Category Archives: literature

Weigel/Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating

Marxism is Feminism, and vice versa. Or at least these two strands have been coupled for so long that the difference between them, while not negligible, is still pretty minor. This can range from the second wave (the 1970s and 80s), with a range of thought and action from the university to the home to the picket line, and the almost atomic level betwixt genders. Feminism suffered the ignominy of quote unquote post feminism (along with the rest of post modern dreck of the 90s, the worst, most nothing decade of the 20th Century), but thankfully we’ve moved on. And Marxism/socialism, and its attendant targets, are back on the table.

This is where delightful books like Labor of Love fall into – a space that’s removed from the university, and still further removed removed from orthodox feminism, into a frank, engaging, but still essentially socialist take on dating. Dating, that most commonplace activity that the modern romantic comedy is built on, is taken through a historical lens, in a manner that’s intelligent, entertaining, and somehow almost grassroots in its’ Marxist feminist focus. Moira Weigel is not writing a dissertation here, and this topic isn’t some weighty piece on dialectics, but she isn’t writing a popcorn book either. This is a fascinating look at dating from a vantage point that’s largely left unspoken in pop culture.

Specifically, that vantage point is materialism – concrete money or resources. Weigel deftly looks at the industry of dating, from its beginnings at the end of the 19th Century – when police could and frequently did arrest daters and “Charity girls” for prostitution, up through its acceptance and the codification of the usual double standards that lie behind gender relations, and into the wide world of today, where things are even less clear than ever. Money and labor – the sheer costs involved in pursuing and maintaining a relationship – are what’s at stake, and misogyny, the patriarchy that buys and sells life as we know it is never far away.

Misogyny today is perhaps best embodied by the usual veiled threats of women getting pregnant before she’s forty (and with all that statement is based on – namely a genetic imperative that women are slaves to, no matter what those damn “libbers” say or do) and its that low view of women that is still deeply embedded in the dating conversation. And Weigel brings up that modern conversation, literally and figuratively, throughout Labor of Love. This makes the entire text approachable and engaging, to say nothing of the almost universal human aspect of dating itself.

This combination of intelligence, analytical clarity, and A SENSE OF HUMOR make the books’ hard truths easier to bear. Even as one reads the saga of how we ended up with an entire industry which is based on desire yet somehow manages to avoid being called prostitution, the reader is drawn in and hypnotized by her very human treatment of the subject.

The Marxist/Feminists excel at this sort of organic, unorthodox (but still resolutely Marxist/feminist) take on (often pop/cultural) subjects, subjects which are treated with far too much frivolity. This is a sweeping look at the process of dating and mating which revealed considerable truth while at the same time had me shouting “Yes! Exactly!” And honestly, Marxism, as it is entwined with radical feminism, needs to gain better, more concrete understanding of specific practices like the dating industry, beyond mere dialectical materialist theory. It needs to understand what materialism we’re facing. Labor of Love tackles this admirably.

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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.

Where lightning strikes

Yes, I am still plowing through the stories of the Paris Commune, about two weeks after everyone has promptly forgotten May Day. Yes, I know this is obsessive. On the other hand, this  is a critical unforgettable moment that is formed by mashing together by context, mass action, and the waves of history

Presently I am studying Civil War in France, written by Karl “Marxism” Marx; I am already THOROUGHLY familiar with the events of the Commune, but that is not the point behind reading canonical texts. The statements made in the canon, the philosophies that lurk behind the ostensible focus of the work, are eternal. The text could deal with a tiny, very specific topic, but you’ll know when a text rises above simplistic categorization and makes statements that are relevant now, relevant in the future, as much as they were relevant in the past.

The enormity of the Commune, the sheer amount of focus that is drawn to this singularity, means that there are LOTS of information, points of view, and lessons to be learned when studying those three months in detail. But the canon is not by any means set in stone. nor are they formed on book lists written by academic super-Marxists. The canon is malleable; it depends wholly upon the worth of the lessons taught in the text, the relevance that the text holds for the reader, and as is what happens to any reader, a compelling mixture of time and place.

Life-changing books are innumerable, and the best break open some kind of code, some set of horizons that were previously unknown to the reader. These are essential texts, and they truly are suspect devices. They are little bombs waiting to be set off. Naturally the combo of real lived-in situations AND the texts that are connected somehow (either via philosophy or context) constitute the best scenario for the canonical.

As much as punk rock saved my life when I was a teenager, there was one specific text that I read later in life, which I felt represented me and produced a philosophy that I felt spoke for and to me. A text that could be contextualized and re-contextualized to fit different scenarios in life: that book was The Fountainhead.

