Friday, July 1, 2011

Platypus's "conversation" - a Marxist View

Divided by a common language?

The Frankfurt school methodology employed by Platypus is worse than useless, argues Mike Macnair

Image: Let’s talk
Let’s talk

The US Platypus grouping aims, as its comrades have told us before, to “host the conversation” about the past and future of the left (in the group’s own terms, about the left’s non-existence and necessity).

Conversation, however, requires mutual comprehension, or - to put it another way - some degree of common ground. If I address you in Latin and you reply in Japanese, but neither of us understands the other language, we are attempting to interact, but it would be bizarre to call this attempt a “conversation”.

We may, for that matter, be ‘divided by a common language’ (as is commonly said of Britain and the US). For a simple example, the ‘No solicitors’ sign not uncommonly found on building entrances in the US bans door-to-door sellers, not lawyers. If we use the same words for different entities or processes, we will talk at cross-purposes.

I raise this issue because comrade Cutrone’s response to my criticisms concludes by attempting to explain specialised senses in which he uses the terms ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘imperialism’.[1] In both cases the senses he uses are, in my opinion, unhelpful.

The underlying problem is to find common ground from which conversation is possible. I have argued before that there is negligible chance of the left finding such common ground on the basis of seeking philosophical agreement.[2] This problem is more acute in relation to Platypus, precisely because the Hegelian commitments make the philosophical argument more ‘closed’ to ideas and information from its outside than more conventional forms of Hegelian Marxism.

For this reason, I am not going to engage directly with comrade Cutrone’s epistemological claims about the so-called “Kantian revolution in philosophy” (which in my opinion is merely a part of the process of transition from enlightenment to counter-enlightenment thought), except very briefly at the end of this article. In addition, to elaborate on the politics of epistemology and theoretical method from Locke and Spinoza to the present would take too long and too much space for now.

In my May 19 article, ‘Theoretical dead end’, I attempted to find this common ground necessary to any conversation: in the project of general human emancipation. This is a project which - as an aim - we in CPGB, and the whole global self-identified Marxist left, share with Platypus.

Indeed, in a certain sense the common ground goes further. The self-identified ‘anti-imperialist left’ advocates de facto alliance of the left with ‘resistance’ to the US even if it is clericalist (the Iranian regime) or Stalinoid shading into hereditary monarchy (the Gaddafi family-led Jamahiriya in Libya, the Assad family-led form of Ba’athism in Syria). The self-identified ‘anti-fascist left’ (Eustonites, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and so on) advocates de facto alliance with the ‘western democracies’ against the clericalist and Stalinoid-monarchist regimes and movements. Platypus comrades say that both sides have abandoned the project of general human emancipation (though their fire has, at least until recently, been most heavily concentrated against the ‘anti-imperialist left’). CPGB comrades, I think, agree that both the ‘anti-imperialist left’ and ‘anti-fascist left’ represent political dead-ends. Here is, in principle, a degree of common ground which could represent a starting point for a conversation.

For it to be a possible starting point does, however, require us to be speaking broadly the same language. And from comrade Cutrone’s June 9 article it seems that we are speaking different theoretical languages.


On imperialism, it is regrettably necessary to trace through the shifts in the arguments. In my May 19 article I used ‘imperialism’ in the way it has been used conventionally on the left since - at the latest - World War I: to mean the systematic subordination of some nations to others, connected with economic superexploitation. I argued, first, that as a matter of politics the project of general human emancipation required upfront public opposition to this systematic subordination and not only to domestic forms of subordination.

Secondly, I made the point that the Hegelian Marxist explanation of the ‘crisis of Marxism’ was opposed to the explanation of reformism in terms of the effects of imperialism - in the sense of the ability of states to redistribute economic gains from the subordination of other countries - offered by an important part of the ‘Second International lefts’: Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Bukharin and Gorter, among others. I suggested that Bukharin’s version at least had more explanatory power in relation to the concrete history than Lukácsian or other Hegelian Marxist accounts of the ‘crisis of Marxism’.

In his May 26 letter comrade Cutrone responded to this aspect of my argument (1) that “Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky found that the ‘imperialist’ phase of ‘monopoly capital’ and the changing ‘organic composition of capital’ (at a global scale) by the turn of the 20th century had been the product of the successes of the workers’ movement in the core capitalist countries” and (2) that “what the Second International radicals meant by ‘imperialism’ was inter-imperialism, not core-periphery relations. The emphasis on the latter was the hallmark of the post-World War II new left and its derangement on the problem of global capital in history.”

My June 2 reply was largely addressed to issues of historical method, which engage the epistemological question, and why these should matter to the political left.[3] I responded to the specific points on imperialism with the observations as to point (2) that, though this is a commonplace in the historiography, it cannot survive confrontation with the primary sources; and, as to point (1), that “I would be very interested to see real evidence for this proposition as a claim about what Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky wrote - as opposed to what they might have written.” I went on further to argue that the symptoms of imperialism go back to the beginnings of capitalist class rule, and to ask the question: (3) “So what is new after the 1870s?”

