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“Personally, I don’t understand the compulsion to mine history for words that might describe what’s to come. The fact is that the approaching flood has no name. Any title it might take is presently lost in the noise of its gestation, maybe just beginning to be spoken in a language that we can hardly recognize. There will be no Commune because this isn’t Paris in 1871. There will be no Dual Power because this isn’t Russia in 1917. There will be no Autonomy because this isn’t Italy in 1977. I’m writing this in 2017, and I don’t know what’s coming, even though I know something is rolling toward us in the darkness, and the world can end in more ways than one. Its presence is hinted at somewhere deep inside the evolutionary meat grinder of riot repeating riot, all echoing ad infinitum through the Year of our Lord 2016, when the anthem returned to its origin, and the corpse flowers bloomed all at once as Louisiana was turned to water, and no one knew why. I don’t call people comrade; I just call them friend. Because whatever’s coming has no name, and anyone who says they hear it is a liar. All I hear are guns cocking over trap snares unrolling to infinity.”

– Phil A. Neel, Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict. Reaktion Books, 2018.

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“Communist Jailed As Church Robber,” Montreal Gazette. October 18, 1938. Page 10. 

R. Lepage Gets Seven Years After Pleading Guilty to Over 20 Charges

Pleading guilty yesterday to more than 20 charges of theft from churches in Montreal and surrounding districts, Roland Lepage, 28, alias Fred Way, self-styled Communist, will serve the next seven years in St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary as the result of sentences imposed upon him in Police Court.

The accused objected to being charged with breaking and entering the churches, telling the court ‘that when the door is open and you walk in that is not breaking.’ The charges were amended to read plain theft and the accused pleaded guilty.

Lepage was given three five-year-terms by Judge Maurice Tetreau on three charges of theft, the three sentences to run concurrently. Brought before Judge Guerin, he was given two years on each of 21 charges of theft, the sentences to run concurrently but he will begin to serve these sentences only after he has completed the five-year term.

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“The Polish Workers’ Paradise,” Montreal Gazette. September 2, 1980. Page 07.

Poland’s crisis is a forerunner of what could happen in the Soviet Union

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“Shipyard workers at Gdansk defy Polish leader Edward Gierek’s orders to return to work,” Montreal Gazette. August 27, 1980. Page 07.

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“While it is true that the proletariat
cannot just take the machinery of the State into its own hands and make it operate
in its interests, the same thing may be said of the machinery of the economy.
All the proponents of self-management, and particularly all our contemporary
mystics of self-management, have yet to understand that there is a
discontinuity between capitalism and communism. In fact, the movement of the
occupation of the factories and the theory of the BO correspond to a stage of proletarian
retreat, a stage in which the totality of capital represented by the State can
no longer be confronted directly, since it is not simply a matter of a handful
of individuals. The factory occupations movement is a movement that binds the
proletariat to the means of production, that makes it dependent on them. By occupying
the factories, the proletariat does not escape the socialization of capital,
which makes all human beings interdependent, but puts itself at its service.

The proletariat has withdrawn, defeated, to the places of its immediate
existence and, instead of calling it by its real name, all kinds of theoreticians
have presented this retreat as a new form of struggle, a new means to attain a
really revolutionary consciousness. The occupation of the factories without the
destruction of capital in its existence (the community of capital) can only
lead to the paralysis of capital; but the working class is also paralyzed,
immobilized, remaining so to speak within capital. If production in the
factories is resumed (self-management), then one implicitly accepts the rationality
of capital, since one restores capital without the capitalist and his
repressive appendages: foremen, psychologists, etc.; one approves of the
division of society into enterprises and therefore one accepts the resumption
of production even in those factories whose products are contrary to the
interests of humanity, like automobile factories.

