Posts Tagged ‘Marxism’

Review: The Anarchist Roots of Geography

March 29, 2017

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Originally published on Marx and Philosophy, 28 March 2017

In The Anarchist Roots of Geography, a “proverbial call to nonviolent arms,” Simon Springer discusses some of the past, present, and future relationships between anarchism and geography. He mobilizes the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, and Lev Tolstoy to denounce global capitalism and oppression—declaring, with Kropotkin, that anarchism is “what geography ought to be”—while also affirming the more contemporary approaches of Saul Newman and Todd May, who have advanced the idea of “post-structuralist anarchism” in opposition to classical approaches through a turn to thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others. Springer therefore presents his own perspective as amounting variably to “anarchism without adjectives” or “post-anarchism,” neither of which is the same. The former refers to the synthesist approach favored by Voline and others in opposition to the anarcho-communist Platformism advanced by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, and other exiled militants following the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Post-anarchism, a more recent development, integrates the nihilism, irrationalism, and defeatism of postmodern analyses in expressing opposition to social revolution and universalism as “totalizing narratives.” In this way, while The Anarchist Roots of Geography provides many compelling insights, it itself presents a synthesis of a number of anarchist or anarchistic approaches that cannot so readily be melded together.

Springer’s main project in this volume is to bring geography back to its radical anarchist roots, thus issuing a course correction of sorts beyond those set by the hegemonic presence of Marxists within academic geography departments starting in the late 1960s. The author presents the works of Kropotkin and Reclus as luminous alternatives to the ethnocentrism and state-centricity that has plagued the discipline since its origins. Springer wishes to wield anarchism, defined as the practice of mutual aid with the concern for universal geography in mind, to undermine statism, capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, and speciesism (or anthroparchy). For him, anarchism is the “only meaningful form of postcolonialism” (38), as the State-form effectively continues colonization even after formal independence, and—following Reclus—it must centrally express concern for the integrity of the planetary system by means of nature conservation, vegetarianism, and opposition to animal cruelty. Springer here traces the philosophical arc linking Reclus with social ecology and the animal-rights and animal-liberation movements. The author holds that direct action, cooperation, and prefigurative politics can allow humanity to affiliate by free federation, reestablish equality among humans, rebuild the commons, and overturn the domination of nature. Taking after Proudhon (1840), who analyzed property as originating in the Roman concept of sovereignty, or patriarchal despotism, Springer defines property as violence and calls for insurrection—but not revolution—against oppression. Echoing Reclus, he emphasizes the place of beauty in the struggle, citing Albert Einstein’s view that “[o]ur task” must be to “wide[n] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (137), and he declares the importance of unity for anarchy, in parallel to the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Baruch de Spinoza.

Some of the specific suggestions Springer makes for future research into the intersection of anarchism with geography include the following topics:

  • State theory and sovereignty
  • Capital accumulation and flows, land rights, property relations
  • Gentrification, homelessness, housing, environmental justice
  • Labor, logistics, policing, and incarceration geographies
  • Critical geopolitics, geographies of debt and economic crisis, geographies of war and peace, etc.

In advocating an anarchist understanding of geography, Springer seeks to depose the dominance of Marxian and Marxist approaches within the discipline, holding these responsible for the perpetuation of State-centric analyses in place of a geographical exploration of alternatives to the State altogether. Springer argues against Marx’s statism and “dialectical” enthusiasm for colonialism, defending instead the anarchist emphasis on the need for consistency between means and ends. Stating openly that “[f]lirtation with authority has always been a central problem with Marxism” (158), he discusses how anarchists do not share Marx’s positivistic-utilitarian enthusiasm for the centralizing and despotic features of capitalism. In the anarchist view, capitalist exploitation and imperial domination are not considered necessary parts of the Geist. “The means of capitalism and its violences do not justify the eventual end state of communism, nor does this end justify such means” (52). For Springer, then, anarchism is a more integral approach than Marxism, as the former recognizes the multiple dimensions of oppression in opposition to the latter, which is said to focus almost exclusively on class, while misrepresenting anarchism as being opposed only to the State. Springer believes that Marxism allows no space for addressing oppressions outside of exploitation. Moreover, anarchists prescribe action in the here and now, rather than advocating a dialectical waiting period until the “objective conditions” are supposedly ripe.

Indeed, Springer shows how Proudhon’s analyses of property, the State, wage labor, exploitation, and religion were highly influential for Marx, despite the fact that the German Communist was reticent to acknowledge as much. As Proudhon wrote after Marx’s diatribe against him in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847): “The true meaning of Marx’s work is that he regrets that I have thought like him everywhere and that I was the first to say it.”

Springer also communicates the anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker’s view that it was Proudhon who first expressed the labor theory of value, and he hypothesizes that it was Kropotkin’s years spent in Siberia which led this anarcho-communist to emphasize a naturalist, decentralized, agrarian, and cooperative vision for the future, in contrast to Marx’s centralist and industrialist-positivist views. For the present and future, the author calls for the creation of radical democracy, which arises when la part sans-part (“the part without part”) intervenes to disturb the established sovereign order, rebuilding the commons where now prevail exclusive spaces, whether they be private or public. Springer particularly endorses Murray Bookchin’s concept of the “Commune of communes” as a restatement of the “continua[l] unfolding” of organization by free federation, and affirms Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualization of struggle to be a means without end, or infinitely demanding (Simon Critchley).

Springer certainly presents several critical contributions to a revolutionary analysis and understanding of geography. Yet as stated before, there are philosophical and political tensions among the variegated sources he calls on to develop his argument. To take one example, he initially affirms the views of several classical anarchist revolutionists but then challenges Neil Smith’s call for a “revival of the revolutionary imperative” against capitalism and the State, preferring instead insurrection—defined as prefiguration, spontaneity, and a Stirnerist sense of disregarding oppressive structures rather than overthrowing them—because revolution is putatively governed by a “totalizing logic” and somehow “ageographical” (68). This questionable understanding of revolution to the side for the moment, it bears clarifying that Max Stirner was a reactionary individualist whose views are incompatible with those of the anarcho-communists. Yet this lapse on Springer’s part is one with his general approach of blurring distinct anarchist philosophies with ones that may seem anarchistic—most prominently, post-structuralism. To return to the question of revolution, the author favorably reproduces Newman’s dismissal of social revolution as a rationalist, Promethean, and authoritarian project, noting that “not everything needs to be remade” and that revolution is inseparable from tyranny (88). This attitude fundamentally contradicts the thought of Bakunin, Kropotkin, Reclus, and other anarchist militants. Indeed, absent a commitment to revolutionism, it becomes difficult to claim that “post-structuralist anarchism” is anarchist. The same is true for “post-anarchism,” a category that Springer embraces on multiple occasions in the text. To weld “post-anarchism” together with classical anarchism would require more than passing references to the supposed superiority of more contemporary anti-essentialist perspectives informed by Foucault, Butler, and company. Amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction, the accelerating destabilization of the climate, and Donald Trump’s war on the scientific method, why should we accept post-anarchism’s rejection of science, truth, and ethics? In point of fact, classical anarchism shows itself more appropriate to the times.

In distinction to the author’s endorsement of post-anarchism, Springer’s Tolstoyan advocacy of a peaceful uprising is intriguing but not entirely clear. The author argues that anarchism typically had a pacifist orientation to social change before Errico Malatesta, Alexander Berkman, and other militants came to publicly endorse tactics of assassination. Springer fails to mention that Kropotkin did so as well, and he misrepresents Emma Goldman’s trajectory as initially being supportive of counter-violence but then coming to pacifism by her life’s end—for the geographer overlooks Goldman’s support for armed struggle in the Spanish Revolution. Like Goldman, Springer is not a strict pacifist in that he allows for violent self-defense and endorses insurrection as forms of “permanent resistance.” Still, he is not very precise in the parameters of violence, nonviolence, and self-defense he discusses. What is clear is that the very possibilities for peace and emancipation require a different society. In this sense, Springer’s citation of Edward Said is poignantly apt: the “stability of the victors and rulers” must be “consider[ed] […] a state of emergency threatening the less fortunate with the danger of complete extinction.” Under the prevailing conditions in which capitalism and militarism indeed threaten human survival and planetary integrity, Springer is correct to emphasize the importance of “perpetual contestation” and “[e]xperimentation in and through space” (3). We must become the horizon!

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Review: Critical Marxism in Mexico

November 25, 2016

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Published on Marx and Philosophy25 November 2016

Stefan Gandler’s volume Critical Marxism in Mexico investigates the radical political philosophy of two twentieth-century exiles who became naturalized citizens of Mexico: the Spanish Marxist Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez (1915-2011) and the Ecuadorean leftist Bolívar Echeverría (1914-2010). Focusing on Latin America, this text places at its center the philosophical and practical critique of Eurocentrism. Indeed, the German Gandler envisions the book as being an initial step toward “overcoming Eurocentric bigotry,” and he declares that he is “profoundly convinced that Eurocentrism in its ‘philosophical’ and general forms […] is one of the principal reasons for the current disaster that humanity is living through at the global level,” considering its responsibility for vast material suffering and for repressing alternative forms of social organization. Given that Eurocentrism underpins capitalism, the critique of Eurocentrism in turn forms a central pillar of the “critical Marxism” developed by Sánchez Vázquez and Echeverría, in terms of their repudiation of the racism and positivism evinced at times by Marx, Engels, and many who have claimed Marxism. This alternative Marxism is critical also in that it is anti-Stalinist, non-Marxist-Leninist, relatively libertarian, and non-dogmatic.

