Posts Tagged ‘syndicalism’

Marxist-Anarchist Dialogue: Partial Transcript

March 20, 2017

Baku map

Please find below the partial transcript of the “Marxist-Anarchist Dialogue” that took place on February 12, 2017, at the Sepulveda Peace Center in Los Angeles.  This event featured a Black Rose/Rosa Negra member presenting on anarchism in dialogue with a member of the International Marxist Humanist Organization (IMHO) who preferred for his comments not to be reproduced publicly.

I’d just like to begin with a quote from Bakunin in Statism and Anarchy (1873):

“To contend successfully with a military force which now respects nothing, is armed with the most terrible weapons of destruction, and is always ready to use them to wipe out not just houses and streets but entire cities with all their inhabitants—to contend with such a wild beast, one needs another beast, no less wild but more just: an organized uprising of the people, a social revolution […] which spares nothing and stops at nothing.”

As Ukrainian revolutionary Nester Mahkno and his comrades point out in their “Organizational Platform for a General Union of Anarchists,” written in exile in Paris in 1926, it was in the life of the toiling masses, particularly the Russian practices of mir, obshchina, and artel, or the agrarian commune and cooperative labor, that Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin discovered anarchism.  Yet, as Paul McLaughlin (2002) observes, Bakunin’s anarchism is also one with his atheism and anti-theologism, or atheistic materialism.  Bakunin (1814-1876) extends Ludwig Feuerbach’s exposé of the mystification of religious authority by illuminating the reification of political and scientific authority while summoning the negative Hegelian dialectic to sweep away feudalism, capitalism, despotism, and the State.  Bakunin famously expounds on this view in “The Reaction in Germany” (1842), where he stipulates the existence of an “either-or” dialectic demanding the victory of either the Negative (Revolution) or the Positive (the State or the status quo).  Yet instead of a battle between two opposing forces leading to a synthesis, as Hegel imagined, Bakunin envisions a dyadic conflict leading to the full victory of the Negative, yielding “democracy” in 1842, or “anarchy” 25 years later.  Bakunin views history as a gradual evolutionary progression that contains episodes of revolutionary acceleration—hence his famous conclusion to “The Reaction,” where he professes his faith in the “eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life.  The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

For Bakunin, history progresses through the principle of revolt, which together with the principles of human animality and reason for him express the human essence; reason is the emancipatory force of history, as it illuminates freedom.  Besides Herzen, the anarcho-Populist “father of Russian socialism” with whom Bakunin worked closely in favor of Polish independence from tsarism, developing the slogan “Zemlya i Volya” (“Land and Freedom”) as a summary of their visionary program that would resonate around the world (perhaps most famously, indeed, as Tierra y Libertad in the Mexican Revolution), his philosophical and political influences are many: there is Hegel; Feuerbach; Konstantin Aksakov, a notable anti-Statist figure within the Stankevich Circle in Moscow; Johann Fichte, from whom Bakunin took the emphasis on action and the vision of a conscious, collective movement striving to institute reason, freedom, and equality in history; Bruno Bauer, who sees in Hegel a radical critique of the State and religion; and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, from whom Bakunin took anarchism and atheism.  In stark contrast to Proudhon the sexist, however, Bakunin is a militant feminist who was called “Hermaphrodite man” by Marx in 1868 for demanding the “equalization of classes and individuals of both sexes” in the Program of the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy, or “the Alliance.” The roots linking Bakunin’s atheism or anti-theologism with anarchism were established by 1842, though Bakunin wasn’t explicitly anarchist until 1866, when he declared the goal of the International Brotherhood, forerunner of the Alliance, as being the “overthrow of all States and at the same time all […] official Churches, standing armies, centralized ministries, bureaucracy, governments, unitary parliaments and State universities and banks, as well as aristocratic and bourgeois monopolies.”

Now I’d like to come to some of the differences between Bakunin’s thought, or anarchism, and Marx and Marxism, and illuminate this through a few issues. For one, there is the matter of Prometheanism and productivism. Marxism has been accused for a very long time of being both: that is to say, that Marx and Marxism are obsessed with progress and the development of productive forces, equating human liberation with the domination of nature—despite the considerable efforts that have been made in recent decades by eco-Marxist to rescue Marx on these two grounds. So the question arises: is anarchism any better?

Bakunin adheres to naturalism, a post-Enlightenment philosophical movement associated with materialism and atheism, which lay the foundations for modern science while criticizing its excesses and abuses. As such, Bakunin takes aim at René Descartes and Immanuel Kant for their anthropocentrism. Therefore, Bakunin’s naturalism can be said to be associated with ecology.  Indeed, it was through anarchism that Murray Bookchin developed the philosophy of social ecology decades before John Bellamy Foster and others “discovered” Marx’s questionable environmentalism.  Bakunin considers Cartesian anthropocentrism to be anti-naturalist.  For these reasons, naturalism arguably holds greater ecological potential than historical materialism.

Now, coming to the question of history, racism and imperialism, anarchists disagree, as McLaughlin notes, principally with Marxists over the usefulness of historical materialism and the stages theory of history,  whereby history inevitably progresses from primitive communism to the slave societies of antiquity, feudalism, capitalism and then communism in the end.

Instead of the determinism set forth by Marx as early as 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy, a volume that presents a devastating (if opportunistic) critique of Proudhon, where Marx argues that socialism can only be achieved after the full development of critique, Bakunin and the anarchists believe in spontaneity. Plus, anarchists do not consider the industrial proletariat necessarily to have more revolutionary potential than the peasantry, as Marxism does; instead, anarchists seek to unite both proletariat and peasantry against capitalism and the State.

To illustrate the difference between the two approaches, consider how Engels responded to Bakunin’s “Appeal to the Slavs,” which sought to mobilize the concepts of justice and humanity to unite the Slavs in a federated struggle against Russian and Austro-Hungarian imperialism in the wake of the failed 1848 Revolutions.  In “Democratic Pan-Slavism,” Engels declares that, other than for the Poles and Russians, “no Slav people has a future” outside of subordination to centralizing Prussian and Austrian imperialist “civilization.”  In addition, reflecting on the recent Mexican-American War, which had just ended that year, Engels trolls Bakunin, asking, “will [he] accuse the Americans of a ‘war of conquest,’ which […] was […] waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it?”

Bakunin was not dominated by the questionable reasoning that leads Marx and Engels to express uncritical opinions about capitalism and colonialism (per the stages theory).  Instead, he espouses a decolonizing perspective that initially supported national-liberation struggles but then came to understand the need for coordinated global revolution—hence his popularity in the more agrarian Mediterranean and eastern European countries (Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Russia) within the International, as well as in India, Mexico, and much of the rest of Latin America after the First International.  This is not to overlook Marx’s late revisions of his deterministic, callous reasoning, especially after his study of the Russian mir, nor is it to ignore the fact—as Kevin Anderson reminds us—that Marx was among the first Europeans to call for India’s independence from British domination!

There is also the issue of Marx’s own anti-Semitic comments against Ferdinand Lasalle and himself and his family, as in On the Jewish Question (1844), which nonetheless cannot compare to Bakunin’s far more wretched Jew-hatred, based on conspiracy and the “anti-Semitism of fools.”

Politically, Marxism and anarchism diverge principally on the questions of the State, religion, tactics, and strategy.

Robert Graham, author of We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It, has identified 6 principles by which Bakunin distinguished anarchism from other approaches: anti-authoritarianism, anti-Statism, anti-parliamentarianism, federalism, libertarianism (that is to say, the consistency of means and ends),  and social revolution as means to emancipation.

We see conflict with Marxism on all of these questions. But the primary contradiction is really between statism and centralism, which is on the Marxist side, and the anti-state or federalist position, which accords with anarchist principles.

So to illustrate the distinction, I just want to quote a couple of things by Marx and Engels.  In their 1850 address of the Communist League, they argue that the German workers’ movement must strive for the “most determined centralization of power in the hands of the state authority.  They must not allow themselves to be misguided by the democratic talk of freedom for the communities, of self-government, etc.” There’s also a letter that Engels sent to Carlo Cafiero, who was an Italian Alliance member, in 1872: “Bismarck and Victor Emmanuel had both rendered enormous service to the revolution by bringing about political centralization in their respective countries.”

And so, as an alternative, the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy (“the Alliance”) was a specifically anarchist organization through which Bakunin sought to deepen the revolutionary struggle of the International.  The Alliance “stands for atheism, the abolition of cults and the replacement of faith by science, and divine by human justice.” In addition, it sought to collectivize means of production via the agricultural-industrial associations rather than through the State.

To conclude here, I want to illustrate this conflict very practically in a historical way by analyzing the conflict between Marx, Bakunin, and their followers in the First International, or the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), which was founded in 1864.  Their conflict really happened between 1868 and 1872.  This conflict really revolves around the incompatibility of the anarchist and protosyndicalist emphasis on direct action with the Marxist electoralist or statist strategy.

And just as a background to this conflict, it bears mentioning that Marx and Engels slanderously accused Bakunin of being a tsarist agent, first in 1848.  These charges were resurrected by Marx’s allies in Spain and Germany in the runs-up to the Basel (1869) and Hague (1872) Congresses of the International. In fact, curiously, this echoes the World Socialist’s Web Site’s denunciation of the Antifa protesters against Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, condemning them as agents provocateurs.

So, just to go briefly around some of the highlights of the International and its Congresses: at the Brussels Congress of 1868, the Belgian federalists introduced a principle whereby European workers would launch a general strike in order to either prevent or respond to the declaration of war in Europe, whereas at the Basel Congress of 1869, the IWMA’s “most representative congress” (Graham), the IWMA’s majority voted in favor of revolutionary syndicalism as the preferred strategy for the International.  In Basel, the Belgian internationalists argued for each local of IWMA to become a commune or “society of resistance” (a union), whereas Bakunin and other federalists were hailing collectivism in the form of cooperatives, mutual aid societies, credit unions, and the tactic of the general strike.

Then, of course, the Paris Commune of 1871 showed the brutality of counter-insurgent suppression and demonstrated Proudhon’s error, in fact, in believing that the transition to socialism or anarchism could come about peacefully. And during this time, Marx and Bakunin more or less did converge for a short time in their analysis of the Commune. Karl Marx believed that the experience of the Commune demonstrated that the workers cannot “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purposes.”  However, at the London Conference of 1871, Marx tried to reverse the Basel Conference consensus by imposing an electoral strategy through the General Council, despite the fact that the majority of the International did not agree.  Marx was actually prepared to ally with the Blanquists to do this. And thereafter, at the next Congress in the Hague (1872), Bakunin and his Swiss assistant James Guillaume were expelled from the International so as to uphold the London precedent on parliamentarianism, and the General Council was transferred to New York—leading the Blanquists who in fact had allied with Marx to have this done to resign from the International.

In this way, the First International was reduced from being a multi-tendency platform to an exclusively statist one, and then reconstituted as the Second International in 1889.  From 1896 on, the Second International excluded anarchists altogether for not agreeing with the same electoral strategy.

However, the anarchists did go off in 1872 right after the expulsion of Bakunin and Guillaume and founded their own Congress in St. Imier, Switzerland, where they had a series of different conferences that led to the creation of a rather significant anti-authoritarian, anarchist international movement that reaffirmed syndicalism and the social revolution. This gave way to the dominance of anarcho-syndicalism within the international labor movement from the time of the Second International up to World War I.

And so I just want to conclude here, because we are talking about the time now being under Trump, and I want to share some of the continuities between the history and theory that I’ve been telling you about and what Black Rose/Rosa Negra tries to glean from that in the current moment. While we haven’t discussed this very profoundly, we can glean some points from the statements that we have published:

We must actively shut down fascists as we saw happen at UC Berkeley with Milo and in opposition to people like Richard Spencer and so on.

We should also be engaging with people who are becoming increasingly mobilized recently. Rather than be dismissive of them, we should be building popular power, and we should be coordinating with other revolutionary groups.