It is obvious that the discourse concerning
the destruction of the State, considered simply in its anti-state dimension, is
limited to exposing the generalized state-worship that has swept over the vast
majority of the population. On the one hand, if society engenders a
State—society is the totality of social relations—the State tends to become
society as the inevitable correlate of the access of capital to the material
community. Capital, Marx says, develops a coercive relation; as a result, this element is
found in all organizations dominated by capital and therefore it is also
characteristic of the State in its activity as coercive agent that springs into
action when economic coercion, derived from the rationality characteristic of a
particular process of production, is no longer sufficient. That is to say,
employing the old terminology, the situation is no longer characterized by
having civil society on one side and the State on the other, but rather by the
penetration of the latter into all of society’s organizations.

Recalling what Marx said about the
nationalization of the land, that the land cannot belong to either the direct
producers or even to any particular generation of humanity, but rather to the
species as a whole, Bordiga emphasized the fact that the communist revolution
cannot serve to benefit a single class, regardless of how universal that class
may be. Were it to do so, it would remain in the stage of the generalization of
the proletariat and would not proceed towards its abolition. If one then
declares that every person should become a producer, one mutilates humanity at
the same time that one casts aside an entire historical-practical acquisition;
man does not have to intervene directly, personally, in order to produce! And
furthermore, such a demand is revealed to be more and more contradictory with
each passing day. As a consequence of the enormous productivity of labor, the
act of production can no longer define man; only human activity, the
development of the human forces as ends-in-themselves, can be the fundamental
determination of a humanity that is finally liberated from capital.”

– Jacques Camatte, “The KAPD and the proletarian movement.

Invariance, Series II, No. 1

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“Charge of Complicity In Breaking ‘Padlock’,” Ottawa Citizen. July 25, 1938. Page 03.

Two Men Who Tried to Wire Constables Inside Their Own Car Escape But Man Who Helped Them Charged With ‘Complicity After the Fact.’

Canadian Press.
QUEBEC, July 25. – F. X. Lessard, self-styled ‘only living Communist to break open a Duplessis padlock for Communists.’ remained in the cells today while friends considered means of raising bail of $1,200 set Saturday by Judge Hugues Fortier when the 40-yer-old carpenter appeared before him on a charge of ‘willfully breaking a provincial law.’

Behind bars also was Henri Beaulieu, the man police charged with ‘complicity after the fact’ in the escape of two men who tried to imprison guards in their automobile Friday while Lessard entered the home authorities padlocked two days before because of the carpenters alleged Communistic activities.

When police went to the six-room Lessard dwelling last Tuesday to advise the family the flat would be locked up for a year under the special law aimed at halting the spread of Communism, it was the authorities’ third visit to homes occupied by the carpenter. Twice before they had seized literature from Lessard’s dwellings.

Away at work when police told Mrs. Lessard the family would have to evacuate the premises ‘within 24 hours,’ the carpenter again was absent when two detectives arrived the following day to execute the withdrawal order. His blue-eyed, middle aged wife and two children were marched from their home singing the ‘Internationale’ and the ‘Young Guard’ after refusing to remove their furniture. 

Two policemen immediately were detailed to guard the abandoned flat, located in to the top of a tall building below steep St. Sauveur cliff.

Curious lookers-on frequently engaged the two guarding officers in casual conversation and the police saw nothing to arouse their suspicions when two men approached their parked car Friday ostensibly for a chat.

But the officers were startled suddenly to notice their ‘callers’ slyly were binding the car’s doors with strong wire and when the guards attempted to seize the men the pair fled – just as Lessard walked along the sidewalk, pulled open a street door, and ran up three flights of stairs to his former home.

Drawing revolvers, the policemen followed and on reaching the top of the stairs they found the ‘padlocks’ (official seals of Quebec province) had been smashed. Lessard, calmly walking about the kitchen, made no resistance to arrest.

