Walter Benjamin, Diabolical Hater

November 28, 2012

Walter Benjamin going in on the dissident bourgeois poet Erich Kastner:

The metamorphosis of the political struggle from a drive to make a political commitment into an object of contemplative pleasure, from a means of production into an article of consumption, is characteristic of this literature.

But it doesn’t stop there. Benjamin deigns to quote himself (“a perceptive critic”), from “Left Wing Melancholy,” to sum up:

These extreme left-wing intellectuals have nothing to do with the worker’s movement. Rather they exist as the mirror image of that fringe of bourgeois decadence which tried to assimilate itself to feudal strata and admired the Empire in the person of the reserve lieutenant. … Their function, seen from a political point of view, is to form not a Party, but a clique, seen from a literary point of view, not a school but a fad, from an economic point of view not to become producers but agents. Agents or hacks, who make a great show of their poverty and congratulate themselves on the yawning void. It would be impossible to carve a more comfortable position out of an uncomfortable situation.

Instead, Benjamin wanted art that would, by revealing its techniques, destroy the (class) divide between reader and writer. It was praxis, not merely aestheticization of politics (Benjamin would have even stronger words for such a tendency in a later essay). In Benjamin’s estimation, Kastner’s stuff, for all its radical trappings, was still bent on enhancing the author’s prestige in the eyes of his own circle and in the eyes of those he was criticizing.

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Some passages from Neither Right nor Left

June 14, 2012

Neither Right nor Left by Zeev Sternhell excavates the intellectual history of fascism from a counter-intuitive site: late 19th Century France. This is a long book about a very specific topic, and I didn’t go through it very carefully, but I found a lot of interesting passages in my reading. Here are a few I’ve transcribed.

According to Sternhell, the roots of fascist ideology travelled under many names, in dissident right-wing and left-wing circles, in which a variety of positions were expounded upon. This succeeded in incubating certain unifying beliefs that would find their historical opportunity after the first world war.

Thus different schools of thought all shared the same rejection of the liberal order, constituting a kind of outer circle around the hard core of fascist thought. This was the real importance of fascist ideology. Its widespread dissemination and influence were possible only because of the channels of transmission provided by the nonconformist milieu. In these groups, one may have hated the totalitarian state, but one could not avoid identifying oneself with the fascist criticism of bourgeois society, liberalism, and democracy and it was because it was not onlythe bourgeois world that was attacked but a number of universal principles readily associated with the bourgeoisie that the harsh criticisms of the regime brought their full weight to bear. These criticisms, in fact, were directed less against a system of government that, in a divided society, considerably weakened the executive authority than against democracy itself. The obsession with decadence and the sense of participating in the collapse of an individualistic and basely materialistic civilization were the common elements in this way of thinking.

One of the most important groups combined syndicalists and monarchists — the Cercle Proudhon, named after the famous anarchist and foil of Marx. You may remember Proudhon’s famous couplet deriving from the title of one of his books: “What is property? Property is theft!” A few months ago I tried (and failed) to read that book, but I did get through the translator’s introduction, which lamented the fact that Marx’s critique was so comprehensive that people didn’t think Proudhon worth reading any more, even though the translator also admitted Marx was right about everything. The appeal of Proudhon to the French proto-fascists were his anti-Marxism, his syndicalism, his dislike of democracy, his anti-Semitism, and his nationality (one critique of Marxism from these quarters was that it was too German for France). The Cercle

wished to create a new world — virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical — based on a sense of duty and sacrifice: a world where a morality of warriors and monks would prevail. They wanted a society dominated by a powerful avant-garde, a proletarian elite, an aristocracy of producers, joined in alliance against the decadent bourgeoisie with an intellectual youth avid for action. When the time came, it would not be difficult for a synthesis of this kind to take on the name of fascism.