Sánchez Vázquez is more practical, more revolutionary, and more based in Marx’s philosophical-humanist early writings than Echeverría, his fellow radical exile who took up residence in Mexico City in 1968, nearly three decades after Sánchez Vázquez arrived there as a refugee fleeing Franco’s victory in Spain. According to Gandler, the trajectory of Sánchez Vázquez’s life demonstrates that of the self-emancipation of a formerly orthodox socialist from intellectual error without his becoming a reformist or apologist or “forgetting the radical critique of everything existing which would be unthinkable without Marx.” For Sánchez Vázquez, theoretical knowledge depends on social transformation through praxis, defined by Marx in the “Theses on Feuerbach” as “revolutionary, practical-critical activity.” Theory, in Sánchez Vázquez’s view, “cannot exist […] without reference to praxis.” The Spanish thinker considers Marx’s very emphasis on praxis the German communist’s philosophical revolution, as summarized in the well-known final thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Such immersion in Marx’s early writings strengthened Sánchez Vázquez’s resolve to resist the Soviet Union’s corruption of Marxism, as seen in the philosopher’s critique of Diamat in his 1955 masters thesis, and his resignation from the Communist Party following Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Soviet Congress (1956). The Cuban Revolution, the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring, and the Mexican student movement of 1968 greatly moved Sánchez Vázquez. His doctoral dissertation and book Philosophy of Praxis (1967) provide a libertarian presentation of Marxism that is critical of Marx, Lenin, and their followers. Such an unorthodox interpretation led Sánchez Vázquez to be criticized precisely by Marxist-Leninists such as the Cuban Jorge Luis Acanda Gonzalez, who condemned the thinker in 1988 for denying the “importance of Lenin’s political & philosophical legacy” and advancing “practical and spontaneous conceptions of the revolution.” Yet Sánchez Vázquez’s very stress on praxis—echoing Marx—led him to become one of the foremost intellectuals of emancipation of his time. He engaged with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and focused his late efforts on Marxism and aesthetics, identifying the need for “a new sensibility, a new audience, a new aesthetic attitude” to be cultivated in post-revolutionary Cuba and more broadly. Sánchez Vázquez summarizes his philosophy in his 1985 autobiography, declaring that “socialism […] continues to be a necessary, desirable, and possible alternative.”

In contrast, Echeverría tells Gandler that, while he “agreed fully” with Sánchez Vázquez’s “critical vision of Marxism,” he was not his contemporary’s follower or disciple. Whereas Sánchez Vázquez privileges emancipatory consciousness and praxis, Echeverría focuses more on ordinary consciousness and is skeptical about the possibilities of praxis. For this reason, for him, it is more a “question of discovering political possibilities within alienation.” Influenced by Heidegger, Echeverría traveled to West Germany in 1961 to study with him, for he considered the phenomenologist to be “the true revolutionary” philosopher. Gandler rightly takes issue with Echeverría’s failure to recognize Heidegger’s enthusiasm for the 1933 Nazi takeover of Germany, in parallel to the thinker’s questionable reflections on the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition, Gandler discusses Echeverría’s questionably uncritical stance on the USSR, situating it as being typical of the Latin American left at the time, which considered the Soviet Union a necessary counterbalance to US imperialism. Nonetheless, despite these problematic aspects, Echeverría developed a revolutionary concept of the intellect, which he believed must “abandon the European-bourgeois principles and ideology to complete philosophically the definitive process of decolonization, which is demanded practically by the dominated classes.” In this sense, the Ecuadorean philosopher considered Marxism “the “philosophy of workers’ struggle, the culmination and overcoming of all metaphysical European traditions.”

Yet to the matter of the fall—or, rather, destruction—of the Berlin Wall that took place on November 9, 1989, Gandler criticizes Echeverría for his perceived celebration in the Cuadernos Políticos he edited of the smashing of the “anti-fascist protective barrier,” as it was known in East Germany, on the fifty-first anniversary of Kristallnacht. In contrast to the dominant narrative of that historical event as being liberatory or anti-authoritarian, Gandler frames it as the action of a hysterically reactionary, State-sanctioned mob that sought to tear down an “unwanted monument to the millions” murdered in impunity by the Nazis. This lucid and challenging assessment yields at times in the text to questionable endorsements of the claims made by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996) regarding the putatively enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans in the genocide of the European Jews (Ha’Shoah), as based in the idea of an “eliminationist anti-Semitism” supposedly deeply-rooted in German civilization and Christianity. These historical distortions about German participation in the Holocaust have been refuted adroitly by Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in their Nation on Trial (1997), and it is unfortunate to see Gandler resurrect them within a revolutionary analysis of genocide. Nevertheless, continuing in this sense, he shares Echeverría’s moving commentary on the Shoah as being, rather than merely “an accidental holocaust provoked by a madman,” the “result of a failure of the Left itself: the excessive sacrifice to be paid by the social body for the triumph of the anti-communist counter-revolution in the Europe of bourgeois civilization.”

In light of the genocides for which capitalism bears responsibility, the notion of praxis takes on a special urgency. In the “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx defines praxis as revolutionary because it “transforms reality.” The stress that Sánchez Vázquez places on this category echoes that previously made by Gramsci, who referred to Marxism in his Prison Notebooks as the “philosophy of praxis” in order precisely to recognize the centrality of revolutionary activity to this philosophy. Praxis poses a great threat to authority, capital, and the State precisely because it represents the ever-present risk of the “spontaneous rebellion of the oppressed and exploited” beyond the strictures of the Iron Cage. As Gandler declares, “[t]he concept of praxis […] contains an element of rebellion against all those who, from their desk, from the Party headquarters, or from the workers’ fatherland, aspire to lead the activities of the rebels of all countries.”

In parallel to Sánchez Vázquez’s emphasis on praxis, Echeverría contributes to the deepening of a non-dogmatic Marxism by criticizing Marx, Engels, and many of their followers for their ethnocentrism, naïve progressivism, and determinism—this, while dialectically acknowledging the clearly emancipatory and revolutionary analyses pervading Marxian analysis. After all, as Gandler stresses, it was Marx’s horror at “the destruction of human existences, of children, of the populations of entire regions” that led him to “pic[k] up his pen and wr[i]te Capital” (1867). Yet Marx and Engels, particularly early on, held racist views that are not totally inseparable from their overall method: in 1849, after the U.S. defeated Mexico and appropriated the Southwest, Engels hailed the result, which he considered to have been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization,” as California had been “taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it.” Moreover, Marx and Engels employed anti-Slavic prejudice during their struggle against Mikhail Bakunin and the anarchists in the First International—doubtless in part in response to Bakunin’s own Germanophobia—while both Marx and Bakunin are known for their anti-Semitic comments, however much worse the latter’s were.

For his part, Echeverría uses Marxist analysis to theorize that the oppressed countries of the Global South are not in a “pre-capitalist phase,” but rather that they have been fully subjected to capitalism since its birth. In this sense, all the world’s countries are capitalist, but the system of accumulation requires differing levels of industrialization and political power for different regions. Moreover, the philosopher takes issues with the deterministic, mechanical interpretation of history that Marx and Engels bequeathed to the world, and he outright claims Revolution to be a modern myth and a mirror-image of bourgeois delusion. Thus, whereas he clearly identifies the twentieth century as the “era of unprecedented genocides and ecocides” and wishes for an egalitarian universalism of all peoples, Echeverría is left with only conceptually envisioning the chance for a non- or post-capitalist modernity.

Echeverría identifies four ethe, or cultural spirits, as upholding Eurocentrism and capitalist modernity.

  • The currently dominant realist ethos, which is associated with Nordic-Protestant Europe, defined as principally engaging in denial regarding the destructiveness of capitalism precisely while it pretends that production and consumption are more important than anything else. It also denies the possibility of an alternative world.
  • The classic ethos, associated with Western Europe, which differs from realism only in terms of its recognition of the tragedy but necessity of capital.
  • The romantic ethos, associated with Central Europe, which supposedly transforms all of life under capitalism into a great adventure wherein entrepreneurs become heroes.
  • The baroque ethos, associated with the Mediterranean region, Catholicism, and the Iberian conquest of the New World, which is said to identify some of the contradictions in capitalist society but not be able to conceive of the possibility of abolishing it.

Perhaps a combination in the surge of realistic-romantic sentiments can help explain the recent election of Trump, bolstered by white nationalism—while Clinton and Obama’s concession speeches could be considered expressions of the classic ethos. Yet Echeverría can justly be critiqued for reducing Romanticism to an approach that naturalizes capitalism and oppression, for it certainly has served to propagate liberatory impulses. Writing in the text’s prologue, Michael Löwy is right to declare that the Romanticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Morris, Ernst Bloch, and others is hostile to capitalism, not integral to it.

In sum, Gandler has provided his readers an illuminating investigation into critical Marxism, the necessity of praxis, and the critique of Eurocentrism. Yet the question must be raised, as the author does, of just how anti-Eurocentric it is to explore the thought of two intellectuals—one of them Spanish—who focused above all on European writers. This doubt notwithstanding, in a world in which the Western core-imperial societies are lurching evermore to right-wing reaction, fascism, and “open-self destruction,” it may well be the case, as Gandler asserts, that only movements from the periphery will be able to stop the capitalist death-train. It is to be hoped, then, that resistance elements in imperialist countries can join with their international comrades to advance the cause of critical Marxism or libertarian socialism, which “continues to be the most fertile theory for those of us who are convinced of the need to transform the world in which today there exists not only the exploitation and oppression of [humanity] and peoples, but also a mortal risk for the survival of humanity [and nature].”