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“…If union, the intelligent cooperation of different individuals, in short, if life in love, the organic life, is the only true and real life, you will understand that it is only after a long series of struggles that union, that this understanding between men, was able to be achieved. As long as men did not have this understanding they had to struggle amongst themselves, and history up till now has only been a recital of these struggles. From very early on they were obliged to enter into intercourse with each other. As they learned to know the produce of nature and the man-made productions which surrounded them, needs were awakened in them and the exchange of products became all the more necessary; no single country, no single people, no single individual, is able to produce everything itself. However, in the beginning the exchange of products consisted uniquely in this: when then the strongest entered into contact with the weakest he fought him and robbed him. The first form of exchange of products was precisely this robbery with murder. And just as the first form of exchange of products or of intercourse was robbery with murder, so the first form of production or labour was slavery. The victors did not content themselves with stealing products, they also wanted to seize hold of the producers; so they soon realised that it was more advantageous to reduce the surviving conquered to slavery, and to exploit them in this way, than to consume them by indulging in cannibalism. Egoism thus became more and more refined. It is on this historical basis, gentlemen, that production and intercourse have developed to the stage of free competition, in which we now live, even though we refuse to admit to ourselves that this intercourse still rests on the same egoistic basis of mutual exploitation which was its origin. However, a glance at our situation clearly shows us that, today as yesterday, we sell ourselves and exploit each other. This exploitation has no doubt become more refined over the ages, but it has not thereby become more human; rather has it become more inhuman since at the present time the more we are forced to sell ourselves willingly and mutually, the less we are able to escape from this traffic in men, the more universal has this become. So we all have to peddle our life-activity in order to buy in exchange the life-activity of other men – and what is the sum total of all our faculties and of all our forces, which we throw on the market and which we must turn into money, but our own whole life? It is not our body, which we only touch from the outside, but its real force that constitutes our life. When we sell this force of ours we ourselves sell our very life. Money is the mark of slavery; is it not therefore but human value expressed in figures? But men who can be paid, men who buy and sell each other, are they anything but slaves? How can we begin to escape from this traffic in men as long as we live in isolation and as long as each person has to work for himself on his own account in order to gain the means of existence? Who gives us the means of life, the means of our physical and social activity if we don’t gain them by buying and selling our own life? We are living in the midst of an eternal contradiction, of a perpetual struggle. It is the contradiction of intercourse in constant expansion in the midst of isolation. We are separated from each other, each one of us lives and works only for himself, yet none of us can for an instant do without each other. Whereas each person needs the production of the whole accessible human world, from China to North America, in order to live and act as a human, they are limited to their own isolated force to obtain all that they need. It is not useful activity, real physical and intellectual energy, fair work that decides the lot of individuals – for what is the greatest force of an individual in face of the world? – but chance and common trickery: he who in this gamble is able to pocket as quickly as possible the most human value expressed in figures, money. These are the blind and immoral powers which determine the destiny of man!

When the live life-consciousness has awakened in man, the perverted nature of our social relations has of course been felt; but it was not also understood that the perverted life-consciousness, from which men were just beginning to free themselves, was just as much a product of the perverted life, the perverted world within which men have lived until now, as inversely this perverted world was a product of life-consciousness that has not yet attained maturity. The interaction between real social life and the life-consciousness was not seen as well. The latter, religion, politics, Church and State, the theoretical expression of practical egoism were criticised and it was thought that the world could be reformed in this manner, without realising that this would be just as fruitless as a doctor wanting to cure a disease by suppressing its external symptoms. Perverted consciousness and its manifestations, Church and State, are nothing but the symptoms of a perverted life – the picture of a real body which will not change just because a different and more beautiful picture is made of it.

Gentlemen, the era of political and religious revolutions has, however, come to an end. People realise that the egoist life-consciousness and its forms of existence, the Church and State, will disappear of their own accord, but not before the egoist life, working for one’s private account, the traffic in humans disappear. As long as this practical egoism has not disappeared talking to man about philosophy, freedom, reason and love will be fruitless. The mass of men will not believe that human life and life in general is love, truth and freedom. They will see in egoism with its whole train of misfortunes the fundamental characteristic of human nature, which in fact it is as long as men are separated, living and working for themselves. Perhaps you are thinking that I contradict myself and that it is sometimes love and sometimes egoism that I take for the real life, the life of natural man. But, gentlemen, human nature is not a monolith, a single body which is and remains unchanged; human nature has to develop and, at present, it is as little developed as society. You cannot draw any conclusion about human nature from judging the mass of our contemporaries. One thing however is certain: if one man can have a true life-consciousness, then all men can – and if they do not, this is not the fault of human nature, otherwise all of us who are meeting here would not have the slightest idea of the real life since we are ourselves only men – but of external circumstances that have not yet allowed all men to completely develop their nature.

