No need for party?
The US Platypus grouping does not have a political line because there is 'no possibility of revolutionary action'. Mike Macnair reports on its convention
I attended the third annual Platypus International Convention in Chicago over the weekend April 29-May 1. The Platypus Affiliated Society is a, mainly student, left group of an odd sort (as will appear further below). Its basic slogan is: ‘The left is dead; long live the left’. Starting very small, it has recently expanded rapidly on US campuses and added chapters in Toronto and Frankfurt. Something over 50 people attended the convention.
The fact of Platypus’s rapid growth on the US campuses, though still as yet to a fairly small size, tells us that in some way it occupies a gap on the US left, and also tells us something (limited) about the available terms of debate. The discussions raised some interesting issues (though I am not sure how productive most of them were). It is this that makes it worth reporting the convention. This article will be an only slightly critical report of the convention; a second will offer a critique of Platypus’s project.
I was invited to give a workshop on the CPGB’s perspectives, and to participate in the Saturday evening plenary on ‘The legacy of Trotskyism’. I also attended some of the panel discussions and the opening and closing plenaries, on ‘The politics of critical theory’ and ‘What is the Platypus critique?’
I got little from the opening plenary on ‘The politics of critical theory’ (on the Frankfurt School). The speakers were: Chris Cutrone of Platypus and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the philosopher of technology and student of Herbert Marcuse, Andrew Feenberg of Simon Fraser University; Richard Westerman of the University of Chicago; and Nicholas Brown of the University of Illinois Chicago, as respondent to the three papers.
The plenary took as its starting point the publication by New Left Review in 2010 of translated excerpts from a set of notes by Greta Adorno of a series of conversations in 1956 between Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer with a view to producing a modern redraft of the Communist manifesto. This project got nowhere, and (as Andrew Feenberg pointed out) the Adorno-Horkheimer conversations are frequently absurd.
Feenberg, who is a ‘child of 68’, remarked also on the extent to which, in the conversations, Adorno and Horkheimer displayed fear of falling into Marcuse’s positions: these, he argued, had more connection to the real emancipatory possibilities of the post-war world than Adorno and Horkheimer’s theoreticisms.
Chris Cutrone has posted his paper, ‘Adorno’s Leninism’, on his provocatively (or perhaps merely pretentiously) titled blog The Last Marxist. It argues that the project of the Frankfurt School derived from the interventions of György Lukács (History and class consciousness) and Karl Korsch (Marxism and philosophy) in the 1920s, and these in turn from the ‘crisis of Marxism’ represented by the revisionist debate in the German Social Democratic Party in the 1890s and 1900s and the betrayal of August 1914, and the idea of Leninism as representing a philosophical alternative. So far, so John Rees or David Renton. Adorno, he argued, continued down to his death committed to a version of these ideas.
After the papers had been presented and Nicholas Brown had responded, there was a brief and not particularly controversial question and answer session.
Saturday morning saw two 50-minute sessions of parallel workshops under the title, ‘Debating politics on the left today: differing perspectives’. In the first hour the choice was between the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party of the USA (leader since 1975: Bob Avakian) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). I went to the latter.
DSA claims to be the largest left group in the US with around 10,000 members, though the paid circulation of their paper is lower, at around 5,700 (and the Communist Party USA claimed, as of 2002, 20,000 members). The presentation made clear that the group essentially consists of activists in the left of the Democratic Party engaged in a range of campaigns for liberal good causes, plus some support for trade unionists in dispute. Its image of an alternative society is Sweden or Finland. It is committed to popular-frontist ‘coalitions’ and has in its constitution rejected any electoral intervention. It is, in short, not even Lib-Lab: the late 19th century Lib-Labs at least agitated for working class representation within the Liberal Party.
In the second hour the choice was between CPGB and the Marxist-Humanists US (one of the splinters from the News and Letters Collective founded by Raya Dunayevskaya). I presented the CPGB workshop. I gave a very brief capsule history of the Leninist and of the CPGB since 1991 and explained the nature of our orientation to ‘reforging a Communist Party’ through unification of the Marxists as Marxists, and on democratic centralism as an alternative to bureaucratic centralism.
