might represent the crisis of the bourgeois state. Could this not stand not just for the forerunner of modernist experimentalism, but also for how Platypus tests the left? Is its portrait left “disorientation”, and questioning of what the left’s nature, would be the political poetry of uncertainty? Platypus alludes to the left as if it were a submerged hulk, with its tiller and rudder floating away. (3)

Platypus is preoccupied by the left’s sinking fortunes. “The failure of the 1960s New Left, the dismantlement of the welfare state and the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1980s-90s”. Its “utopianism” was “bound to end in tragedy”. Are the Affiliates able to escape immersion under the weight of this history and its ‘dead’ politics? The Society’s project of “building intellectual milieus from scratch” looks like a preliminary salvage job. Perhaps overwhelmed by this burden on their shoulders, Platypus spends little time, to use a Marxist-Hegelian expression, looking for the “reality striving towards thought” which might offer a hereafter for the defeated. That is something the laws of capitalist chance to help us. There is no indication of what ‘next’ liberating historical agency might bring emancipation about, or how it would do so.

We should take heed of Engels’ reticence. It is not unreasonable that most of the left looks sceptically at claims that it is largely, if not wholly, drift-wood fit for Davy Jones’ Locker. The best gauge of the strength of Platypus’s case is how their arguments hold up when faced with some strong objections. The debate between leading Platypus figure, Chris Cutrone and the far-from-impressed Weekly Worker’s Mike Macnair gives an opportunity to see how far their concepts agree with what is perceptible about the “failed and betrayed” left Platypus’s ability to explain the ‘actuality of the rationality in the real’ can be put to the test. Most significantly, what, if any, emancipatory project are they under-labouring for within the “dynamics of modern society”?

Spartacism Meets Adorno.

Platypus’s project then is to reconstruct a “Marxist left” and help give it a key role in the “future of humanity.” Their immediate vehicle is the Affiliated Society, a small largely US-based group of academics and students. It produces an on-line journal and holds conferences and symposia. Its theoretical references, as talk of “redemption” suggests, lie in the Frankfurt of school of Critical Theory. That is, a Hegelian inflected Marxist critique of capitalist ‘administered’ society and the ‘culture industry.’ They follow Benjamin in lightening the pessimism of the Institute, which they so amply resonate, by shafts of Messianic hope.

For Platypus there are good reasons to despair. They cite Moishe Postone who describes our “time of helplessness.” Postone paints a picture of a world threatened not just by capital, but by forms of reactionary anti-capitalism, expressed through political Islam, and anti-Semitism. This, already overstretched polemic, is then turned into a strident account of the left’s kowtowing to these ‘anti-system’ ideologies, and its own “Sorelian” “glorification of violence”. Postone manages to find this toxic brew wherever he looks. Platypus is not shy of extending his curmudgeonly tirade to the left’s through-going “self-deceit, uncritical celebration of supposed revolts against reification” and the “retreat from the project of freedom”. Historical “regression” is, it seems, a powerful undercurrent everywhere. (4)

What brightness can we bring to this gloom? Postone’s writings on progressive anti-capitalism, and the “possible abolition of the proletariat” and the “organisation of production based on proletarian labour”, are emancipatory project. They are also contentious, particularly when we try to imagine a political force that would represent today the interests of this future freedom. Platypus thinkers equally attempt an opposite course, to weave hope from the left’s past, and classical theorists of “thought and action” like Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno – diverse figures to say the least – into a historical-intellectual web, the ‘Platypus synthesis’. That is, as Korsch said, a “critique of the whole of bourgeois society and so of all its forms of consciousness” – left included. (5)

Walter Benjamin asked if “we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? Is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today?” (6) By bringing this past, the left’s heroism, its failures, its movements and its part in revolutions, we can, to Platypus theorist, Chris Cutrone say that “the history of the present in its ‘actuality’” is, “its potential for change and transformation” and “its constraint of such potential.” (Debate on The Three ‘Rs’ 2008) But the ‘aufhebung’ (transcendence) that brings the inspiring elements of the past into the regressive present has yet to take place.

Platypus aims to “hold the conversation” around what is, it is apparent, a very specific take on Marxism and the left. This year the Weekly Worker’s Mike Macnair attended the Platypus Convention in Chicago. His initial impressions were cool. Macnair felt that discussion resembled a “literary theory seminar” where not-quite rigorous philosophy and not-quite rigorous theory was the order of the day. (Weekly Worker 12.5.11) In one session Spencer Leonard talked about Platypus Critique. “Platypus was sometimes said to have a line which combined Spartacist Trotskyism with Adorno.” That would be, some would infer, obsessive criticism of other left groups, and a taste for Olympian disdain. Macnair encountered other claims, also not immediately attractive to political Marxists. That the Society “does not have a political line. Rather it considers that there is no present possibility of revolutionary political action, because of the deep-going crisis of Marxism.” Its goal is to make the left realise its own failures. Macnair’s account gives the impression of earnest discussion, a lot of big-name dropping, and a degree of collective therapy. Sharing Platypus’s gleeful message of doom-and-destruction in these intimate Reading Group surroundings may not appeal even to those who do not share our famous national phlegm.

The forthright promotion of Platypus’s unique role is to Macnair the “classic claim of a sect.” (Weekly Worker 19.5.11) This, he later concludes, is unfair. There are few major signs of classic sect-behaviour, or anything more than intellectual flirty-fishing – yet. To substantiate this Macnair’s report on the Convention’s sessions on sexual liberation, the idea of Communism, and Trotskyism, seem genuinely open-ended. To their credit, they reveal, rather than conceal, difficulties and talk of issues, not only the inevitable factional point-scoring.

The plenary on the Legacy of Trotskyism showed for example, a problem with defining Trotskyism, or ‘classical Marxism’. Like much of the Convention this seems to involved competing attempts to reclaim bits of the past. Macnair felt free to express his own opinions on “high-point” of the Second International and its left. Other offered a defence of the “principled” nature of the splits of Trotskyist organisations. Some of Macnair’s fellow panelists considered Revolution to be a possibility, if not an ‘actuality’. But interest in the ‘party question’, and rebuilding the workers’ movement, which would have tackled the issue more closely, did not appear of immediate concern to the audience. Perhaps there are too many unpleasant aspects of the history of the American left, starting from its isolation, to address. Yet there is nothing cultist about not wishing to talk about the spot on the end of one’s nose

The difficulties that Macnair found in establishing a common frame of reference with his American interlocutors were great. Many Weekly Worker readers, confronting Chris Coutrone’s contributions,  no doubt increasingly share them.