When it is said that communism, as an idea, is a very fine thing but is unrealisable, no more is being said than what the theologians and philosophers, priests and statesmen have always said. This is to consider oneself as superior to the mass of men. If you, gentlemen, consider communism to be a good thing in itself that is because you consider that life in love and reason constitutes the true life. However, you believe that your life-consciousness will not be able to develop in all individuals. Why do you believe this? Because you cannot envisage this consciousness developing other than by theoretical instruction – such as all the priests and philosophers have practised until now without for that banishing brutality and ignorance, wickedness and foolishness from the world. But the development of human nature can also take place in another, in a practical way, and not only can it take place in this way but it will in fact come about only or mainly or essentially in this way. So let us abandon the theoretical form, let us not imagine that we will convert the world by our ideas. Communism is not a theory, not some philosophical system which will be taught us. Communism is the end-result of the historical genesis of society.”

– Moses Hess, “Speech on Communism, Elberfeld, 15 February 1845.” 

Rheinische Jarbücher zur gesellschaftlichen Reform, Darmstadt, 1845.

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“Rioting Japanese Reds Tee Off On The Yankees,” LIFE. Vol. 32, No. 19. May 12, 1952. 

Photographed for Life by Michael Rougier and Jun Miki

On May Day in Tokyo, Japan’s newly restored sovereignity – formalized on April 28 when the U.S. joined in the ratification of the Japanese peace treaty – was challenged in a bitter, bloody outburst. It was led by Communists and directed against the U.S.

The trouble began in Meiji Park, three miles from the emperor’s palace, after 300,000 people gathered beneath the oaks and willows for a peaceful rally conducted chiefly by Japan’s biggest labor unions. The unions had accepted a united front with the socialists, left-wing groups and others in order to fight the Japanese government’s proposed anti-subversive bill, which they feared would throttle Japanese unions. The Communist party, impotent under the rules of the Occupation, was well represented by both Japanese and some North Koreans. One of the speakers at the rally, U.S. Socialist Norman Thomas (above, right), observed to a reporter, ‘These North Korean flags made this all a little embarrassing.’

His embarrassment, and the crowd’s surprise, increased as wild-eyed young Communists, in a well-planned move, seized the speaker’s stand, drove Thomas and other scheduled speakers off the stage and grabbed control of the rally. Moving from Meiji Park in a snake-dancing parade toward the heart of Tokyo, they whipped up the mob. Then, outside the main gates of Emperor Hirohito’s palace grounds, which are only a stone’s throw from Allied headquarters. 10,000 rioters, their leaders remarkably well trained in classic Red street-fighting tactics, fought outnumbered Tokyo police for 2 ½ hours. Next to the police their favorite targets were passing Americans and U.S. automobiles.

When the fighting was over, the square in front of the palace was strewn with wounded and debris. The government had been presented with a fine excuse to pass its anti-subversive bill and the labor unions, like the rest of the country, had been given a shocking lesson on latent anti-Americanism which was bound to exist after war, defeat and occupation. But next day many Americans in Tokyo were showered with profuse apologies and gifts of flowers from Japanese friends who were appalled lest Americans would think the rioters expressed the majority sentiment of the Japanese people.

Photo captions, page by page, from top left, clockwise:

1) Communist Rioters Hurl An Angular Piece of a Broken Police Barricade At American Army Vehicle, And The Driver Ducks His Head, From Allied Headquarters Roof (Top Left) Americans Watch The Battle

2) Speechless Socialist Norman Thomas was prevented by the Reds from addressing rally. He later called rioting ‘a minor dress rehearsal for revolution.’