Eros and Revolution Now Available

July 17, 2016

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Eros and Revolution: The Critical Philosophy of Herbert Marcuse is now available in hardcover from Brill Academic Publishers.  Being the eighty-sixth title in the Studies in Critical Social Sciences (SCSS), this 400-page political and intellectual biography examines Marcuse’s life, focusing on the German critical theorist’s contributions to the realms of philosophy, radical politics, and social revolution, while also reflecting on critiques made of Marcuse and the continued relevance of critical theory, libertarian communism, Marxist-Hegelianism, utopian socialism, radical ecology, and anti-authoritarianism today.

The volume will be republished in paperback in a year’s time with Haymarket Books.

For review copies, please contact Anne Tilanus: reviews@brill.com

For author inquiries, contact jscastro@riseup.net

Extracts from “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism” by Loren Goldner

June 26, 2016

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The following are excerpts from Loren Goldner’s “Notes toward a Critique of Maoism.”  Goldner begins this essay quite rightly by stating that “Maoism is a variant of Stalinism.”  This charge becomes clear by examining Maoist China’s response to Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin in the 1956 speech at the Twentieth Soviet Congress; it is further supported by the bizarrely reactionary foreign-policy stances the Maoists took to oppose Soviet foreign policy after the falling-out regarding the questions of Stalinism and “revisionism.”

‘Khruschev’s 1956 speech is often referred to by later Maoists as the triumph of “revisionism” in the Soviet Union. The word “revisionism” is itself ideology run amok, since the main thing that was being “revised” was Stalinist terror, which the Maoists and Marxist-Leninists by implication consider to be the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” There were between 10 and 20 million people in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union in 1956, and presumably their release (for those who survived years of slave labor, often at the Arctic Circle) was part of “revisionism.” For the Maoists, the Khruschev speech is often also identified with the “restoration of capitalism,” showing how superficial their “Marxism” is, with the existence of capitalism being based not on any analysis of real social relationships but on the ideology of this or that leader […].

There was active but local combat between Chinese and Soviet forces along their mutual border in 1969 and, as a result, Mao banned all transit of Soviet material support to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, a ban which remained in effect until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Mao received US President Nixon in Beijing in early 1972, while the United States was raining bombs on North Vietnam […].

Already in 1965, the Chinese regime, based on its prestige as the center of “Marxist-Leninist” opposition to Soviet “revisionism” after the Sino-Soviet split, had encouraged the powerful Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) into a close alliance with Indonesia’s populist-nationalist leader, Sukarno. It was an exact repeat of the CCP’s alliance with Chiang kai-shek in 1927, and it ended the same way, in a bloodbath in which 600,000 PKI members and sympathizers were killed in fall 1965 in a military coup, planned with the help of US advisers and academics. Beijing said nothing about the massacre until 1967 (when it complained that the Chinese embassy in Jakarta had been stoned during the events). In 1971, China also openly applauded the bloody suppression of the Trotskyist student movement in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In the same year, it supported (together with the United States and against Soviet ally India), Pakistani dictator Yaya Khan, who oversaw massive repression in Bangladesh when that country (previously part of Pakistan) declared independence […].

This was merely the beginning of the bizarre turn of Maoist world strategy and Chinese foreign policy. The “main enemy” and “greater danger” was no longer the world imperialism centered in the United States, but Soviet “social imperialism.” Thus, when US-backed Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973, China immediately recognized Pinochet and hailed the coup. When South African troops invaded Angola in 1975 after Angolan independence under the pro-Soviet MPLA, China backed South Africa. During the Portuguese Revolution of 1974–75, the Maoist forces there reached out to the far right. Maoist currents throughout western Europe called for the strengthening of NATO against the Soviet threat. China supported Philippine dictator Fernando Marcos in his attempt to crush the Maoist guerrilla movements in that country […].

This bizarre ideological period finally ended in 1978–79, when China, now firmly an ally of the United States, attacked Vietnam and was rudely pushed back by the Vietnamese army under General Giap (of Dien Bien Phu fame). Vietnam, still allied with the Soviet Union, had occupied Cambodia to oust the pro-Maoist Khmer Rouge, who had taken over the country in 1975 and who went on to kill upward of one million people […].

The Shining Path group in Peru, which was similarly crushed by Fujimori, has made a steady comeback there, openly referring to such groups as the Cambodian Khmer Rouge as a model.’

Review – The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left

February 9, 2016

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First published on Marx and Philosophy, 8 February 2016

The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique
Mehring Books, Oak Park, Michigan, 2015. 320pp., $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781893638501

In his “Marxist Critique” of The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism, and The Politics of the Pseudo-Left, David North, a high-ranking member within the Trotskyist Fourth International, chairman of the U.S. Socialist Equality Party (SEP), and editor of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), reprints polemical essays (2003-2012) voicing the response of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to the heterodox theoretical suggestions made by fellow travelers Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner to incorporate greater concern for psychology, utopia, gender, and sexuality into the ICFI’s program. Whereas Steiner and Brenner sought to open the Fourth International to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Wilhelm Reich’s sex-pol approach, North repudiates any such suggestion as beyond the pale and plainly communicates his revulsion with the Frankfurt School as an alternative to Marxism-Leninism. To rationalize his dismissal of Critical Theory, he rather baselessly ties its legacy to the rise of postmodernist irrationalism. North essentially claims any left-wing intellectual “deviation” from the ICFI’s Trotskyism irredeemably to espouse “pseudo-left,” “petty bourgeois,” “anti-Marxist,” even “anti-socialist” politics. To sustain such fantasies, North presents a highly dishonest, even unhinged analysis of the Frankfurt School theorists and theories.

Starting in his Foreword (2015), North clarifies the association he sees among the “anti-materialist and anti-Marxist intellectual tendencies” represented by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and postmodernism, which for him converge to form the “pseudo-left” (v). North facilely groups the Frankfurt School theorists together with the thought of Nietzsche, Sorel, and postmodernists like Foucault, Laclau, and Badiou (vii). Centered on “race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference,” “pseudo-left” approaches have in North’s opinion “come to play a critical role in suppressing opposition to capitalism, by rejecting class […] and by legitimizing imperialist interventions and wars in the name of ‘human rights’” (vii). North cites SYRIZA (Greece) and “the remnants and descendants of the ‘Occupy’ movements influenced by anarchist and post-anarchist tendencies” as typifying “pseudo-leftism” (xxii). He then enumerates the following accusations against the “pseudo-left”:

  • that it rejects Marxism,
  • advances “subjective idealism and philosophical irrationalism” in place of historical materialism,
  • opposes class struggle and socialism,
  • denies the centrality of the proletariat and the need for revolution,
  • promotes identity politics,
  • and advances militarism and imperialism (xxii-xxiii, 205).

In his stentorian 2006 letter to Steiner and Brenner, “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consiousness,” North dismisses his counterparts’ attempts to “infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm Reich, Ernst Bloch, and Herbert Marcuse” into the ICFI’s program, and dismisses the sexual-psychological dimensions of Steiner’s concern for the development of socialist consciousness (24, 30). Almost in passing, in an attempt to discredit Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, North opportunistically claims that these thinkers supported Stalin’s Moscow Trials, yet no evidence is produced for such serious charges (44). North employs the same line against Bloch, who, unlike Adorno and Marcuse, admittedly was a Stalinist for some time: the author hypothesizes that Bloch’s utopianism “has something to do” with the “political swinishness” Bloch evinced during Stalin’s purges (44).

In this essay, North identifies communism as the culmination of Enlightenment materialism and rationalism, while dissociating Steiner and Brenner from Marxism altogether. In North’s words, these latter take after the “demoralized petty-bourgeois theorists of the Frankfurt School,” who for the SEP chairman are supposed to have rejected Marxism and the Enlightenment wholesale (64-9). Turning to a discussion of utopianism, the author indicates that “Utopia […] is not part of a Marxist program” (72, original emphasis). North argues that the relevance of utopia had been superseded even in Marx and Engels’ day (76-80). Yet tellingly, North boasts of Marx and Engels’ “brutally critical” approach toward “any tendency expressing a retreat from these theoretical conquests [they had made]” in the early years of international communism (80).

North then associates utopianism with idealism, presenting a deterministic account of the development of these philosophies, such that socialism remained “utopian” before the onset of industrial capitalism (82-4). He accuses Steiner and Brenner of resurrecting Bernstein’s reformism because Bernstein disagreed with Engels’ repudiation of utopianism, and of sympathizing with Kant due to their concern for morality (98-102).

The author then launches a tirade against Wilhelm Reich, whom he denounces for being “pessimistic” in his analysis of the rise of Nazism (Mass Psychology of Fascism [1933]), an account that challenges the inevitability of revolution under sexually repressive monopoly capitalism (113-21). Against Steiner’s recommendations, North clarifies that contemplation of Reich’s sex-pol “can only result in the worst forms of political disorientation” (114-5).

In “The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner” (2008), the ICFI’s response to Steiner and Brenner’s reply to “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness,” North expounds more invective against the Frankfurt School. Sketching his view of the affinities among Critical Theory, Marxist humanism, and the New Left’s “middle-class radicalism,” North explains his view of how such “pseudo-left” thinking has penetrated the academy: that is, through the efforts of the “ex-radicals” of the 1960s, who putatively propagated an “unrelenting war—not against capitalism, but, rather, against Marxism” (134). He proceeds to slanderously claim Critical Theory as being “grounded in a reactionary philosophical tradition—irrationalist, idealist, and individualistic” (140, emphasis added). Passing to comment on Steiner’s “apologetic defense” of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), North observes that his counterpart’s affirmation of Marcuse’s account cannot be separated from the critical theorist’s “rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class” (193-5). The author peremptorily concludes by reiterating the charge of “petty-bourgeois” ways of thinking—all the while counterposing the thought of Marx and Trotsky, who epitomized the petty bourgeoisie; of Engels the grand capitalist; and of Plekhanov and Lenin, Russian nobles.

