Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Ross Wolfe

Ross Wolfe introduced to me to Platypus Affiliated Society and is a member of my Aesthetics, Politics, and Theory: Red and/or Black group (of which Symptomatic Redness is a project). Ross Wolfe is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. The main focus of his work is in Russian history, but he is also interested in Central European history, Jewish studies, philosophy, and Marxism. He writes primarily about the history of avant-garde architecture, contemporary political issues (activism, current events), and topics such as the environment, technology, utopianism, and the history of the Left. He blogs at the Charnel House.

Skepoet: So you have been working with and critiquing Occupy Wall Street from your vantage point in New York. How did you get involved?


Ross Wolfe: I was first alerted to the #Occupy protests going on down at Liberty Plaza about one week after it began, by someone much further from the scene than I was — my good friend Steve McClellan, a graduate student in Central European history at Oregon State University. At that point, the movement had barely made any sort of splash in the mainstream media, and mostly established itself through YouTube videos and other decentralized, user-based means.

So I decided to take a visit down to Zuccotti Park to try and get a better sense of what was going on there. What I saw there (especially at this early point) was largely ideological incoherence. The politics on display at Occupy Wall Street were symptomatic in very much the same way that they had been at the resurgent anti-globalization protests against the G-8 in Pittsburgh back in 2009 and the G-20 conference in Toronto in 2010. Needless to say, my first reactions to the demonstration were fairly pessimistic. This was reflected in my initial write-up of my experiences.


Over the course of the following weeks, I committed myself to engaging with the #Occupy phenomenon in a more charitable and understanding way. The second and third short essays I devoted to a further reflection on and investigation of Occupy Wall Street tried to express this internal (perhaps even dialectical) tension. It is difficult not to feel a sense of ambivalence about this sort of phenomenon. My pessimism about the movement’s chances for success (whatever that would mean) remained, and I still did not relinquish my feeling of obligation to criticize those aspects in it that still struck me as problematic. Nevertheless, with the growing buzz around some of the movement and copycat Occupations spreading to a number of cities across North America and Europe, I soon recognized that this sudden outburst of political pathos represented an opportunity. Even though I continue to doubt that #Occupy will lead to any sort of immediate toppling of the world financial system, the existing network of state configurations, or the capitalist social formation as a whole, I am still hopeful that it might offer a chance to radicalize its participants politics on a more long-term basis, and potentially breathe some life back into the project of the Left.

Skepoet: Your background is in Marxism and architecture, correct? How do you see that relating to your activism?


Ross Wolfe:Yes. During my undergraduate years, I studied philosophy and history. I received a bachelor’s degree in each of these fields. As a graduate student, I shifted my focus in order to specialize in early Soviet history. Over the course of my university career, I’ve had the privilege of taking some excellent history classes with such scholars and as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Leora Auslander, Robert Bird, Aleksandr Semënov, Catherine Wanner, Paul Rose, and Nina Safran.

In terms of my politics, I suppose that I was always predisposed to radicalism. But this was mostly because of my fascination with past revolutionary movements, rather than through a rigorous and thoroughgoing examination. Nevertheless, this appreciation of the many great figures and events from the history of Marxism exerted an undeniable influence on my subsequent political development. The “political” side of my Marxism thus came mostly by way of studying the writings of Plekhanov, Lenin, Bogdanov, Trotskii, Bukharin, Preobrazhenskii, Kollontai, and others from the annals of Russian-Soviet history. This aspect of my Marxian Weltanschauung was generally deepened and enhanced through my involvement in the Platypus reading group at UChicago, which I began attending in 2009.


My earlier background in both classical (pre-Christian) and modern (post-Cartesian) philosophy, especially the German critical tradition, also largely informed my politics, especially in its theoretical aspect. The main authors I read were Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. I skipped over the intervening period of Scholasticism, under which heading I subsume Arab, Jewish, and Christian Aristotelianism alike. While an undergraduate at Penn State, I worked with some exceptional professors of philosophy — Brady Bowman, a Hegel specialist; Jennifer Mensch and Mark Fisher, both Kant scholars; and Denis Schmidt, a very well-known Heideggerian and student of Gadamer.


It was reading figures like those mentioned above that allowed me to so appreciate the more “theoretical” and “sophisticated” side of Marxist, through intellectuals and theorists such as Lukács, Korsch, Kracauer, Bloch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Sartre, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Lefebvre, and Foucault. I was also heavily influenced by Moishe Postone’s incredibly important reading of Capital, especially in its temporal aspect, as well as David Harvey’s work, especially in its spatial aspect. The training I received in both philosophy and history contributed greatly to my appreciation of Marx as someone who worked out the crisis apparent in radical bourgeois thought that had been raging for nearly a century prior to 1848. Though it seems almost tautological to say it, Marx remains for me the central figure for Marxism. His groundbreaking analysis of capital provides the essential framework through which any emancipatory politics of the future can be formed.


My preoccupation with architecture is, by comparison, a more recent development. My father published several books on the architectural and engineering dimensions of fortified towns in late medieval to early modern state-building in France and Europe more generally. His influence on my own work was indirect, however — mostly tangential. My interest in modernist architecture, and the history of the cultural and artistic avant-garde more broadly, was first sparked by some of Richard Stites’ brilliant observations regarding architecture in the Soviet Union. In terms of secondary sources and exegesis, the Soviet structuralist architectural historian Vladimir Paperny and the legendary Italian Marxist architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri have also been pivotal in forming my own interpretation of modernism in architecture.