This journal comes from a very different background, to Platypus. It originated in a faction in the old Communist Party of Great Britain. In the last decade the paper’s supporters have intervened in activist attempts to construct a left alternative to the British Labour Party. They have played a significant role in opening up debate on the 2nd International basis of political Marxism. Within this framework the Weekly Worker has looked at early Communist relations to social democracy. While strongly opposed to Islamism, and all-embracing ‘anti-imperialism’ the paper publishes fierce criticisms of Israel and Zionism. The journal’s broader theoretical basis is less defined. Most contributors come from forms of Marxism that are simply outside the Platypus field of thought; other come from currents explicitly opposed to the Frankfurt school, influenced by Louis Althusser.

The Weekly Worker group are, as can be seen, not obvious candidates for Platypus to hold a “conversation” with. It is small wonder that Macnair recently declared that the “attempt to call this a ‘conversation” is bizarre. As he points out, common conceptual schemes are lacking. Anyone who sets out from the materialist independent “real premise” of historical research (the ‘real object’) and sees theoretical practice as its conceptual working-up is unlikely to find shared ground with Platypus’s Hegelian Marxism. Cutrone’s concept of the relationship of theory and practice takes the diametrically opposite view that both take place “in a world constituted socially in and through such categories.” (Weekly Worker. 9.6.11) From such a class struggle in philosophy to other, less abstract issues, a swarm of differences has emerged.

During this odd ‘non-conversation’ Cutrone and Platypus’s take on aspects of Marxist politics and history is often hard to grasp. One wonders, for example, about the importance given to talking about the Second International and the pre- and post-Great War German SPD. Their interest in the politics and theory of the times seems swept up in a grandiose narrative about the left, without implications for any present-day strategy. The Society skirts around the ‘party question’ and fails to think a position through. Views on imperialism, and the politics of anti-imperialism, which form a large part of the discussion, are also largely situated within socialist theories of the first two decades of the 20th century. The overall impression is of Cutrone’s confidence in a philosophical position (‘Critical Theory’), which is not easy to explain fully, and lack of certainty about history and politics. It’s the latter that whets our appetite for further direct confrontations with Platypus. Which is what this contribution intends to continue, before we are sated.

Skull and Cross-Bones.

Louis Proyect, an influential participant in the American left, has compared Platypus to the British ‘Eustonites’. The Euston Manifesto is best known for its defence of ‘humanitarian intervention’ It states that when a state violates the “common life in appalling ways” there is “a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue” regardless of state sovereign rights. Most of these ‘muscular liberals’ have supported Western actions in the Balkans and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Most continue, though with increasing reservations, to back the spread of democracy through world-wide US-led interventions. The Eustonites have also rediscovered the merits of ‘anti-totalitarianism’, applied today against Islamism (in and out of power), and large swathes of the Marxist left. (7)

But is Platypus really going down the Euston road? This is, from published declarations, improbable. Cutrone talks of the Platypus search for a better form of anti-imperialism faced with the US anti-war movements. Platypus supporters claim to inherit a ‘vanquished tradition”. In the US this would include the 60s anti-war movement, for all their criticism of its contemporary avatars. Despite a degree of common ‘anti-totalitarianism’ this would make them unlikely supporters for the Euston Manifesto’s fringe, who have aligned with the Henry Jackson Society (named after the US Cold Warrior who backed the war for American democracy in Vietnam). Nor do they seem to have much in common with Norman Geras, who grappled with profound moral revulsion at some kinds of anti-imperialism before abandoning Marxist politics for watered down social democracy. That would be to hook up with the failures of the past. The Eustonites’ Cosmopolitan Democracy – with NATO as the armed wing of Universal Justice – would equally run up against Platypus’s hostility to its a-historical twist on Kantian premises.

There is no doubt that problems remain. Supporters of the Weekly Worker have promoted a principled form of anti-imperialism, which refuses to accept that opposition to Western efforts to extend the ‘new imperialism’ under the guise of humanitarian intervention implies supporting every form of “resistance” to the West, from third-worldist dictatorships to Islamist tyrannies. But their analysis of Islamism and autocratic Third World regimes is class-based and political. The Weekly Worker has c-operated with a broad range of comrades in the labour and socialist movement in promoting the Hands off the People of Iran (HOPI), which embodies opposition to the Tehran theocracy and Western intervention in the country. It backs Iranian democratic forces, in civil society and particularly supports working class activism. It has little in common with Postone’s or Platypus’s board-brush opposition to the ‘anti imperialism of fools’.

Platypus claims to want to understand “imperialism”, but largely spends its time casting doubt on the moral integrity of those behind the “anti-imperialist front”. They do echo some of the least attractive aspects of Euston. It is unpleasant that they place all supporters of ‘anti imperialism’ in the same basket, confounding the few who actively prone alliances with Islamists or dictatorships, a handful of sociopaths with a taste of violence, with the immense number of anti-War activists whose motives stem from genuine concern with suffering and a – misguided – empathy with anyone who opposes the West. The latter resembles more closely the liberal capacity to understand different points of view than they admit.

To explain the Weekly Worker’s very different position Macnair writes, “the evidence of 20th century history is unambiguously clear that both the theory of terminal crisis (Trotsky’s ‘death agony of capitalism’) and the political conclusion drawn from it of alliance of the workers’ movement with petty bourgeois nationalists in the ‘anti imperialist united front’ are false – as false and as disproved as the theory of phlogiston.” (Weekly Worker. 19.5.11)

Macnair then outlines one of the best expositions of a Marxist stand on these issues that has yet been printed, “These circumstances require advocates of general human emancipation in countries high up the pecking order to pursue a two-sided policy in relation to their own countries’ coercive operations against countries lower down. On the one hand, it is necessary to oppose these operations clearly, unambiguously and as far as possible practically. On the other, it is also necessary to give political solidarity and what practical support can be given to emancipatory movements in the countries targeted – and therefore to avoid stupidly prettifying tyrants, local Bonaparte, clerical reactionaries, etc, merely because they may from time to time talk ‘anti-imperialist’ talk.”