In “The Theoretical and Historical Origins of the Pseudo-Left” (2012), North endorses the continued centrality of Trotsky’s concern for resolving the “historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” and dismisses accusations of state capitalism raised against the USSR (202-3, 206-7). North contrasts Trotsky’s structured vanguardism to the “petty-bourgeois despair” he sees Adorno and Max Horkheimer advancing in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947) (207-10). North asserts the revisionist repudiation of reason and the proletariat to be fundamental to the thought of Marcuse, Raya Dunayevskaya, and “countless anarchist, post-anarchist, and post-structuralist tendencies,” and he ties together Marcuse’s Freudianism with the “post-Marxist Left” that arose after 1968 (210-9). On North’s account, the affinity that the “petty-bourgeois” and “affluent” left has for heresies such as Critical Theory, post-Marxism, and even postmodernism putatively reflects its “hostility to the struggles of the working class” (219-20, emphasis in original).

Besides the centrality of ad hominem attacks within these “interventions” by North, one is struck that the essays in this volume actually contain only a handful of oblique references to Critical Theory. North offers no serious analysis of the Frankfurt School here. Instead, he resorts to slanderous character assassination and half-baked theories of guilt by association. The text often repeats the point either that Critical Theory is non-identical to Trotskyism and as such merits little attention, or that the Frankfurt School served as a major inspiration for postmodernism due to the challenges it raised against orthodox Marxism, and as such should be considered taboo. Both claims are nonsensical. Part of the issue, clearly, is North’s reduction of Marxism to Trotskyism, particularly that of the ICFI/SEP.

In assessing North’s account, one must firstly examine the author’s most inflammatory charge: that Adorno and Marcuse “went along” with the Moscow Trials (1936-1938). North provides no evidence for this accusation, though it is quoted without citation in WSWS writer Stefan Steinberg’s “Letter and reply on Theodor Adorno” (2009). North’s source for the accusation is a 1938 letter Adorno wrote to Horkheimer, identifying Hitler as a capitalist pawn who would soon attack the USSR, expressing his disappointment with the Moscow show trials and Soviet cultural policies, yet concluding that “the most loyal attitude to Russia at the moment is probably shown by keeping quiet” (Wiggershaus 162). This is not definitive proof of North’s charge. The allegation is belied by Adorno’s May 1938 letter to Walter Benjamin, commenting on a meeting with Hans Eisler: “I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of [Nikolai] Bukharin” (Claussen 237-8, emphasis added). Adorno’s biographer explains that Benjamin, Adorno, and Horkheimer all disagreed with Bloch’s support for the Moscow Trials (ibid). Thus is North’s charge against Adorno disarmed. And Marcuse? He mentions the trials in the 1968 preface to Negations: “The last time that freedom, solidarity, and humanity were the goals of a revolutionary struggle was on the battlefields of the Spanish civil war […]. The end of a historical period and the horror of the one to come were announced in the simultaneity of the civil war in Spain and the trials in Moscow” (Marcuse 1968, xv).

While this does not evidence Marcuse’s contemporary views of the Moscow Trials, it speaks for itself. I asked Peter Marcuse, Herbert’s son, what he thought of the accusation that his father had supported or “gone along” with the Moscow Trials: “That’s absurd. Though my father had identified tendencies within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that he felt intended to subvert the Soviet Constitution, he didn’t believe the Moscow Trials were the proper means of dealing with this” (personal conversation, 13 January 2016). North’s accusations against Adorno and Marcuse thus appear baseless.

Another clear issue is North’s conflation of Critical Theory with postmodernism—a gross distortion. While the critical theorists certainly challenged several fundamental points of orthodox Marxism, it is untrue that all of them rejected revolution and opposed class struggle and socialism, as postmodernists do. One cannot reasonably charge the libertarian-socialist revolutionists Marcuse and Benjamin with repudiating the Enlightenment or advancing “irrationalist […] and individualistic” politics.

Regarding the claim that Critical Theory rejects class struggle and the revolutionary role of the proletariat, it bears noting that the various members of the Frankfurt School differed on these questions and shifted their views over time. While Adorno generally disagreed with the historical-materialist view of the proletariat, the same is not true of Benjamin, Marcuse, or the young Horkheimer. Marcuse challenges Marx’s analysis of the proletariat when examining U.S. society in One-Dimensional Man (1964), but by the end of the same decade, he had jettisoned such pessimism. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), Marcuse clarifies his belief that the proletariat retains its revolutionary role, amidst the “historical power of the general strike and the factory occupation, of the red flag and the International” (Marcuse 1969, 51-3, 69).

For Adorno, the relationship with the proletariat is complex. In “Society,” one of his final essays, Adorno writes that “[s]ociety remains class struggle, today just as in the period when that concept originated” (Adorno, 272). This quote definitively illustrates the falsehood of North’s accusations and clearly delineates Critical Theory from postmodernism. Though Adorno is no syndicalist, given his decentering of the proletariat as world-historical subject, his negative-dialectical approach remains revolutionary, expanding the Marxian concern with exploitation and class society into an overarching anarchistic critique of domination. Class struggle thus is not “disappeared” in Adorno’s thought, or in Critical Theory, but rather forms one current within a confluence of generalized anti-systemic revolt.

References

Adorno, Theodor W. 1989. “Society,” in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner (eds), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge).

Claussen, Detlev 2010. Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1968. Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press).

Marcuse, Herbert 1969. An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press).

Wiggershaus, Rolf 1994. The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press)

Christian Socialism Arrayed against Capital’s Violence

February 4, 2016

Originally published on CNS Web, 3 February 2016

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Renowed critical pedagogist Peter McLaren’s newest text, Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), combines humanist and orthodox Marxism with Christian communism, democratic socialism, concrete utopianism, and anarchism to intransigently denounce the capitalist system’s relentless oppression of humanity and prosecution of zoöcide, or the wholesale destruction of life.

Underlying Pedagogy of Insurrection is the “Critical Rage Pedagogy” that McLaren marshals against the prevailing dominance of brutality and unreason, a four-movement cathartic symphonic play that is to be enacted by twelve actors who characteristically declare, “You [bourgeoisie and State] sicken us with your scandalous degradation of human life!” (McLaren, 400). This type of pedagogy echoes La Digna Rabia (“Dignified Rage”) of the Zapatistas and John Holloway’s concept of “The Scream”:

“All human and non-human animals inhabiting the planet have been stuffed stone-eyed into the vaults of capitalist social relations, a mausoleum of tortured beings writhing in the toxic vomit of the earth. We weep with all sentient beings […] (4).

“Ethical deficiency and logical contradiction are connected insofar as capitalism has dehumanized humanity and treated [it] as inert matter that can be swept under the toxic ruins of the world’s industrial wasteland” (26).

“Capitalism […] has strapped us to the slaughter bench of history, from which we must pry ourselves free” (67).

McLaren places Jesus the Nazarene centrally in his analysis of the depravity and crisis of capital. In the first place, the image of the suffering Christ stands in for exploited and excluded humanity and degraded nature, while secondly, the author stresses that socialist movements should consider Christ’s prophetic teachings on love and justice as “both apocalyptic warning and cause for joy in the possibility of redeeming the earth from ecocide and bringing about an alternative” to bourgeois society, thus realizing the regeneration of “risen beings in history” (13, 48).

The author refers to this “radical exterior” as the Kingdom of God, which is messianically proclaimed as being at hand, though not yet fully revealed. Christ, raised in the context of Bedouin communism, was the insurgent critic of Roman imperialism and class society, radically proclaiming the equality of all humans. These were acts for which he was politically imprisoned and crucified for sedition, and he both symbolizes and inspires McLaren’s perspective (103-26). As the prophet declares at the synagogue in Nazareth at the outset of his ministry,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel [good news] to the poor; he hath anointed me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, […] to set at liberty the oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4: 18-19).

Like Jesus two millennia ago, the revolutionaries of today have “a new era to proclaim” (McLaren, 124). McLaren defines the present project of critical pedagogy as calling into question the sense that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) to “inequality, injustice and suffering among humans and non-human animals” while working to build an “anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist, and pro-democratic” movement instituting “counter-hegemonic globalization” (35-9, 154).

Invoking Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, and his mentor Paulo Freire, McLaren explains the centrality of conscientization to critical pedagogy, which “invites students to understand everyday life from the perspective of those who are the most powerless in our society,” toward the end of transforming these very inequalities (141). Amidst the structural genocide that is global capital and the “future anterior” of ecological conflagration for which it is responsible, McLaren identifies the need to escape from the rule of the bourgeois “world-eater” as a categorical imperative (67).

Some of the images and means of resistance McLaren advocates include struggle by Giorgio Agamben’s “non-state” (humanity), the Gramscian “war of position,” Raya Duyanevskaya’s permanent revolution and “absolute negativity,” the ecological general strike called for by the Industrial Workers of the World’s Environmental Union Caucus (IWW-EUC), and the general unification of workers, peasants, intellectuals, and activists (92, 102).

Yet, while the author expresses his solidarity with anti-authoritarian youth of today, the “heirs to Spartacus, the Paris Commune, the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, the Zapatistas, and the sans-culottes,” he also expresses his belief that Chavista “twenty-first century socialism” represents the best example of contemporary revolutionary struggle, in light of Hugo Chavez’ efforts to promote councils, cooperatives, and worker self-management in Venezuela, and the State’s successes in reducing poverty in that country (133, 175-8).