The question-and-answer session which followed was lively, and I was pressed by Platypusers with the ideas that the divisions among the left groups were, in fact, principled ones which would prohibit any unity; and that programme was less fundamental than understanding history or the movement of the class struggle. I think I was able in the short time available to answer these points reasonably clearly: some divisions on the left do have a principled basis, but many do not, and in any case the divisions in the early Comintern were as wide or wider; a clear, short formal party programme is essential to party democracy.
A representative of the International Bolshevik Tendency argued that our view of democratic centralism amounted to going back on the fundamental gain represented by the 1903 split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks: I pointed out that the Spartacist (and other far-left) dogmas around this split actually originated with Zinoviev’s History of the Bolshevik Party as a factional instrument against Trotsky and were subsequently promoted as part of the Stalin school of falsification. This argument shocked him.
In the afternoon there were three sets of parallel panel sessions under the general title, ‘Lessons from the history of Marxism’, with (in theory) 15 minutes break between them.
In the first period the choice was between ‘Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions’ and ‘Marxism and sexual liberation’. I have interests in both areas, but chose to go to the sexual liberation panel. It was evident from the panel blurb for ‘Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions’ that Platypus shares the common ‘new left’ error of imagining that bourgeois thought begins with the 18th century enlightenment, and that the bourgeois revolutions began with the French.
It might be thought that Jonathan Israel’s massive excavation of the links of this period with prior Dutch and English politics, religion and thinkers, in Radical enlightenment (2001) and Enlightenment contested (2006), would have disturbed this approach and led to a return to Marx’s understanding of a much more prolonged historical process of transition to capitalism, including the first experiments in the Italian city-states and the Dutch and English revolutions (visible especially in the second half of Capital Vol 1).
But beginning with the French Revolution and late-enlightenment ideas is, in fact, a new left dogma. It is linked to the idea that the ‘Hegelian’ logic of the first part of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital can be read without reference to the broader claims of historical materialism about the history before fully developed capitalism. This approach is foundational to Lukács, Korsch and the Frankfurt school, who play an important role in Platypus’s thought.
The panel on ‘Marxism and sexual liberation’ featured four interesting papers. Pablo Ben critiqued the Reich/Marcuse conception that ‘sexual liberation’ would undermine the capitalist order. This idea informed the early gay men’s movement, and later the arguments of Pat Califia and others in the lesbian sadomasochism movement and its more general ‘sex-positive’ offshoots. The critique combined the ideas of Adorno in relation to the regulative power of capitalist economic relations over all aspects of social life with the point - well understood by historians of the issue since the 1970s - that ‘sexuality’ as such (ie, the link of sexual choices to personal ‘identities’) emerges under capitalism. This was a well argued and provocative paper. But I am not yet convinced that the detail of the theoretical approach is superior to that which Jamie Gough and I argued in the mistitled Gay liberation in the 80s (1985).
Greg Gabrellas argued for an interpretation of Foucault as a critic of Reich starting out from French Maoism. This was again a useful paper, though with two missing elements. He did not flag up the extent to which Foucault’s historical claims about madness and the penitentiary, as well as about the history of sexuality, have been falsified by historians. And, though he identified Foucault’s tendency to marginalise class politics, he saw this as merely a product of the defeat of the left, rather than as an active intervention in favour of popular frontism. Hence he missed the extent to which the Anglo-American left academic and gay/lesbian movement reception of Foucault was closely tied to the defence of extreme forms of popular frontism by authors directly or indirectly linked to Marxism Today, for whom it was an instrument against the ‘class-reductionist’ ideas of Trotskyists.
Ashley Weger deployed the ‘typical Platypus’ combination of Adorno with elements of 1970s Spartacism to polemicise against the taboo/witch-hunt in relation to intergenerational sex, which she argued flowed from a fetishism of the ‘innocence’ of childhood and a refusal to recognise the sexual desires of youth. This paper was competently done and valuably provocative to current orthodoxies.
