Monthly Archives: July 2016

Communal Luxury/Kristin Ross

Oh, postmodernism. Weren’t you quaint? Remember your heyday back in the nineties, when those rascally communists appeared to be routed, the liberal and neo-liberal crowing about the coming “post-political” era (an idea as laughable as its’ ridiculous moniker)? The world felt safer (for those in the North and Western hemispheres – let’s make believe that the rest of the planet doesn’t exist), and post-modernism offered succor to people who were ill-equipped to deal with actual unpleasant situations that require teamwork and cooperation. Instead, the academics really managed to put their heads deep in the sand, and fell into irrelevance as meaningless terms such as meta, deconstruction, and the end of history” were shouted at an increasingly apathetic world.

Them days have finished of course – every major event that has occurred since George W Bush managed to steal an election in 2000 has buried the idea that there’s no such thing as objectivity as well as the usual po-mo drivel that group movements are foolhardy due to mass activism’s “shaky philosophy”. But that spirit of taking thoughts, ideals, theories and movements and throwing them into some “the personal is the political” stew continues to this day; we call it by generic, off-brand terms such as progressive without really digging all that deeply into what that term means. Thus we have Occupy Wall Street. And thus we have the present volume – Communal Luxury by French Literature academic Kristin Ross.

Communal Luxury deals with the legacy of the Paris Commune, an event that appears to now eclipse the original French Revolution as the launching point for modernity. There is no shortage of material on the Commune, but it is an interesting change of the seasons when a volume claims to deal with the legacy (rather than the history) of the Paris Commune, and particularly what those brief desperate months mean to modern activists. It’s a pity that this volume fails do so.

Kristin Ross specifically draws links between the Commune (and more importantly, the Commune’s ideals) and events like Occupy Wall Street. And for two thirds of the writing, Ross offers cogent analysis on what those ideals actually were/are, although she is not quite as successful when she tries to drive those ideals into contemporary days. However, Ross’ parallels between art (functional or otherwise) and labour is fascinating, and there is an attempt to find consistencies between the shared communalism of Paris with modern concept of the lived, shared space of urbanity, as it is found via urban planning and living.

Communal Luxury argues for an anarchist sense of decentralizing and dismantling everything that is bound to the repressive capitalist state; and yes, there are similarities between academic postmodernism and anarchy in this respect. When Ross begins building arguments for anarchism’s line of thinking, she subsequently veers off the road and into supposition, conjecture and basically faulty reasoning.

Ross suggests that even Marx himself, after witnessing the events of the Commune, began to believe that state machinery should not be used to smash state machinery (and state machinery should be smashed by some “Other” means, which is never explained); furthermore, Ross’ Anarchist Marx apparently felt that the entire concept of historical phases (of which capitalist development is one) is fraudulent. Ross bases all of this on a few unpublished letters that Marx sent to a fellow radical in Russia, near the end of his life.

The fact that Marx was in the middle of writing Das Kapital which drove home the very concept of historical phases, is not taken into account (to say nothing of the fact that minor correspondence that one writes near death’s door doesn’t constitute an official renunciation of one’s previous theories). Ross spends an inordinate amount of pages trying to justify her own conceptualization with dubious “evidence” that Marx was actually a crypto-anarchist.

Ross then proceeds to spend the final third of the book addressing how certain anarchists (especially Kropotkin) massively influenced the Commune, which is certainly true to an extent; however, the sheer amount of time and ink devoted to singular anarchists overshadow how the Commune was influential for the world, anarchist or not – anarchists were and are still a tiny minority, even amongst the left.

There are some moments that deal with the heritage and optimism had a ripple effect on the Communards’ contemporaries, but very little time is spent on how a through-line exists from the Commune to the movements of today, particularly the much ballyhooed but never explicated Occupy Wall Street.

In all honesty, it’s a little baffling as to what Ross was attempting to accomplish with this slim volume. Was this a take on communalism and urban space, and the manner in which those two concepts have changed since the Commune? Is it about anarchism? Is it about Marx totally disavowing the work of his lifetime and embracing the “sudden destruction” anarchist school of thinking? Is it about the conflict between higher and lower forms of art?

All of this revolves around the neo-leftist potpourri methodology mentioned at the top of this article, and the connection between Then and Now (along with ideology, personalities, and the palpable effects felt around the world)  are all stirred in a pot to produce a mishmash whole.

Post-modernism was always a question without an answer, and in that sense it shares a few features with anarchism; however, without any kind of uniting factors, the anarchist/postmodern approach resembles incomprehensible muck. And sadly, that resemblance is shared by Ross.


Tony Cliff/Lenin Vol. 2 – Building the Party

Dear reader of this occasionally updated blog: I apologize for the inconsistency, but with another round of intense labour in my life, there simply hasn’t been sufficient time to read and (more importantly) analyze the width and breadth of radical publishing. Furthermore, as the world continues its atavistic backslide into law-of-the-jungle primitivism, with the sheer amount of bodies piling up in the US, with the anarchy in the UK regarding Brexit, with Ramadan murders becoming part of the religious ritual, the idea of maintaining a book review site isn’t very inspirational.