McLaren focuses his attention on developing a “revolutionary critical ecopedagogy” in the essay “Seeds of Resistance.” Here, he writes that ecopedagogy is rooted in working-class ecological struggle and the “environmentalism of the poor,” as expressed in such “spaces of hope” as the Chipko forest movement and Cherán, Michoacán (301, 316-7). The author emphasizes the relevance of the Marxian critique of political economy to an understanding of the accelerating ecological crisis, and, with an eye to the urgent question of the timeframe for possibly averting utter environmental self-destruction, calls on ecopedagogical activists to link efforts with existing decolonial efforts “of all kinds” to redirect the course to “living hell” toward which capital is propelling us (306, 315-6).

In a similarly moving fashion, McLaren and co-authors Lilia D. Monzó and Arturo Rodriguez denounce the transnational arms-trade racket in U.S. and Mexico, which upholds the military, police, and privilege, leaving in its wake the destruction of countless tens and even hundreds of thousands of lives, who are reduced to “expendable communities” or “unpeople,” the latter being historian Mark Curtis’ term. While U.S. inner-cities are devastated by gun violence and a quarter-million small arms are trafficked to Mexican cartels annually, thus perpetuating ongoing conditions of civil war, “the feral, vampire-like gun capitalists laugh all the way to the bank” (359-67).

The solution to such depravity and tragedy, conclude McLaren, Monzó, and Rodriguez, is to construct an anti-capitalist alternative—“Peace through socialism!”—and though they “denounce guns and all destruction of humanity,” they do not preach strict non-violence going forward (370, 415).

Insurrection—for Libertarian or Authoritarian Socialism?

In Pedagogy of Insurrection, McLaren makes a cogent, clarion call for upending the capitalist system through ubiquitous forms of multitudinous resistance—a globalized Marcusean “Great Refusal”—and for this certainly merits a great deal of praise. Yet certain questions bear raising in reflecting on the author’s presentation.

As Peter Hudis notes in his review of the text, for example, McLaren does not discuss or even really acknowledge the contradiction of “Bolivarian petro-socialism” in Venezuela. It remains highly questionable to claim that “Chávez followed the principle of buen vivir”—that is, an indigenous Andean concept, Sumak Kawsay, that espouses human well-being in harmony with nature, not the Marxist development of the productive forces—during his tenure (178). In “Comrade Chávez,” McLaren admittedly concedes Bolivarianism to essentially be social democracy, but he insists it could somehow become a revolutionary prelude to post-capitalism (174-5).

Similarly ideological treatment of the “socialist” governments of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa in Bolivia and Ecuador, respectively, is to be found within the text as well (92-4). No comment is made about the manifest contradiction between these two leaders enshrining constitutional protections for Pachamama while greatly accelerating extractivism.

In parallel, McLaren presents Che Guevara as an egalitarian, anti-bureaucratic militant, thus hiding the Argentine’s Stalinism from view—indeed, he defends Che against the charge of having “fallen prey to the most regressive manifestations of romanticism,” i.e. “Blanquist or Bakuninist form[s] of adventurism” (218). While it is questionable indeed to associate Bakunin with historical regression, it bears stressing that tensions clearly exist between McLaren’s declared affinity for Che Guevara, the advocate of hatred and State terror, and Jesus Christ, who favored non-violent forms of non-cooperation, according to the Gospels.

Pedagogy of Insurrection, in a sense, speaks to the ambiguity of McLaren’s insurgent political philosophy. The author describes himself as a revolutionary Marxist, a Roman Catholic socialist, and a critic of the state capitalism of the USSR (111-2). But as we have seen, he defends the social-democratic Latin American governments associated with the “Pink Tide.”

In the book’s coda, “Critical Rage Pedagogy,” he expresses his desire for a “counter-hegemonic state,” while earlier he affirms the value of the dictatorship of the proletariat (396, 315). Part of his attraction to Che is due to the “hope [Guevara gave] that smashing the old state and creating a new one is still a possibility” (216).

In terms of environmental sociology, moreover, the sources McLaren calls on—Álvaro García Linera, John Bellamy Foster, and Samir Amin—are associated with the authoritarian socialism of Monthly Review, while Murray Bookchin and social ecology are mentioned but once in the text, in passing (71, 94). Yet, as mentioned above, McLaren also hails the revolutionary anarchist call made by the IWW-EUC for an ecological general strike, and he locates the essence of the Russian Revolution in popular self-management through the soviets, not Bolshevik hegemony over the State apparatus (125).

The most faithful expression of his views, perhaps, comes in the synthesis he proposes while raging: “We stand firm for a multi-tendency revolutionary democracy that advocates direct forms of mass-rule” (425). As he explains:

“Critical educators must take a stand, working for political or direct democracy, for the direct control of the political system by citizens, for economic democracy, for the ownership and direct control of economic resources by the citizen body, for democracy in the social realm by means of self-management of educational institutions and workplaces, and for the ecological justice that will enable us to reintegrate society into nature” (432).

Anarchism or inclusive democracy remain the goal, then, and while McLaren sees anarchistic methods of organization as important means of overcoming capitalism, the State is apparently another such means for him, too. McLaren thus melds the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO), and Chavismo. Indeed, summarizing his program, McLaren tells us to “[t]hink Zapatismo and Bolivarianismo!” (432). To an extent, such a call overlooks the fact that these political philosophies are at odds with one another regarding the State, which does not so easily “wither away.” McLaren’s Christianity itself also contradicts statism, for, as Tolstoy observed, religion “in its true sense puts an end to the State,” as Christians are to be bound by the divine law of love (agape) rather than allegiance to any authority: “It even seems ridiculous to speak of Christians ruling” (The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Peace Essays, trans. Aylmer Maude, London: Oxford University Press, 1960: 281, 289).

Furthermore, where is McLaren’s commentary on the history of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), or the First International, which saw a split between Marxists and anarchists on the very question of the State? We have already seen that McLaren rejects “Bakuninist adventurism,” whatever that is supposed to mean—though it should be said here that Bakunin stood much more consistently for direct democracy and popular self-management than did his centralist rival Marx. World history, indeed, would likely have turned out much differently if the father of historical materialism had not expelled Bakunin from the First International, leading the anarchist sections to abandon the IWMA for the Jura Federation and the Anti-Authoritarian International instead. Rather than “Zapatismo and Bolivarianismo,” I would prefer to think of “Zapatismo and Magonismo,” or simply “Zapatismo and Anarquismo.” ¡Tierra y Libertad!

Conclusion

McLaren has produced an exceptional volume espousing insurrection from numerous different pedagogical vantage points: historical, geographical, dramaturgical, political, economic, and ecological, among others.

His eclectic philosophical mix incorporating radical Christianity, Marxist humanism, democratic socialism, and anarchism allows for the inclusion of a wide-ranging constellation of movements and figures who have adopted standpoints of resistance to the thanotic and zoöcidal capital-State system—though not without tensions among these worldviews, which conflict to some degree with each other.

In one of the interviews published in the volume, McLaren pointedly asks, “But how to envision a new beginning? That is the challenge of our times” (251). Pedagogy of Insurrection represents a critical contribution to addressing this challenge, one that makes present the “incandescent beauty” of the world, the importance of love, and the possibility of beyond (126)—the dominion of destructiveness notwithstanding.

John Bellamy Foster: “The Great Capitalist Climacteric”

November 6, 2015
Ongoing Indonesian fires clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

Ongoing Indonesian fires, worsened by this year’s El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), are clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

This is a link to John Bellamy Foster’s new essay on “The Great Capitalist Climacteric: Marxism and ‘System Change not Climate Change,'” published in the November 2015 issue of Monthly Review.  While we disagree with Foster’s endorsement of Naomi Klein’s criticism of capitalism–in the sense, that is, that Klein is not in fact critical of capitalism as such, as Paul Street discusses–and do not accept the MR editor’s defense of “second-stage ecosocialism,” which distorts Karl Marx’s record on industrialism, Prometheanism, and the domination of nature, the issues of climate destruction and exterminism are self-evidently severe enough to merit reproduction of the analysis and recommendations Foster sets forth this month.

‘The 2°C “guardrail” officially adopted by world governments in Copenhagen in 2009 is meant to safeguard humanity from plunging into what prominent UK climatologist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change has called “extremely dangerous” climate change. Yet, stopping carbon emissions prior to the 2°C boundary, Anderson tells us, will at this point require “revolutionary change to the political economic hegemony,” going against the accumulation of capital or economic growth characteristics that define the capitalist system. More concretely, staying within the carbon budget means that global carbon emissions must at present be cut by around 3 percent a year, and in the rich countries by approximately 10 percent per annum—moving quickly to zero net emissions (or carbon neutrality). For an “outside chance” of staying below 2°C, Anderson declared in 2012, the rich (OECD, Annex I) countries would need to cut their emissions by 70 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030.

Yet, despite the widespread awareness of the planetary emergency represented by global warming, carbon emissions have continued to rise throughout the world. The failure of capitalism to implement the necessary cuts in carbon dioxide can be explained by the threat that this poses to its very existence as a system of capital accumulation. As a result civilization is faced by a threat of self-extermination that over the long run is as great as that posed by a full nuclear exchange—and in a process that is more inexorable. The present reality of global capitalism makes it appear utopian to call for a revolutionary strategy of “System Change Not Climate Change.” But the objective of stopping climate change leaves the world with no other option, since avoiding climate-change disaster will be even more difficult—and may prove impossible—if the global population does not act quickly and decisively.