There has been much further discussion of imperialism. But for the moment, one has to add something solid to answer Euston’s take on human rights. Comrade Robin Blackburn puts the case that they can be “misappropriated” by post-Col War militarism”. Equally it has been employed by protests against torture and arbitrary arrest. “Those attacking the US or British governments for ‘rendition’ and the torture of suspects, or those claiming labour rights in China, find succor in human-right language.” We can find in Marx an “anthropological basis for the notion of ‘human rights’ and popular recognition of this fact helps to give rights traction.” The cries of the oppressed demand justice, it is our obligation to bring it and share our common humanity in freedom. Norman Geras might reflect on this, and his own past writings on Marx and human nature. (8)

It would be premature, on the available evidence, to place Platypus directly in the sights of Richard Seymour’s attack on Euston ideas in The Liberal Defence of Murder (2009). Endorsing Postone’s histrionic denunciations of the anti-imperialist left do not make them players in the theatre of war. This is not because they resolutely criticise US-led foreign interventions: they show no signs of this. But by-in-large, apart from their own take on Critical Theory, and their project, they do not ‘defend’ anything. This, naturally, does not preclude future developments. The list of left groups that begin as ‘anti-totalitarian’ and end by adapting to what Proyect calls the ‘American hegemon” or forms of liberal conservatism, is long. And, as Charles Péguy could have said, those who toy with the mystical streak inherent in Platypus’s language of redemption could well end up being devoured by conventional politics. Indeed Platypus poses greater problems for Marxists through their approach to liberalism, and Marxist politics, than through their (absent) ‘line’ on Western military humanism.

Marxism and Liberalism.

Chris Cutrone gives plenty of hostages to fortune when he comes to discuss liberalism. Alain Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis (2010) has a tortuous ontology of the Truth-Event, and a timeless Eschatology of Communism. For Cutrone’s a look at it is the occasion to find fault with the author’s absolute hostility to liberalism. In this he considers that Badiou, and the closely related thinker, Žižek, are completely awry. He states that Marx saw something in the “radicalisation” of bourgeois society, “that demanded redemption”. He “sought the potential in capital of going beyond demands for greater liberalism and democracy.” (The Communist Hypothesis. Cutrone 2011) To the Platypus President this has to be understood through the Marxist-Hegelian conceptualisation of ‘emancipatory’ politics as a “completion and transcendence through negation or self-overcoming” (Aufhebung). That is, we go beyond capitalism while ‘preserving’ its best political sides

This is deeply obscure. As Macnair says, Cutrone “poses the need for an emancipatory movement to start from the conquests of capitalism – which is, indeed, central to Marxism – in terms of the conquests of liberalism. The political logic of this intellectual move is the path followed by the Sachtmanites, by Adorno and Horkheimer, and more recently by the British Revolutionary Communist Party/Spiked and the Eustonites, towards the political right.” (Weekly Worker 12.5.11) This “political logic” is at best inductive, and may not, as we have argued, settle the future path of Platypus. More to the point Cutrone offers no social agent that demands, on the grounds of capital, “greater liberalism.” By what process will one emerge, that finds the existing shape of capitalist democracy a “fetter” that must be “burst asunder” as Marx might have put it? Is there purely something in the Geist, the dialectical contradictions of the, as yet unrecognised “reason” of history that propels this forward? Or is Cutrone’s plan, as the post-Marxists once asserted, to build a potentially hegemonic challenge within capitalism, an alliance of disadvantaged groups that could build a movement for ‘radical democracy’?

There is one agency that has historically articulated a ‘radicalisation’ of democracy. In this respect Rosa Luxemburg made an important distinction when she criticised the Bolsheviks’ version of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, “We have always distinguished the social kernel from the political form of bourgeois democracy; we have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom – not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy – not to eliminate democracy altogether.” Through-going social democratic rights are then something that the left eggs on, not in order to dismiss ‘formal’ gains, but to expand the democratic basis of our lives. (9)

Replacing the ‘hard kernal’ of capitalism with the social core of democracy has been a unifying theme of many radical and working class movements. Luxemburg drew attention to the way in which diverse popular interests are bound together and given a voice through labour movement campaigns centred on social equality. In mind would be the Europe working class associations formed in the wake of the French Revolution. They initiated the campaigns for Universal Suffrage. From British Chartism onwards, and particularly through Second International affiliated parties, this, and other democratic demands, have been central planks of the socialist movement.

Trade unions, left parties, even sections of those that have adapted most to the centre-ground, continue to be the focus for social and democratic demands – the original sense of social democracy. Some would argue that the forward march of labour has halted and that we need wider radical democratic blocs. These should extend beyond the exploited and oppressed to those affirming humanity’s need to tackle the universal wrongs of the world, by promoting human rights and ecological movements. Others continue to consider that the capitalist state is an object, the site, or the condensation of class struggle, and that these democratic issues should be taken up through class politics. But Cutrone’s Coalition with the Dialectic is an appeal to the workings of a historical totality, which disregards all these strategic currents.

Why is the actually existing labour movement absent, or only present as part of the Whole of? In a presentation of Lars Lih’s writings on Lenin, Cutrone (as Macnair notes) claims that Marx and Engels were suspicious of political parties. That their support was “provisional and conditional” He considers that the workers movement would have formed political organisations regardless of their interventions. For Macnair Chris Cutrone tends not to “interpret the strength of late 19th century movement in terms of Marx and Engel’s idea of capitalism creating its own gravedigger in the proletariat, and hence the key to the movement being the political self-organisation of the working class.” But he “equally correctly appeals to the Second International and its left as the high point of the movement against capitalism to date: it was this movement that made possible 1917.” (Weekly Worker. 4.6.11)

This has to be untangled. On the one hand there is the notion that the rise of “industrial capital” and the “social democratic” workers’ movement were “concomitant” – that is they both occurred together, and that the latter came about “because of” the former. On the other, there was Marxist theory “brought from the outside” into political organisations, though the people who developed it originally had the gravest doubts about doing this. It’s not difficult to suspect that underlying both of these is the assumption that politics, and the workers’ movement, are products of the ‘industrial society’ and ‘labour’ which as historical categories are fated, if capitalism is ever to be transcended, to disappear. Or to put it another way, Platypus has inherited a strand of Marxist thinking which considers the whole ‘movement’ to be stamped, and tainted, by its relation to ‘labour’, the counterpart of Capital. The ‘logic’ of this position could lead to something resembling the late André Gorz’s Adieux au proletariat. That is that to pass beyond the threshold of socialism, bearing the interests of the old working class defined by production, to a new stage where we reduce labour to a minimum and encourage “les activities autonomes, collectives et/ou individuelles ayant leur fin en elles-mêmes.” Self-activity is freedom from the dull compulsion of work. Or as Postone puts it, a “post capitalist society” marked by the “transformation of the general structure of labour and time”. (10)