Returning, finally, to the question you posed at the outset — regarding the way my background in Marxism and architectural history relates to my activism — I would have to say that the former has much more to do with my political engagement than the latter. The question of the connection between theory and practice — perennial within Marxist discourse — is obviously central to the way I conduct myself politically. One has to strike a balance between what the Romans called the vita activa and the vita contemplativa (later conceptualized surprisingly well by Arendt in The Human Condition). This almost can be seen as combining what Gramsci recommended as “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”


However, it is also important to be sensitive to the exigencies of one’s own historical epoch. In my estimation, certain pressing political questions of years past are no longer as immediately relevant as they once were. For example, the question of how a revolutionary party should be organized — whether as a vanguard, a body of representatives, or as an immanently “horizontal” structure — is misplaced, at least within a Marxist politics of the present. The reason for this is that there is presently no viable international Marxist (or even anti-capitalist) working-class movement to speak of at the moment. Despite the mass protests that have flared up recently throughout the Arab world, Southern Europe, and North America, it is premature to say that these have changed consciousness to the point where society at large is ripe for revolution.


When it comes to the way in which the other side of my primary interests (in avant-garde architecture, as well as European and Soviet history more generally) is manifested in my political activism, the connection is admittedly more obscure. I suppose that my understanding of history, and especially utopian and revolutionary movements/moments in history serves primarily to remind me of the possibilities for radical transformation that once existed, and which might someday exist again. Really, I don’t think of my own historical research as falling under the mnemonic genre of “history as memory” (as theorized by Paul Ricoeur and practiced by Jay Winter), but I guess that this is one of the functions that my study of history has assumed in shaping my activism. Just for the record, I personally don’t feel like an emancipatory architecture is possible until a truly revolutionary international movement is reconstituted. Until then, it remains chained to the dumb reality of the present, like everything else.

Skepoet: You have been walking a fine line on #Occupy in your writings between criticism and praise. So this is two questions in one and may be somewhat massive. So what do you see as the problematic tendencies within #Occupy and what do you see as its successes?


Ross Wolfe:As with nearly any spontaneous political phenomenon, #Occupy is a mixed bag. Given the widespread depoliticization that has taken place over the course of the last generation, this is only to be expected. Many of the same old symptomatic tendencies from the protest culture of the last few decades played themselves out even as some of the more innovative forms were taking shape alongside them. Though it’s to a certain extent unavoidable, these dead forms from the past slip back into the present unconsciously, in pantomime. As with the leftover sectarian Marxoid groupings that have resurfaced of late — which are little more than living fossils — the mindless repetition of these old practices points to the longstanding ossification of Left protest politics. Moreover, the recent fetishization of “resistance” as the primary means of combating the “hegemony” of certain cultural forms is telling. It attests to the feeling of helplessness that so pervades our present moment.

To begin with the problematic side of #Occupy, I would first of all point to this uncritical reenactment of the old, largely outmoded forms of protest from the past fifty years. For all my criticisms of the New Left of the 1960s, at least its members had the courage to critique their predecessors in the Old Left. Perhaps it was the intergenerational animus that existed at that time, but one of things that has disappointed me about this latest movement is that it hasn’t had that Oedipal moment, when they finally kill the New Left. Only David Graeber seems to gesture in this direction, with his admonition against the “obnoxious, self-aggrandizing macho leadership styles of the ’60s New Left.”

In leveling this criticism, I have in mind the more “carnivalesque” elements of the movement — the puppets, the “Zombie march,” the harlequinism, and the emphasis on spectacle. While I admit that these have some utility and even some precedent within the practice of revolutionary politics (going back several centuries), these tactics have limited effect. The quasi-Situationist method adopted by some of the protestors strikes me as being quite prone to narcissism and exhibitionism. Even with earlier iterations of this festival mentalité, such as the great celebrations of the French Revolution, writers as different as Hippolyte Taine and Petr Kropotkin both considered these displays excessive. Kropotkin, who regarded Taine as a vulgar bourgeois historian, had to agree that these festivals had their limitations. “Taine disparages the festivals of the Revolution,” he observed, “and it is true that those of 1793 and 1794 were often too theatrical.”

The theatrical routines I witnessed down at Liberty Plaza prior to the November 15th eviction often seemed to me politically empty. As I see it, the crucial difference between the subversive potential that thinkers like Bakhtin saw in the carnivalesque elements in the novels of Rabelais and the largely apolitical celebratory atmosphere of modern demonstrations has to do with objective sociological developments that have taken place in the interim. For the folk essence of political carnivals staged in societies where agrarian peasant culture still predominated has been lost, along with its freshness and ingenuous naïveté. With the disintegration of the “organic community” described by Tönnies under modern times, the immediate connection such festive practices held with cultural conventions has disappeared. It has instead been replaced by the contrived political carnival of hypermediated youth culture. I hate to be a buzzkill, but this atmosphere provokes my polemical temperament.

This is part of what initially was so off-putting to me about the scenes I witnessed upon first visiting Zuccotti Park back in late September. I thus described my first impressions of #Occupy in those early days:

“The endless beating of the drums, the pseudo-tribalistic dancing and chanting, the call-and-repeat sloganizing (“this is what democracy looks like” and other populist banalities, etc.), the predictable placards, the black-bandanaed anarchist chic — all this smacks a little too much of what has become par-for-the-course in the post-New Left political culture of orgiastic partying & protesting (it is no longer clear whether the two are separate activities). Combine this with the more generally confused hodgepodge of vaguely leftish political sentiments expressed at the demonstrations — anything from “End Corporate Greed and Corruption” to “We are Killing our Planet,” “Jobs not War,” “Endangered Species,” and “Nazi Bankers” — apparently disconnected one another as well as any broader project of social emancipation, and there you have it: Occupy Wall Street in a nutshell.”

Though these remained more or less constant features of the protests through October and into November, I tried to look past some of these more superficial elements to see what good the movement seemed to offer. For indeed, despite all the disorganization and well-documented inefficiencies, the sheer endurance of the encampment at Liberty Plaza was remarkable. It unexpectedly captured the political imagination of the day, and led to similar protests in over 800 cities across the globe. Now granted, some of these occupations have fewer than 10 people. But still, the sudden surge in political pathos provoked by #Occupy has been undeniable.