Comrade Cutrone’s June 9 article does not reply to any of these points. Instead, he steps sideways to a different argument. I will, therefore, take him as conceding (1) that there is no evidence in the writings of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky for his reading of their views on imperialism; and (2) that I am correct that the ‘Second International radicals’ were concerned with core-periphery relations, not just with ‘inter-imperialism’.

I do not take him as conceding the third point, since, though he has not attempted to answer it, his new point attempts to reassert the idea of ‘imperialism’ as a response to the rise of the workers’ movement in a different way.

Comrade Cutrone’s new point is that:

“[T]he ‘mass’ proletarianisation of the core capitalist countries was the result, as Marx discussed in Capital Vol 1 on ‘the working day’, of politically variable social conditions of wage labour that, with increased worker empowerment, cause a shift from variable to constant capital, or from labour-time-intensive sweatshop to automated machine production, requiring ever less labour input and resulting in ever greater value-crises.

“This, in turn, affected the conditions of colonialism. Whereas colonies in the classical bourgeois era of the emergence of modern capital were sites of market expansion, in the late era of ‘imperialism’ or ‘monopoly capital’, colonies become raw material resource-extraction zones feeding metropolitan industry. The humanity of not only those who were thus colonised, but also of the metropolitan proletariat hence became superfluous - not even a ‘reserve army of unemployed’, but a fascist rabble, subject to more or less desperate authoritarian politics.”

This side-step dodges both the political issue of the attitude of Marxists to the subordination of some nations to others, and the issue of the relative explanatory power of Hegelian Marxist accounts and of the theory of imperialism in relation to the ‘crisis of Marxism’ around 1900. It does so by shifting the issue into that of ‘authoritarianism’ - to which it will be necessary to return separately later.

The argument is independently false, for two reasons. The first concerns the shift from variable to constant capital. If this were primarily a response to the rise of the workers’ movement, we would expect to see it first emerging as the workers’ movement is strengthened and begins to make an impact on wages and the length of the working day. But in fact new, labour-saving technology involving a relative increase in constant capital already began to develop under conditions of wholly unfree labour in the sugar-cane industry, and of semi-free labour in cotton mills - to a considerable extent worked by the forced ‘apprenticeship’ of unemployed youth under the old Poor Law.[4]

Equally, we would expect to see old labour-intensive technology exported to the periphery, where labour is prima facie cheaper; but in fact, though this does happen, we also see new capital-intensive technology exported to the periphery (for example, railways in the 19th century).

Why? The answer has two aspects. The first is that the working day is not only subject to social limits, but also to a physical maximum; and the wage is also subject to a physical minimum of subsistence goods. Suppose capital succeeds in driving wages down to this minimum and hours up to this maximum, it will still be the case that improving the productivity of labour will lead to an increase in relative surplus value.

The second is that capitals are, in fact, in competition with one another, and the first capital to introduce technology which improves labour productivity will therefore gain not only improved relative surplus value, but also an improved share of total profits relative to other capitals. Hence each individual capital has an interest in introducing labour-saving technology even if absolute surplus value is already maximised.

Secondly, the early modern ‘periphery’ was already “raw material resource-extraction zones feeding metropolitan industry” in the sugar-cane colonies feeding the late medieval Venetian sugar end-processing industry, and a fortiori in the eastern European ‘second serfdom’, which fed raw materials to the Dutch republic and England.[5]

Conversely, however, there is no conflict at all between the colonies being “sites of market expansion” and “raw material resource-extraction zones”. Leave aside the market for capital goods in transportation and first-stage processing: if a formerly peasant and artisan population is forced into wage-labour (or even merely into putting out production), domestic production of basic goods will be reduced and a secondary market will be created for food, clothes, etc.


This point can be briefer. I said in my June 2 article that ‘authoritarianism’ can have more than one meaning, and asked which comrade Cutrone was using. I pointed out that unless a Bakuninist or libertarian/liberal sense is being used, the late 19th-early 20th century workers’ movement cannot be described as ‘authoritarian’ without violent distortion.

Comrade Cutrone responds that he is using Adorno’s co-authored The authoritarian personality (1950) and Wilhelm Reich’s The mass psychology of fascism (1933; translated 1946); in particular, he paraphrases Reich as arguing that “Fascism expressed the workers’ ‘fear of freedom’, which Marxism, in its false rationalism of ‘economic interest’, had failed to overcome.”