Socialists were part of “highly organised, mass-membership political parties with democratic structures”. But the relationship between Marxism and the labour movement is, if we follow Cutrone, problematic. Marx considered the working class to be a vehicle through which communism would come. In the 19th century we had the spontaneous growth of social democracy, related, but not dependent on the actions of socialists. They were rapidly seen to be a lever for change. Social democracy, he asserts, gave Marxists something to use, a tool. Lenin and Luxemburg, for example, we are informed, saw parties as an “instrument, as was the workers’ movement itself.” These activist-theorists considered that the working class only became ‘for itself’ through their guidance. Cutrone, welded to a more direct link to History, can only look down on them.

The impression that the Marxists proceeded by asserting their authority and leadership on the masses has a number of negative consequences. It gives a new angle to the notion, employed by Cutrone, that the working class in countries where Nazism and Fascism took power was predisposed to the ‘authoritarianism’. That is, Second International Marxism, had culturally helped prepare they way for Fascism, its failure to confront the fact that, “Workers had a subjective psychological’ interest in unfreedom”. (Weekly Worker 9.6.11) The argument is made, that “the movement for socialism was not free of this effect.” which leaves open as to whether the movement contributed to it.

The ‘instrumentalist’ paradigm is not a plausible was of accounting for the history of socialism. The Second International goal of joining socialist ideology to the masses (or a large section of them) became a reality in parts of Europe during the pre-1914 period. In some countries, above all German-speaking, this was embodied in a coherent form of Marxism. But, a fusion brings together different sides; it does not imply that one, the purely Marxist element, overpowered the other. Historically the opposite was the case. The ‘Marxism’ that became part of mass political culture was, it’s hardly news, far from high-level theory, nor was it unadulterated. A rich mixture of socialisms informed it.

The German SPD model was undoubtedly of great importance. It spread ‘Vulgar’ or simplified popular Marxism, its official ideology. It organised and conjoined with a celebrated ‘counter-society’ from unions to clubs. But other forms of socialist organisation, in France and Southern Europe, existed. The former country’s was a largely ‘political’ body, stamped by the split between the ‘syndicates’, who guarded their independence, and the party. Labour parties, another model, (despite the same name, the Danish party took its programme from the SPD), grew from trade unions, and only contained a minority of socialists. Everywhere, non-Marxist socialisms, radicalism, European republican and ethical socialism, to cite but a few examples, could happily be combined with elements of Marxist economic analysis. French socialism particularly resonated with a multiplicity of, sometimes contradictory, revolutionary and reformist heritages. The Hexagon’s masses and intellectuals to this day find inspiration in these diverse traditions personified – Jean Jaurès. (11)

Marxism itself, where it took root, reflected this. From its inception (and in Marx and Engels’ writings themselves) it was not a single ‘thing’. It coexisted with other, related or frankly hostile trends in the socialist movement. In Germany differences had already appeared at the end of the 19th century between ‘revisionists’, the orthodox centre, and the revolutionary left. All offered different strategic ideas. Even if individual theorists or factions tried to make is so (a debatable point), nobody in mass political parties and unions could wield these organisations as an ‘instrument’. It may well be that this is a difference between what became known as ‘vanguard’ parties and them, but that is another topic.

Socialism became a material force through its political parties. Heralded by a wide range of socialist thinkers, including, Kautsky and Luxemburg, and, as Lars Lih reminds us, Lenin, such an apparently verified premise is the indispensable condition for any discussion of the effects that Great War, and Imperialism, had on the workers’ movement. Kautsky talked, in the wake of the 1905 Russian uprising, of revolution. That the mission of the Socialist movement to bring all these various activities of the proletariat against its exploitation into one conscious and unified movement, that will find its climax in the great final battle for the conquest of political power (The Road to Power 1909). This is traditionally seen as a document from the high water mark of Marxism’s success amongst the European working class – ten years later to split into national social democracies and Third International Communism.

But had the material embodiment of socialism simply evaporated? Was the doomed Communist turn all that was left of Marxism’s practical impact? Macnair however observes that, the masses had “used” the SPD and its Austrian equivalent to overthrow their monarchies. The negotiated presence and influence of the labour movement in different states, which resulted in the post-Second World War Welfare mixed economy ‘consensus’ (excluding the Communists), could plausibly be seen as another partial ‘achievement’. Stalinist and left social democrats, sometimes Marxist influenced, played a part in these compacts, a force pulling it to the left. The impact of these socialists meant that what gains they made in changing the social kernel of democracy is perhaps more significant than, say, the ‘conquests’ of liberalism in the direction of political freedom.

Traditionally Frankfurt school theorists have combined a critique of the ‘bureaucratisation’ of social democracy with hostility to its embrace of ‘progress’. Cutrone obliquely refers to this by mentioning Benjamin and Adorno’s concept of “non-linear time”. Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1944) looms large here. The idea of the march of progress was a lot more a category of time: it was the substance of the socialist movement’s self-confidence in the power of reason. Perhaps it too was bound up, as Horkheimer and Adorno might suggest, with Western patterns of domination and repression? Lenin and Luxemburg’s use of the movement as a ‘tool’ is thus part of ‘instrumental reason’. That would strain any ‘conversation’ with the left. Progress was, naturally, common currency across the pre-Great War Western political spectrum – apart from a few dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries, and a few pessimistic leftists like Sorel.