We also reaffirm Bakunin’s idea of anti-electoralism. We believe that the struggle against Trump and Trumpism should not bring us closer to the Democrats but rather to the social revolution, and we think specifically that we should be organizing and participating in revolutionary social movements, such as the asambleas populares or popular assemblies that have been sprouting up around the city and around the country. In fact, some of our comrades are involved in these asambleas, which are trying to bring together resistance to the deportations with building popular power through the theory of libertarian municipalism or communalism, which are more or less anarchist ideas.

Then there’s also of course the Standing Rock struggle, which is a great challenge to Indigenous autonomy and also ecology.

And we also have the question of feminism as our comrades have written recently in an analysis of the current moment with regard to feminism: in fact, they are saying that the Women’s March represents an opening for revolutionary materialist class struggle feminism to gain some ground.

There’s also the antimilitarist and syndicalist struggle for workplace autonomy as well as the general strike. There’s a very recent piece by the Shutdown Collective published on Truthout about the general strike which I recommend highly.

Furthermore and lastly, we are trying to expand our presence geographically and engage with the white working class, which we understand as having been a very clear contributing factor to the current situation we have with Donald Trump as our president. Thank you very much for listening.

Internal Panel Discussion

Thank you, [anonymous Marxist]. I think you began by saying that anarchism is seen on the streets but not on the home or workplace. And I mean, as I was mentioning in my presentation, with regard to the Basel Conference and protosyndicalism, the entire opposition between the Marxists and anarchists in the original break within the First International is very much about that question—anarchism being in the workplace—and Marx and Engels’s centralist opposition to this due to their interest in presenting a statist or electoral strategy.

Also, I don’t think it’s true that anarchism isn’t found in the home, either. Bakunin had a very militant feminist critique of the Russian Commune and of society in general; it wasn’t just his opposition to capitalism and the State. I push back on that.

I think I understand what you mean by the Marxist critique of anarchists—that they have an abstract conception of liberty—but I don’t think it’s very abstract at all. I mean, if you look again at the history I was just retelling about the struggles that anarchists have been involved with, both at the individual and collective level, there’s nothing abstract about it. So I’m a little puzzled what you meant by that. I would just comment to say that it did remind me a bit of Engels’s critique of utopian socialism, saying that only scientific socialism has the correct insight, and that all the other schools that are revolutionary and socialist in fact are nothing.

And then your comments about Antifa are interesting.  I completely disagree that Antifa has “empty content”! I think that that was completely contradicted by what we saw at UC Berkeley. This was a neo-Nazi agitator and a Trump agitator who was planning on publicly outing trans* and undocumented students at UC Berkeley, and that was shut down by the coordinated action of anarchists and Antifa.  I don’t think there is anything empty about that at all.

Nor do I think that anarchists lack future vision. As I was saying of Bakunin, anarchism is all about the liberation of humanity. There is nothing…  It’s not a present-oriented type of thing; it’s not lacking a future vision in any sense.

You know, there is a lot of debate among anarchists about what is the meaning of anarchism, with regard to the variety or heterogeneity which you pointed to in terms of the development within anarchism. You cited “anti-civilizational” anarchism as an example. There is some debate regarding the question of whether that can even be considered a form of anarchism. I personally would say that it’s not a form of anarchism: it’s actually not interested in abolishing hierarchies, but more simply interested in abolishing technology, agriculture, and things like that. That’s not very much consistent with the anti-statist and anti-hierarchical critique that anarchism brings about. In fact, I think it’s very important not to reduce the anarchist or green or eco-anarchist position to that; that’s very reductive. There is Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology, which is a very profound, rich, Hegelian tradition that develops the critique of the destruction and domination of nature with the critique of social domination as well.

And the last thing: toward the end of your comments, you suggested that anarchists deny that humans are dependent on each other, but that is completely false. If you look at Peter Kropotkin, he theorized the idea of mutual aid being a major factor of evolution, both within the animal world as well as in social evolution. His entire volume is dedicated to that. He studied biology in Siberia for a great number of years. […]

I think to some degree within the socialist tradition, with its anarchist, Marxist, and other wings, there is a lot of miscommunication and so on. So I think that what you are suggesting about the science of society being before the revolution is actually very consistent with the naturalistic approach that I was mentioning to you about Bakunin and the way you have to certainly analyze society first, and nature first—nature first, then society—and from there you progress to critique and action. […]

Actually, within the debate or the conflict between Marx and Bakunin or Marxism and anarchism within the First International, there was a back-and-forth about this very same question [Marxism as a statist form of capitalism]. And you know, I did mean to get to a discussion of the Russian Revolution, but there was no time. There is certainly an anarchist tradition from the time of the conflict in the First International as well as during and after the Russian Revolution that did identify the Bolsheviks, even before Stalin, as State capitalists, according to what Lenin was writing—advocating for the creation of State capitalism as a transitional strategy in Russia. Bakunin very clearly identified that even if you had a statist power that was proclaiming itself as anti-capitalist, it would be composed of a small elite, as all States are, and would necessarily be reproducing these systems of domination of hierarchical authority. Bakunin was very visionary in this sense; he very much anticipated what happened in Russia.

“ZACF Reply to the Misrepresentation of the ZACF by American Journalists and on the Schmidt Affair”

February 24, 2016

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Published on Anarkismo, 19th February 2016

The following is the official statement of the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) of South Africa on the controversy that erupted around Michael Schmidt, a South African activist, several months ago. It follows a careful collective discussion process and research and comes several weeks after the last installment in a series of articles claiming to be an expose of Schmidt. As we are also committed to a number of ongoing workshops, activities and publications, our time was limited. It has two main aims: to outline our position on the claims made for, and against, Schmidt, and to respond to a number of false statements that have been made about the ZACF in the course of the developing Schmidt affair.

The statement opens with an executive summary, followed by a much more extensive discussion.

The statement was collectively crafted and issued by the ZACF: www.zabalaza.net

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (DETAILED ANALYSIS FOLLOWS):

1. The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF, or “Zabalaza”) is a small anarchist / syndicalist organisation in South Africa, dating back to 2003. It has a long history of militant work and publication, a majority black and working class composition, and connections in neighbouring countries. It was formed on May Day 2003 by independent collectives involved in student and township struggles and in the “new social movements” of the time. In line with its founding documents, the ZACF Constitution and Position Papers, the ZACF opposes all forms of oppression, including racial domination, national oppression, imperialism, the oppression of women and immigrants, and capitalism and the state (http://zabalaza.net/organise/theoretical-positions-of-the-zacf/).

2. We stand for the complete national and class emancipation of the black working class in South Africa through revolutionary struggle, and have a long track record as an organisation that’s political work and social base lie primarily with the black working class and its organisations (see e.g.www.zabalaza.net and www.saasha.net and www.facebook/zabalazanews). The anarchist and syndicalist movement in South Africa is very small, and the ZACF is a substantial and important part of this movement, not a minority strand.

3. In this statement the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) discusses the controversy that has surrounded accusations against former ZACF member Michael Schmidt, by the American journalists Alexander Reid Ross and Joshua Stephens and the America-based publisher AK Press. Schmidt left active work in ZACF in early 2009, and resigned in early 2010. The allegations are that Schmidt was, from at least 2002 to the present, a fascist and racist cadre infiltrating the anarchists – including ZACF. Schmidt argues that he has been misrepresented, that his track record and the evidence are at odds with the claims, and that fake right-wing statements he made as an undercover journalist investigating the white radical right have been misrepresented as his real views. Schmidt’s accusers claim these statements reflect his real views, and are part of a larger pattern of ongoing right-wing thought and action.

4. This is the second ZACF statement on the Schmidt affair, in the sense that ZACF was party to a statement issued by the global Anarkismo network on 29 September 2015, which currently comprises over a dozen revolutionary anarchist groups on five continents, most, historically, from the Global South. This statement did not take sides, but called instead for a careful evaluation of the case, the release of all evidence, and on AK Press to state that the accusations applied to Schmidt alone (not to everyone with whom he had been associated (www.anarkismo.net/article/28576). This statement was not acknowledged by Reid Ross and Stephens, or AK Press. The gravity of the allegations does not justify a lack of fair process.

5. ZACF completely distances itself from any and all racist and fascist and white supremacist positions, and condemns them in the strongest possible terms.

6. ZACF completely distances itself from any offensive statements that Schmidt has made, regardless of the rationale for such statements. We are disgusted by what we have read, and by the number of these statements, and note that these statements are indeed deeply racist and sometimes fascist. The “manifesto” and blog posts attributed to Schmidt on the right wing website Stormfront and on his blog at strandwolf.blogspot.com (linked to a group he now admits to setting up named Black Battlefront) are horrifying. It is very difficult for us to reconcile these awful blog posts (and those of several related online personas) with our experiences of Michael Schmidt as an active and dedicated member of our organisation.

7. ZACF views the accusations against Schmidt with the utmost gravity. If the accusations are proven true, ZACF will denounce Schmidt and take all appropriate steps. If proven, the accusations would indicate activities and views completely at odds with the positions and practice and social composition of the ZACF, at odds with the class-struggle, anti-racist and anti-oppression anarchist and syndicalist traditions that ZACF champions, as well as manifest dishonesty on Schmidt’s part. And the ZACF would have been the primary victim of Schmidt’s activities. Schmidt, if guilty, must bear the consequences of his actions.

8. ZACF also wishes to put on record that Schmidt has not been a member or participant in ZACF for over five years, has played no role in the development of this statement, or in any proposals and points that this statement makes, and has not been shown drafts or asked for comment, and also that ZACF has not been lobbied by Schmidt – or anyone else – to make any particular statements on the Schmidt affair, 2015-2016.

9. It is our position that the Schmidt affair cannot be resolved through another round of online articles, social media debates or statements. Not only have the online debates become unproductive and polarised (see point 27) but so much information and analysis has been produced that it is very difficult for individuals and organisations to methodically process and evaluate all arguments made by both sides.

10. In terms of evaluating the charges against Schmidt, ZACF instead supports the 30 January 2016 Anarkismo proposal for an inclusive and international anarchist and syndicalist commission of inquiry, to examine the allegations against Schmidt, as well as Schmidt’s replies to the allegations, with accusers and accused and sources available to answer questions and provide materials to the commission. The proposal does not envisage an Anarkismo-controlled process. Nor would Reid Ross and Stephens, AK Press or Schmidt, decide on its composition. See http://anarkismo.net/article/29047

11. We believe there are real problems with some of the statements made by both the accusers of Schmidt against Schmidt himself, as well as in Schmidt’s responses to these accusations. These may be open to innocent explanations: we keep an open mind. The ZACF will make a formal submission to the proposed commission, and be available for questions and to provide additional materials to that commission. We have extensive archives and records, which back up our claims, for example, about ZACF history (see below).

12. ZACF will also consider itself guided by the findings and recommendations of the proposed commission. The ZACF will address all the allegations against Schmidt himself, as well as his defence, in a separate statement at the conclusion of the commission’s investigations.

13. ZACF wishes to place on record that when similar accusations were levelled against Schmidt from 2011 onwards, we confronted and checked on Schmidt several times. He has always maintained the same basic defence as that he has presented in 2015. Given the evidence we had to hand, and given Schmidt’s record and status as a long-standing comrade, we felt that we had no real choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. Historically we have critically accepted Schmidt’s explanation for what we felt was the lack of an alternative, but we recognise that an extensive case has now been made against Schmidt, and new evidence brought to bear. This new material and debate merits careful reflection and evaluation, but must be weighed up carefully against his own counter-case – honestly and fairly.

14. ZACF expresses its disappointment with Schmidt’s now-admitted non-disclosure of aspects of his claimed underground journalistic work to the ZACF, both during his tenure in the ZACF and when it previously spoke to him from 2011 onwards. ZACF is highly disappointed by Schmidt’s now-admitted failure to inform ZACF that he knew the identity of a National Intelligence Agency (NIA) spy moving in left circles.