What is sometimes forgotten is that fascism envisioned itself as a kind of socialism, explicitly anti-Marxist. This socialism was “conceived of in ethical terms” (Marx famously avoided ethical prescriptions), promoting “universal values, independent of concrete historical circumstances, a conception of socialism in vitalist, intuitive, Nietzschean, and Bergsonian terms.” It was about the feelings and the energy of the moment, against a historical materialist understanding of context. Georges Sorel, one of the most important proto-fascist thinkers engaged in “a leftist, voluntarist, and vitalist form of revision” of Marxism. According to Sternhell, “In many respects, the history of fascism can be described as a continuous attempt to revise Marxism and create a national form of socialism,” nationalism having apparently proven itself “up to the task” of mobilizing the masses to fight and die in WWI more effectively than the Marxism of the Second International. These people desperately wanted a revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and were searching for the means to carry it out.

The apparent failures of Marxism meant that the proletariat was to blame as well — for the proto-fascists,  it was no longer the revolutionary class. “The socialism of these people required the proletariat only to a limited degree.” In its place came elitist strands of thought that opposed any democratic control over more adventurist segments:

Pouget declared that the methods of action of action of a confederal organization could not be based on the “vulgar democratic ideas; they do not express the consent of the majority arrived at through universal suffrage.” Pouget believed that if democratic procedures were adopted in labor circles, “the lack of will of the unconscious and nonsyndicalist majority would paralyze all action. But the minority is not willing to abandon its demands and aspirations before the inertia of a mass that the spirit of revolt has not yet animated and enlightened. Consequently, the conscious minority has an obligation to act, without reckoning with the refractory mass.” No one, he claimed, has the right “to recriminate against the disinterested initiative of the minority,” least of all “the unconscious” who, compared to militants, are no more than “human zeros.”

Sternhell extensively describes the idiosyncratic thought of a number of these figures, but he keeps coming back to what united them — and by implication, which beliefs are completely hostile to fascist appropriation: Marxism, democracy, and materialism.

The value of this book is, I hope, obvious. Here we have an extensive description of beliefs that, while not always explicitly fascist, or even right-wing, enabled fascist takeovers. Often enough this stuff came from authors who conceived of themselves as leftists. There’s probably more than enough accusations of “FASCIST” being hurled in lefty quarters, but as we reckon with all manner of idiosyncratic “left” philosophy and theory emerging today (non-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist “communism” is one weird one), and we need to know precisely which avenues of thought led to terrible consequences so we can isolate them quickly and critique them fully.


Excerpts from “Reading Capital Politically”

June 7, 2012

I’m reading Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically, available for free from the lovable scallawags at LibCom.org. I’m only halfway through, but I wanted to post some useful excerpts.

On what “working class” means beyond wage labor:

When we study the commodity-form that is imposed on the working class, it is important not to equate that imposition with the imposition of the money wage. This is the error of those who read Marx too narrowly and define the working class only as wage labor. To say that the working class sells its labor-power to capital must be understood broadly: the working class includes those who work for capital in various ways in exchange for a portion of the total social wealth they produce. As Marx pointed out in his discussion of wages in Part VI of Capital, and as the Wages for Housework Movement has emphasized, the money wage represents payment only for a part of that work. In the factory the unpaid and unwaged part counts as surplus value; the development of the analysis of the social factory (see Introduction) has brought out how capital is able to force the working class to do unwaged work for it in many other ways. The most closely analyzed aspect of this is the work involved in the training and upkeep of labor-power itself — work performed by the wage worker but also by unwaged household workers — mainly wives and children. Other formally unwaged work includes such things as travel to and from the job, shopping, and those parts of schoolwork, community work, and church work that serve to reproduce labor-power for capital. Unwaged work is not unpaid; rather it is at least partially sold to capital in return for nonwage income. The important point here is that the analysis of the commodity-form in the class relation must include this kind of exchange as well as the direct exchange of wages for labor-power.