[…] conventional thought, with only minor exceptions, has virtually no serious social scientific analysis on which to rely in confronting today’s Great Capitalist Climacteric. Those who swallow whole the notion that there is no future beyond capitalism are prone to conclude—in defiance of the facts—that the climate crisis can be mitigated within the present system. It is this social denialism of liberal-left approaches to the climate crisis, and of the dominant social science, that led Naomi Klein to declare in This Changes Everything that “the right is right” in viewing climate change as a threat to capitalism. The greatest obstacle before us, she insists, is not the outright denialism of the science by the far right, but rather the social denialism of the dominant liberal discourse, which, while giving lip service to the science, refuses to face reality and recognize that capitalism must go.16

If conventional social science is crippled at every point by corrupt adherence to a prevailing class reality, the postmodern turn over the last few decades has generated a left discourse that is just as ill-equipped to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric. Largely abandoning historical analysis (grand narratives) and the negation of the negation—that is, the idea of a revolutionary forward movement—the left has given way to extreme skepticism and the deconstruction of everything in existence, constituting a profound “dialectic of defeat.”17

Although some hope is to be found in the Green theory or “ecologism” that has emerged in the context of the environmental movement, such views are typically devoid of any secure moorings within social (or natural) science, relying on neo-Malthusian assumptions coupled with an abstract ethical orientation that focuses on the need for a new, ecocentric world-view aimed at protecting the earth and other species.18 The main weakness of this new ecological conscience is the absence of anything remotely resembling “the confrontation of reason with reality,” in the form of a serious ecological and social critique of capitalism as a system.19 Abstract notions like growth, industrialism, or consumption take the place of investigations into the laws of motion of capitalism as an economic and social order, and how these laws of motion have led to a collision course with the Earth system.

It is therefore the socialist tradition, building on the powerful foundations of historical materialism—and returning once more to its radical foundations to reinvent and re-revolutionize itself—to which we must necessarily turn in order to find the main critical tools with which to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric and the problem of the transition to a just and sustainable society.’

In his conclusion, Foster also sets forth strategic recommendations, particularly with regard to a “two-stage theory” of transition that incorporates an “ecodemocratic” and then “ecosocialist” phase.  His characterization of the former phase bears reproduction here:

‘In the ecodemocratic phase, the goal would be to carry out those radical reforms that would arrest the current destructive logic of capital, by fighting for changes that are radical, even revolutionary, in that they go against the logic of capital, but are nonetheless conceivable as concrete, meaningful forms of struggle in the present context. These would include measures like: (1) an emergency plan of reduction in carbon emissions in the rich economies by 8–10 percent a year; (2) implementing a moratorium on economic growth coupled with radical redistribution of income and wealth, conservation of resources, rationing, and reductions in economic waste; (3) diverting military spending, now universally called “defense spending” to the defense of the planet as a place of human habitation; (4) the creation of an alternative energy infrastructure designed to stay within the solar budget; (5) closing down coal-fired plants and blocking unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands oil; (6) a carbon fee and dividend system of the kind proposed by Hansen, that would redistribute 100 percent of the revenue to the population on a per capita basis; (7) global initiatives to aid emerging economies to move toward sustainable development; (8) implementation of principles of environmental justice throughout the society and linking this to adaptation to climate change (which cannot be stopped completely) to ensure that people of color, the poor, women, indigenous populations, and third world populations do not bear the brunt of catastrophe; and (9) adoption of climate negotiations and policies on the model proposed in the Peoples’ Agreement on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010. Such radical change proposals can be multiplied, and would need to effect all aspects of society and individual human development. The rule in the ecodemocratic phase of development would be to address the epochal crisis (ecological and economic) in which the world is now caught, and to do so in ways that go against the logic of business as usual, which is indisputably leading the world toward cumulative catastrophe.’

Foster’s close is as bleak as it is true:

‘In 1980, the British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson wrote a cautionary essay for New Left Review entitled “Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilization.” Although directed particularly at the growth of nuclear arsenals and the dangers of global holocaust from a nuclear exchange in the final phase of the Cold War, Thompson’s thesis was also concerned with the larger realm of ecological destruction wrought by the system. Rudolf Bahro later commented on Thompson’s ideas in his Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster, explaining: “To express the exterminism-thesis in Marxist terms, one could say that the relationship between productive and destructive forces is turned upside down. Marx had seen the trail of blood running through it, and that ‘civilisation leaves deserts behind it.’”63 Today this ecologically ruinous trend has been extended to the entire planet with capitalism’s proverbial “creative destruction” being transformed into a destructive creativity endangering humanity and life in general.64 […]

Turning this economics of exterminism around, and creating a more just and sustainable world at peace with the planet is our task in the Great Capitalist Climacteric. If we cannot accomplish this humanity will surely die with capitalism.’

Review of Robert Lanning’s In the Hotel Abyss, by Ignacio Guerrero

June 29, 2015

hotel abyss

Published by Ignacio Guerrero on Heathwood Press, 25 June 2015

,
“What is negative is ne
gative until it has passed.”

– Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

In his newly published In the Hotel Abyss, Robert Lanning presents an Hegelian-Marxist critique of Theodor W. Adorno, the famous twentieth-century critical theorist, aesthetician, and musicologist. In the work’s title and content, Lanning reiterates and expands György Lukács’ charge that Adorno and other like-minded contemporary German philosophers had effectively followed the pessimistic example of Arthur Schopenhauer and metaphorically taken up residence in the “Grand Hotel Abyss,” which affords its guests “the daily sight of the abyss between the leisurely enjoyment of meals or works of art,” thus “enhanc[ing their] pleasure in this elegant comfort.”1 With his colleague Max Horkheimer, Adorno’s predecessor as director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt (also known as the Frankfurt School) and his writing partner for Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), “Teddy” shares a common theoretical inspiration emanating from Marxism, as reflected in the profound critique he advances of bourgeois social relations, yet he largely rejects the “positive” moment of historical materialism, which foresees the birth of communism through global proletarian uprisings, the “parliamentary road to socialism,” or some combination of the two.

In this sense, Adorno almost merits the accusation of having advanced the paradoxical concept of a “Marxism without the proletariat.” The very opening of his last work, Negative Dialectics (1966), is illustrative in this sense: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” For Adorno the leftist German Jew, the “attempt to change the world miscarried.” If one reflects even for a moment on the vast atrocities and historical errors that marred the twentieth century, the latter claim here cited would certainly be justified—but then one asks, what next? Why the sense that history has ended—that the chance for social revolution or even relative improvement has been “missed,” never to return? Can there be no rebirth of rebellion? Lanning is right to stress that Adorno’s politics are not especially helpful as regards reconstructive anti-systemic action, or praxis. Hence, a palpable conflict can be seen between the constant demand Adorno’s political philosophy makes for negation, following Hegel’s example, and his practical suggestion that corrective action is useless and revolution inconceivable, amidst the putatively “absolute power of capitalism.”2

Lanning argues that Adorno’s political philosophy, though highly critical of capitalism and authority, is excessively negative: his view is that it can be summarized as amounting to “unfettered negativity” (172). Lanning denounces Adorno’s seemingly wholesale rejection of the actuality or even potentiality of proletarian resistance and the development of anti-capitalist and anti-systemic alternatives, in light of the established power of monopoly capitalism and its culture industries. In Adorno’s presentation, as is known, the working-class majorities of capitalist societies are reduced to thoughtless “masses,” both colonized by and integrated into capitalism—supposedly willingly, on this account. Lanning posits that such a point of view leads Adorno inexorably to adopt an “essentially […] defeatist perspective”: “to him the class struggle was already lost” (18, 25). Having repudiated the positive and practical aspects of historical materialism, Adorno concerned himself with specializing in high art and writing in an exceedingly inaccessible style—as in the image of the Grand Hotel Abyss, indeed—and his few forays into social studies suffer from significant methodological problems, in Lanning’s view. Above all, as Lanning emphasizes, Adorno’s theory of social change is basically non-existent, and the sparse work he focuses on this question rather problematic. Overall, the author of In the Hotel Abyss is concerned that Adorno’s readers are left dialectically disempowered, even subject to despair, as they contemplate the vast depravity of capitalism and the lack of resistance to the system that Adorno observes, and upon which he concentrates.

This new volume certainly presents many compelling criticisms of Adorno’s lifework, particularly with regard to the philosopher’s elitism and political aloofness—manifestations, to be sure, of his disregard for the unification of theory and praxis, or his doubts even about the possibility of such—and for this reason merits a great deal of consideration, discussion, and debate. Adorno’s philosophical system had many shortcomings, and Lanning helpfully illuminates a number of the most important ones. Yet some of the critique presented In The Hotel Abyss of the philosopher also reproduces Adorno’s own penchant for exaggeration, overlooking the real contributions he made and continues to make to anti-capitalist struggle.

In the Hotel Abyss: Challenging Adorno

Lanning’s critique of Adorno is at its most incisive in terms of the challenge it presents to those who may hold the critical theorist actually to have been left-wing or revolutionary. The evident disconnect between theory and practice highlighted by Lanning in Adorno’s case is notorious. Like Horkheimer, Adorno favored the total overcoming of bourgeois society—its
determinate negation, taking from Hegel’s dialectical method. Yet he dedicated exceedingly little of his intellectual life-work to theorizing about political action or change, and even less to concretely organizing against the system. While he is well-known for his radical critique of capital, as elaborated perhaps most systematically in Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (1951), Adorno doubtlessly errs in holding dialectical contradiction to come to be effectively arrested within the Iron Cage of monopoly capitalism. Speculatively, Lanning hypothesizes that the theorist’s self-assuredness on this point serves precisely as a means of ignoring the very “working class outside Adorno’s door” (11). Admittedly, the absence of discussion about class struggle or revolutionary political action of any sort in Adorno’s oeuvre is evident, and glaring. Lanning suggests that Adorno would do well to reconsider Hegel, who defined the dialectic fundamentally as movement and development, as in the image of the seed and the blossoming flower or fruit. “Where Adorno sees the acquiescence of the masses to the immediate environment he should also see […] the possibilities for developing the individual’s relation to such powers [of capital] and the possible alternatives in the face of it” (36).