While the quality of the various working groups down at Liberty Plaza varied greatly (as you probably know from my long diatribes about the Demands and Vision & Goals groups), some of them were quite exceptional. The Think Tank working group was a particularly interesting project. It was a space for just an open discussion of some of the issues that seemed most pressing to the demonstrators and people living down at the park. Facilitation for the Think Tank was provided mostly by this group of extremely smart anthropologists who had been politicized by thinkers like David Graeber and David Harvey. Tim Weldon, Hannah Appel, and Lily Defriend are all great. Compared with other groups, the conversations hosted in the Think Tank were extremely fluid, flexible, and not bogged down by proceduralism. All in all, I really think it was the best group to come out of Liberty Plaza.

Though I think that the occupation of Zuccotti Park was excellent in terms of increasing the movement’s visibility, I actually think that the coordinated, forceful evictions of November 15th might have been a blessing in disguise, though this was surely not the police’s intention. Overall, it united what had been growing into a more and more fraught situation within the confines of the park itself. Tensions had been running high between the different elements of the encampment, at least here in New York, and there was a general feeling of ressentiment amongst the more “permanent” occupiers and those who they considered “outsiders.” Those who claimed residency in the park, through the mere act of staying overnight, had become valorized to an absurd degree, as somehow more “authentic” than those who lived elsewhere and instead came downtown everyday. The worst part of it was that the more “full-time occupiers” were often part of the disenfranchised student elite who couldn’t find work, but who were materially supported by their parents (as in the case of two of the movement’s unspoken leaders, T. Edward Hall III and Grayson “Ketchup” Vreeland). My friend Fritz Tucker recalled a particularly disturbing outburst the he witnessed toward the end of October:

“Daniel, a tall, red-bearded, white twenty-something — one of the six leaders of the [Structure working group] teach-in — said that the NYC-GA needed to be completely defunded because those with “no stake” in the Occupy Wall Street movement shouldn’t have a say in how the money was spent. When I asked him whether everybody in the 99% had a stake in the movement, he said that only those occupying or working in Zuccotti Park did. I pointed out that since the General Assembly took place in Zuccotti Park, everybody who participated was an occupier. He responded with a long rant about how Zuccotti Park is filled with “tourists,” “free-loaders,” and “crackheads” and suggested a solution that even the NYPD has not yet attempted: Daniel said that he’d like to take a fire-hose and clear out the entire encampment, adding hopefully that only the “real” activists would come back.”

I think that this was a sign of a larger problem within #Occupy, a problem that the evictions unwittingly resolved: the fetishization of the act of occupying physical space, especially parks open to the public. Not only did the police’s clearing out of the occupied spaces unite the mutually antagonistic elements of the #Occupy encampments against a common enemy, but this forced the protestors to reprioritize their objectives. In the immediate aftermath, on the November 17th“Day of Action” for example, the occupiers were so bent on reoccupying the Park itself that they focused the majority of their efforts on recapturing it, after their march on Wall Street itself proved unsuccessful. They were successful, however, in taking back Liberty Plaza and in marching on the Brooklyn Bridge, which drew impressive numbers. However, the park was again cleared not long afterwards. As a result of the eviction, the actions that #Occupy has since been taking — like the port shutdowns and the occupation of foreclosed homes — have been much more ambitious and symbolically powerful.

Skepoet: How important do you think criticism of the Left is FROM a non-sectarian Left perspective?

Ross Wolfe:In my opinion, this is one of the central problems facing us in our time. Perennially within the Left, one of the general truisms (and rightly so) has been that the only adequate standpoint for critique is one that is in some sense immanent to the struggle for emancipation. The practice of immanent critique is one of the Left’s most important inheritances from the Kantian philosophy, subsequently taken up by Hegel and then by Marx. All the greatest theorists and practitioners of Marxism in the twentieth century — Lenin, Trotskii, Benjamin, Adorno, and more recently Postone and Harvey — have engaged in this mode of criticism. Horkheimer explained this in an early (1926-1931) fragment entitled “A Discussion about Revolution,” later included in the collection Dawn and Decline:

“The inadequacies of revolutionary leadership can indeed be a misfortune. But however incompetently the political struggle against the inhumanity of the present conditions may be led, the fact remains that that is the form which the will to a better order can take at this historical juncture, and that is how many millions of the suppressed and tormented all over the world understand it. Any inadequacy of the leadership therefore does not negate the fact that it is the head of the struggle. Someone closely associated with a revolutionary party, a person whose theoretical and active involvement with it is beyond all doubt, may perhaps also fruitfully criticize the leadership from the outside for a time.

But a proletarian party cannot be made the object of contemplative criticism, for every one of its mistakes is due to the fact that the effective participation of more qualified people did not prevent it from committing them. Whether or not the contemplative critic would have strengthened such elements in the party by his own activity cannot be determined by his later statements about its actions, for it can never be decided whether his view would have seemed plausible to the masses in the situation at hand, or whether his theoretical superiority was matched by the required organizational talents, whether his policy, in other words, was possible or not. It will be objected that the leaders monopolize power in the party, that the party apparatus makes it impossible for the single individual to prevail, and that consequently any attempt by reasonable people is doomed from the start. As if any political will throughout history had not always encountered similar obstacles when it tried to assert itself! Today, it may be the intellectual before whom they pile up. But who other than those who practically overcome whatever defects there can prove that, all things considered, such problems are really the least significant? Bourgeois criticism of the proletarian party struggle is a logical impossibility.”

Immanent critique is, above all, a recognition that there is no absolute Archimedean point outside of society or politics from which to develop one’s theoretical or practical perspective. The only form of legitimate critique must proceed in andthrough a thorough engagement with the object of critique. This does not, however, preclude drawing upon certain outside sources as a basis for one’s criticisms. As Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “No immanent critique can serve its purpose wholly without outside knowledge… — without a moment of immediacy, if you will, a bonus from the subjective thought that looks beyond the dialectical structure.” In such a case, of course, these sources must be carefully related back to the subject at hand. For example, it was not invalid for Adorno to bring in the Freudian concept of the unconscious in criticizing Kant’s moral philosophy, as he related it specifically to the “pathological” influences on the will.