15. We do not, in this statement, therefore discuss whether Schmidt is indeed guilty of all the charges that have been made against him by AK Press, and Reid Ross and Stephens. This statement is not a point-by-point discussion of evidence around Schmidt, and should not be misconstrued as such. It is detailed, not to bury issues in words, but because serious allegations need a serious reply.

16. ZACF rejects the version of ZACF history and politics contained within Reid Ross and Stephens’ articles. We realise well enough that ZACF was not the focus of the articles, and take it in good faith that we entered the conversation only by way of association, but we have to respond to what constitutes (even if unintentionally) a series of very serious, very damaging (and, as we show, false) allegations about our organisation. They were not irrelevant to it, or trivialities that can be ignored on the grounds that the focus was on Schmidt.

17. ZACF specifically rejects the following central claims put foward by Reid Ross and Stephens: that the ZACF considered a proposal for racial segregation in 2003 (untrue), that Schmidt successfully engineered the expulsion of black and township ZACF members in 2005 to whittle ZACF into a white group (untrue), that ZACF’s organisational culture was deeply shaped by an allegedly racist and fascist Schmidt (untrue), that ZACF ignored evidence that Schmidt was involved with the radical right (untrue), that other ZACF members shared Schmidt’s alleged right-wing opinions (untrue), that ZACF opposed feminism (untrue), that a ZACF social centre and garden in Soweto was run on racist lines (untrue), and they speak of a “Schmidt-era” of ZACF lasting into 2009 (untrue). ZACF also rejects Reid Ross and Stephens’ claims about the “national” character of ZACF, claims about the 2007 ZACF congress, claims about ZACF financial practices, claims about ZACF organisational culture and standards, and claims that ZACF ignored a problematic document that Schmidt issued internally in 2008 called “Politico-Cultural Dynamics of the South African Anarchist Movement” (ZACF discussed and rejected the document, and Schmidt also formally repudiated it that year).

18. There is no evidence whatsoever that ZACF was subverted, before, during or after 2008 by any fascist or racist or radical white right agenda, by anyone whatsoever. We are not concerned here with the separate issue of what Schmidt might have done elsewhere, covertly or otherwise in this period, we are stating that ZACF was never influenced by these politics – and that Schmidt never openly pursued any such politics while in ZACF. Contrary to the impression given by Reid Ross and Stephens, ZACF has always strived to act decisively and in line with its revolutionary principles and approach. There was no transition from a so-called right-wing “Schmidt-era” of ZACF, to a new, transformed ZACF later: ZACF theory and perspectives never changed, and the black working class orientation of ZACF never changed.

19. This criticism of the articles is not a matter of “shooting-the-messenger,” but of demonstrating that the message (as regards ZACF) is wrong. It is essential to our honour as revolutionaries to challenge, on the basis of facts, the profoundly inaccurate Reid Ross and Stephens’ version of ZACF history and politics, to clarifying the record of the ZACF, this including Schmidt’s role in ZACF, and ZACF’s relations to Schmidt, when he was a member, and subsequently.

20. Reid Ross and Stephens’ inaccurate representation of ZACF is based on poor research and analysis, and serious factual and analytical problems, regarding not just ZACF but South Africa generally. Eurocentrism and an uncritical embrace by the two journalists of deeply problematic anti-left arguments associated with the South African state and ultra-nationalists, but rooted in the colonial geography of reason, are part of the problem.

21. No use was made of easily available ZACF source materials and archives, and the two journalists have failed to contact ZACF throughout the series to check facts or to provide right-of-reply to charges made. Their account of ZACF is almost entirely based on the views of one former member active for a relatively short period, outsider opinions, dubious inferences from an inaccurate document by Schmidt that was rejected by ZACF, and unsubstantiated and often demonstrably false assertions. The history of ZACF cannot be based on so few sources, especially given that claims made by these sources contradict a larger body of other evidence that has been ignored.

22. Silencing black and African voices, and the ZACF, has been central to the articles’ methodology. ZACF sources were ignored. Contradictory data and testimony was ignored. In particular this relates to one ZACF ex-member and founder member, comrade Mzamani Philip Nyalungu, who was made central to one article (in fact he is the only person we feel was insulted by name, besides Schmidt, in their seven articles.) His testimony, at odds with key claims by the journalists, was not cited, yet the testimony of two white ex-ZACF members was repeatedly presented as self-evidently true. This can be construed as racist: while Reid Ross and Stephens may argue that they have grounds to criticise Schmidt harshly, there is no justification for this treatment of a serious black working class militant.

23. Claims that we are unduly emotional about what we feel is an unjustifiable misrepresentation of the ZACF, that trivialise this misrepresentation, or that present ZACF as ill-informed or ill-motivated, reflect the same colonial and silencing outlook.

24. There was a double-standard throughout the discussion of ZACF, which placed ZACF in a subordinate position, and had racial overtones. Reid Ross and Stephens stated that they concealed the names of the sources cited to ensure their personal security. Yet they provided the name and residential information of a prominent, township-based, black working class ex-ZACF member, while diligently concealing the details of a white middle class ex-ZACF member, no longer even resident in South Africa. No account was taken of the often violently intolerant contexts in which ZACF operates, and how the claims made in the articles against ZACF place it and its members at risk. If Schmidt was a fascist, racist infiltrator who was allegedly sufficiently dangerous to require that sources be kept concealed for safety, as the journalists insisted, then their immediate responsibility was actually to inform ZACF of a potentially deadly security threat. This would have allowed us to take immediate steps for the security of our black working class base. This never happened.

25. The same double standard was evident in the contrasting treatment of AK Press and ZACF. ZACF believes it completely unacceptable that Reid Ross and Stephens informed AK Press of their investigations into Schmidt and pending articles, allowing it to avoid reputational damage with a pre-emptive public statement – yet did not contact ZACF in a similar manner.

26. The development of the Schmidt affair raises questions about the future of the anarchist movement in the Global South and elsewhere. Certainly if Schmidt is guilty there are grounds for serious concern, but we have in mind here other issues that are just as important. The absence of a proper right-of-reply prior to publication, for both ZACF and Schmidt, the neglect for the safety and wellbeing of a black ZACF founder member, the hostile and personalised tone of many claims in the articles, the trial-by-media that has taken place, and the serious inaccuracies in the story around the ZACF, are some of the problems.

27. The ZACF also expresses its serious concern about the venomous and polarised tone that online debates on the Schmidt affair have assumed. A vocal anti-Schmidt current dominates many forums by relying, not on substantive debate, but on innuendos and on labelling, with any disagreement with any part of Reid Ross and Stephens’ / AK Press’ claims treated as the work of fascists, racists, tools of Schmidt etc. In this climate, those with contrary views soon withdraw, rational debate is closed, and more nuanced views that do not fit a neat pro-/ anti-Schmidt position, are lost. This is not a constructive approach to any debate, regardless of the severity of the accusations.

28. A sectarian current has also used the Schmidt affair to attack the ZACF, Anarkismo, and the whole anarcho-syndicalist, revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist-communist mainstream of anarchism. The simple fact of the matter is that, if Schmidt is indeed guilty, he would have betrayed the basic principles of class-struggle anarchism, the ZACF he helped found, the anarchists he has worked with as a militant and as a writer, and the movement generally. Therefore it is false to assume that if Schmidt is guilty, that his views represent, or arise from, class-struggle or Platformist/especifista anarchist traditions.

29. We are appalled that the worst public caricature that has ever been made of the ZACF comes, not from the state, not from capital, not from other left groups, but from people who claim to be anarchists. This is not a sign of a healthy movement.

30. ZACF believes there are also serious North/ South power dynamics at play in the affair that need attention. Precisely because countries like the USA dominate media, knowledge production and publication globally, even obscure writers in the Global North have a louder voice than almost any in the Global South. This is the context that allows the tiny collective running the America-based publishing house AK Press, and two minor (although doubtless well-intentioned and sincere – we are not debating their personalities) American journalists, Reid Ross and Stephens, to propagate their views on a global scale. ZACF simply has no commensurate power, this being directly linked to its African basis.

31. This North/ South situation allows the views of ZACF and Anarkismo, representing far more people and countries than one American publishing cooperative and two American journalists, to be completely marginalised, power reinforcing the process of silencing the African and black and ZACF voices that we have mentioned. It allows AK Press to effectively ban from publication Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, which was primarily authored by one-time ZACF member, comrade Lucien van der Walt, almost a decade ago, as part of a larger project with Schmidt. It allows Anarkismo’s efforts to democratise the AK Press space by taking responsibility, qualifying its claims, and carrying different views on the story, to be ignored. It allows Reid Ross and Stephens to say what they wish about ZACF from behind the secure walls of the dollar and the American legal system. And it allows the unedifying spectacle of two white Americans doling out advice on racial politics and “the deleterious effects of institutionalized power disparities” to African and black anarchist revolutionaries.

32. We reject the AK Press collective’s attempts to deny responsibility in this affair. By their own admission, they worked with Reid Ross and Stephens to investigate Schmidt, and collaborated with them in compiling evidence; and they have provided the main platform for the mass dissemination of Reid Ross and Stephens’ seven articles. They are as responsible as Reid Ross and Stephens for what the ZACF has endured.

33. All of this is far from the prefigurative, solidaristic and internationalist movement we would like to see change the world. To avoid similar situations in future, we advocate a code of conduct for anarchist or anarchist-identified writers and journalists, that measures be put in place to keep small collectives controlling massive resources – including publishers like AK Press – accountable to the movements they claim to serve, the development of a more inclusive anarchist press, in which voices from working class and peasant movements, from ghettoes, from townships, from labour movements, from the oppressed nationalities and classes, and from the Global South as well as the Global North, are central.

34. ZACF also believes that substantial sectors of the self-identified anarchist movement need to have some serious introspection about the political culture of venom, sectarianism, and McCarthyite-style paranoia, obsessed with ultra-fringe forces like “national-anarchism,” exposed in the Schmidt affair. This that often substitutes for, and certainly hinders, building a mass, sustained, organised anarchism and syndicalism rooted in the popular classes, in labour movements, in oppressed nationalities, and in actual revolutionary struggles. Approaches like those proposed by Anarkismo and ZACF – a cautious approach to serious allegations, the use of a commission – can play an important role in this process.

35. We do not object to debate, or to criticism or self-reflection. Nor do we object to the anarchist and syndicalist movement having open and frank discussions. We do not call for a unity based on ignoring differences or on silence. We welcome open and honest debate as an essential part of an effective political practice. But what we do object to are debates based on sectarianism, personal attacks, innuendos, labelling, and bullying, and a lack of sensitivity to power dynamics.

36. We wish to stress that we have no personal issues with either Reid Ross or Stephens, neither of whom we know. We have no objections to critique. And we note Reid Ross emailed us on 27 December 2015 to state, “You have only my deepest respect for carrying on your incredible work” and stated he was “deeply sorry” if the articles created problems for ZACF. He also stated, “It was always my intention to remove both your collective and Lucien [van der Walt] from the investigation in such a way that would prevent a kind of ‘witch hunt’ effect.” We appreciate this effort to reach out to us, and the sentiment contained in these statements.

37. But the fact remains that the articles have, whether intentional or not, promoted falsehoods about ZACF, created serious problems for ZACF, silenced and even lectured ZACF. Neither AK Press, nor Stephens, nor Reid Ross have admitted this publicly; AK Press cancelled “Black Flame,” of which comrade van der Walt was primary author, Reid Ross and Stephens slated that book in their articles and by implication comrade van der Walt, and the articles presented ZACF as fundamentally subverted by a fascist and racist agenda. This obviously creates problems for ZACF.