From these legitimate points, Lanning proceeds to take issue with Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics for being too radical, or too demanding: the charge is that Adorno’s critical negativism lends itself to an approach which overlooks the necessary intermediary steps between prevailing conformist resignation and the possible emancipated futures. Adorno “reject[s …] any behavior that appears to be positively oriented to the appearance of advancement, progress, partial resolution or sublation of contradictions” (46). Nothing “short of the complete negativity and annihilation of existing conditions” will do for Adorno. Lanning relates his complaint here about the theorist’s effective ultra-leftism to his claim that Adorno adheres metaphorically to the Jewish Bilderverbot, or the ban on images of the divine, as a negative theology which denies the possibility of something different. He further argues that Adorno’s employment of the Bilderverbot marks a distinct break from the Messianism of Judaism and the Jewish socialist tradition. However, it could be argued instead that Adorno’s use of the Bilderverbot illustrates the very revolutionism of his dialectical method, which must remain negative until global capitalist society is overthrown. On this point, in fact, it would seem more than a bit perplexing to accuse Adorno of being insufficiently messianic or utopian. One need only consult the finale to Minima Moralia:

Knowledge has no light but that that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.3

Violating this liberatory messianic sense, nonetheless, Adorno took a rather problematic view of jazz—one that is consistent with his analysis of the hegemonic culture industries, yet reflective of chauvinism and even racism as well. For Adorno, who first encountered the new musical style in Germany before the fall of the Weimar Republic to Nazism (1933) and his forced exile the next year, jazz was “perennial fashion”: supposedly standardized, commodified, and expressive of pseudo-individuality, jazz on Adorno’s account reproduces the subjectification of the masses through diversion, gratification, and integration. Clearly, Adorno did not associate the development of jazz with its African ethnomusical origins, or seem to have much of any familiarity with its relationship to the historical experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. For him, instead, it was an affirmative musical form that in practice served European fascism, particularly in Italy and Germany. Consideration of this viewpoint can help explain Adorno’s disturbing comments in “Farewell to Jazz,” an essay written in response to the ban imposed on jazz and all other expressions of “Negro culture” in Thuringia state following the Nazi accession to power there in 1930. In this piece, Adorno declares characteristically that, “no matter what one wishes to understand about white or Negro jazz, there is nothing to salvage.”4

Rather self-evidently, then, Adorno’s take on jazz is shocking: to portray it as an affirmation of subordination and alienation and thus ignore its historical and ethnographical context is at best to provide a very partial picture, or indeed to openly declare one’s distinct lack of sympathy with the struggles of Black people—that is to say, one’s racism. On this point, Adorno surely merits all the criticism he has received, and more. Furthermore, Lanning makes the important point that to merely dismiss jazz or any other musical style out of hand for the mere fact of its being commodified on the market is to overlook the very real dialectical possibilities that music can have as regards the emergence and expression of attitudes critical of existing power-relations. Lanning’s analysis is similar in terms of Adorno’s research on radio broadcasts in U.S. society, carried out at Princeton University following his emigration to the U.S. in 1938: the refugee intellectual either was not knowledgeable of the extensive contemporary use of the radio to promote the causes of labor and racial equality in his new host country, or did not believe such alternative programming to bear mentioning, in light of the dominance of the capitalist monster.

Additionally, in parallel, Lanning subjects Adorno’s research on authoritarianism and fascist propaganda to critical review. Overseen by Adorno, The Authority Personality (1950) in its methodology and design followed the first study from the Frankfurt School into the political attitudes of German workers during Weimar, as directed by Erich Fromm in 1931. This previous study was never published, due to its politically negative conclusions: it anticipated that the majority of German workers could be expected to go along with Nazism if it came to power, with small minorities being either strongly pro-Nazi or strongly anti-fascist.5 In a similar way, Adorno and company were motivated to examine the psychological potential for fascism in U.S. society, both by investigating it descriptively, as by theorizing its causes, with the activist end of inhibiting its advance. The resulting study, based on interviews with about 2000 formally educated, white, middle-class men and women mostly from northern California, was conducted by presenting participants with questionnaires such as the Anti-Semitism (A-S) Scale, the Ethnocentrism (E) Scale, the Politico-Economic Conservatism (PEC) Scale, and the Fascism (F) Scale. Dividing the results into a bimodal distribution of high-scoring or prejudiced persons and low-scoring or relatively unprejudiced individuals, the study’s authors take heart in their findings that the majority of participants did not betray extreme ethnocentrism. Yet Lanning calls into question the external validity of The Authoritarian Personality, or its statistical generalizability across society as a whole, by noting that Jews and trade-unionists were excluded from participation, to say nothing of people of color. Presumably, a more diverse study sample could have yielded even greater anti-authoritarian conclusions.

Lanning also shows how Adorno’s investigations into the radio broadcasts of U.S. fascist agitator Martin Luther Thomas—investigations that have been considered innovative, given the theorist’s social-psychological conclusion that fascism advances not just through elite manipulation of the people, but also (and perhaps moreso) through working-class or “mass” complicity—themselves converge with the projected situation Thomas praises: that is, that “large sectors of the population” are sympathetic to fascism due to their putative mindlessness and brutalization in labor (133). Lanning here identifies an unfortunate and revealing affinity between Adorno’s conclusions and the irrationalist hopes of pro-fascist agitators: the view that rationality is possible only for a small sector of the population. This insightful point notwithstanding, the author does not in good faith acknowledge that Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality expressly seek to promote reason as a counter-move to the fascist threat.

Lanning is nevertheless correct in identifying the principal methodological problem in Adorno’s account of fascism as being the theorist’s systematic exclusion from consideration of the proletarian, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements actively raging around him, first in Germany and then in the U.S. Adorno does not discuss or ever seem to mention the hundreds of street-battles between the German Social Democrats’ self-defense group, the Reichsbanner, and the German Communist Party’s “Proletarian Hundreds” against the Nazi SA in the years before 1933,6 nor did he dedicate much of any attention to struggles for racial equality during his exile in the U.S. (1938-1945). One wonders how Adorno the radical could have overlooked the latter, having lived years in Harlem on Morningside Heights before his wartime move to Los Angeles. For Lanning, then, much of what Adorno claimed regarding authoritarianism was based on little more than “imagery” and self-serving “esotericism”; worst of all, it has functioned to “denigrate the legitimacy of working-class politics by ignoring [them], thus affirming the non-existence of an historical agent for socialism” (150). The author of In the Hotel Abyss identifies Adorno’s sometimes-colleague Ernst Bloch as a more insightful commentator on these matters, given the latter’s view that, however acquiescent the “masses” may be with capital and authority at any given time, this situation should not be taken as final, but rather should be interpreted as a process that can dialectically be “disrupted and redirected,” as reflected in the Blochian concept of the “Not-Yet.”

Lanning’s concluding chapter focuses specifically on Negative Dialectics, and scrutinizes Adorno’s seemingly circular sociological argumentation. In essence, Lanning’s claim is that Adorno holds history’s dialectical dynamic to have been effectively strangled under late capitalism—hence the view imputed to Adorno that culture and consciousness cannot be other than what they are, and that psychological and material subordination within bourgeois society themselves reproduce capitalist domination. Lanning concludes that Adorno broke from the Marxist tradition and “chose to freeze the relations he observed as real […]. His position is that […] these are insurmountable conditions” (191-2). Though the author of In the Hotel Abyss concedes in passing that parts of Adorno’s critique of reified consciousness have merit, he notes that such criticism itself only reflects the alienation resulting from bourgeois society, and he reiterates the charge that Adorno presents no alternative—thus in fact yielding a significant regression in comparison with Marx’s communist method. In closing, Lanning returns to his chastisement of the critical theorist for the latter’s supposedly boundless negativity as well as his undifferentiated critique of “the masses,” which papers over distinctions in class and the division of labor, and he charges Adorno with limiting resistance to the life of the mind and imagination, as in German Idealism, rather than advancing radical political struggle, as materialism does.