It nonetheless did not get as far as the British debate of the 1970s-80s on the same issue. This recognised that the other side of the coin (adult aspirations to intergenerational sex) also flows from fetishisms, of innocence and of powerlessness; and that statistically very much the larger part of intergenerational sex is father-daughter incest, which exploits family power relations for what is in substance non-consensual activity. Since an immediate transition to the ‘higher stage’ of communism is not to be expected, a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state order will not result in the immediate disappearance of this problem. Accordingly any immediate (or ‘transitional’) programme point on the issue must take a form like that in the CPGB’s Draft programme: “Abolish age-of-consent laws. We recognise the right of individuals to enter into the sexual relations they choose, provided this does not conflict with the rights of others. Alternative legislation to protect children from sexual abuse.”
Jamie Keesling’s paper on the sexual emancipation of women was the weakest of the four papers, moving from Juliet Mitchell to the modern debate among feminists about ‘sexy dressing’, to philosopher Harriet Baber’s 1987 article, ‘How bad is rape?’ (which argues that compulsion to do routine labour is a more serious harm to the victim), to 1970s radical feminism (whose arguments she did not grasp or attack in depth), to Moishe Postone’s 2006, broadly Eustonite, ‘History and helplessness’, to Adorno. While various points were interesting, this did not add up to a coherent whole.
Four papers in 90 minutes, followed by brief comments from each speaker on the other papers, led to a very compressed Q&A session. Chris Cutrone asked for and got brief responses from the speakers to a general question about the relations between Marxism and liberal political theory, Pablo Ben’s being the most substantial response. A woman of British origin asked about the relation of issues of sexuality to ideas of gender and the division between public and private spheres (again an aspect of the debates of the 1970s-80s) and did not get a satisfactory response.
I have gone into this panel at length because it was intellectually one of the strongest in the convention. I would nonetheless assess that the speakers were operating at a lower theoretical level than that of the debates of the left in the British feminist and lesbian/gay movements in the 1970s-80s.
There are two reasons why that should be the case. The first is that in our 1970s-80s debates there was a real link between theoretical arguments and positive practical politics. Practical political choices force out the logical implications of theoretical positions in a way that theoretical critique on its own does not. The second is that the sub-Frankfurt School historical schema of the ‘defeat of the left’ stretching back to the ‘crisis of Marxism’ in the 1900s has a tendency to blind its adherents to the details of concrete history. By doing so, it permits schematic theory, which moves from arbitrarily chosen elements of the concrete to the abstract, but can never return to work up the concrete as a combination of abstractions.
Maoism and lefts
The second session offered a choice between a panel on ‘Badiou and post-Maoism: Marxism and communism today’ and one on ‘Art, culture and politics: Marxist approaches’, which offered consideration of the theories of art of Trotsky, Adorno and Walter Benjamin. I went to the panel on Alain Badiou, addressed to his The communist hypothesis (2010) and a debate which had already developed online between Chris Cutrone of Platypus and the Maoist or post-Maoist ‘Kasama project’.
The panel was Chris Cutrone, Mike Ely and Joseph Ramsey of Kasama, and John Steele of Khukuri, all of whom defended Badiou; Mike Ely’s paper is available on Kasama, John Steele’s on Khukuri, and Cutrone’s on his blog.
The arguments of Badiou’s defenders on this panel are intellectually and politically uninteresting. They seem to be merely a new version of the tendency of the ex-Maoist, ex-Eurocommunist, and academic left to episodic fashions, like the fashion for Roy Bhaskar’s ‘critical realism’ which ran for some years in the 1990s.
Cutrone’s argument judges, I think correctly, that Badiou’s ‘communism’ is directly anti-Marxist.
Cutrone therefore equally correctly appeals to the Second International and its left as the high point of the movement against capitalism to date: it was this movement that made possible 1917. But he tends not to interpret the strength of the late 19th century movement in terms of Marx’s and Engels’ idea of capitalism creating its own gravedigger in the proletariat, and hence the key to the movement being the political self-organisation of the working class.
Instead, he poses the need for an emancipatory movement to start from the conquests of capitalism - which is, indeed, central to Marxism - in terms of the conquests of liberalism. The political logic of this intellectual move is the path followed by the Schachtmanites, by Adorno and Horkheimer, and more recently by the British Revolutionary Communist Party/Spiked and the Eustonites, towards the political right.