3) Sloganeer Reds make their pitch with English-language signs. During the fight they removed signs and used the poles as weapons. Many were students.

4) Festive Beginning of May Day rally in Meiji Park featured dancing girls. Spectators sucked ice cream sticks, munched bean-curd cakes, waved their banners and cheered speakers attacking rearmament and the proposed anti-subversive bill.

5) Reds Swam to platform from ringside seats which they had strategically packed beforehand. They drove off sponsored speakers and called for march on the Imperial Plaze. ‘We can fight the police there,’ shouted one of their leaders.

6) The Battle Is Joined when the Reds arrive in Imperial Plaza from Meiji Park. Against background of U.S. headquarters in Dai Ichi buildding (left, rear), police and rioters clash. A policeman has just hurled back one of the Red’s homemade tear-gas bombs whole others smoke on ground. Rioters, armed with clubs, rocks, bags of offal and bamboo spears cored with metal, have drawn back to regroup for another attack. Reds’ expert maneuvering was directed by booming of drums.

7) Banners Are Waved on platform and Reds yell ‘Banzai!’ in a effort to whip up the throng to fall in line for the march toward the Imperial Palace. But by this time thousands of non-Communists in crowd had begun to drift away.

8) Yelling Students snake-dance along street near the Diet Building after leaving Meiji Park. Moving toward Imperial Plaza, they cursed Americans and screamed, ‘Yankee, go home!’ until their cadenced slogan became hysterical roar.

9) Police Boots trample a fallen Red leader while one officer’s legs clamp his head in a scissor grip. Outnumbered 10,000 to 40 at beginning and stone from behind by Communist infiltrators, the police fought back as savagely as the frenzied rioters, whose leaders screeched ‘Kill the Police! Kill the Police!’

10) Cop’s Club swings down on skull of a rioter who, on hands and knees and with his coat ripped off and his shirt pulled out, cowers under threats of new blows.

11) U.S. Sailor splashes about in center of Imperial Palace most where Reds had hurled him, then stoned him. Friendly Japanese eventually pulled him out.

12) Collapsed Cop is dragged from plaza through a clutter of bamboo poles and placards abandoned by the Reds during a police counterattack. Nails in ends of poles made nasty weapons. More than 1,400 were injured in riots. Cops fired over mob’s heads and only fatality was student hit by ricocheting bullet.

13) Locked in Embrace, wounded Communist couple writhes in gutter, moaning hussterically. ‘Let us die! Let us die!’ But police gave them first aid.

14) Hustled From Fray, battered students, his glasses amazingly still intact, is treated by one of the Reds’ aid teams which helped wounded evade arrest.

15) Americans Autos were overturned by mobs, then set ablaze by rioters skirmishing around Plaza. Scores of other U.S. cars were stoned and smashed.

16) Bloodied Student, the Communist ‘dove of peace’ symbol flapping on his jacket, is given first aid by his friends during a lull in the plaza fighting.

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“Communism is accused, however, of sacrificing the individual and denying freedom. And no doubt, were it to be born premature, through the use of forceps, before reaching its full term, a stunted version of communism might well induce many people to regret the good old days that preceded it. But if it is to be the child of science, who will dare denounce the infant of such a mother? Where, moreover, is the evidence that might support the accusations that are levelled against it? Since the accused has never yet lived, they amount to nothing but an unfounded insult.

And in whose name is this arrogant supposition put forth? In the name of that individualism which, for thousands of years, has continuously killed both freedom and the individual. How many individual members of the human race have managed to avoid becoming either its slaves or victims? One in every ten thousand, perhaps. Ten thousand martyrs for one executioner! Ten thousand slaves for one tyrant! And still they plead in the name of freedom! I understand what they are up to! What a sinister subterfuge, concealed behind a definition. Does not oligarchy call itself democracy, falsity honesty, slaughter moderation?

We all know what it really amounts to, this freedom that pleads against communism – it is the freedom to enslave, the freedom to exploit at will, the freedom of the great and the good as Renan likes to put it, with the multitude as their stepping stone. This form of freedom is something that the people call oppression and crime. They no longer want to nourish it with their flesh and blood.