38. Although Black Flame has, like any book, various flaws, and is not a ZACF publication, we insist that it is a revolutionary anarchist classic that remains of enduring value. It is a non-Eurocentric South-centred text that, for the first time, places people of colour, the Global South and struggles against imperialism and racism at the very centre of the history, canon and movements of historic anarchism and syndicalism. Reid Ross and Stephens themselves concede the book asserts the “primacy of class struggle and workers’ movements” in a global anarchist struggle – and this is not a rightist or a nationalist position.

39. We therefore urge both Reid Ross and Stephens, as well as members of the AK Press collective, not to fire off a hasty response to what we have written, but to consider seriously and respectfully the problems they have created for ZACF, one of the main anarchist organisations in Africa. And to admit there is fault, and that there are errors in the articles and the process that created them. We have no personal issues with any of these parties: we are raising issues of principle and process that deserve due consideration and a respectful conversation. We urge them to avoid statements that trivialize what has been done to ZACF, and how it has been done, or that evade responsibility by suggesting our responses are unduly emotional or ignorant.

40. If they are deeply sorry for the problems they created, as Reid Ross stated in his e-mail to the ZACF, they should issue a public apology to ZACF and to comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt (approved by ZACF in advance), for the misrepresentations that have been made, and also make a clear public statement (approved by ZACF in advance) explicitly stating that the allegations that they have made against Schmidt refer to Schmidt alone, and not to any publishers, co-authors, editors, left organisations or currents with which he may have been associated. (To his credit, Reid Ross has suggested that he is amiable to the idea of such a statement although we note that it has not, so far, appeared. We note with appreciation a statement by Reid Ross published on 17 February ( http://alexanderreidross.com/ideological-influence-and-the-schmidt-affair/ [10]) in which he states that “some have implicated the wrong people, groups, or sets of ideas”, but do not feel this goes far enough in addressing our concerns and ameliorating the damage done to the political work, dignity and reputation of the ZACF, comrades Nyalungu and van der Walt or “Black Flame”.)

CONTENTS:

**SECTION 1: THE ZACF, AN AFRICAN REVOLUTIONARY CLASS-STRUGGLE ANARCHIST / SYNDICALIST FORMATION

*1A. ZACF: Politics, Record and the Black Working Class Revolution
*1B. Locating ZACF in Southern Africa’s Radical “Humanism” and Revolutionary Non-Racialism
*1C. Online Resources on the ZACF

**SECTION 2: ANARKISMO & ZACF POSITIONS ON THE MICHAEL SCHMIDT ISSUE SO FAR

*2A. Overview of the 2015 Controversy over Michael Schmidt
*2B. How Anarkismo and ZACF Intervened at the Start of the Michael Schmidt Controversy
*2C. A Proposed Anarchist/ Syndicalist Commission into the Charges against Schmidt in 2016
*2D. FACT: ZACF Questioned Schmidt When Similar Allegations were made from 2011 Onwards
*2E. FACT: ZACF has Not Yet Taken a Position For or Against Schmidt in 2015/ 2016

**SECTION 3: GRAVE CONCERNS WITH REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ACCOUNT OF ZACF

*3A. A Summary of Reid Ross & Stephens’ Inaccurate Claims about ZACF
*3B. FACT: The ZACF Never Considered any Proposal for “Segregation,” Argued Instead for a Black Working Class Focus, in 2003
*3C. FACT: The ZACF Never “Purged” Township Groups or Members
*3D. FACT: ZACF Mass Work in Motsoaledi, Soweto as Against Reid Ross & Stephens’ Disrespect for Comrade Nyalungu and PMCP/ BAG
*3E. FACT: ZACF Spending and ZACF Democracy
*3F. FACT: The 2007 ZACF Congress Aimed to Rebuild the ZACF Presence in the Black Working Class
*3G. FACT: The ZACF (and Schmidt) Rejected Schmidt’s “Politico-Cultural Dynamics …” Document in 2008
*3H. FACT: The Revolutionary Politics of “Black Flame”
*3I. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a ZACF Debate on the “Recruitment of People of Colour” and of ZACF Becoming “Increasingly Open”
*3J. FACT: Claims that Schmidt Allegedly Voted FF+ were Never Ignored
*3K. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a ZACF Debate on the “Inclusion of Feminism,” 2009-2010
*3L. FACT: Dispelling the Myth of a Debate on Working with “Collectives with Ideological Differences,” 2009-2010

**SECTION 4: METHODOLOGY: SOME REASONS FOR THE PROBLEMS IN REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ZACF RESEARCH

*4A. Extraordinarily Narrow Data Collection, which Silenced ZACF, African and Black Anarchists
*4B. A Selective Use of Evidence and Leading the Witness
*4C. The Need to Distinguish Direct Witness Testimony, Second-hand Information and Opinion
*4D. Research Problems with Excessively Using Anonymous Sources
*4E. Fact-Checking Controlled by the Authors
*4F. Was Such Extensive Anonymity Really Required?
*4G. Time Constraints Do Not Explain the Mistakes
*4H. The Lack of a Proper Editorial or Peer-Review Process

**SECTION 5: THEORETICAL FRAMING: SOME REASONS FOR THE PROBLEMS IN REID ROSS & STEPHENS’ ANALYSIS

*5A. Authoritarian Nationalism and Colonial Reason: The Roots of Anti-Left Arguments
*5B. The Unknown Country: Reading South Africa off the USA and Western Europe

**SECTION 6: POLITICAL ISSUES IN THE AFFAIR – AND HOW A BETTER ANARCHISM IS POSSIBLE

*6A. For a Constructive Debate, Against Sectarianism
*6B. The Importance of Consistent Principles: The Double Standards of Personal Security in the Schmidt Affair
*6C. The AK Press Connection: Also Guilty
*6D. The North/ South Dynamics of the Schmidt Affair

Link to the full statement

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)

Dialectical Light, Nature, Negation: Modern Minima Moralia Project

December 3, 2015

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Published on Heathwood Press, 30 November 2015

 

Nature-History Walk. To take a walking tour within a natural-history museum located in New York City amidst the sixth mass-extinction of life on Earth is to experience the contradictions of reveling in the profundity of natural beauty while consciously or subconsciously bearing witness to capital’s ceaseless war on existence and evolution. It is true that, in contradistinction to most other museum exhibits on display in the heart of empire—by nature affirmative—the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York at least provides some critical perspectives on the profundity of the present environmental crisis: the curators have recognized that we “may” be in the throes of this sixth mass-extinction event. Within the museum’s Hall of Biodiversity is emblazoned a warning made by the politically authoritarian biologist Paul R. Ehrlich: that, in “pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” The AMNH has also promoted Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 investigative volume into this most distressing of realities, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.[1] Yet the spirit of absolute negativity to which the sixth extinction attests hardly can be said to permeate the exhibits within the museum that examine the relationship between nature and humanity: quite naturally, these presentations in no way explicitly recognize the responsibility that capitalism and domination bear for the current ecocidal and suicidal natural-historical trajectory. To a degree, then, the clear link that exists between the social relations imperant in the world outside the museum—as well, indeed, as inside it—and the unmitigated destruction of life on Earth’s continents and oceans can thus only be made intuitively. The unity of all living things—and hence the vast disunity which ecocide implies—can indeed be perceived in the contemplation of the great similarities between the human visitor and the numerous other species on display in the Great Hall of Biodiversity, as in the compelling hall on oceanography, the exhibits on African, Asian, and North American mammals, the Hall of Primates, and the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

As the museum’s displays are directed primarily toward children, and considering the multitudes of minors who visit the museum with their families and on school-trips, it is to be hoped that these children, as well as their adult counterparts, grasp the more subversive meanings that the encounter with life and evolution can yield, activating Eros, biophilia, and—yes—revolutionary sadness in a counter-move to hegemonic brutality and unreason. However, childhood in late capitalism is little more than a preparatory stage for getting along: conformity, adjustment, and alienated labor. The system progressively negates the radical potential of the unintegrated child. For our part, we adults have overwhelmingly abdicated. The coral reefs are in the process of practically all being boiled off, the Arctic is melting, and Amazonia is choked by drought, while every successive year brings record-breaking global temperature rises together with record-breaking aggregate carbon emissions. In the destruction of the life-world has the nightmare of childhood come true.

 

Denial of Affirmation. Theodor W. Adorno writes that “[t]he will to live finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live.”[2] Whether the philosopher meant with this to comment on evolutionary processes as a whole or human social organization more narrowly, it is certainly well-said as a description of existence in late capitalism. The seeming contemporary universality of Android and iPhones in U.S. society, for instance, presupposes the super-exploitation of Chinese proletarians who produce the devices directly, as well as slavery and genocidal wars in central Africa related to control over the extraction of the various minerals necessary for such cellular technologies. The libidinal attachment many of us users have to our smartphones, the means with which we connect, rests precisely on the suicide, suffering, and death of our fellow laborers elsewhere—just as the casual use of air travel for work (or “business”), study, vacations, weddings, funerals, political meetings, and even revolutionary summits implies the destruction of the lives of those imperiled by the droughts, famines, and superstorms brought on by anthropogenic climate disruption, to say nothing of our poor future human generations, or the millions of other species devastated by the cancerous capitalist growth economy. In psychological terms, it would seem that people who are complicit in these systems of oppression regularly repress their participation in them in a parallel manner to the way the thought of death is continuously warded off: that is, to avoid inducing terror and Angst. The solipsism of such interpersonal brutality is reflected as well in the thoughtless and entirely unnecessary consumption of non-human animals and their products for sustenance, as in the utilization of animals for medical ‘research’—whether it is a matter of “testing out” the latest pharmaceutical absurdity, or developing drugs that are actually needed for human welfare. Even if one were to be a strict vegan for whom no medication involving vivisection would be indicated, the vegetables, fruits, and legumes one consumes to maintain one’s constitution are almost invariably cultivated by migrant workers who labor and survive in neo-feudal conditions. Practically the same is true for any new article of clothing one may purchase at present. What is more, those who can regularly afford organic food in the U.S. are usually more economically privileged—while a mass-turn to popular urban agriculture as a progressive-collective movement may not be advisable in many U.S. cities, due to the very accumulated and ongoing pollution spewed by the workplaces, cars, and trucks that underpin the monopolist-capitalist everyday.[3] No individual or individualist solution is possible for such negative realities; clearly, it is capitalism and the domination of nature that are the primary problems. Yet amidst the negative context, one cannot reproach others for adopting positions of personal resistance: for non-cooperation embodies the “Great Refusal” that is radically opposed to consumerism and getting along, with all the vast suffering, exploitation, and destruction these imply. As negations of what exist, the ideas and practices of voluntary simplicity and anarchism, together with the militant minority that strives quixotically to be faithful to these ideals, prefigure the possibility of an entirely different and potentially reconciled world-order, one that humanity in concert is capable of bringing into being. Yet the observed conformist attachment to the dominant values and badly misnamed “goods” handed down by the capitalist system, for example, in mainstream U.S. society, presents a great challenge to this potentially hopeful prospect for transformation—does it not?

 

Historical Climates, Dialectical Light. Disconcerting is the experience of visiting familiar places—cities, states, and regions—and observing how their climates have changed so drastically over the course of just the past ten to fifteen years. Summers in southern California reach much higher temperatures now as compared to the average experienced during my adolescence, while the falls retain the vernal warmth too long in the Pacific Northwest and mid-Atlantic U.S. East Coast. Moreover, there is so little rain, such that wildfires have raged, burning up at least 11 million acres in 2015.[4]

Diagnostic impression: the planet is running a fever that may prove fatal. Featuring a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), 2015 is the hottest year on record, with seven of the first nine months of this year having been the hottest recorded since 1880.[5] The Indonesian peat-bog fires of 2015 can be clearly observed from a satellite a million miles from Earth, and half the myriad tree species of the Amazon are threatened with immediate extinction.[6] The ongoing destruction of life on Earth thus illustrates the world “radiant with triumphant calamity” identified by Max Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947)—together with the “allied […] melancholy hope” Adorno feels “for other stars,” as he expresses in reflections on Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth, for “the earth that has grown remote to itself is without the hope the stars once promised” (1971).[7] Since the time during which such words were written, monopoly capitalism’s “Great Acceleration” has expanded calamity and irrationality to unbounded dimensions, and the fate of human and non-human life is at stake. In this way, the negative hegemonic light which falsely illuminates the world constitutes the inversion of the “Luz” (“Light”) which guided the Mexican anarchist movement as part of the anti-authoritarian syndicalist wing of the International—together with the “Lucha” (“Struggle”) that its constituents recognized as the dialectical means by which to counterpose the emancipatory spectrum of colors: that is, through rationalist education and anarcho-syndicalist federations, inter alia.[8] It is negative-dialectical thought and spirit that seeks the total overturning of atrocity and authority, as both mobilize to ensure the inertial reproduction of the social-property relations impelling self-destruction.