Unless Cutrone is willing to let fly in full Dialectic of Enlightenment style, and relate socialist faith in reason and progress to the “legacy of bourgeois philosophy”, “domination” and “wholesale deception of the masses” there is little substance in his observations. The premise of his, limited, critique, is equally far from secured. A rejection of Progress as a category of political reason could be equally associated with the themes of the West’s decline (Spengler), fear of mass society (Ortega Y Gasset) and hostility to the French Revolution, a ‘satanic’ irruption in the fixed order of History (going back to de Maistre). (12)

One further example of Frankfurt politics that Cutrone comes up with is a backdated scepticism about political parties as such – which he tries to pin on Marx. By contrast Marx constantly talked of “our party”, and Engels encouraged the creation of workers’ parties. The bookshelves groan with tomes about their involvement with the labour movement and left parties. In them we find that far from Marx being disdainful towards political organisation he saw, to refer to only one case, the Chartist demand for universal suffrage as “a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent.” Its “inevitable result” he considered, would be “the political supremacy of the working class.” Is that not a case of ‘using’ a movement? It would be interesting to hear what was wrong about Marx’s hopes. (13)

Marx and Bonapartism.

Macnair takes Cutrone to task on more specific historical political issues – about German Social Democracy. The lengthy debate on Nettel’s book on Rosa Luxemburg is best savoured, if that’s the word, in the original. But there are other curiosities which illustrate the Society’s deep-rooted difficulty with politics. The Platypus President writes, “The Second International radicals recognised, after Marx and Engels, the modern state and its political parties as phenomena of Bonapartism – that is, the need for proletarian socialist revolution.” (Letters. Weekly Worker 15.5.11) In a further letter to the Weekly Worker (7.7.11) Cutrone defends using this term by referring to Engels reference to the state as a ‘balance’ between class forces. Does Cutrone seriously consider modern politics to be an off-spring of Bonapartism – the rule of the different bourgeoisie class fractions and their allies to be concealed through this apparent equilibrium that shades rapidly into despotism?

The term first appeared in a “practical state” in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), one of Marx’s best-known classics. The pamphlet’s theatrical imagery, parodies, and literary and historical echoes, form the backdrop of a powerful portrait of the future French Emperor’s coup d’état. The 1848 Revolution, which established Second republic, was a maelstrom of competing class political forces. “A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arise on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence.” Marx attempted to describe empirical political phenomena accurately in terms of class fractions, the play of parties, and the sheer chance make-up of the character, Napoleon ‘le petit’.

The landowners backed Legitimist politicians, the bourgeoisie favoured the liberal Orleanists, the republican petty bourgeoisie, and the working class embodied the nascent social democracy fought it out. The Party of Order found itself too weak to rule directly. Fearful of the rising demands of the workers, the bourgeoisie ended up in the hands of Louis Napoleon, and the army who suppressed the workers and the social democracy in blood. Napoleon, who rose to the elected office of President during the Second Republic, under universal suffrage was able to seize hold of the state with wide support. Confirmed by the 1851 Plebiscite, on a more limited franchise, he founded the Second Empire. The supporters of the Party of Order and the ‘lumpen proletariat’ marshaled in the Society of the 10th of December were ‘bought; and incorporated in the new structure. The rural population, by in large, was fearful enough for the safety of its possessions to entrust the new régime with quasi-dictatorial powers.

Many political Marxists consider Marx’s writings on Bonaparte to be some of Marx’s finest. They analyse the play of forces within the opposition between the French state and society, the growth of manufacturing capitalism, and the key class dynamics between the bourgeoisie’s fractions and the peasantry. They describe in detail the programmes and strategies of efforts to form workers’ parties – known in mid 18th century as social democracy. They are certainly not faultless. Their criticisms of France’s left, of powerless Ministers like Louis Blanc and of republican failure to organise effective working class resistance to the Bonapartist coup d’état, have the advantage of being written from physical distance. But together with Alex de Tocqueville’s Souvenirs, which presented the lay out of political forces in the Party of Order from the standpoint of am aristocratic liberal filled with loathing for socialism in all its forms, the 18th Brumaire remains the place where all serious study of the events begins. (14)

But most importantly for the left, Marx wrapped political strategy and parties into picture. Bernard Moss has drawn attention to Marx’s close relationship with the social democratic and Blanquist actors in these events. He has argued that Marx supported the Blanquist plan for a mass insurrection in May 1850 to establish a political dictatorship (that helped precipitate Napoleon’s consolidation of power). Its failure, he ascribed to the feebleness of social democracy. Moss states that Marx ignored the mass insurrections that did take place, without national leadership, or the Parisian presence that would be noted in London. This perhaps illustrates how imperfect information affected political concepts and strategic reflection. The effect was the to shift Marx from his original strategy of immediate ‘permanent revolution’ to a long-haul approach that led eventually to his involvement in working Class trade union and democratic politics in the First International. That is, he developed from Blanquism to social democracy. That this in turn underwent change in the wake of the Paris Commune, which brought revolutionary issues back to the fore, is another issue. The thread binding Marx’s active career together is that he was not just a theorist of human emancipation, but saw his role as embodied in political class action. (15)

Marx, therefore, developed the concept of Bonapartism in very specific historical conditions. He was influenced by strategic concerns – to explain how the workers’ movement had been defeated, how capitalism was protected by a political formation above different factions of capital and land, with the ability to extend concessions to other classes, and neutralise opposition. . Developing this approach in 1856 Engels wrote that Bonapartism was a political regime appropriate where the working class had been “defeated in a great revolutionary struggle by the capitalist class”. Exhausted by the battles the bourgeoisie could not rule directly. The role of Bonapartism was to “prevent these two classes from engaging in open struggle”. It robs both of “all trace of political power” though it permitted “minor skirmishes.” ‘Bonapartism’ a concept as, Engels described it in 1884, drew on some common features of Napoleon Bonaparte’s First Empire and Louis Napoleon’s Second. It occurred when the “warring classes are so nearly equal in forces that the state power, as apparent mediator, acquires for the moment as certain independence in relation to both”. Ito stay in power the regime “played off the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.” One could agree with Nicos Poulantzas that there is a permanent tendency for governments, and states, to try to appear “above” class struggle. That is the basis of their relative autonomy”. But more,  that is making the word into a concept  is not helpful. It is hard to construct a position on “the modern state” out of a few phrases about the politics of reconciling class interests, or the institutions and historical set-up that took anything resembling a ‘Bonapartist’ shape. Discussion of Poulantzas, for example, has centred on the nature of the state’s autonomy – relative to what. Later he employed the more felicitous expression that it was the ‘condensation’ of class struggle. (16)