On machines, wages, the working day, and productivity – automation increases the power of capital, but in contradictory ways:

The success of the working class in reducing work historically created a profound crisis for capital and forced it to seek new strategies. One response to a decrease of unpaid work in the factory was to extend the unwaged workday outside the factory. The analysis of the social factory has brought out how the shortening of hours and the exclusion of women and children from factory labor — a tendency which began after Marx wrote Capital — was partly offset for capital by an increase in work done in the home and in the school to maintain or improve the quality of labor-power. But given that these increases could not completely offset the decline in factory hours, a different kind of shift was needed. The other major way that capital found to maintain, reproduce, and expand its control was, as we have just seen, to substitute machinery for labor, so that less human labor would still produce as much or more than before. It is important to see that the attempt to raise productivity was not simply another aspect of capitalist exploitation but was a shift in capital’s strategic plan forced on it by the growth of workers’ power. For Marx there was no doubt about this: “So soon as the gradually surging revolt of the working class compelled Parliament to shorten compulsorily the hours of labor, and to begin by imposing a normal working-day on factories proper, so soon consequently as an increased production of [absolute] surplus value by the prolongation of the working-day was once for all put a stop to, from that moment capital threw itself with all its might into the production of relative surplus value, by hastening on the further improvement of machinery.”

At that point the struggle passed over from being one primarily concerned with how much the commodity-form will be imposed to one primarily concerned with at what price it will be imposed. The working class puts up with the commodity-form but demands a larger share of social wealth, that is, a higher price for its commodity, labor-power. Unable to offset a secular increase in the price of labor-power by an increase in the working day, capital turns to increased productivity as the only means both to pay the higher price and to maintain and increase profits.

On “political demands” vs. “economic demands”: demands for increased pay and better working conditions are NOT some kind of “capitulation” to capitalism, but actually existing class struggle. Fighting capitalism means attacking its ability to extract surplus value.

This analysis of the dialectic of qualitative and quantitative in the class struggle helps clarify the political nature of the working-class attack on capital which produced the crisis. One way in which the old dichotomy between politics and economics has often been posed has been to label as “economism” struggles by workers which are deemed solely quantitative, for example, more wages, shorter workday, and so on. These struggles are said to be within capital, which is itself essentially quantitative. “Political” struggles are only those that challenge the “quality” of capital itself, that is, that threaten the “revolutionary” overthrow of capital via the seizure of state power. From what we have seen already, it should be apparent that struggles over the length and intensity of the workday (how much the commodity-form is imposed) are at once quantitative and qualitative: quantitative because they concern the amount of work that will be done for capital, qualitative because they put into question the realization of enough surplus value to maintain capital’s control. The “quantitative” struggle over income also raises the question of the realization of surplus value and capital’s survival.

On the materialist basis for divisions among the working class (for example, between men and women, whites and non-whites): it is not merely ideological but also reflects material benefits privileged groups within the working accrue from their position. Destroying these privileges in the interest of working class unity necessarily means leadership by those in dominated groups:

Because the divisions are hierarchical ones, there are always dominant and dominated sides. In these circumstances the divisions have worked where capital has been able to play on the dominant side’s profiting from the division. The divisions are not imaginary or simply ideological ones that can be overcome with “class consciousness.” Men do benefit from women’s work; whites do benefit from blacks’ lower status; local workers do benefit from immigrant workers’ taking the worst jobs. Therefore, the struggle to destroy the divisions generally finds its initiative in the dominated group, since the other side cannot be expected to always work to destroy its privileges. The efforts to overcome racism, sexism, imperialism, or the exploitation of students in the 1960s were led by the struggles of blacks not whites, women not men, peasants not Americans, students not professors or administrators. It was on the basis of these autonomous efforts that the struggles circulated to other sectors of the class, recomposing the structure of power. To subvert the autonomy of such sectors, as the Left and the unions generally try to do by dissolving them into their own hierarchical organizations, can only act to perpetuate the divisions useful to capital. The actuality of autonomy complicates the meaning of working-class homogeneity against capital. It suggests that working-class unity must be understood as being indirect like the homogeneity of capital (malleability through division). In other words, working-class unity is often achieved only indirectly through complementarity in the exercise of power against capital by different sectors of the class involved in the struggle, not in terms of the illusory kind of direct homogeneity of Leninist institutions.