This response, however, does not in the least answer my question about what comrade Cutrone means by ‘authoritarianism’ as a political phenomenon: is ‘authoritarianism’ to mean a politics which denies the legitimacy of political dissent and the possibility of the accountability of authorities to those below? Or a politics which admits any sort of authority or binding collective decisions at all? Or any politics in which decisions for the common good are capable of binding ‘free individuals’, meaning property owners?

In fact, it involves him in further difficulties. Following the Frankfurt school, he claims that “Fascism expressed the workers’ ‘fear of freedom’”, and, quoted above, that “The humanity of not only those who were thus colonised, but also of the metropolitan proletariat hence became superfluous - not even a ‘reserve army of unemployed’, but a fascist rabble, subject to more or less desperate authoritarian politics.”

But these claims suppose that the workers actually voted for the fascists - and that they did so because the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) had already habituated them to ‘authoritarianism’ (whatever that is to mean). The reality is very different. The Nazis did pick up working class voters and supporters - from the countryside and the small towns, among atomised workers who had previously voted for one of the kaleidoscopic array of rightwing parties in the Weimar Republic. However, the urban-industrial core of the support of the SPD and Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was not tempted, even in 1932, by Hitler’s rightist demagogy.[6]
The Frankfurt school explanation of the victory of Hitler is thus hollow at its core.

At root, explaining the failure of the SPD to defeat Hitler does not in the least require any such theoretical fantasies. Quite simply, sometimes civil war is unavoidable and necessary. The SPD was unwilling to fight a civil war it could have won in 1918-21, and still unwilling even to attempt to fight a civil war in 1933. The KPD’s fantasies of ‘social-fascism’ and ‘after Hitler, us’ rendered it equally useless. The world, and in particular Europe’s Jews and the other targets of the holocaust, paid in 1939-45 the price of the SPD’s pacifism and constitutionalism in 1918-21 and 1933. But to call pacifism and constitutionalism ‘authoritarianism’ would be obvious nonsense.


I say here and in relation to imperialism that comrade Cutrone’s arguments simply fail to explain the historical evidence. In a sense he responds in advance to this by denying the relevance of the evidence, when he says that “history is not a compendium of past facts” and that “the concrete ‘material’ object of practice is the concretisation of abstractions”. This latter is a confused version of Marx’s argument in Grundrisse, chapters 1, section 3, on the method of political economy.

To quote just a little of this argument: “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception.” (emphasis added); and

“Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being.”[7]

The problem is that comrade Cutrone’s “history is not a compendium of past facts” amounts, in substance, to the denial of Marx’s point that the concrete “is the point of departure in reality and hence the point of departure for observation and conception”. This denial leads to starting from the abstractions of Hegel’s Phenomenology of spirit. Instead of working up the perceptible concrete “as a concentration of many determinations”, this method works up a fantasy of the concrete which is inconsistent with the perceptible and recalcitrant concrete.

“To add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative”, more or less arbitrarily selected corroborating material is added. In comrade Cutrone’s account of the SPD this corroborating role is played by Nettl, James Joll’s The Second International (1955) and Carl Schorske’s German Social Democracy (1954) - all cold war products, not confronted with the post-cold war historiography. This follows Hegel’s method in the Philosophy of right.[8] The method is, in fact, Hegelian at precisely the point at which Marx broke with Hegel.

Platypus on June 4 held a discussion of my critique. The blurb for the meeting contains the comments that “Marxism could be considered (today, and perhaps also in the past) as either: (1) a guide to action; or (2) a guide to history. We would pose the latter, Marxism as a guide to history, against the typical sectarian ‘left’ rationale for (or, eg, anarchist or liberal, rejection of) Marxism as a guide to action”; and “We would, indeed, maintain (controversially) that Marxism has always been primarily a ‘guide to history’ rather than a ‘guide to action’, or, more precisely, that it has only been a guide to action through being a guide to history.”[9]

The boot is in my opinion on exactly the other foot. It is possible that Platypus might, by “hosting the conversation”, serve a useful anti-sectarian purpose in near-future politics. It is also possible that it serves a useful political purpose by hammering home the bankruptcy of both the ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-fascist’ left (though it needs to step up on its critique of the latter). But as a “guide to history” its Frankfurt school methodology is worse than useless.