The task of extracting a general ‘theory’ of Bonapartism from analogies and specific explanations of how the Second Empire came into being and ruled, has largely been the achievement of small groups, influenced by Trotsky’s writings. In the 1930s Trotsky employed the concept to capitalist governments which leant on the “military-police apparatus’ and tried to present themselves as the “saviour of national unity” faced with the class struggle and the fascist threat. He compared von Papen in 1932 to Bonaparte ll – but only with different class backing appropriate to the “decline of capitalism”, unstably trying to rule by the “neutralisation of two camps: the proletariat and the fascists”. Trotsky later speculated in 1935 that the USSR’s bureaucracy cold be seen as “above” the class struggle and that Stalin’s concentration of power, could be compared to the First Consul’s hold on France after the ‘Thermidorian’ reaction. He was always conscious that the term could be “too broad”. This did not prevent, in the post-war period some Trotskyist, such as the French Fourth Internationalist Pierre Frank, applied the expression to all forms of authoritarian governments that claimed the mantle of national unity – such as Gaullism. Groups, such as the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, warned of the risk of Bonapartism in 197os Britain as class conflicts sharpened and military take-over were muttered about. One wonders if Cutrone feels at home there. (17)

Today class politics takes a different shape. Platypus dwells, frequently, on the left’s reduction of politics to Resistance. But it would be an even worse reduction of ruling class politics to claim that it owes anything substantial to ‘Bonapartism’. This simply does not exist. The governments in power in most of the West revel in their support for the ‘market’, capitalism. The present day regime of accumulation corresponds to the ‘market state’ mode of regulation. The state attempts to manage the population to cope with the multiple effects of economic, liberal, globalisation. It adapts, it does not challenge.

How does this happen? Hegemonic ruling class blocs (of finance, the state funded privatised public services, commerce and other fractions of capital) negotiate support from political parties, including social democratic ones. But nobody imagines that even the Third Way project of Tony Blair aimed to “equip” people to compete on the market, not to oppose it, or play off the labour movement against the bourgeoisie. A more openly market based strategy, like the present Conservative-Liberal Coalition, ‘Big Society’ seems to embrace civil society. But this is another form of marketisation. Democratic municipal institutions are turned over the private and voluntary sector and ‘localism’ becomes a means of transferring power to small-scale oligarchies. The same processes are taking place across the developed capitalist world. The Market state does not balance between classes, it tries to restructure them, to capture them in the market’s mechanisms. If governments in these conditions have also turned to aspects of the ‘strong state’, to deal with unrest and as a reflection of their military interventions, there is even less useful comparison with Bonapartist real political repression.

In British and Europe campaigns to “defend” social democratic institutions (Welfare and other legislation) against the ‘market state’ are campaigns for the ‘social kernel’ of democracy. While these may be based on the labour movement, and its – actual and potential – allies amongst the oppressed and excluded, they risk criticising what is coming into existence from the standpoint of the present. Or, put crudely, they are attempts to keep ‘historic gains’ without advancing new demands. In this, extremely limited sense, one can talk about the left’s failings. But it is doubtful, given its problems with politics, if Platypus helps their resolution.

Negative Dialectics.

..the diversity of idioms on earth prevents everybody form uttering the words which otherwise, at one single stroke, would materialise as truth.

Stéphane Mallarmé, as cited by Walter Benjamin. (18)

Mike Macnair observes that when discussing with Platypus the “underlying problem is to find common ground from which conversation is possible. I have argued before that there is negligible chance of the left finding such common ground on the basis of seeking philosophical agreement” (Weekly Worker 306.11) It does not look probable that a single language based on pure truth can be envisaged – outside of China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011) that is. So in this sense, this is an impossible conversation.

One could suggest that the ‘conversation’ has run adrift because of the kind of difficulty linguists and anthropologists call the ‘Whorfian hypothesis’. That is the view that some languages are so conceptually unique that full communication between people using them is nearly impossible. The basic terms of space and time, or in this instance, philosophy and politics, are so radically distinct that perception itself is shaped in completely different ways. Some anthropologists considered that tribal societies could barely count beyond two, that they were unable to follow Calendar Time, or appreciate map distances. This version of linguistic determinism is not popular today, but Steven Pinker points to a “mundane version” in which speakers of different languages “tilt in different directions” when performing tasks. (19) The ‘grammar’ of a conceptual scheme, like Platypus’s is hard to grasp without becoming fluent to the point where one is a member of the same speech community. It may also be slanted towards objectives that Macnair, and other readers of the Weekly Worker, do not, cannot, share.

There are more formidable barriers hindering a dialogue between the American and British left than national idioms. As Hegelians Platypus talks in ways that it are literally incomprehensible to those outside their discursive framework. While truth, philosophical or otherwise, is axiomatically something that can be shared, types of political reasoning do not have to be. There is abundant evidence in Cutrone’s contributions that he wishes that he could engage in mutual understanding. But he does not. Philosophy keeps interceding. A very specific form of historicism profoundly marks the Platypus Society. That is not the belief that “laws of social evolution” that dominate society and human agents. Althusser called historicism the integration of thought and social being into the “essential section” of history. Knowledge is then the self-consciousness of each present. Critique is “immanent” in the existing society in the strongest possible sense, as part of the ‘rationality of the real’. Politics, in the shape of Hope, and Redemption, dripping through to this level, is a matter of ‘useful myths of the past’. But many Marxist prefer attempts to reproduce the separate “real object” by the specific laws of theoretical practice, to work up the determinations of social phenomena into the “concrete in thought”. A much larger group on the left are also not seduced by historical Eschatology (20)

Adorno and Horkheimer in a recently published account of a 1950s discussion about a new Communist Manifesto suggested “it is not always necessary to join up with something in existence” Platypus’s efforts to reach out to the Weekly Worker indicate their caution was well-judged. Could we find something more concrete to seize on? Have their successors in Platypus broken the strategic “silence” Perry Anderson dammed the Western ‘critical’ Marxist tradition they draw on. He asked, “What are their insights into the “economic laws of motion of capitalism as a mode of production, analysis of the political machinery of the bourgeois state, strategy of the class struggle necessary to overthrow it.” Until, for example, there is more than discussion of imperialism in terms of the early 20th idea of Bukharin, Kautsky, Lenin, and Hannah Arendt’s view of the ‘rabble’ that supported it (the base of ‘totalitarianism’), that is, something that is situated within contribution to this frame of reference, further comment is likely to be sterile, Cutrone’s concept of history and politics suggest that if they identify with the revolutionary Marxist tradition and the need for new movements for human emancipation. On the evidence they far from beginning to answer Anderson’s question. (21)

References.