Moralists and legislators all insist, in principle, that man must sacrifice a part of his freedom to society – in other words, that the freedom of the individual has for its limit the freedom of others. But does the existing order, with its two categories of the privileged and the pariahs, adhere to this conception? How many people must endure servitude in order to allow one person to live free? 10, 20, 60, 100, 2000, 30,000, 100,000? The penalties to be paid are endless, and so are the ways of levying them. Only the chains do not change.

Every infringement of the freedom of others violates the moralists’ own definition of the word – which is indeed the only legitimate definition, even though it has thus far always remained vain and empty. Freedom implies social parity amongst individuals, from which it follows that equality is the limit to freedom.

Only thorough-going association can satisfy this sovereign law. The old order tramples on it, without shame or pity. Communism safeguards the individual; individualism exterminates it. For the one, every individual is sacred. The other cares for individuals as much as it does for earthworms, and slaughters them in a manner worthy of that bloody trinity, Loyola, Caesar and Shylock; and afterwards it says, with phlegm: ‘Establishment of community would mean sacrifice of the individual.’”

– Louis-Auguste Blanqui, “Communism, the Future of Society (1869),” in Critique Sociale: Volume I (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1885)

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Quand le Front Populaire est roi – son Oeuvre en Espagne. L’Oeuvre Des Tracts, Montréal. No. 204.

“In the torched ruins of the Christian union, children and youth make the communist salute, the raised fist.”

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“The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. It goes without saying that the Fascist apotheosis of war does not employ such arguments. Still, Marinetti says in his manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war:

“For twenty-seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic … Accordingly we state:… War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others … Poets and artists of Futurism! … remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illumined by them!”

This manifesto has the virtue of clarity. Its formulations deserve to be accepted by dialecticians. To the latter, the aesthetics of today’s war appears as follows: If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production – in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural materrial. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.

“Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”

– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,“ 1936

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The Dead-Head Club: “We hate kings and love honest labor!”

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2. Cosmism and Cosmology

Evald Ilyenkov was an exemplary representative of Soviet Marxist philosophy in its nondogmatic and, as they used to say, “creative” aspect. In an intellectual context not known for indulging individual theoretical “peculiarities,” Ilyenkov was an outstanding exception. For the most part, his work was a bright, shining expression or reinterpretation of inherited Soviet discourse on dialectics, historical materialism, and so-called “activity theory” (i.e., the theory that subordinates all social, political, and cultural phenomena to elaborated schemata derived from the analysis of labor and praxis). But “Cosmology of the Spirit” is something more than this. Revealing a number of theoretical “anomalies,” this posthumously published early text puts Ilyenkov’s thought in an absolutely fascinating and astonishing perspective.

As mentioned above, a considerable international scholarship around Ilyenkov’s legacy has emerged in recent decades. This research covers various later aspects of his thought—his reading of Das Kapital, his elaborations on dialectical logic and the concept of the “ideal,” as well as his contributions to activity theory, which became a broad international methodological platform. However, there are only a few works and commentaries about this particular early essay—or, as Ilyenkov himself defined its genre, this “phantasmagoria.”

Regarding the immediate circumstances surrounding the writing of “Cosmology,” intellectual historians and biographers emphasize the influence of one of Ilyenkov’s most important friends in the 1950s, the scientist and self-taught speculative thinker Pobisk Kuznetsov (1924–2000). Everything about Kuznetsov was peculiar, starting with his first name: “Pobisk” is not a typical Russian name, but an acronym of the sentence “[P]okolenie [O]ktyabrskikh [B]ortsov [I] [S]troitelei [K]ommunizma,” i.e., “A Generation of the October Revolution Fighters and Builders of Communism.” Kuznetsov was an interdisciplinary scholar with a wide range of interests—from biology, chemistry, and physics to engineering, economics, and systems theory. He also spent time in a labor camp late in Stalin’s regime for organizing an unsanctioned discussion group where students addressed an ambitious question at the intersection of evolutionary biology and philosophy: What is the function or goal of life at the scale of the universe? In the course of his talks with Kuznetsov, Ilyenkov convinced him to write the entry on “Life” for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Ilyenkov coedited in the 1950s and ’60s.