 

Medical-Industrial Waste. Is it not a contradiction for one to work to promote health while acting to degrade human-environmental health—to affirm wanton wastefulness in the provision of healthcare? One thinks of mobile vans that open access to medical services within particularly oppressed communities, but that continuously emit noxious, nauseating, and cancerous gases during their hours of operation. In parallel, the present “best practice” in several U.S. cities seemingly is to run ambulances incessantly on diesel, a known carcinogen.[9] A not dissimilar dynamic governs the driving of personal cars to any work-site, though the contradiction seems most evident in terms of labor, for example, at community clinics—the pollution emitted by workers’ and providers’ commute rains down from the highways onto the very communities whose individuals, particularly children, present to such clinics for treatment of various ailments, many of them indeed related to the normalization of environmental racism and class apartheid within capitalist society. “[A]t no time have all powers been so horribly fettered as [the present], where children go hungry and the hands of the fathers are busy churning out bombs,” writes Horkheimer.[10] Just where do doctors and nurses think all the waste produced by mainstream medical practice goes? To be fair, this problem is in no way limited to the fields of medicine and nursing. Few of us wish to think of the ever-burgeoning landfills filled with plastic and the vast chemical pollution born through production and consumption patterns in the West, the medical-industrial complex, and global capitalism taken as a whole. “Out of sight, out of mind.” This is the dynamic of bourgeois society externalizing its problems to the detriment of the commons—reflected in turn in the frequent compulsion to “just focus on the details,” not the larger picture or world, and never to “get distracted.” According to their own maxims, practitioners of medicine and nursing must firstly do no harm, and it is for this reason that they should resist the “business-as-usual” imperatives of mass-wastefulness together with the rackets trading internationally in wastes, in effect dumping hazardous wastes—medical-industrial and nuclear—on impoverished societies like Haiti, Somalia, Angola, and Côte d’Ivoire.[11] Perhaps the increased adoption of the practice of sterilizing medical equipment, as in autoclaves, and the use of vegetable oil-powered mobile vans and ambulances could represent but two facets of elements of a rational transition toward a health-care model instituting a holistic, Hegelian-anarchist perspective, integrating concern for the means to the desired end of collective, social, and terrestrial well-being: an overcoming of the bad present that, in seeking to attend to the wounds and other ailments caused by prevailing power, as by historical circumstances, greatly avoids the generation of new ones in the overall healing process.

 

Locomotive Ride. Global class society, as Walter Benjamin knew, resembles a train headed to disaster.[12] On this ride the passengers are governed by necessity, coercion, distraction, and integration. Intuitively they sense the falsity and danger of the established course, and though they sympathize with the erotic cry of life—the beauty in the lands passed by, as well as nature’s marked recent deadening—their immediate concerns are with particulars, like family, work, and entertainment. By design, some of the cars lack windows with which to even regard the outside world, while in others—particularly the work-sites of the laboring classes—they are shuttered, and external reality ignored. The laborers exhaust, injure, sicken, and kill themselves to keep the engine running, while the members of the upper classes dine in the luxury sleepers. Ubiquitous police, surveillance, and security measures ensure that the system continues on lock. As the train accelerates, those on board increasingly sense the abyss toward which the conductors are driving them. Over the intercom system they are not informed of the train’s route, whether precisely or generally speaking, other than to be told that all is well, that they should soon expect some minor alleviation in their conditions in recognition of their hard work, and not to worry about matters that are the exclusive concern of the administration anyway.

Amidst the directional negativity of this train, dissident groups in the working-class cars regard the given course as increasingly alarming, and they seek to distribute their findings and organize alternatives among the multitude. Even among the privileged there is a minority that concurs with the analysis for general alarm, and these renegade aristocrats surreptitiously share the knowledge to which they are privy with the workers, emphasizing the need to coordinate rebellion. Yet the train evermore accelerates, and a palpable sense of powerlessness and atomization dominates the passengers as a whole. Numerically speaking, most people on board this train would not be expected to favor the course taken by the administration, in light of the terminal consequences that are becoming increasingly evident. But what is to be done practically? Rational-collective choices self-evidently will not assert themselves ex nihilo under the reign of the Iron Cage. In light of the strict established security measures on board the class-divided train, it may well be that the workers cannot at this time storm the engine room to pull the emergency brake directly, as necessary as such a move might be—yet they could refuse their labor and disrupt the train’s route that careens to oblivion. Clearly, such a radical syndicalist approach would not be entirely without its losses, considering the injuries and deaths that would be outrightly inflicted by the police in reprisal to strikes, as well as the question of how non-cooperation would affect the well-being of workers’ children, and the possibility indeed that the rebellion would be crushed altogether. If it did not come at the right time, when would hope for social revolution return?

In the first place, the trajectory of the current course is clear enough. Beyond this, and to the question of the success or failure of the revolution, human history repeatedly demonstrates the anti-systemic activation of Eros under conditions of mass-rebellion.[13] It follows that the sacrifices of the rebels and martyrs of today and tomorrow disrupting the normal functioning of the system in an attempt to avert the destruction of self and Other would pale in comparison to the alternatives—if Eros cannot assert itself.

 

Images of Protest. I will say that the strongest protest-action in which I have participated was the general strike called for by Occupy Oakland on 2 November 2011. Though the strike in fact proved to be far from general, hundreds of thousands took part in rebellion and refusal that day. The climax of the day—which for many protestors likely also represented something of a peak life-experience—came in the late afternoon, as the mass-multitude converged on Oakland’s ports from the east, where the day of action had been based: Oscar Grant Plaza, or Frank Ogawa Plaza. The police could not stop the multitude as it took over the ramps and highways normally dedicated to the movement of capital and goods, pouring into the shipping terminals like alluvial fans. Once the port was taken over, protestors climbed on top of trucks, danced, cheered. Anarchist flags were waved, and one comrade knowingly expressed with a banner that said, “The People are Strong.” The port shut-down was truly a prefiguration of the radical change that could and can be accomplished through the collective organization of those from below—the reordering of the productive apparatus, its occupation and disarticulation. In this sense it was an action that has to my knowledge not been surpassed in scope in the U.S. since—to the detriment of the struggle, clearly, as capital markedly intensifies its destructiveness. Another recent mass-protest effort was made with the People’s Climate March (PCM) of September 2014, but as the organizers of this action in no way wanted to replicate the experience of Occupy, let alone the riots against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle (1999), the march was channeled into a non-threatening route, had no practical target, and made no demands, much less substantive ones.[14] Still, to recognize problems with the PCM’s organization is not to discount the authentic concern evinced by the hundreds of thousands who took part in the actions that day, including a number of explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-systemic contingents. The PCM’s approach was one that bears little in common with radical actions like the Oakland port shut-down and eco-socialist concepts of “Climate Satyagraha.”[15] The “Flood Wall Street” protest that followed the day after the PCM was more clearly in the militant spirit of Oakland, as it aimed to shut down New York’s financial district—though realistically, all we flooders accomplished was to blockade road access to the trading floor, and not to interrupt the normal functioning of capital inside.

Alongside the Oakland port shut-down, two other rebel-experiences I will share include the 2 October 2010 protests in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, and the anti-COP protests in Cancún in December 2010. 2 October, of course, marks the day on which the Mexican military murdered and forcibly disappeared hundreds of students and protestors assembled in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympics being hosted in the same city. For this reason this date is commemorated every year in Mexico—and indeed, it was to join the protest-action for the observance of the anniversary in Mexico City in 2014 that the 43 student-teachers from Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared in Iguala by the State. In the highland city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, university students and other youth led the protest in 2010, occupying the main streets, disrupting the existing order, and distributing flyers to inform the public of their actions, in addition to engaging in direct action against symbolic and actual centers of reified power, such as the local headquarters of the National Action Party (PAN) and the transnationally owned OXXO convenience stores. In Cancún three months later, La Via Campesina organized a counter-summit to the official UN summit, COP-16, at which the member-states were supposedly meeting to discuss how to address the problem of climate change—a meeting which Obama did not deign to grace with his presence—and from this alternative summit in downtown Cancún some of the largest counter-mobilizations were organized. The Anti-C@P, a grouping of autonomous youth who proclaimed their opposition both to the COP process and to capitalism, engaged in a number of unpermitted actions in the streets, and had even planned to disrupt official celebrations being held at the luxury hotels on the city’s eastern peninsula, including one featuring the Mexican president, the head of the World Bank, and the owner of Walmart. However, the ubiquitous police check-points erected near the tourist zone dissuaded anti-C@P from following through on these plans. As with the general strike in Oakland proclaimed nearly a year later, and following the mass-action against the Copenhagen COP the year prior, the culmination of rebellion against COP-16 came during a mass-march from downtown Cancún to the Moon Palace several kilometers to the south, where the negotiations were in fact being held. By the end of the several hours-long counter-mobilization, which had been monitored closely by several military helicopters, most protestors were really quite tired. As we finally approached the Moon Palace, the official organizers of the march stopped and organized a rally, while the bolder among us pressed on. Though we did approximate the Moon Palace, eventually we came face-to-face with a police cordon several lines deep. Then suddenly, scores of more riot police appeared from the inauspiciously small building in which they had been hidden, awaiting us. None of us was prepared to resist such a show of force directly, so we retreated back to the rally, hopeful that our spirit of rebellion temporarily beyond the limits of the accepted and given was meaningful.

I can recall a far more desperate spirit during the counter-inauguration demos in Washington, D.C., in January 2005, as those assembled expressed displeasure with the legal continuation of the Bush regime. Access to the parade route was entirely blocked off by fences; police presence was heavy; and snipers could be readily perceived, perched atop several buildings. The presidential limo sped quickly past the section containing the protest block—no doubt just another “focus group” to Bush—what a despotic fool, reminiscent of the tsars. A similarly absurd and negating atmosphere surrounded Israel’s massacres in Gaza during December 2008 and January 2009. I can never forget the expressions of rage and pain I encountered on the faces of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem during one of the first few days of the airstrikes and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008. I had entered the Old City and the Occupied Palestinian Territories after having restfully visited Jordan’s Wadi Rum for Christmas. While being driven north from Jerusalem to Nablus, I saw that rocks were strewn on several roads, evidence of direct action taken by Palestinians against the reified, hated power of occupation and destruction. In Nablus itself, a protest camp was established in the dewar, or downtown circle, with the participation of several children (‘otfal), that involved art-making activities, speeches, denunciations, providence of news, publication of the faces of all those martyred. This solidarity arose despite the clear overall tensions between the Fateh-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Palestinian multitude participating in the commemorations and protests evinced a collectivist-humanist concern for the fate of their sisters and brothers suffering under the Israeli bombs in the other major Occupied Palestinian Territory, rather than any adherence to divisive political ideologies. The same however cannot be said of the Palestinian Authority forces, who repressed numerous public expressions of sympathy with the people of Gaza, particularly in Ramallah.[16] I recall that on the New Year’s Friday demonstrations in Bi’lin—where the local Palestinian population has been cut off from its agrarian lands due to the erection of the Apartheid Wall—the Israeli forces were especially brutal, opening fire straightaway on the adolescent and youth sections of the weekly communal mobilization to resist colonization, rather than beginning by launching tear-gas grenades first. Among the Palestinians a great rage and outrage could thus readily be gleaned. “How dare they try to take our lives away from us, how dare they treat us like that?”[17] As a negative mirror-image of human rebellion, the cruelty of the occupying force was obvious for all to see.