  1. Page 247 Minima Moralia. Theodor Adorno. Verso. 1978.

  2. Page 361. The Frock-Coated Communist. Tristram Hunt. Penguin. 2010.

  3. Page 222 Adorno. Op cit. Collected Poems and Other Verse. Stéphane Mallarmé. Oxford 2006. Kristeva cited in The Lives of Michael Foucault. David Macey. Page 148. Vintage 1994. Adorno frequently refers to Mallarmé, “I know of no better materialist programme than that statement Mallarmé in which defines literature as something not inspired but made out of words.” Page 122. Aesthetics and Politics. Debates. Edited Frederic Jameson. NLB. 1977. We will have cause to return to Mallarmé – below.

  4. History and Helplessness. Moishe Postone. 2008. One wonders if Postone, like many people, ever got far beyond the title of Sorel’s book, Réflections sur la Violence 1908. Sorel Internet Archive. Sorel never glorified harm against individuals or revelled in violence of any kind. He described the militancy of working class strikers, who, severely repressed by the turn-of-the-century French state, passed into acts of illegality during strikes. This was their only way forward, “Jusque-là on avait essayé, dans le monde socialiste, d’atténuer ou d’excuser les violences des grévistes; les nouveaux syndiqués regardèrent ces violences comme des manifestations normales de la lutte, et il en résulta que les tendances vers le trade-unionisme furent abandonnées.” Sorel’s ‘myths’ were projections of the future, like the General Strike, which represented an ideal in the present around which they acted. See: L’illusion du Politique. Schlomo Sand. La Découverte. 1985 describes Sorel as “anti-totalitaire et anti-étatiste”, a revolutionary syndicalist opposed to the German Socialists’ bureaucratic structures, French {parliamentary ‘Opportunist’ socialism, and, later, viscerally hostile to the violence of Italian fascism and an admirer of the October Revolution. It would be kind to say that Postone’s amalgam of Sorel and anyone today celebrating violent ‘anti-imperialist’ resistance is worthless. On his concept of labour as the “basic element” and not the “negation” of capitalism, see for example, Critique and Historical Transformation. Moishe Postone. Historical Materialism. Vol. 12.3 2004.

  5. Page 75. Marxism and Philosophy. Karl Korsch. New Left Books. 1970 (1923).

  6. On the Concept of History. Walter Benjamin. 1940 Marxist Internet Archive.

  7. On the Euston Manifesto see: Accommodating to the Status Quo. Paul Flewers. New Interventions. Vol. 12. No 3. 2008.

  8. Human Rights. Robin Blackburn. New Left Review. Second series. No. 69. 2011.

  9. Chapter 8 Rosa Luxemburg. The Russian Revolution. Marxist Internet Archive. See also, Rosa Luxemburg. Paul Frölich. Haymarket Books. 2010 (1942).

  10. Page 184. Adieux au prolétariat. Andre Gorz. Editions Galilé. 1980, Postone 2004 Op Cit.

  11. One Hundred Years of Socialism. The West European left in the Twentieth Century, Donald Sassoon. 1996.

  12. Pages 41 – 2. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Verso. 1992.

(13) The Chartists. Surveys From Exile. Karl Marx. Penguin 1973.

(14) Marx’s E18th Brumaire Bernard Moss. What Next? No 21. 2002.

(15) Page 196. Then Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels. Lawrence & Wishart. 1941.

(16) Page 138 –9. The Prussian Military Question. Frederick Engels. 1856. In, The First International and After. Karl Marx .Penguin.1974. Political Power and Social Classes. Nicos Poulantzas. New Left Books 1973. Nicos Poulantzas. Bob Jesssop. MacMIllan. 1985.

(17) The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Leon Trotsky. Pathfinder. 1971. The Workers’ State and the Question of Thermidor and Bonapartism, Leon Trotsky. To Commemorate the first Anniversary of the Death of G. Healy. Marxist Review. 1990. Bonapartism in Europe. Pierre Frank. 1945. Here.

(18) On Translation. Illuminations. Walter Benjamin. Jonathan Cape. 1970.  The original is in here, “Les langues imparfaites en cela que plusieurs, manque la suprême. Je m’imagine, penser étant écrire sans accessoires, vite, ni chuchotement mais tacite encore l’immortelle parole, que la diversité, par la terre, des idiomes empêche personne de proférer les mots qui, sinon se trouveraient, par une frappe unique, elle-même matériellement la vérité. Cette prohibition sévit expresse, dans la nature, — on s’y bute avec un sourire — que ne vaille de raison pour se considérer Dieu ; mais, sur l’heure, tourné à de l’esthétique, mon sens regrette que le discours défaille à exprimer les objets par des touches y répondant en coloris ou en allure, lesquelles existent dans l’instrument de la voix, parmi les langages et quelquefois chez un.” Variations sur un sujet . 1895-6

(19) Rationality. Edited by Bryan R. Wilson. Blackwell. 1977. The Stuff of Thought. Steven Pinker. Penguin. 2008.

(20) Reading Capital. Louis Althusser. Etienne Balibar. New Left Books. 1975. The Frankfurt School.  Göran Therborn. In Western Marxism. A Critical Reader. New Left Books. 1977.

(21) Pages 44 – 45. Considerations on Western Marxism. Perry Anderson. Verso 1989 (1976)

See also Principa Dialectica for a unique take on Platypus.

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Written by Andrew Coates

July 12, 2011 at 10:38 am

6 Responses

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  1. Just a reminder of what the Euston Manifesto stated. It specifically denied being prowar and included a number of signatories who were opposed to the war in Iraq. It was much more of an “anti-antiwar” formation that could give expression to the hatred that many liberals felt toward George Galloway, Ramsey Clark et al. Even with the Henry Jackson Society, there was wiggle room. To my knowledge, Attila Marko Hoare was not for the war in Iraq even though he held a prominent position there. I had all this in mind when I described this seedy band of graduate students and professors as Eustonian in orientation.

    louisproyect

    July 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm

  2. We in Platypus consider our project to be Marxist in the sense that the necessary agent of social transformation remains the working class. Looking back on history, it becomes clear to us that the highest moments of social potential have coincided, not unproblematically, however, with the high points of the workers’ movement for socialism.