Once, in a conversation with you, I believe that you mentioned how we are all to some extent implicated in the revolutionary defeats that have come before us. You then raised a reasonable objection against those “who claim to stand both at once inside and outside of a given movement.” I agreed that all of us share the blame for the historical failure of the Left. But I felt that the worst betrayals had actually come from those who claim to stand wholly inside the revolutionary movements of their day and those who claim to stand wholly outside them. Those who blindly rally around whatever political cause is the order of the day and identify unquestioningly with it betray the need for the Left to be unsparingly self-critical. Those who stay aloof from the struggles of their time and write essays from afar, circulating them strictly within the academy and never bothering to engage these movements directly betray the need for the Left to actively participate in the emancipatory politics of the present.


This is, oddly, one of the metaphysical (and dialectical) contradictions that Marxism must seek to negotiate and to overcome. How can we realize a future that transcends the present reality, all the while realizing this transcendent future in a manner that is historically immanent to this present reality? The antinomy of immanence and transcendence is of the utmost importance to Marxism. I would even go so far as to say that it is precisely the task of revolutionary politics to stand simultaneously inside and outside of the various political phenomena that emerge before us. We must not identify with them so completely that our political commitment dies out as soon as this or that movement is defeated or ebbs away. At the same time, however, we must not distance ourselves from these movements so completely that we emerge from their passage wholly unscathed, outside of space and time and untouched by the realm of worldly events.

Marxism has the peculiar advantage of including a warning against the uncritical appropriation of tradition as part of its tradition itself. Indeed, in a famous line from a letter he wrote to Arnold Ruge, Marx called for “a ruthless criticism of everything existing.” This is where my answer reconnects with your original question of the importance of an explicitly non-sectarian leftist critical perspective. Because even those criticisms that are issued by the sectarians are ultimately dogmatic and rote in character. All these groups concern themselves with tracing out their theoretical bloodlines, from Marx ® Engels ® Lenin ® Trotskii or Stalin ® Cannon or Shachtman or Mao ® Grant and Woods or Hoxtha or Avakian. For them, history stopped immediately following the death of whoever their last canonized theorist, and subsequent reality has to bend to the dicta and formulae laid down in their sacred texts. Nothing betrays the spirit of Marxism more than a rigid adherence to its letter.

Rosa Luxemburg summed up the anti-dogmatic, anti-sectarian character of true Marxism in her great Junius Pamphlet (1915) as follows:

“[The proletariat’s] tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey — its emancipation depends on this — is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.”

The final thing I will say on this subject relates to the pedagogical aspect of Platypus, the group with which I associate and support the most fully. This concerns a line of Marx from that same letter to Rouge which informs our entire discursive practice of bringing different elements of the Left back into dialogue with one another: “I am…not in favor of setting up any dogmatic flag. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatics to clarify to themselves the meaning of their own positions.” Of course, this is not to say that the Left will ever be reconstituted by mere talking alone. Still, I feel that this is an important conversation to have. And there is something to be said for this, I think, beyond mere pamphleting and sloganeering, the old tactic of “consciousness-raising.” This was, indeed, what Marx himself felt was a crucial aspect of his own practice:

“Nothing prevents us, then, from tying our criticism to the criticism of politics and to a definite party position in politics, and hence from identifying our criticism with real struggles. Then we shall confront the world not as doctrinaires with a new principle: ‘Here is the truth, bow down before it!’ We develop new principles to the world out of its own principles. We do not say to the world: ‘Stop fighting; your struggle is of no account. We want to shout the true slogan of the struggle at you.’ We only show the world what it is fighting for, and consciousness is something that the world must acquire, like it or not.”

Skepoet:. You and I have noticed that while the current political moment, insofar as there is one, is largely a product of anarchist and liberal forms of politics. We have seen a “return to Marx” in both cultural studies and economics in light of the crisis, but we have not seen a return to Marx in terms of politics. It is easy to blame this on the Cold War, but I suspect there is more at hand. Why do you think Marxist politics has been so much less applied than Marxist economics or cultural theory?

Ross Wolfe:On the one hand, this is — as you say — a legacy of the Cold War. But you are right in your intuition that there is probably more to it than that.

If I may, I would like to first disaggregate the two main spheres you designate as the objects of Marxist theory: cultural studies and economics. When it comes to the former, I’m not so sure that there has been a revival in terms of providing a Marxist account of cultural, literary, or artistic phenomena, per se. In fact, this has been one of the few domains of study where a Marxian framework has still been employed at all, even if only nominally. Marxist thought in the disciplines of economics, sociology, and political science has for a while now been more or less suppressed at an institutional level within the academy. At best, it’s been pushed to the sidelines.

By contrast, Marxist theoretical perspectives have been deemed relatively acceptable when it comes to objects of cultural, literary, and artistic criticism. Here, at least, it’s considered fairly harmless — neutered of its revolutionary content. Of course, for anyone who is interested in Marxism as providing a window and a gateway into a better society, this is deeply unsatisfactory. What is more, the way that Marxian and critical theoretical thought has been deployed here (when it has at all) is also problematic. Most of the time, it’s used only in an eclectic and often seemingly arbitrary fashion. Of course, Marxism as a tradition is a complex methodological and ideological web, and so the specific concepts employed in cultural criticism can vary widely. But whether the concepts it draws upon derive from a straightforward historical or base-superstructure analysis, from dialectical critique, or possess an Althusserian/structuralist character, these are only viewed as one set of techniques among many others. They are reduced to just another “tool” in the postmodern “toolkit,” alongside phenomenological hermeneutics (Gadamer), semiotics (Barthes), deconstruction (Derrida), schizoanalysis (Deleuze/Guattari), or the archaeology/genealogy of the sciences (Foucault). The “toolbox” or “toolkit” metaphor is pretty widespread, figuring prominently into primers on postmodern theory by popular authors like Henry Rapaport, Jeffrey Nealon, and Susan Giroux. In what would seem to be a particularly cruel twist of irony, theoretical procedures like the Frankfurt School’s critique of instrumental reason have themselves become instrumentalized as means toward the endsof postmodern thought — dead-ends, but ends nonetheless.

