History and anti-history
Still like an academic conference, but at least there is more politics today. Mike Macnair reports from Chicago and the 2023 convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society
Over March 29-April 1 I attended the international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society. They had originally invited me to participate in a panel on the centenary of György Lukács’s book, History and class-consciousness, but subsequently also arranged a panel on a ‘transatlantic dialogue’ between the CPGB and the US Marxist Unity Group; and later substituted me for a no-show speaker in a panel on Maoism.
Besides these, single-speaker sessions included Andrew Feenberg on his new book on Marcuse, The ruthless critique of everything existing, and in parallel, Norman Finkelstein on his newly published I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it: heretical thoughts on identity politics, cancel culture and academic freedom. Other panels included ‘Broadcasting and publishing in Platypus’, again with Platypus speakers; and, on Saturday, parallel sessions on ‘What does climate change?’, ‘Immigration and the left’, and ‘The politics of critical theory’.
I have attended the Platypus convention twice before - in 2011 and 2015 - and in 2021 participated in an online panel on ‘The legacy of Trotskyism’. That was also a subject in 2011, when I commented that the convention was part-way between a political event and an academic conference, with a good many of the papers having a ‘literary theory’ quality (neither clear politics nor rigorous philosophy). This gave rise to an exchange of articles.1 I did not write a report of the 2015 convention, but, if I had, I would have made the point that it was a lot closer to politics, as distinct from ‘theory’; and that the event displayed more interest in class as a political issue than in 2011.
Platypus has in the past said that it aspires to ‘host the conversation’ round its slogan that “the left is dead: long live the left”. It currently characterises itself, perhaps less ambitiously, in this way:
The Platypus Affiliated Society, established in December 2006, organizes reading groups, public fora, research and journalism focused on problems and tasks inherited from the ‘old’ (1920s-30s), ‘new’ (1960s-70s) and post-political (1980s-90s) left for the possibilities of emancipatory politics today.
The more political aspect of the 2015 and 2023 conventions also seems to me to involve Platypus coming closer to ‘hosting a conversation’ about the death, or future, of the left, involving various different trends.
But the conversation is still limited in two ways. The first is that the speakers need to be willing to talk to Platypus, and, in the case of panels, appear on the same platform as the other participants. Not as straightforward as it might seem, since quite a large part of the left is committed to ignoring the existence of other trends on the left. And Platypus in particular has a background in a sort of anti-anti-imperialism which reacted against the US anti-war movement of the early 2000s.2 This makes it unpopular with the ‘anti-imperialist’ left.
The second limitation derives from Platypus itself. This is that the method of conducting the sessions is like an academic conference: papers, followed by question and answer. The papers in the panel sessions are short, but after each question all the panellists are given a chance to respond. The effect is that little discussion among the contributors from the floor can develop; it is a matter of pot luck whether (as Platypus’s scheme hopes) a debate will develop between the panel speakers. This necessarily limits the conversation.
What conversation developed this time? From the sessions I attended, the Platypus agenda seems to have been based on its longstanding view of the impossibility of political action, displayed by non-Platypus speakers either showing, or ‘interrogated’ to show, failure of political projects.
Johannes Regell’s narrative of the evolution of the Swedish ‘Socialisterna - Välfärdspartiet’ and its eventual - at least in his view - failure is available on the Platypus website.3 In essence, a youth splinter off the Swedish Socialist Party (as it then was), the section of the Mandelite Fourth International, the group walked out of the SP without a faction-fight and embarked on electoral work in local government on a, broadly, anti-welfare-cuts platform. They had significant local electoral success; but were not able to convert this success into operating on a national scale and eventually ran out of steam.
My own take on listening to the presentation and discussion was that you can take the kids out of the Mandelite group, but without a faction-fight, you won’t take Mandelism out of the kids’ heads: Socialisterna was in substance a highly localised version of a Mandelite “broad party not delimited between reform and revolution” without the Mandelite group hiding in it. From another angle, it was analogous to the activity of the Independent Working Class Association, which won some local elections in East Oxford and East London on a ‘workerist’ platform, but could not in the end sustain the ‘client servicing’ involved. ‘Going directly to the masses’ does not lead to mass recruitment and bypassing the existing broad activist layer, but merely becoming like the existing broad activist layer. The same will probably be true of attempting to do mass work in the form of workplace activity.
The panel on ‘Second International Marxism in America’ was fairly ‘heavyweight Platypus’. Amongst the speakers, Chris Cutrone framed his presentation by asking whether Marxism was historically present or merely past during that time. The Socialist Party of America peaked in 1912, but then replaced struggle for socialism with struggle for reforms; it is clear in hindsight that the mass movements of the 1930s and 40s lacked a belief in overcoming capitalism, and the “millennial left” (meaning, I think, the layer that went into the Democratic Socialists of America in large numbers) misremembers failures as successes in terms of the Communist Party, New Left and Democratic Party politics.