    The question is if and how the working class is presently constituted as a political force. We don’t think it is.

    For it is not only the case, for us, that the “Left is dead!,” but also that the labor movement is dead.

    This is perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow. But we think that the labor movement and the Left share fates: that one cannot advance without the other, and that they both go down together.

    In this sense we would agree with Luxemburg and Marx concerning “social democracy.” But this then poses the further question of in what ways Marx, Luxemburg, et al. were (“immanent”) critics of the social-democratic workers’ movement, or, of proletarian socialism, and not merely its advocates.

    Furthermore, the issue is not simply “democracy” but also “liberalism,” that is, what is the relation between individual and collective social freedom?

    On “instrumentality,” there is a common misunderstanding of Frankfurt School Critical Theory on this score: “reason” becomes “instrumentalized” not in the way people exercise it, but rather as a function of the social-historical logic of capital. Our reason is reduced to an instrument of the reproduction of capital.

    So it becomes a matter, not of thinking our way out of capital, but of pushing further and more acutely the immanent logic of capital, and trying to raise it to consciousness (this is the notorious “Hegelianism”).

    The question is whether that is happening today or not.

    On “Bonapartism” the issue is not whether conjuncturally the capitalist bourgeoisie has lost control here or there, but rather how the logic of capital has escaped effective human control, especially in terms of politics, ever since 1848. The index of this train-wreck of capitalism is the “authoritarian” character of politics, in which no one really believes that the political measures taken will solve the social problems, but everyone submits to them, in “bad faith,” anyway. Bourgeois society in its continued decadence has sacrificed not merely the workers’ social empowerment and freedom, but that of all members of society.

    Not only the working class, but importantly also the bourgeoisie, individually and collectively, submits itself to the strong and arbitrary state. For it’s quite unclear that the state today acts in the capitalists’ interests, other than by default. As Marx put it, the capitalists are less worried about losing their rights than they are afraid of the workers gaining theirs. The issue is the general trend of capitalism becoming more illiberal, ever since 1848, and what are the political and social-psychological phenomena of this taking place.

    As Adorno put it, it becomes easier to believe the lie one knows is a lie than to struggle for more uncertain and dangerous emancipation. This is what it means to advance through history with one’s back turned, transfixed by the horror of the past. But, according to Benjamin, it is not we humans who do this, but rather the “angel of history,” who has ceased to be our guardian companion and instead has become our horrified reflection. History, in Hegel’s philosophical sense of the story of reason in freedom, has abandoned us.

    “Those who labor must rule.” Platypus agrees with this Marxist truism. But we ask the question of why this is so. We do not assume it.

    Why does the workers’ movement for socialism express emancipatory potential?

    In avoiding this question, as the basis for critically thinking and practically working through (supposedly) “anticapitalist” politics, the present (dead/pseudo-) “Left” instead (at best) reifies the “proletariat.” Rather than seeking to push (the contradictions of) working class politics further, the “Left” cheerleads what the working class is already doing, ignoring how the struggle for socialism, as it was pursued in Marx and the best Marxists’ times, has long since ceased.

    The critical conversation on the death of the Left that we in Platypus seek to host is not between ourselves and others, but among the broadest range of “Leftists” today who can contribute to expressing the buried but remaining historical tasks of human emancipation once more acutely (and not uncontradictorily) expressed by the historical Left and Marxism. This is not a directly political project, but an indirect one.

    We seek to manifest the force of history in the present “dialectics at a standstill.” As Adorno put it, the “less popular” aspect of the Hegelian dialectic is its “static side.” But this expresses the condition that “The law that, according to the Hegelian dialectic, governs the restlessly destructive unfolding of the ever-new consists in the fact that at every moment the ever-new is also the old lying close at hand. The new does not add itself to the old, but is the old in distress” (Adorno, “Reflections on class theory,” in Can one live after Auschwitz? A philosophical reader, Stanford 2003, p. 95).

    Chris Cutrone

    July 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm

  3. Just a couple of quick points – have to be off to the fields.

    Louis, The Euston Manifesto had plenty of get-of-gaol clauses in it.

    Today we can read it’s reservations about commiting to the war. At the time it felt pro-war.

    I still feel upset about Euston.

    Norman Geras, said to be the main author, was someone I admired, not just become from the same political background, the IMG and the Socialist Society, but because of his writings, intelligence and personal warmth.

    Chris, as an active member of a union, and the person who writes the Minutes of our local Trades Council (inter-union), I am interested to hear that I am dead.

    Others, less well-disposed to me, will be as well.

    Andrew Coates

    July 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

  4. Chris,

    The complete Platypus statement is,

    ““The Left is dead! — Long live the Left!”

    This makes the echoes of the phrase – that is on the death of the French King – clearer.

    La Gauche est morte. Vive La Gauche!

    Yet the succession is in doubt.

    You have doubts about the lineage of the left.

    You ask, “Why does the workers’ movement for socialism express emancipatory potential?

    And answer it by citing Adorno’s concept, of “dialectics at a standstill.”

    To cite my polemic,

    “As Hegelians Platypus talks in ways that it are literally incomprehensible to those outside their discursive framework.”

    Soit.

    Andrew Coates

    July 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm

  5. Andrew,

    I didn’t pose the question about the workers’ movement in order to answer it, but rather to open it: to pose it an as open question. I think the emancipatory potential of the socialist workers’ movement has yet to be proven in practice. That is more clear today than at any time since Marx’s.

    Of course I am in sympathy (if not uncontentiously) with (historical) Marxism on the issue of proletarian socialism. I’m not saying “Farewell to the working class” (Gorz).

    The difference between theory and politics is that while I may agree with a program for action, I may understand the reasons for doing so differently from others who agree with the same action.

    So, yes, I agree “Long live the Left!,” and, relatedly, “Long live the workers’ movement (for socialism)!” But a change is needed. I think also a change in understanding.

    Chris Cutrone

    July 13, 2011 at 5:45 pm

  6. […] between Cutrone & Macnair, Parker & Turley, as well as others, has so far consisted of frank and open (though sometimes productive) disagreement. Many different Marxist and anarchist organizations have engaged with Platypus, seldom out of the […]


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