In other words, in the sphere of cultural criticism the categories of Marxist theoretical discourse have largely been abstracted from the concrete political and historical context from which they arose, and thus stripped of any emancipatory significance. The greater project of global social transformation recedes into the background as these concepts of Marxian origin are made to serve the overriding liberal and multicultural concerns of postmodernity. In this capacity, the radicalism long associated with Marxism allows it to play an ostensibly “subversive” role. (The idea of “subversion,” like that of “cooptation,” has been diluted almost beyond recognition since the decline of the New Left). Such usages aim only at “destabilizing” the dominant, privileged, and hegemonic discourses of traditionally white, male, European, and Christian society. In this manner, post-structuralist feminists, radical “queer” activists, and post-colonial theorists supposedly write on behalf of those who have been historically marginalized, “give voice to the voiceless,” or “let the subaltern speak” (even if Spivak ultimately concludes that this is impossible). Sadly, I suspect that a lot this stems from a really terrible reading of Thesis VII of Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”:

“With whom does historicism actually sympathize? The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of prior conquerors. Hence, empathizing with the victor invariably benefits the current rulers. The historical materialist knows what this means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional Practice, the spoils are carried in the procession. They are called ‘cultural treasures,’ and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For in every case these treasures have a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another. The historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from this process of transmission as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.”

However, the politics to which this practice is attached never amounts to anything beyond cosmetic reforms to the status quo, a demand for a more inclusive form of liberal, bourgeois democracy. Proponents of such politics will usually pay some sort of lip service to a critique of liberalism, but by and large this goes no further than pointing out the various hypocrisies of the most celebrated figures of liberal thought — instances of racist, sexist, or colonialist double-standards they held or equivocations they made. This is a common complaint about identity politics and standpoint epistemology, but it’s a valid one. In the final analysis, for all their professed disdain for political liberalism, the only political demands they end up making prove to be liberal. Incidentally, this is one of the things I’m appreciating about reading Domenico Losurdo’s book on Liberalism: A Counter-History: just when it seems like he’s falling for this sort of cheap rhetorical trope, he discerns the hidden emancipatory content that radical bourgeois thought held. Or as he puts it, it is necessary to recognize in historical liberalism “a dialectic of emancipation and dis-emancipation.”

I would say that this is symptomatic of postmodern thinking, which has a well-known penchant for syncretism. But it’s certainly one of the major ways in which Marxist thought has been divested of its revolutionary political implications.

Returning to the other point you made, regarding the resurgence of an interest in Marxian economics, I would say that this is comparatively a more recent development. A lot of it has to do with the persistence of the cycle of neoliberal crises (which first began to emerge after the Oil Crisis of 1973) beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union, which for many neoconservatives was thought to portend “the end of history” (Fukuyama) or “the end of ideology” (Bell), after which the world would simply liberalize and markets would reach some sort of mythic equilibrium.

During the interim, a number of Marxist thinkers have, of course, attempted theorize the post-Fordist/neoliberal moment in which we still currently find ourselves. Following the disintegration of structural Marxism over the course of the late-1960s and 1970s, heralded as it was by the successive defections of Foucault, Rancière, and Poulantzas from Althusser’s tutelage, several authors sought to fill the void. Beginning with Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism in 1972/1975, and soon followed by foundational texts by David Harvey, Bertell Ollman, and Fredric Jameson in the Anglophone world (as “neoliberalism” or “flexible accumulation”), and by Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz in its German-speaking counterpart (in terms of value-theory). After 1989, there was a further call for members of the Marxist Left to engage in the project of “rethinking Marxism.” Robert Wolff, David Ruccio, and Stephen Resnick all emerged from the journal bearing this name, while Guglielmo Carchedi and Andrew Kliman rose to prominence as advocates of the TSSI version of value-theory.

With the back-to-back crises of global capitalism in 2008 and 2011, many have turned to this field of Marxian economics looking for explanations. Of course, the very abundance of Marxist theoretical accounts of the reasons for present crisis can just as easily be a source of confusion as it can help in elucidating the matter. Already, Ollman and Wallerstein are on record as declaring this to be the “terminal crisis” of capitalism. I think this is slightly premature, if not irresponsible, however. Greater Marxist theoreticians than they have made similar predictions in the past, when there was a much stronger international anti-capitalist movement, and still this collapse failed to materialize. Pronouncements such as this can only make otherwise fairly sound theorists seem like what Harold Camping was to 2011 or what John Major Jenkins promises to be with respect to 2012.

You’re right, though; there’s been a notable lack of Marxist political practice to go along with its social and cultural theories. A lot of this reflects the historical association of Marxism with forms of state totalitarianism throughout the course of the twentieth century. But it also has its roots in the further ossification of the various sectarian Marxoid groupuscules. Often I feel like these groups have succumbed to a temporal equivalent to the sort of blinkered spatial vision of which Marx accused the Young Hegelians in The German Ideology:

“[T]he Germans [or, if you like, the sectarians] lack not only the necessary power of comprehension and the material [to understand present reality] but also the ‘evidence of their senses,’ for across the Rhine [or post-1917, 1940, 1967, etc.] you cannot have any experience of these things since history has stopped happening.”