On the other hand, this is a radical journal of writing, and as such it will aid and prop up radical, progressive sentiment, especially at the cultural level. This may not be as important as mass strikes and hardcore demos, but it’s a part of that picture.

Now we can flash back a century or more.

Tony Cliff was one of a myriad of dissenters within the official Marxist universe, a universe that had undergone Stalinism and his particular bloody regime in Cliff’s recent past. Cliff was a Trotskyist deviant in the eyes of orthodox Marxism, and not only was he not welcome amongst various Moscow-run parties throughout the world, he was also expelled from the official inheritors of Trotsky, namely the Fourth International. He helped found the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, and continued his heterogeneous, off-beat Marxism until the day he died.

Cliff was as much a furious writer as he was an organizer (and we’ll see some similarities below), and he produced a wide range of work that covered the now-reactionary Russian state, workers rights on a global scale, and most importantly, history. Cliff wrote mammoth, multi volume tomes that dealt with the lives of Lenin, Trotsky and other early Bolsheviks, as well as savage attacks of the recently passed Stalinist era.

Lenin was intended to cover every trace of a revolutionary mastermind over the course of 3-4 volumes, but interestingly the volumes delved deep into the thought process of Lenin as much as it dealt with elements of his actual life. This is an intellectual history, a history which needless to say deals with concrete elements of existence and how they affected Lenin’s thought process, as well as the manner in which Lenin and the Bolsheviks tactically responded to wild changes in circumstance. The emphasis remains focused on Lenin’s thoughts, tactics, philosophy and actions which he utilized at various points.

Vol. 2 deals with building the Bolshevik party, from roughly the late 1800s until 1914 (further discussion of the war, the 1917 revolutions and Lenin’s place in the latter’s landscape are saved for future volumes). This was the formative period of not only Bolshevism, but radical mass movements in Russia altogether. The events that marked this 14 year period included the emergence of the nascent proletariat, the beginning of the shift in attitudes amongst the peasantry; as Lenin was shaped by concrete events on the ground (rather than abstract theory), all of these events influenced Lenin’s tactics and mindset.

The writing follows Little Lenin from association with a small handful of socialists at the turn of the century, through the aborted 1905 revolution, and finally his organizational skills into transforming the Bolshevik into a mass organization that happened to be linked to rest of the workers in the last dying days of Tsardom.

Recently, there has been talk amongst activists of reviving Leninism as a method that remains highly applicable in our current period; Lenin Vol.2 was one of the works mentioned and recommended by a fairly wide variety of Marxists, who are keen on rescuing Lenin from not only the garbage can of history, but from sterile hero worship or even worse, retrograde communism. This is understandable, and Cliff certainly attempts to provide the contextual nature of Lenin’s tactical attitude, as well as offering a wide range of ideas that remain applicable today, in the modern progressive movements of our own age.

The problem, however, is that Cliff follows suit and once again created a fairly fawning, uncritical presentation of the Father of the Revolution. Lenin can do no wrong in these pages, and every single instance in which missteps were made are explained away, creating an almost mythic figure of unassailable abilities.

This runs counter to one of the basic tactical elements of Lenin himself; he was able to self-correct and bend one or another to deal with actual pressing concerns in a wide range of contexts. History and human behavior are fluid, accidents can happen, and Lenin was not a fortune teller. Lenin was able to learn from his mistakes, and learn from the present, current context and act accordingly. However, Cliff’s treatment of the man made him almost inhuman and almost incapable of making bad choices.

Leninism is itself a strange concept in that Lenin was able to move with the times, and while he had a definite end goal, he was also capable of bending in different situations in order to better drive his goals forward, no matter what (with the primary consisting of a successful Marxist revolution) . The idea of creating some kind of unchanging, platonic model of LENINISM that is not prone to change (and in which Lenin’s theory becomes absolute) is the last thing that Lenin would do. The very idea of having static, unwavering ideals that are not willing/able to change with the times is anathema to what Lenin actually did and said during his lifetime.

If nothing else, Vol. 2 presents aspects of Lenin that should draw readers’ attention; these include Lenin’s ability to have a “standpoint” and long term goals to meet, while also being flexible enough to change focus is one of those elements. Further, Lenin’s decisiveness is also quite noteworthy; after gathering information and attempting bring mass actions to the fore, Lenin would act without hesitation. If something unforeseen occurs, it will be dealt with as it comes up, as it pertains to mass action. But the resolve to make bold decisions is a clearly positive element of “Leninism” that can be applied in other instances, and is worth examination.

Lenin Vol 2: Building the Party remains a sought after object, and rightfully so. The volume is almost a handbook of how to deal with the real problems that come with building a party; it also acts as one of the better interpretations of Lenin’s thought process which also bear investigation and reading. Intellectual history, the history of thought itself, is a fascinating subject, and should be explored more often (although I can hear Lenin doing cartwheels in his grave at the mention of he word “intellectual”). A little less hero worship would be greatly appreciated however. Masses make the revolution, not Big Men, and Lenin was keenly aware of that fact.