I’M KIDDING. The book that I speak of is Daily Life in Revolutionary China, a text written by an Italian Communist woman named Maria Theresa Macciocci in 1970, one of the quieter moments in the Cultural Revolution. But the canon is virtually indefinite – this will be shaped by the events that we speak of, and if they maintain any kind of viewpoints that address scenarios that routinely get repeated through history. More on that later – I want to address the new Marxist wave which has saved Spain yet again. Some situations are all too familiar for some of us.

Anyway, let the living and breathing canon continue to grow, as the continuum of radicalism shapes the world, as more people find an articulation that they feel sums up not only the topic at hand, but also the bare basics of human life trapped in late period Capitalism.

 

 

 

 

May Day: Victor Hugo + Louise Michel 4ever

Anyone who has perused this blog should know who Louise Michel is by now. Feminist. Radical. Communard. A genuine egalitarian who believed that all women had a place in the revolution, moving beyond bourgeoisie Republicanism and welcoming the lowest orders of women, who really were the most justifiable recipients of a socialist revolution. Frontline soldier, defending the barricades of the Paris Commune until the last minute, when she was struck unconscious and left for dead.

And then, Victor Hugo. World champion litterateur. Author of the monumental Les Miserables (the original volume, not the musical nor the verdammt American movie). A massive influence on modernist fiction, and considered the mother of all French novelists. And incidentally, a fierce proponent of the Paris Commune, committed socialist, and more or less utterly disdainful of the bourgeoisie that may have bought his books, but hated his sociopolitical stance.

There is something lyrical about French heroines, as they have pushed against injustice and particularly against the casual misogyny of European culture. The women thrash valiantly, tearing apart the reactionary impulse (and the very real, physical defenders of such regressive politics). Women such as Louise Michel leave indelible marks, marks and foundations that cannot be erased by anything including death. Foundations are laid for future generations of fighters, and Michel set the hallmark for revolutionary women apres 1871. Hugo was eventually captured by the reactionaries, and rather than be let off the hook and betray her comrades, Michel actually bragged about a series of fictional offenses during her trial: the latter poem deals with this event.

Hugo produced the following writing in praise of the indomitable Michel and the warriors of the Commune who did so much in such little time. Michel was as indestructible as Hugo describes, and to the best of his efforts Hugo elevates Michel into something that will last forever.

Viro Major

Having seen the vast massacre, the combat

the people on their cross, Paris on its pallet bed:

Tremendous pity was in your words.

You did what the great mad souls do.

And wearying of fighting, dreaming, suffering,

You said “I killed!” because you wanted to die.

 

You lied against yourself, terrible and superhuman.

Judith the sombre Jewess, Aria the Roman

Would have clapped their hands while you spoke.

You said to the lofts, “I burnt the palaces!”

You glorified those who are crushed and downtrodden.

You cried “I killed! Let them kill me!” – And the crowd

Listened to this haughty woman accuse herself.

You seemed to blow a kiss from the sepulchre;

Your steady eyes weighed on the livid judges:

And you dreamed, like the great Euminedes.

 

Pale death stood behind you.

The vast hall was full of terror.

Because the bleeding people detest civil war.

Outside could be heard the sound of the town.

This woman listened to the noisy life

From above, in an austere attitude of refusal.

She did not understand anything other than

A pillory erected for finale:

And finding affront noble and agony beautiful,

Sinister, she hastened her steps toward the tomb.

The judges murmured “Let her die! It is fair

She is vile – at least she is not majestic,”

Said their conscience. And the judges, pensive

Facing yes, facing no, as between two reefs

Hesitated, watching the severe culprit.

 

And those who, like me, know you to be incapable

Of all that is not heroism and virtue,

Who know if they asked you “Where are you from?”

That you would reply “I come from the night where there is

Suffering;

Yes, I come from the duty which you have made an abyss!”

Those who know your mysterious and sweet verses,

Your days, your nights, your cares, your tears given to all.

Your forgetting yourself to aid others

Your words which resemble the flame of the apostles;

Those who know the roof without fire, without air, without

Bread

The bed of webbing with the fir table

Your goodness, your pride as a woman of the people.

The acrid emotion which sleeps beneath your anger.

 

Your long look of hate at all the inhuman people

And the feet of the children warmed by your hands:

Those people, woman, facing your timid majesty

Meditated, and despite the bitter fold of your mouth

Despite the one who cursed you and hounded you

Who hurled at you the undignified cries of the law

Despite your high, fata voice with which you accused yourself

They saw the angel’s splendor beneath the medusa.

 

You were tall, and seemed strange in these debates;

For, puny like those who live down there,

Nothing bothers them more than two conflicting souls,

Than the divine chaos of starry things

Seen at the depths of a great inclement heart,

Than the radiation seen in a blaze.