The Marxist politics that does present itself today is wholly inadequate to the peculiarities of our current moment. That’s part of the reason, I think, why groups like Platypus and Kasama Project — or even your Aesthetics, Philosophy, and Theory Facebook group you started — hold such broad appeal. They actually provide a platform in which serious political questions can be discussed, without recourse to empty formulae and past dogmas. Personally, I find the account traced out by Chris Cutrone in his article “Whither Marxism?” to be fairly convincing. As he puts it there: “The need for Marxism becomes the task of Marxism. Marxism does not presently exist in any way that is relevant to the current crisis and the political discontents erupting in it. Marxism is disarrayed, and rightfully so.”

I think the question of what an adequate Marxist politics for the present day might look like, should one appear at all, is an open one. It is up to us to clarify it and provide an answer.


Skepoet: Marxism itself was syncretistic in pulling from differing, even in some ways, diametrically opposed methodologies under a single rubric. What separates this syncretism from the post-modern?

Ross Wolfe:Excellent question. I was wondering in answering the last question if I should distinguish the kind of theoretical and methodological synthesis enacted by someone like Marx (who brought together the thought of classical French and British political economy, the critique leveled at it by its utopian socialist critics, along with the dialectical tradition of German Idealism) or his subsequent followers in the Frankfurt School (who integrated aspects of Weberian sociology and Freudian psychoanalysis into their critical Marxism) from what I would contend is the more haphazard theoretical amalgams produced by postmodern thinkers. This is, to my mind, a crucially important distinction.

Let me begin by saying that I think that there have been a number of productive syntheses produced by both Marxists and non-Marxists who have drawn upon disparate theoretical traditions in order to more adequately account for the phenomena they seek to describe. A number of non-Marxists, from Émile Durkheim and Max Weber to John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter, took up aspects of the Marxian analysis in their own work but arrived at decidedly non-Marxist (even anti-Marxist) conclusions. Part of this was inevitable, given the strength of the international socialist movement that had been founded largely upon the basis of Marx’s critique of the capitalist system. Even if it had been systematically suppressed within the national universities, Marxist theory was simply too influential for anyone to ignore.

Durkheim assimilated Marx’s ideas into a Comtean and even a Saint-Simonian positivist framework, while Weber — who was the first academic of any note to teach Capital at the university level — modified Marx’s thought in light of the contributions of Nietzsche, the renowned Neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert, and his contemporaries Georg Simmel and Werner Sombart (both of whom had already engaged with the Marx’s work). Keynes was even more explicit about his encounter with Marxist thought. Beyond the works of Marx himself, which he occasionally cited, Keynes lectured in 1925 at the People’s Commissariat of Finance in Moscow, and published a criticism of some of Trotskii’s more provocative formulations in 1926. In the end, however, Keynes appealed to Silvio Gesell’s Natural Economic Order (1918) in promoting “the establishment of an anti-Marxian socialism, a reaction against laissez-faire built on theoretical foundations totally unlike those of Marx.” (Gesell, though he participated in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet in 1918, clearly disagreed with Marx’s interpretation of history in favor of a naturalistic approach). Schumpeter, for his part, counted Marx as one of the world-historical “great economists,” using him as a bookend in his account of Ten Great Economists from Marx to Keynes. Of course, Schumpeter was no Marxist. Among the other economists included in Schumpeter’s collection were many important critics of Marx, such as Eugen Böhm-Bawerk and Vilfredo Pareto (whose theory of elites was itself important to Gramsci’s thought, also garnering the attention of Adorno in several of his lecture series).

Clearly many Marxists have supplemented their social and political stances with intellectual discourses falling outside of the Marxian constellation. I’ve already alluded to the Frankfurt School in relation to Weberian sociology and Freudian psychoanalysis. In the case of French thinkers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, coming out of a phenomenological background established on the basis of Husserl and Heidegger and a Kojèvean reading of Hegel, their Marxism was inflected with certain categories borrowed from German Existenzphilosophie. Unlike the members of the Frankfurt school, who like Trotskii were receptive to Freudian theory, Sartre at first rejected psychoanalysis. Of course, later he changed his mind on this score, admitting that “I was incapable of understanding [Freud] because I was a Frenchman with a good Cartesian tradition behind me, imbued with a certain rationalism, and I was therefore deeply shocked by the idea of the unconscious.” Both he and Merleau-Ponty felt the influence of the early Lukács, so there was certainly some affinity between them and the Frankfurt School (though the influence of Heidegger was shared only with Marcuse, among the latter).

Althusser’s appropriation of Saussurean structuralist linguistics (largely by way of Lacan) and Lévi-Straussian structuralist anthropology (though he was notably more critical of the Lévi-Strauss) in elaborating what came to be called “structural Marxism” was likewise justified. In so doing, he largely rejected the more Hegelian and “humanistic” aspects of Marxist thought, but he grounded this rejection in a thorough textual reading of Capital. And it’s not as if his disavowal of Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel was borne out of a merely superficial reading of (and reaction against) the great idealist. Althusser wrote his entire Master’s thesis “On Content in the thought of G.W.F. Hegel,” which he completed in 1947. Incidentally, I’d argue that the same thing can be said with respect to Lenin in his rejection of anarchism, or at least the sorts of anarchism he encountered in Russia toward the beginning of the twentieth century (which, like Marxism, was a far more specific phenomenon than what we encounter as anarchism today). Lenin was no stranger to anarcho-populist or «народник» thought; his own brother was famously executed for conspiring as a member of Народная воля (the “People’s Will”) in a plot against the tsar.

Without wanting to digress even further upon this already lengthy digression, I’m not sure if I should further qualify what I mean by “supplement” in light of the rather well-known gloss on the term provided by Derrida some years back inOf Grammatology. According to Derrida’s account, a “supplement” signifies an addition from the outside (or “exterior addition”), as opposed to a “complement,” which is supposedly already immanent to and harmonious with the essence of the object thus complemented. That Marxism or any other theoretical model should require a supplement would seem to suggest some sort of intrinsic deficiency, as it would be forced to look to something outside of itself in order to adequately account for the phenomena it purports to describe. At the very least, this procedure would seem to violate Rousseau’s celebrated ideal of “self-sufficiency.” (Rousseau is Derrida’s primary interlocutor throughout this needlessly obscure work).