  1. ‘The philosophy of history’ Weekly Worker June 9.
  2. ‘Against philosopher kings’ Weekly Worker December 11 2008.
  3. For this reason I respond only in this footnote to comrade Cutrone’s objections to my comments on Peter Nettl, and to Ian Birchall’s points (Letters, June 9) that Nettl was a Labour supporter in 1959 (at the height of the ‘Butskellite’ Labour-Tory consensus) and contributed a review of Luxemburg’s The accumulation of capital to International Socialism in 1964. On comrade Birchall’s points I would refer him to Jim Higgins’ 1966 review of Nettl’s biography of Luxemburg ( evidently Higgins did not regard Nettl as in any sense a comrade, though he thought he had “carried out a useful and long overdue service”. Nettl’s 1964 review, in spite of where it appeared, placed particular stress on Joan Robinson’s left-Keynesian critique of Marxist political economy. Comrade Cutrone objects to my consideration of the politics of Nettl’s writing apart from the biography as partially explanatory of Nettl’s interpretive choices in relation to the SPD. I am not persuaded by this objection. I see no reason to suppose that the biography of Luxemburg was Nettl’s “life-work” (Cutrone), as opposed to the product of three years’ intensive full-time research by a man who was characterised in Hanson’s memoir of him as both polylingual and a speed-reader, who was otherwise occupied before 1960, and who produced three more books at great speed between 1966 and 1968. I note, moreover, that comrade Cutrone responds to this point about Nettl, but offers no response at all to my citation of Breitman’s review of more recent literature on the SPD, which offers other interpretations.
  4. Sugar-cane industry: JH Galloway The sugar cane industry: an historical geography from its origins to 1914 Cambridge 2009. Cotton mills: K Honeyman, ‘The London parish apprentice and the early industrial labour market’,, which refers to a good deal of earlier literature.
  5. Sugar-cane: JH Galloway op cit. ‘Second serfdom’: B Kagarlitsky Empire of the periphery London 2008, chapters 4-9 is a convenient discussion of one example.
  6. D Geary, ‘Nazis and workers before 1933’ (2002) 48 Australian Journal of Politics and History pp40-51.
  8. M Macnair, ‘Law and state as holes in Marxist theory’ (2006) 34 Critique pp211-36.

1 comment:


    I am writing to respond to Mike Macnair’s critique (‘Divided by a common language’, June 30) of my article on ‘The philosophy of history’ (June 9). . . .

    On ‘imperialism’ and ‘authoritarianism’, I was concerned to show their interrelated character, which I sketched only in very broad outline: the general historical trend of post-1848 Bonapartism, all the way up to the present. As Marx and Engels put it, Bonapartism expressed a situation in which the capitalists could no longer and the workers could not yet rule society (see Engels’ 1891 introduction to Marx’s The civil war in France). I agree with Mike Macnair that, for example, Bukharin’s explanation of imperialism’s effect on the socialist workers’ movement, the political compromise of the metropolitan workers with respect to their national states, is better than the idea that they were economically ‘bought off’ (I disagree, however, that the latter was Lenin’s and Trotsky’s essential perspective). I agree as well that the virtue of such an emphatically political explanation is that it can account for similar phenomena in the periphery.

    But this raises the issue of what I have called ‘authoritarianism’ or willing support for the status quo and hostility to alternatives, and the subjectivity for doing so, again. Why are the workers more often conservative, even virulently and self-destructively so, than not? The explanation of (some) workers’ support for fascism by reference to their peripheral character (ie, the unemployed or ‘lumpenised’) is what indeed ‘dodges the issue’. While the SPD and KPD’s refusals to fight a civil war against fascism in Germany in 1918-21 and circa 1933 may have been of decisive, conjunctural importance, this itself is what requires explanation (it also leaves aside the Italian case). It cannot be laid simply on bad leadership - on the parties’ bad decisions - without reference to the workers’ fear, or lack of support for better action, which was broken, however briefly, in Germany in 1918-19, but precisely as a civil war among the workers. The contrast of 1918-19 with 1933 could not be clearer: as Adorno put it, 1919 already decided what came later (see Those twenties Columbia 1998).

    The issue of Hegelianism is a difficult one: how to include the ‘subjective factor in history’. I think this turns on how one understands Marx’s critique of Hegel. I don’t think that Marx’s reference to the ‘real’ is in an empiricist sense, but rather in Hegel’s sense of the actuality of the rational in the real. The issue turns on the relation of essence and appearance, or, with what necessity things appear as they do. What is essential is what is practical, and what is practical is subjective as well as objective. Theoretical reflection on the subjective must use metaphysical categories that are not merely handy, but actually constitutive of social practices in which one is a subject. The commodity form is not a generalisation from experience.

    All of this, however, is largely beside the point regarding Platypus. For the conversation we seek to host is not between ourselves and others, but much more widely on the avowed left, and among those with far greater experience than what is available among our own members. We serve only to facilitate, even if we have to elbow our way in, provocatively, to make the space for such conversation, otherwise foreclosed. We consider the need for such conversation to be more ideological than practical at present.

    I am glad that comrade Macnair recognises that Platypus may “serve a useful anti-sectarian purpose in near-future politics. It is also possible that it serves a useful political purpose by hammering home the bankruptcy of both the ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘anti-fascist’ left.” This is precisely what we intend, though I think it is potentially much more. If Platypus does successfully what Macnair thinks it might, I for one will be happy to allow the “guide to history” through which we understand our own efforts to be considered a ‘useful myth’.