The seemingly eternal return of negative historical developments in Palestine would re-assert itself most acutely in summer 2014, when the Israeli military once again engaged in a massively murderous campaign in Gaza. In New York, Direct Action for Palestine (DA4P) organized several emergency protest mobilizations in midtown Manhattan directed against the Israeli consulate; a number of banks financing Zionist crimes, including expropriation of land and settlement of the West Bank; and the Diamond District, comprised of numerous jewelry shops owned by Zionist Jews. In this last locale, we protestors encountered the fury of a number of Zionist chauvinists, thoughtlessly and incessantly chanting “Israel!” as we defied them, all the while the State they championed extinguished hundreds and thousands of Palestinian lives. Had it not been for the police cordon accompanying the march, ironically, several of us Palestinian sympathizers would likely have been attacked and injured by this proto-fascist mob. In such a strongly pro-Israeli city, we represented the militant minority opposing itself to authority, authoritarianism, settler-colonialism, and militarism, revindicating the right to rebel against despotism, injustice, domination, and absurdity. Retrospectively, though, in parallel to the counter-protests against COP and Wall Street, one can question whether DA4P concretely helped to stay Israel’s iron fist in any way. As Subcomandate Marcos—now Galeano—movingly observed during the winter 2008-2009 assault: “Is it useful to say something? Do our cries stop even one bomb? Does our word save the life of even one Palestinian?”[18] Yet, as Marcos/Galeano remarks, and as the resistance of Palestinians and their comrades demonstrates, it becomes necessary forthrightly to express one’s repudiation of events once these come to surpass basic principles of humanity so brazenly. “Only a humanity to whom death has become as indifferent as its members, that has itself died, can inflict it administratively on innumerable people” (Adorno).[19]

 

Theses on Repressive Tolerance

1. I am in full agreement with Herbert Marcuse: there can be no right to advocate imperial war, exploitation, racism, sexism, fascism, or genocide.[20] The numerous victims of capital, colonialism, white supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy—prisoners; the institutionalized; racial minorities in the West; women and children; LGBTQ individuals; workers; anti-imperialist movements in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America; the millions of non-human animal species; and the biosphere as a whole—demand the overthrow of these systems of domination. Rather than any sense of expediency or conformism, concern for the fate of nature and history brutalized by hegemony must become central to radical ethics and politics today.

2. The concept of tolerance must return to its original sense of being a “weapon for humanity,” moving into the future victorious against the counterparts of the clerical-absolutist regimes of yesteryear.[21] This implies an active counter-movement from below incorporating direct action and dual-power to take down capitalism, militarism, and all other forms of oppression. Marcuse is right to stress that the revolt of the oppressed against the system historically has served to pause the continuum of domination—if only momentarily. One thinks of numerous historical examples illuminating the path: the French Revolution; Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals; the Paris Commune; the Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) and the Mexican Revolution; the February Revolution, deposing tsarism; the Spanish Revolution of 1936; Rubén Jaramillo, Genaro Vázquez, and Lucio Cabañas, Mexican guerrilleros; the global uprising of 1968; the Gwanju Commune; the Tahrir Commune; the Palestinian Intifada; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN); and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), among many others. As Marcuse observes rightly:

The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the powers that be; it can, under the prevailing conditions […] only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities […]—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.[22]

[1]     Kolbert, E. (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2]     Adorno, T. W. (1974). Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (p. 229, E. F. N. Jephcott, trans.) London: Verso, 1974.

[3]     Engel-Di Mauro, S. (2014). Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Eco-Social Approach. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan..

[4]     Agence France-Press. (2015, 14 October). “2015 becomes worst US wildfire year on record,” Phys.org. Retrieved 22 October 2015 from http://phys.org/news/2015-10-worst-wildfire-year.html.

[5]     Associated Press. (2015, 21 October). “Warmest September ever points to 2015 being world’s hottest year on record,” Guardian.

[6]     Plait, P. (2015, 27 October). “Indonesia Fires Seen From a Million Miles Away,” Slate. Retrieved 22 November from http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2015/10/27/earth_from_space_indonesian_peat_fires_show_up_in_satellite_photos.html; Carrington, D. (2015, 20 November).“Half of tree species in the Amazon at risk of extinction, say scientists,” Guardian.

[7]     Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (2002/1947/1944). Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (p. 1E. Jephcott trans.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press; Adorno, T. W. (1993). Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (p. 154, E. Jephcott, trans.). Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

[8]     Hart, J. M. (1978). Anarchism and the Mexican Working Class (pp. 111-120). Austin: University of Texas Press This affirmation of Luz/Lucha in no way seeks to overlook its metamorphosis into the House of the Global Worker (COM), which during the Mexican Revolution unfortunately played the reactionary role of serving in the counter-insurgent war waged by Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón against the Zapatistas (ibid, pp. 126-135).

[9]     Gani, A. and Nicholson, B. (2015, 28 October). “The 116 things that can give you cancer—the full list,” Guardian.

[10]   Horkheimer, M. (1993). Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Writings (p. 35, G. F. Hunter. trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

[11]   Clapp, J. (2000). “Africa and the International Toxic Waste Trade” (pp. 103-124). In The Environment and Development in Africa (M. K. Tesi, ed). Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

[12]   Benjamin, W. (1977). Gesammelte Schriften I/3 (p. 1232). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag..

[13]   Katsiaficas, G. (2012-2013). Asia’s Unknown Uprisings: Volumes 1 and 2. Oakland, California: PM Press.

[14]   Gupta, A. (2014, 19 September). “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,” Counterpunch Retrieved 22 November 2015 from “How the People’s Climate March Became a Corporate PR Campaign,”; Saul, Q (2014, 16 September). “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” Truthout. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/26215-like-a-dull-knife-the-peoples-climate-farce.

[15]   Saul, Q. and Sethness Castro, J. (2015, 10 April). “On Climate Satyagraha,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 22 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/10/on-climate-satyagraha/.

[16]   Juma’, J. (2012, 3 July). “PA repression feeds flames of Palestinian discontent,” Electronic Intifada. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from https://electronicintifada.net/content/pa-repression-feeds-flames-palestinian-discontent/11456.

[17]   Holloway, J. (2010). “Of Despair and Hope,” Interventionistische Linke. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.dazwischengehen.org/node/669.

[18]   Subcomandante Marcos (2009, 1 February). “Gaza Will Survive,” Counterpunch. Retrieved 23 November 2015 from http://www.counterpunch.org/2009/02/01/gaza-will-survive/.

[19]   Adorno, op. cit. (1974), p. 233.

[20]   Marcuse, H. (2014). Marxism, Revolution, Utopia: Collected Papers, Volume Six (pp. 293-297D. Kellner and C. Pierce, eds.). London: Routledge, 2014.

[21]   Ibid, pp. 218-221.

[22]   Marcuse, H. (1965). “Repressive Tolerance.” In A Critique of Pure Tolerance (p, 123, R. P. Wolff and B. Moore, Jr., eds.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Review of Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University (1974)

October 27, 2015
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Philadelphia Museum of Art: The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/TW1258

J. M. W. Turner, “The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons” (1834). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Published on Heathwood Press on 27 October 2015.  Co-written with R.C. Smith

Herbert Marcuse’s Paris Lectures at Vincennes University
ed. Peter-Erwin Jansen, Charles Reitz
142 pp. – $20
ISBN: 1512319023
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Discovered in 2014 by Peter-Erwin Jansen, then annotated and edited by Jansen and Charles Reitz for publication in 2015, Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University do not necessarily provide any radical new material in comparison to some of the well-known works which he was already writing at the time when these lectures originally took place. That is to say that there is no grand treasure of previously unseen revolutionary insight waiting to be discovered in these hitherto unpublished manuscripts. With that observation in mind, what makes these lectures significant and worth reading for the Marcuse scholar has to do with some of the finer nuances of analysis that Marcuse presents regarding American society as the most advanced stage of monopoly capitalism. His discussion on the dynamic forces of revolution and counterrevolution are also notable in this regard. When considered in the context of his more major works, these lectures provide further insight into Marcuse’s overall critical theory. For the non-Marcuse scholar on the other hand – that is, the conscious citizen looking to understand the dynamic context of contemporary neoliberal capitalism and its historic genesis – this book offers an entry point into Marcuse’s thought and his excellent, highly reliable analysis of our modern times. This potential entry into Marcuse’s social philosophy is further reinforced by supplementary commentary by Sarah Surak, Detlev Claussen, and Douglas Kellner.

Integration, the dialectic between rulers and ruled, and new social movements

Though these lectures were first presented in 1974, Marcuse’s sharp analysis of some of the key trends of American society at the time highlight much of what we continue to observe today. In some instances, it could be said that Marcuse even anticipates what we now identify as neoliberalism, not to mention the rise of the mass-surveillance state and the underlying struggle and emergence of contemporary social movements.

Consider, for example, his discussion on the integration of the population with the dominant and coercive system of capital. By “integration” Marcuse means to describe: “the acceptance of, and even the identification with, the capitalist system among the majority of the population, including the majority of the working class” (p. 22). The general thrust of Marcuse’s analysis in this regard is the manner in which the dominant forces of contemporary society (the ‘bad totality’) attempt to keep people “within the framework of the capitalist system and, perhaps, even within the frame work of the capabilities of capitalism” (p. 22). As Marcuse explains, this integration is understood to take place “on three very different levels” (p. 22). The first is the sphere of consumption in which, “In satisfying the needs beyond the mere subsistence needs for a large part […] of the population, the increasing productivity of the service industries churns out more and more comforts, luxuries, and services like organized vacations, traveling, and so on and so on. These are powerful mechanisms which bind people to the established system” (pp. 22-23). In a sense these mechanisms of control help mask over surplus repression. They deflect from the suffering and misery which, in many ways, becomes the hidden reality of capitalist society. This is especially so, Marcuse explains, “when the people cannot imagine a better alternative” (p. 23).

The second level is what Marcuse terms “the management of the mind” (p. 23), which means “the consciousness as well as the unconscious” of the subject. In a sense, what Marcuse is surveying here is a reality we now know all too well: the maintenance of the present social order through structural and systemic mechanisms, albeit sometimes subtle, of control and coercion. The rise of the mass-surveillance state, as Edward Snowden has disclosed, is a perfect example. It is worth noting that it is an example that Marcuse also references in his lectures, decades before Snowden’s leaks revealed the hidden reality of state surveillance programs. Other examples can be found in what Marcuse describes as “two less noticeable phenomena, namely, the release and the satisfaction of primary aggression” (p. 23). In other words, “The increasing violence of films and television” as well as “The increasing aggressiveness in sports and entertainment, and so on” are exemplifications of a sinister psychological paradigm, one which we first learn about in the work of Freud. This paradigm, this play of psychic forces, can be described according “to the degree to which a social system frees the aggressive instincts of man and woman and at the same time succeeds in keeping them within the established framework so that they don’t blow up the society, that this satisfaction of aggressiveness strengthens the society which produces such satisfaction” (pp. 23-24).

