Posts Tagged ‘WSWS’

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.

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

February 9, 2016


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.


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)