Kuznetsov considered the function of life to be “anti-entropic.” Life brings higher forms of organization, creating an order from “chaos.” Entropy is a measure of the dispersal of energy; the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in closed systems, entropy can only increase, which eventually leads to a final dispersal of energy and ultimately the “death” of the system. Accordingly, “anti-entropic” refers to the capacity of some forms of matter (such as life) to counterbalance the increase of entropy. In the 1950s, Kuznetsov also wrote about the problem of the “thermal death of the universe”—its entropic collapse—with reference to Engels’s discussion of this question in his Dialectics of Nature. He also linked the “thermal death” problem to the anti-entropic function of life, hinting at a possible way out of this predicament.

Kuznetsov was not alone in generating ideas about the anti-entropic function of life. His work was part of a broader Soviet debate in the 1950s and ’60s about the meaning and final goal of both humanity and communism in the universe. Participants in this debate were aware that similar questions had been discussed in texts by earlier cosmists, albeit without much reference to the communist horizon. For example, another friend of Ilyenkov, the sci-fi writer and scientist Igor Zabelin, expressed similar views about the anti-entropic function of life in his book Chelovek i chelovechestvo: Etjudy Optimisma (The Human and humanity: Optimistic essays), published in 1970. Zabelin critically notes a striking detail in the work of the pioneering cosmist Nikolai Fedorov. Fedorov’s famous idea of the “resurrection” of humanity, Zabelin claims, seems to concern only men, whom the founder of cosmism calls “fathers” and “sons.” It seems that women—at least according to the verbal formula of Fedorov, who speaks only of the “resurrection of the fathers” by “sons”—are excluded from this process. For Fedorov, sociobiological reproduction involving both sexes should be replaced by a technologically enabled literal “resurrection” that is opposed to the “lust of childbearing.” Zabelin, quite reasonably, condemns Fedorov as a “misogynist” (today we would see this attitude as a sexist expression of patriarchy). At the same time, Zabelin approvingly quotes a later cosmist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who had also discussed the “anti-entropic process” in the universe. This example gives a clear idea of how advanced, critical, and differentiated was the reception of Russian cosmism in the semi-official Soviet culture of the post-WWII period. Ilyenkov definitely shared this attitude.

However, as we will see, although Ilyenkov uses the scientific themes of thermal death and entropy in his text, he does so in combination with elaborate arguments based on his interpretation of classic philosophy texts by Spinoza and Hegel, as well as on inspiration he draws from Engels’s work, and on important implicit assumptions about the crucial role of communism in the anti-entropic process.

3. Dialectical Materialism as Phantasmagoria

Let’s begin by summarizing the argument of “Cosmology of the Spirit.” The main question the text addresses is the role of “thinking life” or “thought” in the universe—no more, no less.

The long explanatory subtitle of the text reads as follows: “An Attempt to Give a Basic Outline of the Objective Role of Thinking Matter in the System of Universal Interaction (A Philosophical-Poetic Phantasmagoria Based on the Principles of Dialectical Materialism).” Throughout the text, Ilyenkov stresses his adherence to dialectical materialism, in an attempt to neutralize its unusual and risky contents as a “philosophical-poetic phantasmagoria.” He also uses, reservedly, another word borrowed from the scientific lexicon: he calls his entire proposition a “hypothesis.”

The themes and questions of the text are the core questions of materialist ontology: the relations between matter and thought. The text suggests a cosmological hypothesis that links together the emergence of life and human intelligence on earth with the entropic nature of the material universe, and, no less important, with the historical achievement of communism.