Cleaver’s got a bee in his bonnet about “Leninists,” probably due to his experiences in the New Left in the 1960s. I’d add that Lenin’s success was based on his ability to incorporate the demands of many heterogeneous and autonomous groups, which aligns with Cleaver’s pertinent observations. But I am not the guy who wants to have That Lenin Debate, not right now anyway.

Among the book’s virtues is its excellent assortment of footnotes. If TELOS ever gets its subscriber access worked out, I’ll have a field day. Of course there are many useful references to old Karl himself, such as this letter in which he discusses how capitalists divide workers according to race and ethnicity:

Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.


Brecht on Resisting Austerity

May 3, 2012

From his wonderful poetry, written some time between 1934 and 1936 in Germany.

“The Shopper”

I am an old woman.
When Germany had awoken
Pension rates were cut. My children
Gave me the pennies they could spare. But
I could hardly buy anything now. So at first
I went less often to the shops where I’d gone daily.
But one day I thought it over, and then
Daily once more I went to the baker’s, the greengrocer’s
As an old customer.
With care I picked provisions
Took no more than I used to, but no less either
Put rolls beside the loaf and leeks beside the cabbage and only
When they added up the bill did I sigh
With my stiff fingers dug into my little purse
And shaking my head confessed that I didn’t have enough
To pay for those few things, and shaking my head I
Left the shop, observed by all the customers.
I said to myself: If all of us who have nothing
No longer turn up where food is laid out
They may think we don’t need anything
But if we come and are unable to buy
They’ll know how it is.


finally unsubscribed from MoveOn.org

January 26, 2012


Perry Anderson on Lukács’ Insurrectionism

December 21, 2011

Bolded the meaty bits for the TL;DRers:

With the victory of the Russian Revolution, and the collapse of the Hohenzollern and Habsburg empires in central Europe, key theorists of German communism came to believe that, in the aftermath of the First World War, the seizure of power by the proletariat was on the immediate agenda in every imperialist country, because the world had now definitively entered the historical epoch of the socialist revolution. This belief was most fully and forcefully expressed by Georg Lukács, then a leading member of the exiled Hungarian Communist Party, writing in the German-language theoretical review Kommunismus in Vienna. For Lukács, there was now a ‘universal actuality of the proletarian revolution’, determined by the general stage of the development of capitalism, which was henceforward in mortal crisis. ‘This means that the actuality of the revolution is no longer only a world- historical horizon arching over the self-liberating working class, but that revolution is already on its agenda . . . The actuality of the revolution provides the key-note of the whole epoch.’ This fusion — confusion — between the theoretical concepts of historical epoch and historical conjuncture allowed Lukács and prominent colleagues in the KPD such as Thalheimer and Frohlich to ignore the whole problem of the concrete preconditions for a revolutionary situation by abstractly affirming the revolutionary character of the time itself. On this premise, they went on to argue for a novel practical tactic: the Teilaktion or ‘partial’ armed action against the capitalist State.