To further describe the reality that Marcuse is pointing toward, we could cite several other phenomena as practical examples, including the self-deceiving satisfaction of consumerism. At the heart of consumerism and, equally, the greed and egoism commonly observed in contemporary society, is the unleashing and ultimate rationalization of excessive or rapacious desire for material goods, which, in many ways, is linked to deepening repression. On the one hand, consumerism reinforces the existing system; it strengthens some of the basic drives of contemporary capitalist society. On the other hand, in unleashing greed and egoism and rapacious desire, there is a sort of strange rationale on a systemic level which moralizes greed and attempts to keep the ailing psychology of consumerism in check. Thus, in the case of the Libor scandal for example, where it was discovered that banks were falsely inflating or deflating their rates so as to profit from trades, the bankers involved were condemned on a moral level. They were labelled as ‘greedy’ and ‘immoral’ and, in some cases, it was even argued that these bankers were in no way a representation of the system they inhabit. In popular discourse and reaction, it was rare to see any question of the capitalist context, of the logic or rational of modern political economy, which fosters the sort of behaviour of the bankers in question on the basis of the very impulses the contemporary social system unleashes. Thus, in an odd way, we observe another case of the degree to which the contemporary social system fosters, supports or frees antagonistic forces of man and woman while at the same time endeavouring to keep these destructive forces and impulses within the established framework. The satisfaction of greed and rapacious desire, as opposed to generosity, solidarity and egalitarianism, strengthens the system which produces such satisfaction; but it is moralized so as to ensure the maintenance of that system.

The final, third level “on which integration takes place is systematic and overt repression” (p. 24). Marcuse cites a particularly relevant example which concerns many young people today. To quote in full:

Students know all too well, for example, that if there is anything that indicates radical activity on their record, it will be all but impossible for them to find a job, especially with the entirely negative job market.

Allied with this systematic repression we witness a reduction of civilized sensibilities. You only have to look at some of the decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last years in order to see the dangerous extent of this reduction of civil liberties and, at the same time, the systematic and methodical increase in the power of the police, the National Guard, and other so-called forces of law and order.

This may suffice in order at least to outline the integration, the popular support of the system and some of the basic mechanisms which engender this support.

Following this, Marcuse turns his attention to a fruitful discussion “on the question of who is the actual agent of this repression”, or, as he rephrases, “who is actually the dominant class, the ruling class which is in control of American society” (p. 25). Here another example of particular relevance in our attempt to understand the broader social trends of contemporary society might be found, as Marcuse discusses the dialectic between rulers and ruled, offering some key passages which could be said to describe certain aspects of the unfolding of the contemporary neoliberal context (pp. 27-29). Referring back to the analyses offered by C. Wright Mills, Marcuse reiterates that “domination over the capitalist societies today is shared and organized by three groups” (p. 27), namely corporate leaders, politicians and the military. He then describes how this ruling class, “which not only is not monolithic but permeated with antagonisms, has a common feature, namely, the preservation of the established system” (p. 28). It is along these lines where Marcuse offers a valuable insight which further highlights the importance of this text in these early years of the 21st Century. He argues, when discussing the dialectical relationship between rulers and ruled, that the “various components of indoctrination, manipulation, and management of the mind also become […] instruments for expressing the will and the interests of the indoctrinated population” (p. 28). In essence, Marcuse is explaining the relation between structure and agency, in which “the government and its institutions, the ruling class, systematically makes what is called public opinion, but once made, this public opinion, which is constantly being reasserted, has in turn its own influence on the policy makers” (p. 28). One could argue that this practice is even more prevalent now, after decades of liberalization, in which the growing appearance of freedom – to debate policy or to vote according to one’s own will – is actually countered insofar that the people participate in the rule of society – that is, in the perpetuation of the misery of dominant, coercive and hierarchical social, economic and political conditions.

The people can indeed express their will, which is no longer their will but has been made their will by the ruling class and its instrumentalities. The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. […] There is no doubt that the people who cast their vote in any election are even, in the sense of the system, free people because nobody forces them to vote. But, still, are these the same people who can become subjects of radical change? (p. 29)

There is something horrifying about the reality that Marcuse is surveying here – a trend which, perhaps now more than ever, can be observed in its fullest. It is debatable, firstly, whether one’s vote can actually influence the policy of rulers. The crisis in Greece is a clear example of why such a question is justified. Even in the so-called radical party politics in the UK and the US led by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders respectively, there is still an element of conformism – an element of conservativism, which, in essence, attests to the deepening of the status quo. The “oppositional” economic policies outlined by Corbyn and Sanders alike are really not that radical. They are viewed as progressive precisely because the social, political and economic context has, after so many years – perhaps beginning with the fall of the movements from the 60s and 70s – moved so far to the right. The arguably general absence of radical political subjectivity within these two examples of so-called radical Left party politics today attests to what Marcuse was indicating decades earlier. In a sense, the dialectic between rulers and ruled has developed beyond Marcuse’s conception, if we consider that, in the very existence of the party itself, the status quo of a less-than-revolutionary politics is upheld. Moreover, there is a distinction which must be drawn today – a distinction between the radical subjectivity of autonomous participatory (democratic) movements and the so-called radical subjectivity of the party, particularly as the politics of the latter persists as an extension of the hierarchical and institutional world, and, generally speaking, is framed largely by the ideology of representative democracy (i.e., democratic capitalism). It is debatable whether Marcuse was feeling his way toward this distinction in his 1974 lectures, but one could interpret his argument along such lines when he writes: “that there is a feedback, there is indeed a considerable degree of activity, opinions, and attitudes by the people influencing the government, and that on the other hand at least recognize themselves in their leaders” (p. 31). He then leaves us with one remark which is particularly telling:

The people as authors, the people as buyers and sellers, in turn influence the policy of the rulers. And it is interesting to think back, and not too long back, when among the American Left the slogan was “Power to the People.” “Power to the People.” The slogan is now used to far less a degree because the question “Who are the people?” cannot for any length of time be postponed (p. 29).

In some respects, the distinction highlighted above seems to be playing out today between the emergence of new social movements – which are grassroots, participatory, generally prefigurative, and more or less horizontal – and the lingering ideology of party representation. One could argue that it is, in part, the question “Who are the people?” that contemporary movements are attempting to answer in precisely the same way that they are also responding to the crisis of democracy. In other words, the question “Who are the people?” is symptomatic of alienation, socially and politically. The correct response is not a turn further away from democratic assembly and participation, to a further deepening of the questionable satisfaction of collective reliance on a leader; it is instead a revitalizing of the idea of the commons, of the grassroots, of collective struggle and solidarity – that is, dealienation on several levels. Occupy-style movements are a perfect example of the general political horizon contemporary social movements are suggestive of in this regard. Attempting on the level of praxis to answer questions around the contemporary crisis of democracy, participatory politics and what it means to be ‘public’ in twenty-first century society, the very political concept and definition of “the people” is brought into direct focus, so much so that the existence of hierarchy is challenged on the basis of a ‘mutually recognising’ politics which insists that the ultimate goal of emancipatory change must be, from the start, a product of (dealienating) interaction.

For Marcuse, the real possibility of a revolution in the most advanced industrial countries is one “not on a basis of poverty and misery, but rather on the basis of wasted abundance” (p. 49). Even though misery and suffering and struggle still play more of a role than what Marcuse may let on, especially now in the context of neoliberal austerity and the systematic dismantling of the welfare state, he is nevertheless on to something when he writes:

The result of the ever more explosive contradiction is the gradual development of what we may call an anti-capitalist consciousness; the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness and of an anti-capitalist mental structure, unconscious, among the population in the metropoles, a consciousness still largely unorganized, spontaneous, without definite goals, but, in any case, the consciousness and instincts, drives, “compulsions,” which very definitely come into conflict with the operational values required to sustain the capitalist system. That is to say, the protest comes into conflict with the so-called performance principle, which is the reality principle governing capitalist society. And against this performance principle, we see now the gradual emergence of an opposition―and I repeat, an opposition still unorganized, still to a great extent spontaneous―an opposition against toil as such, an opposition against alienated labor as a full-time job, opposition against the fact that life for the vast majority of the population, is to cite the phrase from Marx, “life as a means to an end and not as an end in itself,” namely life as a means to make a living, as one says, as a means for daily reproducing one’s own existence without ever, or only when it is too late, getting at the joy of really enjoying life (pp. 56-57).

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in various instances of Occupy-style events and the ‘movements of the squares’, protest and struggle are just as present in action and language as joy, solidarity, and collective caring. Returning back to the joy of life, while practicing and experimenting with variations of participatory democracy and actual egalitarian possibilities – public and co-operative libraries, public medical tents, solidarity kitchens, social clinics, mutual aid networks, sustainability initiatives, self-managed workplaces – can it be that contemporary movements represent a more developed politics than what Marcuse saw fragments of in his own time? Is it not that these occupied spaces, these commons-oriented and participatory spaces of practice, are built on the idea of alternative forms of social relations which, in the process, seem to demonstrate a more mature form of the sort of new revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s?  That contemporary social movements are beginning to emerge in challenge against not only the economic status quo but also the social, relational, emotional, psychological, political, cultural, and so on, attests in many ways to the many-sided transformative politics that Marcuse spent years arguing toward. To conclude this thought, consider the passage below in relation to some of the social movements we are witnessing throughout the world today, who aim toward a radical egalitarian and democratic horizon and seem to suggest some sense of a critically retrieved and holistic notion of social progress:

What is required to bring out the full, entire, and qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism is not so much the continued ever more efficient development of the productive forces, but the total redirection of the productive forces altogether towards new goals and toward a new quality of life. Now, in view of this fact, there must be not only the political and economic revolution, not only new institutions and basic social relationships, but also the reversal and subversion of the entire system of values that kept at least Western civilization going, going on the ever more repressive and destructive aspects, until this very day (pp. 59-60).

Capital, radical consciousness, and world-historical revolution

As alluded earlier, one of Marcuse’s principal concerns in the 1974 Vincennes lectures is to continue with a lifetime of investigation into the conditions underpinning the reproduction of the “bad totality” that is global capitalism, as juxtaposed with the possibilities of breaking free from this “Iron Cage,” to use Weberian terminology. As in his “Assessment” of “The Movement in a New Era of Repression” (1971), he observes in these lectures that the contemporary U.S. left lacks a “mass base” among the populace precisely because of the strength of integration, while on the other hand he laments the “sad phenomenon” whereby the oppressed racial and national minorities in the U.S. have been depoliticized and suppressed (p. 4)—thus blunting the revolutionary hopes he had identified as emanating from militant people of color at the conclusion of One-Dimensional Man (1964). The critical theorist moreover notes that, on the international stage, the “arrangement” the U.S. ruling class has made with the Soviet Union contributes to the overall stabilization of world capitalism, and he presciently speculates that a similar “arrangement” would be made with the People’s Republic of China (p. 7). Defining the “objective conditions” as “the strength or weakness of the State or the ruling class [versus] the strength or weakness of the working class,” Marcuse soberly acknowledges that the prevailing tendency is toward neo-fascism rather than any kind of socialism (p. 13, 10). In this sense, Marcuse observes knowingly that the problem of consciousness—the “subjective conditions”—does not have to do with any lack of knowledge regarding the factual situation, for the implicit and expressed political philosophy of the conformist majority in late-capitalist society would seem to be driven much more by powerlessness:

Yes, there are the objective conditions which one knows well: It is repression; it is corruption; capitalism no longer works without   inflation, unemployment, etc., etc. But what can one do? Nothing at all. (p. 18)

In idealistic terms, Marcuse counterposes against such widespread resignation the radical consciousness, which in Kantian terms mobilizes the “imagination as a cognitive faculty” to show “that the impossible is not impossible” (p. 16). It is in this sense that the radical consciousness is “way ahead” of the objective conditions, for it dialectically “projects potentiality in the objective conditions” and “anticipates possibilities not yet realized” (p. 18). Though Marcuse clearly sympathizes with this latter approach, he defines both the conformist and radical consciousness alike as manifestations of false consciousness—insofar as the latter refuses to apply a Marxist analysis to the changes in the capitalist system since the nineteenth century (p. 19). Speaking to the disillusionment felt by many of those formerly in opposition when ‘the Revolution’ was not consummated at the end of the 1960s, Marcuse criticizes the disengagement into which many radicals fell: “Any absenteeism from political life, any absenteeism from links with political activity is escapist and is conformist” (p. 33). Taking an historical view, the critical theorist observes that social revolution is a process, and that it cannot be presumed to be without its regressions. This is particularly the case for the world-historical revolution that Marcuse anticipated as possible for the end of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: being “more radical and more sweeping in scope than all preceding historical revolutions,” this “would be a revolution not only in the political and economic institutions, not only a revolution in class structure, but also a total transformation and subversion of values in all spheres and dimensions of the material and intellectual cultures” (p. 59; emphasis added). The philosopher observes that:

we cannot possibly assume that the largest and most radical revolution in history […] would come about in a straightly ascending curve and would come about in a relatively short time. (p. 34)

Though Marcuse remains faithful to the possibility of this world-historical revolutionary transformation, and agrees with Marx that it would have to centrally include the advanced-capitalist core of the world-system, he specifies in the Vincennes lectures that he expects this revolution to be the work of “75 to 150 years” (p. 34)—in an echo of the closing lines to Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972). He clarifies that, though he believes the prospects for this revolution to be long-term, it will never come if the radical opposition does not strive to incubate it now.