I’d like to dwell on this point perhaps a moment longer, because I think it leads straightaway into the answer to the question you posed. Certainly, I don’t want to deny the independent origin and relative autonomy of discourses like Freudian psychoanalysis with respect to historical Marxism. So to some extent any combination of Freudian thought with Marxian thought would be a “supplement” in the sense Derrida described above. So does it follow that psychoanalytic categories simply be appended to Marxist ones, without any attention to the ways in which they might be fundamentally incompatible? Might this not constitute, to use a rather ugly phrase, the worst kind of theoretical “miscegenation”?

To this question we must answer with some reservation: maybe. It all depends. On what? For me, it all depends on the way in which hitherto unrelated disciplines are brought into relation. This, I maintain, is what fundamentally separates legitimate theoretical conjunctures from illegitimate ones. In some sense, I think that the instinct that any “supplement” that is imposed wholly from without delegitimates the synthesis thus achieved. With any addition to a theory it is ultimately necessary to ground one philosophy or theoretical outlook on the basis of another, so that their complementarity thus arises organically out of their pairing (i.e., “immanently”).

To stick to the problem of Freudian psychoanalysis it is clear that the object of its theory is primarily that of the mental lives of individual personalities, as well as the establishment of a more or less universal explanation of drives or impulses that serves as organizing principles for conscious activity. Of course, one of the common rebukes leveled at Freud is that his sample set of clinical patients was extremely biased, favoring a predominantly wealthy, bourgeois, Viennese, and primarily Jewish social and historical milieu. (Of course, his Marxist followers like Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel volunteered their services to a less fortunate clientele, the working poor in Vienna, etc.). But since Freud’s own analysis would thus be bound to a more specific sociohistorical moment, which in turn would reflect the forms of consciousness generated by the underlying material dynamics of society at that given moment. Thus, far from being eternal categories inhering in the mental lives of individuals throughout time (in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud practically elevated Eros and Thanatos to the status of cosmic principles), Freud’s exposition of the various layers of consciousness and the unconscious would rather appear to be the result of broader social and historical forces.

Perhaps this is more a sign of my own personal need for systematicity and a clear conceptual hierarchy, interlocking parts, some basic architectonic symmetry, etc., but I feel that in order to properly bring two separate discourses into mutual relation, it is necessary for one to be subsumed beneath the organizing principles of the other. There must be some sense of logical priority. Generally, I am skeptical about the Heideggerian concept of “equiprimordiality,” whereby there are equally fundamental, absolutely unrelated, and thus mutually irreducible spheres of Being that together shape experience. I tend to think monistically. So if we take another example, like the critical appropriation of Weberian ideas of “disenchantment” and “rationalization” by Marxist theory, it becomes clear that these tendencies Weber associated with modernity are actually byproducts of the further articulation of the logic of capital. Modernity itself, it would seem, is nothing other than the temporal symptom of the capitalist social formation. Its secularizing, desacralizing aspect grounds the disenchantment of which Weber spoke; its perpetual need to overhaul the means and technologies of production after relative surplus-value takes hold grounds the rationalizing tendency he noticed.

In this vein, Adorno suggested that Freudian analysis contained in its analyses of groups and individuals premonitions of the rise of the sort of consciousness that would underpin fascist ideology in the 1920s and 1930s:

“Such a frame of reference has been provided by Freud himself in his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, published in English as early as 1922, and long before the danger of German fascism appeared to be acute. It is not an overstatement if we say that Freud, though he was hardly interested in the political phase of the problem, clearly foresaw the rise and nature of fascist mass movements in purely psychological categories. If it is true that the analyst’s unconscious perceives the unconscious of the patient, one may also presume that his theoretical intuitions are capable of anticipating tendencies still latent on a rational level but manifesting themselves on a deeper one. It may not have been perchance that after the First World War Freud turned his attention to narcissism and ego problems in the specific sense. The mechanisms and instinctual conflicts involved evidently play an increasingly important role in the present epoch, whereas, according to the testimony of practicing analysts, the ‘classical’ neuroses such as conversion hysteria, which served as models for the method, now occur less frequently than at the time of Freud’s own development when Charcot dealt with hysteria clinically and Ibsen made it the subject matter of some of his plays. According to Freud, the problem of mass psychology is closely related to the new type of psychological affliction so characteristic of the era which for socio-economic reasons witnesses the decline of the individual and his subsequent weakness. While Freud did not concern himself with the social changes, it may be said that he developed within the monadological confines of the individual the traces of its profound crisis and willingness to yield unquestioningly to powerful outside, collective agencies. Without ever devoting himself to the study of contemporary social developments, Freud has pointed to historical trends through the development of his own work, the choice of his subject matters, and the evolution of guiding concepts.

One might add to this, considering the other major figure I’ve mentioned in connection with certain forms of Marxism, that Weber glimpsed the first vague outlines of the rise of fascism in his famous lection on “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). In this work, he enumerated the three main forms of authority used to legitimate a given political order: traditional, legal, and charismatic. With the last of these, it is not difficult to imagine that Weber had figures like D’Annunzio, Mussolini, and later Hitler in mind. So in a way, it’s quite possible that Weber had seized upon an ideological undercurrent in the age which in fact owed to the totalitarian pathos that was part and parcel of the totalizing and instrumentalizing rationality of capital. Again, Weberian sociology is hereby grafted onto the theoretical armature of Marxism, but not in a capricious or superficial manner. Instead, it is integrated — albeit critically — into the Marxist theory of society.