The final panel session offered a choice between ‘Marxism and political philosophy’ with the same late-enlightenment focus as the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ panel, here on ‘The classical figures of bourgeois political thought: Rousseau, Kant, Hegel’; and ‘The Marxism of the Second International radicals’. I attended the latter, featuring papers by Chris Cutrone, Greg Gabrellas, Ian Morrison and Marco Torres.
I may have missed something by arriving late, but I did not get much out of this panel beyond the stale new left orthodoxy about the sterility of the SPD majority which is, as I have already indicated, more clearly defended by British authors from the Cliffite tradition like Rees and Renton.
In Chris Cutrone’s paper I was struck by three specific features. The first is that he claimed that Marx and Engels were suspicious of political parties. This is plain nonsense and I have provided the evidence to the contrary in the second of my articles on electoral tactics: Marx and Engels argued from the 1840s to the 1890s in support of the working class forming itself into a political party.
The second, and related, feature is the claim that political parties were a new phenomenon in the late 19th century and suspect to earlier ‘classical liberals’. The latter part of this claim is true, but the former is simply false: if the Dutch Regent oligarchy did without formal parties, Whigs and Tories in Britain appeared in 1679-81, reappeared promptly in 1688-89, and continued to dominate political life until the Whigs were replaced by the Liberals in the mid-19th century. What was new in the late 19th century and with the SPD was highly organised, mass-membership political parties with democratic structures. This was a product of the political intervention of the proletariat as such and is reflected in the fact that in the US, where the proletariat has not succeeded in breaking into high politics, the Democrats and Republicans retain looser organisational forms.
The third feature was Cutrone’s reliance for analysis of the SPD on Peter Nettl’s 1965 article on the SPD as a ‘political model’. This is, to be blunt, unambiguously a work of cold war sociology, which seeks to force the conclusion that the only real choices available in politics are between reformist coalitionism and something derived from the ‘actionism’ of Georges Sorel and the ultra-left. Its analysis of the SPD is apolitical-Weberian.
Nettl’s story reaches its climacteric with the betrayal of August 1914. But missing, accordingly, are, first, the later emergence of the USPD as a mass opposition, and, second, the fact that the working class did in fact use the SPD and its Austrian equivalent, the SPÖ, as organising instruments in the overthrow of the Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies in 1918-19. Of course, the leaderships held back to national horizons and created ‘democratic republics’, which were in reality bourgeois parliamentary-constitutional regimes. These circumstances fit better with a political account of the SPD’s and the wartime and post-war Kautskyites’ failure to serve the interests of the working class - because of their nationalism and false political ideas on the state - than with Nettl’s Weberian sociological story of political impotence through ‘isolationism’.
Platypus calls on us to recover the history of the left in order to understand and get beyond its present ‘death’. But in its own attempts to do so, the standard of historical work is sloppy.
The Saturday evening plenary on ‘The legacy of Trotskyism’ featured labour historian Bryan Palmer, of Trent University (Ontario, Canada); Jason Wright from the International Bolshevik Tendency; myself; and Richard Rubin from Platypus. The panel description contained the claim that, “As one Platypus writer has suggested, Trotsky is as out of place in the post-World War II world as Voltaire or Rousseau would have been in the world after the French Revolution. Trotsky, unlike Trotskyism, exemplifies the classical Marxism of the early 20th century, and that tradition certainly died with him.”
Bryan Palmer is a Trotskyist, and (as far as can be seen from online sources) one coming from the background of the part of the US Socialist Workers Party and its international tendency that did not break with Trotskyism in the 1980s. His speech made nods in the direction of Platypus’s claims, but asserted positively that the crash of 2008 showed the relevance of Marxism today; that the defeats of the 20th century are the result of Stalinism; and that the ideas of Trotsky and Trotskyism - especially the idea that the crisis of humanity reduces to the crisis of revolutionary leadership - retain all their relevance. The problem was a trahison des clercs, in which the intellectuals sought new alternative ideas repudiating the basics of Marxism, as with postmodernism, rather than attempt to put Trotsky’s ideas into practice.
Jason Wright gave the sort of speech that could be expected: revolutionary continuity runs through the Fourth International 1938-53, the International Committee 1953-61, the Revolutionary Tendency of the US SWP and, following it, the Spartacist League, from 1961 to the 1980s; and thereafter the IBT. The CPGB, he said in passing, breaks with the tradition of the pre-war socialist movement as well as that of Bolshevism by calling for votes for bourgeois candidates. I did not get an opportunity to reply to this at the meeting, but my recent three-part series on electoral principles and tactics can serve as a reply - to the extent that it is worth replying.
I criticised the formulations proposed in the panel description. In the first place ‘Trotskyism’ means an organised political movement formed on the basis of definite programmatic documents - those of the first four congresses of the Comintern, of the International Left Opposition and of the 1938 founding congress of the Fourth International. The Trotskyist movement has splintered into diverse fragments, but it is on its formally adopted positions that it is to be judged and criticised.
Secondly, ‘classical Marxism’ is an amalgam, like the ‘counterrevolutionary bloc of rights and Trotskyites’. In the sense in which it used by Platypus, it derives from the new left’s, and hence the British SWP’s, attempt to paste together Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Lukács and Gramsci, in spite of their diverse and in some respects opposed political and theoretical positions. To say that “Trotsky, unlike Trotskyism, exemplifies the classical Marxism of the early 20th century, and that tradition certainly died with him” is therefore an empty claim. What is needed to understand the past of Marxist theory is to understand the political and theoretical disputes of the Comintern in the light of the political and theoretical disputes of the Second International and of the pre-1917 RSDLP.
Within this framework, in the first place the idea of separating Trotsky from post-war Trotskyism is wrong. Secondly, it is necessary, in order to progress, to critique the actual programmatic positions of the first four congresses of the Comintern and of Trotskyism, as I have attempted in Revolutionary strategy (2008). The most fundamental point is the rejection of bureaucratic centralism. Thirdly, the failures of the Trotskyists are not all given by some Trotskyist (or ‘Pabloite’) original sin: there are lessons, albeit mostly negative, to be learned from the Trotskyists’ attempts to build small groups into something larger and to intervene in live politics.
Richard Rubin argued that revolutionary continuity is impossible; there is a fundamental discontinuity in politics and the main task is to understand it. Trotskyism is merely a historical relic. Trotsky insisted on the accidental character of the tragedy of the 20th century; but the idea of an accidental epoch is inconsistent with historical materialism. We have to be Marxists because there is no better way of thinking, but Marxism may be inadequate; the failure of Trotskyism expresses the antecedent crisis of Marxism. Both Stalinism and fascism were products of the failure of the German revolution. This ‘German question’ poses the question how the strongest Marxist party in the world, the SPD, could betray its own revolution. Since the objective conditions for socialism had matured, the explanation had to be the power of bourgeois ideology; both Trotsky and the Frankfurt school grappled with this problem.
The outcome of World War II represented a victory for the enlightenment, but a defeat of revolutionary possibilities. In the 1950s-60s Trotskyists as well as Maoists were prone to illusions in third-world nationalisms. The 1968 period offered a ‘Dionysian moment’ of ‘revolution through pure ecstasy’; the Trotskyists, except the Sparts, integrated themselves in the new left and lost the character of Trotskyism as a critique of the existing left. It was this aspect of Trotskyism as honest critique and fidelity to the October revolution that had to be redeemed.
The speakers were given an opportunity to respond to each other and this was followed by slightly longer than usual Q&A discussion. Four substantial issues were posed. In the first place it seemed to be the common view of the other panellists that the divisions of the Trotskyist left were in fact principled and unavoidable splits, a view which I rejected. Secondly, a questioner asked whether the evolution of some US ex-Trotskyists towards neo-conservatism reflected something about Trotskyism; on this there seemed to be general acceptance of a point I made, in response, that such an evolution is not found in Europe, while ex-Stalinists had also gone over to the right.
The third was whether defeats for your own imperialist power make revolution more likely, as Jason Wright argued - in my view falsely, except in the case of defeat in inter-imperialist, or great-power, war. Pablo Ben raised from the floor the classic case of the Argentinean left’s shipwreck when it supported the military regime’s aggression in the 1982 South Atlantic war. Richard Rubin argued that defeatism was a moral obligation, but not one from which revolution could be expected. This, I think, underrates the issue. Even if defeatism in our own country’s unjust wars cannot usually be expected either to cause a defeat or to bring on revolution campaigning on a defeatist stance educates as wide layers of the working class as possible in the need for political independence from the local capitalist state, and thereby prepares the political ground for circumstances in which revolution is on the immediate agenda.