Discussion: Negative Dialectics and Anti-Capitalism

Lanning clearly presents a number of serious charges against Adorno’s critical theory. This reviewer concedes that the philosopher’s essentially theoretical orientation is of little use for the political question of how to displace and possibly overthrow capital and authoritarianism, and the contempt Adorno often expressed in life for workers and common people is profoundly lamentable. Both of these negative aspects can be said to reflect Adorno’s considerable privilege, as the male child of a Jewish wine merchant and a Franco-German artist for whom labor was an unknown experience in youth and early adulthood. It would seem that Lanning has something of a point in hypothesizing that Adorno’s elitism perpetuated itself as a “career-building” experiment in “abstruseness” (13)—though Lanning’s claim that Adorno can justly be portrayed as the forerunner of postmodernism is less tenable, as this academic trend lacks the German theorist’s anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. In addition, Adorno’s highly insensitive and even implicitly racist comments on jazz speak for themselves, and may justly cause those encountering them to reject a thinker with whom they may share other affinities. Yet it would be wrong to hold Adorno to have been an ethnic chauvinist, as ethnocentrism is one of the main critical foci of The Authoritarian Personality. In Minima Moralia, Adorno identifies white supremacism as the basis not only of anti-Semitism and the Nazi death camps, but also the repression of people of color in the U.S.: “The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers […]. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom.”7 In this same work, as well, Adorno recalls a childhood memory which complicates the view that his critical theory is irredeemably anti-worker:

In early childhood I saw the first snow-shovellers in thin shabby clothes. Asking about them, I was told they were men without work who were given this job so that they could earn their bread. Serves them right, having to shovel snow, I cried out in rage, bursting uncontrollably into tears.8

Though this passage is ambiguous—it is unclear whether the young Adorno’s emotional reaction is directed against the workers themselves, the injustice they face, or the normalization of such oppression that is expected of him—it at the least shows sympathy for the cause of repudiating class inequality and the realm of necessity. In naturalistic and Freudian terms, moreover, it is significant that this experience took place early in Adorno’s personal development. Of course, the link between the sharing of this memory and a commitment to a concrete syndicalist program is tenuous in Adorno’s case. Similarly, to return to the question of race, one would be hard-pressed to find Adorno expressing support as a public intellectual for contemporary anti-racist and decolonization movements. While Adorno opposed the Vietnam War on a philosophical level, claiming it to carry on the genocidal specter of Auschwitz, he did little to concretely resist it, in contrast to radicals like Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. Meanwhile, the militant German student movement of the 1960s had arisen largely in response to the Vietnam War and the Federal Republic of Germany’s collaboration with its prosecution, as seen in the U.S. military’s utilization of West German air-bases. The student radicals’ demand that Adorno and Horkheimer publicly come out against the war was one of many that resulted in the conflict which ultimately led to the Institute director’s death on vacations in Switzerland in 1969.

Reading In the Hotel Abyss, it becomes clear how much Lanning dislikes Adorno’s negative-dialectical approach. This disapproval toward the Adornian system may in fact mirror a dismissal of the anti-authoritarianism of Adorno’s seemingly intransigent negativity. In what sense might this be the case? We have seen how Lanning repeatedly rebukes Adorno for his ultra-leftism—his “position […] that capitalism must be completely defeated in all its aspects before the possibility of meaningful change can be considered” (208). One wonders if Lanning realizes he is chastising Adorno here for being faithful to the young Marx’s admonition to engage in the “ruthless criticism of all things existing.” Lanning’s argument against Adorno is thus more than a bit reminiscent of Lenin’s designation of “left-wing communism”—that is, anarchism or syndicalism—as an “infantile disorder”: consider the author’s rejection of Fromm’s designation of expressed political sympathy for Lenin as an historical figure as reflecting an “authoritarian” rather than “radical” attitude within the study on workers in Weimar Germany (144n12). The resort to Lukács for the title and spirit of the work is also telling, given that, while Adorno the unattached intellectual is subjected to critique—no doubt, to repeat, much of it merited—Lukács the advocate of Party Socialism is not.

A fundamental point within Lanning’s argument that bears reconsideration is the author’s very presentation of Adorno’s putatively unrelenting negativity. In his discussions of Bloch and Walter Benjamin, Lanning seeks to depict considerable differences between them and Adorno, when in fact all three held similar political and philosophical views, and greatly influenced one another. While it may be true that Adorno is overall more negative than these two, there certainly are a few positive moments in his oeuvre which anticipate the possibilities of a post-revolutionary society. In his final work, Adorno defines the “objective goal” of dialectics as being the task of “break[ing] out of the context from within.” Further, “[i]t lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.”9 Here, at the conclusion of Negative Dialectics, Adorno posits a vision that is heterotopic to Lanning’s account. Criticizing Schopenhauer’s fatalism and other Kafka-esque manifestations of the belief that the world is irrevocably absurd, Adorno makes the following observations:

However void every trace of otherness in it, however much all happiness is marred by irrevocability: in the breaks that belie identity, entity is still pervaded by the everbroken pledges of that otherness. All happiness is but a fragment of the entire happiness [humans] are denied, and are denied by themselves […].

What art, notably the art decried as nihilistic, says in refraining from judgments is that everything is not just nothing. If it were, whatever is would be pale, colorless, indifferent. No light falls on [humans] and things without reflecting transcendence. Indelible from the resistance to the fungible world of barter is the resistance of the eye that does not want the colors of the world to fade.10


This utopian underside of Adorno’s thought is similarly expressed in Minima Moralia, where the philosopher presents the following images as an alternative for the possible communist future: “Rien faire comme une bête [Doing nothing, like an animal], lying on the water and looking peacefully into the heavens—’being, nothing else, without any further determination and fulfillment’—might step in place of process, doing, fulfilling, and so truly deliver the promise of dialectical logic, of culminating in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to the fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.”11 Thus we see the selectivity of Lanning’s charge of Adorno’s “endless negativity” (208), and the inaccuracy of the claim that Adorno adhered entirely to the Bilderverbot. In this sense, it is unfortunate as well that Lanning ignores Adorno’s 1969 essay on “Resignation,” which was written in response to the criticisms raised precisely by Lukács and the radical student movement against Adorno and the Institute for Social Research. In this momentous intervention, Adorno defends autonomous thought as resistance and praxis: “the uncompromisingly critical thinker […] is in truth the one who does not give in. Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway.” As the “universal tendency of oppression is opposed to thought as such,” the “happiness that dawns in the eye of the thinking person is the happiness of humanity,” and whoever has not let her thought atrophy “has not resigned.”12

Whether one accepts Adorno’s defense of the prioritization of theory over action here or not, consideration of this essay and the other positive dialectical images mentioned above problematizes Lanning’s characterization of Adorno’s thought as being entirely negative. Incidentally, Lanning himself almost unconsciously recognizes this at the outset of his discussion of Negative Dialectics, which he presents as demanding a “second” negation to follow the insufficiently radical “first” negation of capitalism—the Soviet Union, say, or social democracy. Lanning then proceeds to write that the Hegelian “negation of negation” amounts to a “positive moment” (174), but he chooses not to connect Adorno’s thought to this point. On this matter, in point of fact, Adorno’s finale to Minima Moralia bears revisiting: “consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite.”13 From this perspective, the dialectical interplay between the fallenness of bourgeois society and its envisioned inversion in Adorno’s system comes to be seen as having subversive and even hopeful rather than quietistic implications.

The present review will end by raising an important problem in Adorno’s thought that Lanning points to but does not sufficiently develop: the problem of false consciousness and social determination, or who it is that determines social reality. Lanning argues that Adorno’s account of worker or “mass” acceptance of fascism and capitalism represents an exercise in victim-blaming. In Negative Dialectics and other works, Adorno does note that humanity is effectively imprisoned by the system which it reproduces and upholds—in an echo of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, a concept the transcendental Idealist describes as being inhibited by humanity’s “self-imposed immaturity,” which results from “indecision and lack of courage.” Lanning picks up on this, claiming Adorno to have viewed proletarian conformism as willful. While this charge against Adorno is partly true, as far as it goes, it is also too quick, in that it offers no alternative means of thinking through the observed problem of proletarian integration into capitalist society, and how this might be resisted and overcome. Certainly, a great deal of coercion goes into the reproduction of class society, as Adorno recognizes: “Proletarian language is dictated by hunger.”14 Yet one should not simply hold the capitalist game to proceed through the duping of the workers—for such a view removes the personal and collective agency of the subordinated, and all practical possibility of achieving something different. The present discussion on this complicated matter will close here, though the reviewer firstly should like to mention that autonomous Marxism has tried to address these issues in creative ways, in an echo of Étienne de la Boétie’s innovative Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (1548), and lastly to emphasize that the interrelated problems of conformism and bourgeois destructiveness retain all of their acuity in the present day, nearly a half-century after Adorno’s passing.

1 György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 243.

2 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1982), 120.

3 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), §153 (emphasis added).

4 Theodor W. Adorno, “Farewell to Jazz,” in Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 496.

5 Erich Fromm and Michael Maccoby, Social Character in a Mexican Village (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970), 23-30.

6 M. Testa, Militant Anti-Fascism: 100 Years of Resistance (Oakland: AK Press, 2015), 53-84.

7 Adorno, Minima Moralia, §68.

8 Ibid §122.

9 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (Routledge: London, 1973 [1966]), 406.

10 Ibid 403-5 (emphasis added).

11 Adorno, Minima Moralia §100.

12 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 289-93.

13 Adorno, Minima Moralia §153.

14 Ibid §65.

At the 2015 NYC Anarchist Bookfair: Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin

April 12, 2015

MAB MAB poster 1-1

I will be speaking at this year’s New York City Anarchist Bookfair (NYC ABF), this Saturday, 18 April, at 3:30pm in the New School.  The topic of my comments will be “Marcuse and Bakunin, Magón and Benjamin: Investigating Mutual Affinities.”  I hope to see you there!  A description follows:

“This talk will examine the close affinities among four important historical radicals, half of them renowned anarchists from Russia and Mexico—Mikhail Bakunin and Ricardo Flores Magón, respectively—and the other half German critical theorists: Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. The similarities between Marcuse and Bakunin on the one hand and Magón and Benjamin on the other are striking, in terms of philosophy, revolutionary commitment, and biographies. Marcuse and Bakunin share a common passion for Hegelian dialectics, the radical negation of the status quo, and the critique of Karl Marx, while Magón and Benjamin share an enthusiasm for journalism and the written word in subverting bourgeois society and converge in their views on revolutionary armed struggle, in addition to having both experienced a sordidly tragic fate in U.S. federal prison and at the hands of European Fascists, respectively, due to their revolutionary militancy. Indeed, all four thinkers have numerous affinities among themselves that transcend this convenient dyadic coupling I have suggested. With this presentation, I seek to review the mutual affinities among these radicals and then to present some reflections on the meaning of their thoughts and lives for anarchist and anti-systemic struggle today, particularly in terms of ecology, feminism, and global anti-authoritarianism.”

NYC ABF