Roy Landersen on the perspectives of the US Socialist Workers Party told us a story of ‘official optimism’ of a sort which I used to hear from the British supporters of this tendency in the old International Marxist Group-Socialist League in 1979-86. It may be that time has now caught up with the stopped clock, but …
The Maoism panel had four speakers. Jerry Harris, a sympathetic ex-Maoist, was a ‘red diaper baby’ who was attracted to Maoism because of the more revolutionary line of Beijing; but the Maoist ‘new communist movement’ organisations made political line central, and hence repeatedly split; the lesson he drew was to base theory on practical politics in the US and not look for lessons from overseas. Norman Finkelstein is a repentant ex-Maoist liberal; he drew our attention to what seemed attractive in Maoism as a more austere and revolutionary form of communism; but the shocks after Mao’s death led him to rethink, and he altogether rejects excuses for Mao’s and Bolshevik crimes.
I argued that the attraction of western Maoism arose from the apparent success of Stalinism during and after World War II, marginalising forms of communism not committed to the people’s front, ‘socialism in one country’ and party monolithism. But ‘socialism in one country’ led to national contradictions among the Stalinist regimes - which first produced Maoism, but later destroyed its influence when the Chinese leadership allied with the US.
The panel, consisting of Matthew Strupp from MUG and myself, was titled ‘Revolutionary strategy and neo-social-democracy: a transatlantic dialogue’. We both gave narrative accounts of our respective organisations, and flagged the issue of working through the existing left; Matthew also emphasised constitutional issues. The floor questions were mainly from Platypus people, and were designed to draw out the idea - also present in Platypus contributions to other sessions - that the conditions of existence of a mass left are now gone (implication: that CPGB’s and MUG’s respective projects are therefore mistaken).
The session on ‘Back to the 1970s: socialism, labor and the left’ featured, amongst others, Naomi Crane from the US SWP on its approach to trade union work and related activities, emphasising its opposition to ‘rank and filism’, and the importance of the party (meaning a sect of the SWP type). Then Luke Pickrell of MUG discussed the debates in the DSA over the ‘rank and file strategy’. Jack Metzgar argued against overemphasising the present weakness of the left, a good deal of its strength being below the surface of affairs.
The panel on ‘The politics of the DSA’ began with Matthew Strupp from MUG, who argued for their ‘partyist’ project for the DSA chiefly around issues of democratic centralism. Later DL Jacobs from Platypus argued that the spectacular rise of the DSA was merely a result of the left being frightened by the ‘Tea Party’ and circling the wagons round the Democrats. Capitalist politics, he argued, is socialist: thus Guizot on Louis Bonaparte. The DSA reveals the vacuum of the 20th century: the need at the end is to start over with Walter Benjamin’s “new, positive concept of barbarism”. Jamaal Abed-Rabbo from the Class Unity group,4 which recently broke from the DSA, argued that it was irretrievably dominated by the professional-managerial class, and this inevitably led to the politics of left neoliberalism.
The final session was titled “A century of critical theory: the legacy of Georg Lukács’. Andrew Feenberg emphasised Lukács’s debts to neo-Kantianism. The main theme he found to retain from Lukács’s History and class-consciousness (HCC) was the critique of scientific reason as reified and merely an aspect of industrial rationality. I argued that HCC displayed philosophy in the service of short-term factional struggle, and that this was also true of the book’s post-1956 ‘new left’ reception.
The last sessions in a sense posed fundamental issues when taken together. In the first place, the Frankfurt school’s anti-scientific methodological claims - already present in the young Lukács - set up an inherent opposition between any ‘Frankfurt school’ left and the skilled manual working class, which is obliged to use the ‘empirical’ scientific method in its daily life. So the increased salience of class in US politics today is a problem for Platypus’s project.
Secondly, the insistence on radical discontinuity in time produces a ‘history’ which is, in fact, ‘anti-history’ or the marginalists’ method of ‘comparative statics’. Its effect as anti-history works (as I have argued before5) like volunteering to get Alzheimers. In Platypus the results are premature obituaries of trends which still have real political influence (in particular, ‘official communism’); and the supposition that their Frankfurt school methodology would create something radically new, when in reality its logical implications imply a mere rerun of early-1960s student radicalism, which also rejected class politics: hence the fact that class is a problem for the project.
. References to the exchange are collected at: platypus1917.org/tag/mike-macnair.↩︎
. C Cutrone, interview: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeNRo54dt8Y.↩︎
. ‘Broad parties: theories of deception’ Weekly Worker June 20 2013: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/967/broad-parties-theories-of-deception.↩︎