Certainly, this kind of historicism is easily vulgarized, so it’s important not to be too one-sided in attributing the reality of the phenomena described by psychoanalysis to historical accident alone. That’s one of the trickiest things about situating objects historically: one must distinguish between the historical knowledge of their existence and their raw historical existence as such. To put it into Hegelian parlance, there is a disconnect between an object’s being-in-itself and its being-for-another. In other words, it’s not enough to historicize ontology (the domain of being and existence) — one must also historicize epistemology (the domain of thought and knowledge). For it’s not as if the unconscious simply didn’t exist before its discovery by Freud. There can almost be no doubt that it did. What is significant about Freud and the context in which psychoanalysis crystallized is that knowledge had progressed to the point where the existence of something like the unconscious rose to the level of consciousness. It became available as an object for scientific reflection.

However, the specific social dynamics (i.e., the structure of the family) that determine the concrete contents of the psyche in ego-formation would be historically variable. Engels’ work on The Origin of Property, the State, and the Family already complicates the idea of regarding the family as a more or less static object, untouched by the vicissitudes of time. Subsequent studies in the field of anthropology on the development of kinship structures in primitive societies seem to further confirm Engels’ suspicions (which were themselves largely indebted to the earlier work of Müller-Lyer). With other objects, of course, it can be the case that at certain points in history a phenomenon either didn’t exist or didn’t exist in sufficient abundance for it to be conceptualized. The best example I can think of is the one Marx provides in a hilarious footnote in the first chapter of Capital:

“If a giant thinker like Aristotle could err in his evaluation of slave-labor, why should a dwarf economist like Bastiat be right in his evaluation of wage-labour? I seize this opportunity of briefly refuting an objection made by a German-American publication to my work Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, 1859. My view is that each particular mode of production,and the relations of production corresponding to it at each given moment, in short ‘the economic structure of society,’ is ‘the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness,’ and that ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life.’”

Marx said roughly the same thing of the three great British political economists of the modern era — William Petty, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo. Smith was able to see the importance of the detail division of labor in manufacturing in a way that Petty was not, and Ricardo perceived the effect of heavy machinery in large-scale industry in a way that Smith was not. Again, this was to be explained by the emergence of new forms of organization and industrial technologies.

So to return to my original point in a roundabout fashion, following this lengthy divagation, placing knowledge and existence into their historical context is not always coextensive, though it can be at times. The unconscious was not summoned into existence simply by Freud’s having conceptualized it. Discovery is not identical with invention, and collapsing these two categories into each other is an irresponsible move.

As it happens, this is precisely the sort of thinking that leads many postmodern theorists and historians to conflate the terms “discovery” and “invention,” the distinction made so long ago by Schelling toward the end of his early System of Transcendental Idealism. One commonly sees this kind of thing today, part of the irritable postmodern tendency to “gerundify” verbs in the titles of books, articles, or journals (Undoing Gender, “Maddening the Subjectile,” Thinking Nature, and so on). In my own field of study in Russian-Soviet history, for example, there are works like Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment or Mark Bassin’s article “Inventing Siberia: Visions of the Russian East in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The insinuation, of course, is that geographical entities like Eastern Europe or Siberia didn’t preexist the act of knowing them. Such objects would thus seem to be more of an invention of the imagination than a discovery of cognition. Now of course there is some degree of non-identity between thought and being, a cognitive surplus imparted by the subject to its object of contemplation. These often reflect the preconceptions and prejudices of the subject. But to maintain that the object thus encountered is wholly the product of the subject’s imagination, the fantastic and fanciful invention, is absurd.

In contrast to the method of bringing together different strands of thought that I described above, I would submit that most postmodern thought is characterized by a pervasive and pernicious dilettantism. Not only this. Just as many have observed that the discourse of postmodernism tends to erase the line between “high” and “low” art — reversing the critical modernist position vis-à-vis mass culture — postmodernism almost seems to take a perverse pleasure in celebrating its own superficiality, kitchiness, and carefree eclecticism. I wish I could say this were only true of the movement’s epigones, and not of its major figures as well. But I can’t. Because it’s not only second-tier writers like Rodolphe Gasché, Stanley Fish, or Jean-Luc Nancy. It’s Derrida, Butler, Spivak, and even Deleuze as well, all of whom seem to jump around within the space of a single page — casually citing any number of abstruse theorists and philosophers, each of them endowed with apparently equal validity, even if their conclusions or methodologies are incommensurable and mutually exclude one another. Postmodern theory tends to favor the dabbler, the “Jack of all trades, master of none.” But often it’s not even that good. They’re usually too sloppy and careless in their reference to the various thinkers they so proudly trot out in order to make some sort of pseudo-clever rhetorical point to be considered truly competent with any of them.

To be honest, even Žižek is not immune to this sort of messy (or at least scattershot) mode of philosophizing. But I’m not sure whether he’s merely ironizing the antics of postmodern discourse, or if it’s all just a symptom of his genuinely spastic and hyperactive personality overall. Neither one would surprise me all that much, honestly. At least with him I do get the impression that he is a voracious reader who tends to know whereof he speaks, even if I disagree with him at times.

Ultimately, I think that one must neither be too theoretically promiscuous, nor theoretically puritanical. The former road leads straightaway to dilettantism, the latter to dogmatism.

Note: Marginalia on Radical Thinking are cross-posted with my other between Symptomatic Redness and The Loyal Opposition to Modernity.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking Series can be found here, here, here, here, here here, here, here, here, here and here.

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Posted on January 21, 2012, in platypus, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I’m grateful for Ross’s kind mention.

    My one criticism is that any account of the development of thinking in the (post-)Marxist epoch must have some apprehension of its variegated and above all *regressive* character, in other words, of periods of relative acuteness and obtuseness, which have impacted theory and practice. Otherwise, it appears that there are merely “methodological” issues at stake, rather than *historical* ones.

    So, Ross, what you get to towards the end, about the difference (and dangers of potential elision) between “discovery” and “invention” is valid, but doesn’t take cognizance of the shifting vicissitudes of the subject-object — and hence, theory-practice — dialectic in capital.

    In other words, there is the infamous problem of not merely “interpreting” the world, but “changing” it!

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