Within the ranks of the Second International, Bernstein and co-thinkers had maintained the possibility of ‘partial’ ameliorations of capitalism by means of parliamentary reforms, that would in a gradual process of evolution eventually lead to the peaceful completion of socialism. The illusion that the inherent unity of the capitalist State could be divided or attained by successive partial measures, slowly transforming its class character, had been a traditional prerogative of reformism. There now, however, emerged an adventurist version of the same fundamental error in the Third International. For in 1920-21, Thalheimer, Frohlich, Lukács and others theorized putschist ‘partial actions’ as a series of armed attacks against the bourgeois State, limited in scope yet constant in tempo. In the words of Kommunismus: ‘The principal characteristic of the present period of the revolution lies in this, that we are now compelled to conduct even partial battles, including economic ones, with the instrumentalities of the final battle’, above all ‘armed insurrection’. There was thus created the famous theory of the ‘revolutionary offensive’.Since the epoch was revolutionary, the only correct strategy was an offensive one, to be mounted in a series of repeated armed blows against the capitalist State. These should be undertaken even if the working class was not in an immediately revolutionary mood: they would then precisely serve to ‘awaken’ the proletariat from its reformist torpor. Lukács provided the most sophisticated justification of these adventures. He argued that partial actions were not so much ‘organizational measures by which the Communist Party could seize State power’ as ‘autonomous and active initiatives of the KPD to overcome the ideological crisis and menshevik lethargy of the proletariat, and standstill of revolutionary development’. For Lukács, the rationale of the Teilaktionen was thus not their objective aims, but their subjective impact on the consciousness of the working class. ‘If revolutionary development is not to run the risk of stagnation, another outcome must be found: the action of the KPD in an offensive. An offensive signifies: the independent action of the party at the right moment with the right slogan, to awaken the proletarian masses from their inertia, to wrest them away from their menshevik leadership by action (in other words organizationally and not merely ideologically), and thereby to cut the knot of the ideological crisis of the proletariat with the sword of the deed.’

The fate of these pronouncements was rapidly settled by the lesson of events themselves. The radical misunderstanding of the integral unity of capitalist State power, and the necessarily all-or-nothing character of any insurrection against it, naturally led to disaster in Central Germany. In March 1921, the KPD launched its much vaunted offensive against the Prussian State government, by falling into the trap of a badly prepared rising against a preventive police occupation of the Mansfeld-Merseburg area. In the absence of any spontaneous working-class resistance, the KPD desperately resorted to dynamiting actions designed to prove police bombardments; seizure of factories and street fighting followed; wandering guerrilla bands submerged any discipline in anarchic forays through the countryside. For a week, heavy fighting raged in Central Germany between KPD militants and the police and Reichswehr units mobilized to suppress them. The result was a foregone conclusion. Isolated from the rest of the German proletariat, bewildered and dislocated by the arbitrary character of the action, hopelessly outnumbered by the concentration of Reichswehr troops in the Merseburg-Halle region, the vanguard flung into this confrontation with the full might of the army was routed. A drastic wave of repression succeeded the March action. Some 4,000 militants were sentenced to prison, and the KPD received its quietus in Prussian Saxony. Not only was the objective of State power never achieved, but the subjective impact on the German working class and the KPD itself was calamitous. Far from rousing the proletariat from its ‘menshevik lethargy’, the March Action demoralized and disillusioned it. The vanguard zone of the Merseburg mines relapsed into a desert of apolitical backwardness.

Perry Anderson – “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”

Helpfully, Anderson provides some contemporary criticisms of Teilaktionen by some people who knew something about successful revolutions.

Trotsky:

A purely mechanical conception of the proletarian revolution — which proceeds solely from the fact that the capitalist economy continues to decay — has led certain groups of comrades to construe theories which are false to the core: the false theory of an initiating minority which by its heroism shatters ‘the wall of universal passivity’ among the proletariat, the false theory of uninterrupted offensives conducted by the proletarian vanguard as a ‘new method’ of struggle, the false theory of partial battles which are waged by applying the methods of armed insurrection and so on. … It is absolutely self-evident that tactical theories of this sort have nothing in common with Marxism. To apply them in practice is to play directly into the hands of the bourgeoisie’s military-political leaders and their strategy.

And Lenin, a bit more tersely:

…for victory and for retaining power, what is essential is not only the majority of the working class — I use the term working class in its West European sense, i.e. in the sense of the industrial proletariat — but also the majority of the working and exploited population. Have you thought about this?

Have you?


Gramsci on Crisis

December 13, 2011

It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historical events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life.

…the content is the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated,add up to a revolution. A “crisis of authority” is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the State.

Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks