Dissecting the Platypus

Where does “hosting the conversation” on the “death” of the left start and the actual opinions of the leadership begin? Corey Ansel looks at the enigma of the US-based Platypus Affiliated Society

Strange on the outside, stranger on the inside

In a battle consisting of little more than harsh language, the Platypus Affiliated Society has recently found itself hosting much more than a “conversation”. Coming off the organisation’s fifth international convention, recent accusations have been made against the group, primarily by Ben Campbell, the editor of The North Star website, regarding its alleged bureaucratic and cult-like nature.

This is certainly not the first time that the venomous claw of the Platypus has drawn blood from its political adversaries and, when the comments of Platypus president and lead pedagogue Chris Cutrone on the situation in Palestine resurfaced online, an assortment of comrades sought to repudiate the group for their alleged racism, social-imperialism and desire to “destroy the left”.

In a slightly ironic vein, it has been the “dark side of the internet”, as Alex Callinicos labelled it, that has been problematic for Platypus in recent weeks. Ben Campbell, briefly a member of the organisation, was portrayed on the Platypus members’ internal discussion list as a renegade when he abandoned ship after the convention in April. A mudslinging war would ensue, which led to Campbell spilling the entire internal discussions of the group onto Facebook in the interest of clearing his name, while also revealing many of the startling political positions taken by some of its leadership. Most of Platypus maintained a resolute silence, although other former members and supporters chipped in with their own contributions.

The darkness of the internet aside, this debate begs a multitude of questions. Platypus has been the centre of controversy before over issues such as the publication of articles from elements of the German ‘anti-Deutsch’ and blatant capitulations to American imperialism - not least an article from Stephen Grigat titled ‘To know the worst: anti-Semitism and the failure of the left on Iran’ in The Platypus Review No49. These articles led to the accusations of racism and pro-imperialism. Thus, the question is raised: where does Platypus’s “hosting of the conversation” on the “death” of the left start and the actual opinions of leadership and members begin? Even the most seasoned veterans of leftwing sectology have failed to distinguish this incredibly blurred line.

The Platypus group, referred to by the infamous Spartacist League in its newspaper, Workers Vanguard, as a purveyor of “pseudo-Marxist, pro-imperialist, academic claptrap”, is very clear in its aims. Believing that what remains of the revolutionary left has utterly disintegrated, one of the group’s primary documents, titled ‘The Platypus synthesis’, states:

Because the left really is dead, we must first and foremost build intellectual milieus from scratch. As we have often said, we must “host the conversation” that would otherwise not happen, and we must demonstrate to others that the Platypus conversation can even happen at all. We have an extremely strong track record of events, providing a space in which intellectuals are able to sound stronger than they would otherwise have the opportunity to.

‘Destroy the left’

Thus, Platypus does not appear to desire a makeover for the left. In truth, the suggestion that the group seeks to “destroy the left” made by Campbell is ironic - Cutrone and his students cannot seek to destroy that which they do not believe exists. The piece continues with a description of the desire to “drain the swamp”, saying: “We believe we can impact and prevent the recruitment to sectarian ‘left’ groups on campuses and thus stop the demoralisation and depoliticisation that results from their activities. We have already begun to do so, and we need to continue this.”

But so what? The pseudo-Marxist left is responsible not just for recent crises such as the rape scandal in the Socialist Workers Party in Britain or the fetishisation by the Party for Socialism and Liberation in the United States of reactionary and murderous regimes, but also for the stupefaction of entire generations of potential revolutionaries. Thus, we should have no desire to kill the reformist left out of kindness.

Therein lies one of the deepest flaws in the recent ‘left unity’ initiatives, whether it is the project going by the same title, Left Unity, in Britain, Bhaskar Sunkara’s centre-left Jacobin magazine or The North Star that so vehemently promotes the regroupment of forces amongst the left. This perspective of Marxism as some kind of umbrella that encompasses not only alleged socialists, but also progressive-minded liberals and lifestylists is an impediment to the radical redefining of Marxist theory as thoroughly revolutionary and for the violent overthrow of existing social, economic and political conditions. Just because we all hold hands does not mean that no-one has their fingers crossed.

This criticism does not necessarily make Platypus programmatically sound, however. The reaction to Cutrone’s comments “for internal consumption only” on the Israel-Palestine conflict at the organisation’s fourth international convention, when he claimed that there is a rational kernel in the racist depiction of Palestinians, and “the only hope that the Palestinians have is in and through Israel”, is not the first time the Platypus president has seen intense flak launched in his direction. Cutrone came under attack for his statement in one of the online Platypus discussion groups when he stated, “I take no comfort whatsoever in the fact that the US and the political process it is fostering is being ‘resisted’ in Iraq. In this sense, I would be happy to see the US be ‘successful’ in Iraq (according to what it claims to be doing there).” Furthermore, he proclaims in an exchange with Workers Vanguard on the Iraq occupation: “What is ‘bad’ for the US is not necessarily good for ‘us’ - meaning socialist revolutionaries internationally - and might even be worse.”

Beginning with the least startling point in Cutrone’s arguments, it is indeed necessary to clarify what political and even non-political resistance means for Marxists. It could be argued that the reactionary Tea Party in the United States is ‘resisting’ what it condemns as government encroachment into every day life. Golden Dawn in Greece is finding its own means of ‘resisting’ political austerity. Thus, the term ‘resistance’ does not inherently hold a revolutionary connotation. Cutrone is correct in this regard.

However, his own role does raise questions about the group that claims to have ‘no political line’. Platypus is notorious for its slogan, “The left is dead! Long live the left!” However, the fact that the left may or may not be “dead” does not mean turning the clock back to 1848. In fact, it is Platypus’s thesis on historical regression that actually serves as a potentially ground-breaking theory on how the left has maintained itself within the sphere of the bourgeois right.

The problem with Cutrone’s argument is twofold. In his claim that a defeat of imperialism does not necessarily entail a positive outcome in regards to revolutionaries internationally, the Spartacist League had this to say:

No! The main enemy of the peoples of the world is the bellicose, demented, racist and rapacious US ruling class! That must be the starting point of any would-be revolutionary working within the belly of the imperialist beast. Whole regions of the world, not least the near east, are composed of artificial states created by the former colonial empires and their present imperialist heirs. The masses living in these artificial creations, overseen by the imperialists’ local lackeys, are now on the murderous receiving end of the imperialists’ bloodthirsty depredations.

To downplay the role of ‘one’s own’ imperialism is nothing short of a travesty. In order to reconstitute the left we should not seek to reinvent the wheel, for lack of a more appropriate cliché. If history has taught us anything, we can recall how quickly the world’s first workers’ state came under the gun of over a dozen imperialist countries during its infant stages. As if revolutionary socialists should not aim to combat bourgeois nationalist governments as opposed to the imperialist behemoths?

Learning lessons

The suggestion that the left is dead is in many ways contestable, but in the interest of going along with the logic of Platypus, we must understand what historical experience means. The left being “dead” in the 60s and 70s did not stop the wheels of history from turning, whether they were regressing or not. Merely the left has taken on the character of a near-Shakespearean tragedy does not mean that we cease to learn in our mourning. It was with good reason that VI Lenin said in his piece, ‘The defeat of one’s own government in the imperialist war’: “During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government.”

Lenin continues:

Those who stand for the ‘neither victory nor defeat’ slogan are in fact on the side of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists, for they do not believe in the possibility of international revolutionary action by the working class against their own governments, and do not wish to help develop such action, which, though undoubtedly difficult, is the only task worthy of a proletarian, the only socialist task.

It is unlikely that Cutrone has selective memory loss. There were revolutionary organisations, despite all their flinches and falters, which attempted to uphold the programme of Leninism to the death. There are basic tenets of Marxist theory that have seen dirt shovelled over their heads. If the Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to continue to host a conversation on the death of the left, they must not allow themselves to start from scratch. Setting themselves to the right of even the reformist left has nothing in common with the clarification of Marxist theory.

But what of those seeking to capitalise on this fiasco? It is troubling to see Ben Campbell from The North Star attempting to spread a letter in the interest of obtaining signatories to disengage with Platypus and the conversation it seeks to host. In a period where supposedly socialist and communist organisations act like awkward strangers attempting to ignore each other in a crowded elevator, Platypus’s attempt to cohere a broader discussion amongst elements of the left is commendable. This does not mean that Campbell’s political arguments are unfounded. In truth, his brief membership in Platypus is a living display of the failure to properly approach those seeking to be a part of the discussion.

Campbell emphasised the question of guruism on the left and within Platypus. This clearly shows the left’s failure to transmit political lessons to younger generations, a failure we in the present have inherited. If the 1960s left failed to learn the lessons of 1917, how can we in the present attempt to even learn the lessons of the former? On a side note, the Stalin school of falsification is a telling sign of how easily even supposed revolutionaries can be moulded to serve the forces of reaction.

Any radically minded person who follows its public fora can find benefits in the events that Platypus hosts. It is rare in the present to see a supporter of the US Revolutionary Communist Party shouting at a representative of the Communist Party of Great Britain over their differing positions on Libya and imperialism. To see a panel of supposed Marxists and academics asked questions that make them shift uncomfortably in their seats is an enthralling sight - possibly in the interest of clarifying terms and moving towards the regroupment of our forces. To observe the complacent leaders of ostensibly revolutionary groups or ‘parties of one’ claiming to have the Marxist perspective being asked questions they would not normally be asked in an academic or political setting is something that those of us living under the chorus of the ‘death of communism’ have never previously experienced.

However, those of us in the tradition of Marx’s ruthless critique cannot allow the reactionary nature of the present period to blind us. While the assortment of left unity projects and new political networks all have their role to play in reconstituting the Marxist left and a party that we can call our own, that does not mean every role played is necessarily positive.

Revolutionaries in the present cannot allow themselves to fall into the trap of thinking that holding this or that position in print or in argument at a protest attended by only a couple dozen people is the litmus test for Marxist theory. Learning the lessons of history will be that test.

It cannot be held against Platypus even if it does seek to destroy the present state of conditions amongst the left. To do this, Trotsky must be kept in mind if we seek to be forward moving: “For a successful solution of all these tasks, three conditions are required: a party; once more a party; again a party”.