The fourth and most general question was whether revolution is on the agenda and if so in what sense, and whether a party is therefore called for. Bryan Palmer’s and Jason Wright’s answer to these questions was emphatically yes. Chris Cutrone’s (from the floor) and Richard Rubin’s was that the objective conditions were present, but the subjective conditions even for a party were not present. My own response was that proletarian revolution is on the historical agenda; that the weakness of proletarian organisation takes it off the short-term agenda; and that if Lenin’s ‘the ruling class cannot go on in the old way and the masses will not” was to be placed on the immediate agenda the result would therefore be disastrous. But the result is precisely that the party question, and the tasks of patiently rebuilding the workers’ movement, are on the immediate agenda.
The Sunday morning plenary on ‘What is the Platypus critique?’, with three Platypus speakers, was in one way the oddest and in another the most symptomatic of the sessions. Spencer Leonard opened by saying that Platypus was sometimes said to have a line which combined Spartacist Trotskyism with Adorno. This was incorrect: Platypus does not have a political line. Rather it recognises that there is no present possibility of revolutionary political action, because of the deep-going crisis of Marxism. Its goal is therefore to bring the left to a recognition of its own failure and to address the theoretical issues. To this end it aims to ‘host the conversation’.
He was followed by Laurie Rojas, speaking to her organisational work for Platypus: this again focussed on the necessity (and difficulty) of addressing the left, but also emphasised the constant return of the necessity of the Platypus project. The final speaker was Ben Shepard, whose speech was interspersed by readings from Samuel Beckett, with Spencer Leonard attempting to take the other part - I take it using absurdism to indicate the present left’s absurdity; I am sorry to say that I found this sufficiently distracting that I can say no more about the points he made.
The plenary started late and the Q&A session was brief. One self-described “newbie” said from the floor that she felt at the end of the weekend rather as if she had accidentally wandered into a postgraduate philosophy seminar. A more accurate description would be a literary theory seminar. The panel on political theory which I missed might have had the analytical or phenomenological rigour found in philosophy seminars. But most of the theoretical papers I heard had the ‘neither quite rigorous philosophy nor quite rigorous history’ quality of many literary theory papers.
- J Rees The algebra of revolution: the dialectic and the classical Marxist tradition London 1998; D Renton Classical Marxism: socialist theory and the Second International Cheltenham 2002; and see my review of both books Weekly Worker September 11 2003.
- For another example cf B Fine Democracy and the rule of law (1984; reprint Caldwell, NJ 2002).
- Hypatia Vol 2, pp125-38.
- Public Culture 18, pp93-110; also available at various places on the web.
- Steele: www.khukuritheory.net/why-is-badiou-of-political-value; Cutrone: chriscutrone.platypus1917.org/?p=1144
- Andrew Coates has made somewhat similar points against Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek, with whom Badiou is linked, in this paper (‘The leadership of “events”’, March 3). Cf also James Turley’s review of Lenin reloaded (‘Hegel reloaded?’, December 13 2007).
- He based this on the far left’s common but inaccurate exegesis of the statement in the Communist manifesto that “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties” (in which, in fact, “the other working class parties” means only the Chartists and the related US National Reformers).
- ‘Principles to shape tactics’ Weekly Worker April 21.
- Past and Present No30, pp65-95; more on the same line in Nettl’s two-volume biography of Rosa Luxemburg (1966).
- Nettl seeks to distinguish Luxemburg from the anarchists on the grounds that her version of activism was based on the spontaneous movement of the working class masses, not arbitrary ‘initiatives’ of the revolutionaries. But this shows only that, if Nettl had read Sorel at all, he had not done so with any care.
- More in my ‘Leading workers by the nose’ Weekly Worker September 13 2007.
- This appears from the judgments of his review essay on Jan Willem Stutje’s Ernest Mandel (2010) 55 International Review of Social History pp117-32.
- There is an older usage belonging to the cold war academy, in which ‘classical Marxism’ was used to mean a (caricatural) version of Marxism before Lenin.