As in Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse in these lectures also discusses the phenomenon of the vast extension of the U.S. working class. Citing statistics compiled by Stanley Aronowitz and the U.S. government, Marcuse shows that monopoly capital has largely suppressed the middle class and made 90 percent of the population into a dependent class (pp. 40-42). The theorist then cites a famous letter from Marx to Engels (1865) in which the former tells the latter that the “working class is revolutionary or it is nothing at all” (p. 61). Marcuse interprets Marx’s statement here as suggesting that the laboring class is revolutionary insofar as its “needs and aspiration […] are irreconcilable and incompatible with the capitalist system” (p. 62). Returning to the discussion on conformist consciousness, he then declares the contemporary U.S. working class not to be revolutionary as a whole, though he does endorse Marx’s general point about the conflict between capital and labor, concluding that this antagonism is “bound to explode in the long run” (p. 62). As in a number of other addresses from this time-period, the critical theorist points out the militancy of a radical minority among the U.S. working class, compelled as it is by the combination of workplace alienation and revolutionary consciousness to engage in spontaneous acts of subversion, such as absenteeism, sabotage, and wildcat strikes (p. 63-64). Marcuse sees in such acts, and in the parallel vague public awareness of the obsolescence of the capitalist mode of production, the decline of the performance principle and a growing threat to regnant obedience (pp. 64, 52).

The critical theorist concludes by suggesting that this militant minority among the workers could, like radical students and people of color in struggle, serve as the catalyst for the future disintegration of U.S. and thus global capitalism (pp. 66-67). Closing on an ecological and syndicalist note, Marcuse anticipates laborers challenging workplace hierarchy and humanity engaging in a “total redirection of production […] towards the abolition of poverty and scarcity wherever it exists in the world today,” together with a “total reconstruction of the environment and the creation of space and time for creative work” (p. 69). Anticipating the profound exacerbation of the environmental crisis which was already evident at the end of his life, Marcuse announces that the “abolition of waste, luxury, planned obsolescence, [and] unnecessary services and commodities of all kind” would imply a lower standard of living for the world’s privileged minority, but that such a ‘sacrifice’ in capitalist terms would not be an excessively high price to pay for the possible “advent” of libertarian socialism (p. 69).

Closing thoughts

It is a testament to the fundamental character of Marcuse’s thought that he was able to identify, decades earlier, some of the deepest trends underlying the evolution of late-capitalist society. That he could, with remarkable precision, analyze the earliest developments of what we now understand as neoliberalism is one of many examples of the acute, incisive and penetrating qualities of Marcuse’s social philosophy (and also that, more generally, of the early Frankfurt School). Though it is certainly true that there are dated aspects to Marcuse’s argument in these lectures, this is only understandable considering that it is a basic principle of critical theory to remain rooted in history. Looking back, there may be concepts and arguments which can be retrieved and advanced. But this does not take away from Marcuse’s overall theses, formulated by way of remarkably complex and comprehensive research on the dynamic processes and forces of modern dominant, coercive and authoritarian society – as well as the foundational basis for emancipatory praxis and the development of an actual democratic, egalitarian social conditions.

At a time of endless “critical studies” and commentary, which do not always reach down to the levels of fundamental interdisciplinary analysis representative of the very essence of critical theory, we would do well to reflect on the crisis of contemporary social theory and the need to return to the roots of the Frankfurt School. In confronting the crisis of apolitical social theory, Marcuse can help show us the way forward as almost every sentence he composed in these lectures and elsewhere reminds us of the precisely foundational nature and transformative potential of critical theory.

The manner in which the critical theorist identifies, for example, the changing dynamics of capitalist society—whereby Marcuse suggests that revolution within the most advanced industrial nations will no longer be primarily based on hunger and misery but on wasted abundance (p. 49)—in many ways anticipates what we’re witnessing in these early decades of the 21st Century. Popular movements today – such as the sustainability movement, the circular economy, or the rise of eco-socialism, to name a few – are emerging in response to this very concept. The question of whether these movements are actually revolutionary and evidence an emancipatory politics is a legitimate one. In many cases, these mainstream initiatives – consider, again, the rise in the notion of the circular economy – seem to lack a more fundamental transformative project of thought. But what these movements are responding to – their language, their direction of imagination, and their efforts at re-designing modern political economy, no doubt exemplifies one of Marcuse’s basic arguments in his 1974 Paris lectures. Efforts in the realms of voluntary simplicity, political veganism, green syndicalism, and direct action for the climate represent more radical and direct manifestations of Marcuse’s argument with regard to ecological politics.

It unfortunately seems to be the case that many commonalities can be seen between the world-political situation today as compared to the case forty years ago. In light of the endless wars, extreme and burgeoning economic disparities, and ever-worsening environmental-health indicators, it is evident that capitalism continues to hold all of humanity and nature ransom in the Iron Cage. Though Occupy and the popular uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the significant potential for resistance and even revolution, the pendulum has clearly swung back again toward the consolidation of the system in recent years, as seen especially in Egypt, Syria, and the U.S. Perhaps the radical consciousness is more widespread now than before these breakthroughs, but it still confronts an entrenched conformist consciousness among the general populace, at least in the U.S. and Europe, as well as a fascistic concentration of power, wealth, and military might that is coordinated by the transnational capitalist class. Recent events in Greece evidence precisely this point. Here, a counterhegemonic movement emerged as a significant wave of grassroots energy only to crash upon the counter-revolutionary shores of the European Union, its entrenched neoliberal governments, and institutional politics. Greece may have seen mass mobilization, but much of Europe left revolutionary Greek movements to struggle for themselves (aside, perhaps, from the odd ‘solidarity’ march). In this sense, Marcuse’s comments on the glaring absence of a “mass base” for revolutionary social transformation remain apposite, as is the theorist’s analysis of the ideological basis for conformism, underpinned as it is by nihilistic fatalism and a mistaken feeling of powerlessness. Marcuse’s conclusion in the 1975 assessment of the “Failure of the New Left?” remains entirely true today: “[t]he transition to socialism is not now on the agenda; the counterrevolution is dominant.”[1] Though the inertial perpetuation of these negative conditions over time might lead one to conclude that a change in tactics and strategy would be justified, the problem of capitalism and domination still remains, such that the response in parallel likely remains radical mass-struggle to construct an anti-systemic multitude to disrupt and reorganize the hegemonic social, economic, and political institutions in all their facets.

Moving forward, the challenge for emerging scholars and writers in critical theory is to understand what key concepts need retrieval, critical sharpening or abandoning. In light of this challenge, an important question might be raised: how might these previously unpublished lectures inspire a project aimed toward advancing the Frankfurt School? What new ideas do they inspire? In what ways might Marcuse’s thought assist the pressing question of emancipatory politics and contemporary critical theory as we move forward in the 21st Century?

Another key challenge, as Marcuse would have it, is to engage with popular movements and help inform and guide their diversity of struggle today. Marcuse understood, in many ways, that revolutionary societal transformation is a complex, dynamic and many-sided process. In essence, we could say that it is subject to an extended social-historical process of revolutionary transition which could very well “take a time of at least 75 to 150 years” (p. 34). How can critical theory assist new social movements in establishing the basis for emancipatory societal transformation? Marcuse teaches us that, in the years past and in the years ahead, critical theory must constantly and normatively present the challenges of theory to movements in the field of practice. It is always possible that, in an actionist rush of blood for the thrill of practice, movements become inclined to abandon theory, usually to the detriment of practice which then turns incomplete, contradictory and incoherent. To borrow from Andrew Feenberg, theory must be a ‘philosophy of praxis’ – a ‘philosophy of praxis’ that engages on the level of practical action. If Marcuse (and arguably the first generation of the Frankfurt School in general) are the torch bearers when it comes to this philosophy of praxis, it is the challenge of the new wave of thinkers in this tradition to claim this torch and further illuminate the path forward. In doing so, theory must continue to draws its concepts and its inspiration from the revolutionary activity of new social movements and, as Charles Reitz recently commented, normatively challenge them to work for the radical rather than the minimal goals of socialism. If one were to take a single stirring inspiration from these lectures, this would be it.

[1]     Herbert Marcuse, The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers Volume 4, ed. Douglas Kellner (London: Routledge, 2004), 189.

Now Available: Part I of Exposé of White Supremacist “Anarchist” Michael Schmidt

October 12, 2015

black flame

Part I of Alexander Reid Ross and Joshua Stephens’ exposé of the chauvinism and white-supremacism of former AK Press author Michael Schmidt has now been released.  It is understood that parts II through IV will be published serially over the next two weeks.  This first part introduces the South African Schmidt, co-author with Lucien van der Walt of Black Flame: The Revolutionary Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, 2009) and sole author of Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (AK Press, 2013), in terms of his notorious 2008 internal document written for the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF), “Politico-Cultural Dynamics of the South African Anarchist Movement,” which belittles the ability of black South Africans to contribute to the revolutionary anarchist cause in the post-Apartheid setting, supposedly due to deficiencies in culture, upbringing, and economic status.

Statement from Anarkismo on the AK Press accusations against Michael Schmidt

September 30, 2015

Originally published on Anarkismo, 30 September 2015

Original AK Press accusations here (25 September 2015)

The international Anarkismo Network, which brings together class struggle anarchist organisations from more than a dozen countries in both the global South and North, and has relations with far more from across the globe, has noted with great surprise and concern the recent accusations by AK Press that Michael Schmidt is a fascist working undercover to infiltrate the anarchist movement.

Michael Schmidt has been a regular and long-standing contributor to Anarkismo.net and, in the past, has sat on its editorial and delegates groups. If these accusations are proven to be true Anarkismo will take immediate and appropriate action to ban him from posting on the website, as well as to guard against any possible future infiltration.

Before we can make any pronouncements on the matter, however, we need to carefully examine both the AK Press evidence, the article by Alexander Reid Ross, as well as Michael Schmidt’s response to the evidence and article. As a network Anarkismo has not taken sides, and will not accuse the accuser or the accused before there is more information and all the evidence has been presented. Both sides will have to explain themselves thoroughly first and be available for answering any serious questions about the information.

However, we must be clear that we feel the way in which AK Press has dealt with the matter is irresponsible and prejudicial, judging and condemning Michael Schmidt without presenting any evidence, and without allowing him the right to defend himself, or to respond to the article before making the public announcement of 25 September 2015.

Both sides must be given a fair chance to have their say.

The Anarkismo Network therefore demands that the alleged “incontrovertible evidence” be released by AK Press with immediate effect, and not to refer us to the journalist: since AK Press itself has endorsed the position, it must take responsibility for the proof.

We furthermore demand that AK Press unconditionally and explicitly state, also with immediate effect, that its allegations refer to Michael Schmidt alone, and not to any publishers, co-authors, editors, left organisations or currents with which Michael Schmidt may have been associated.

We urge AK Press to publish Michael Schmidt’s official responses on its newswires and sites, as we believe that he has the right to defend himself.

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.