“Matter constantly possesses thought, constantly thinks itself,” begins Ilyenkov. Of course, he doesn’t mean this literally; he’s not trying to suggest, as an idealist or animist might, that matter “thinks.” But since matter had already emerged in human form, and since the universe is infinite, the law of probability dictates that there will always be another complex form of matter that achieves the faculty of thinking, in some space and time. The “thinking brain” always emerges and reproduces itself somewhere in the universe: in this specific sense, “matter constantly thinks itself.”

It is important to comment further on several points here. In the orthodox Soviet “diamat” (the official, dogmatic version of dialectical materialism), matter was understood as an ensemble of its “forms of movement,” i.e., as an ascending hierarchy of development, from the lowest forms, which are covered by the realms of physics, chemistry, and biology, to its highest forms, which are the human brain and intelligence, which in turn shape matter’s “social” form. Each lower form supports the emergence of the higher ones. But then what is the function of the highest form of matter if it does not have anything above it?—this question shapes the field of Ilyenkov’s hypothesis.

These views on the movement of various forms of matter were derived from Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, to which Ilyenkov refers in his text many times. Actually, though, Dialectics of Nature has a bad reputation in the history of Marxist philosophy; it is regarded as the source of the brutal “dialectical laws” that constituted Soviet diamat. However, the text is in fact very insightful and at times ascends to heights of speculative thought that Marx himself would probably have never dared.

The second point in Ilyenkov’s argument evolves from the first: since the universe is infinite in space, its development, paradoxically, is already finished, and everything already exists, including the highest forms of intelligent life. Of course, the dialectics of development nonetheless continues to unfold, in specific parts and zones of the universe that have not yet achieved higher forms of matter’s organization. But if we take matter as a whole, as infinite substance, thinking life is always there. Thus, suggests Ilyenkov, when considered in its totality, matter can be grasped as Spinoza’s substance, eternal and unchangeable. One of the rare commentators on “Cosmology” notes on this point that Spinoza had exactly the same “famous picture of the Universe as a homeostasis, which as a totality remains unchanged although all its constituent parts incessantly move like pieces in a kaleidoscope.” But it seems to be even more complicated than this, as the homeostasis, for Ilyenkov, is restored through its opposite: a catastrophe of a specific kind that excludes, perhaps, contemplative and untroubled Spinozan views about substance.

In Spinoza, substance, interpreted as matter, possesses at least two attributes: thought and extension. In contrast to this, “vulgar” materialism says that intellect and thought emerge from a dialectical movement of matter, i.e., matter is necessary for the emergence of thought, but never vice versa. In this picture, the existence of thought is contingent, not necessary; it is thus “the product of a fortuitous combination of circumstances,” as Ilyenkov sums up this view. But a subtler materialism would, in a dialectical movement, also claim the converse—that thought is necessary for matter. “Matter cannot exist without thought,” writes Ilyenkov.

At this point in his argument, Ilyenkov lingers over the question of how these assumptions can change our philosophical understanding of thinking itself. According to the general understanding of this question in Soviet diamat, thought is the supreme form of matter’s development. But Ilyenkov is more specific, emphasizing that thought is the final stage of this development. There are no higher forms of matter than thought. Indeed, if higher forms of matter could exist, this would mean that they are inaccessible to thinking, being a kind of Kantian inconceivable “noumenon”; a kind of fideism could be built on these higher forms, pointing to the existence of an unknowable God. For Hegel, notes Ilyenkov, suprahuman Reason is still comprehensible, as it is based on the same logic as the human mind and so is still a form of thought.

Ilyenkov argues that there is only one way of understanding this cosmic “situation”: as a cyclical movement from the lowest forms of matter to the highest (“the thinking brain”) and back, to their decomposition into the lowest forms of matter (biological, chemical, and physical). If we admit the limit of the highest development of matter, writes Ilyenkov, we should also admit its lowest, most primitive level, where matter contains only the simplest qualities. Borrowing ideas from the discipline of physics as it existed at the time (in the 1950s), Ilyenkov associates this lowest form of matter not with particles—atoms, electrons, etc.—but rather with a “field” as the minimal form of the existence of matter.

The idea of the limits of the development of matter (the highest limit and the lowest limit), as well as the assumption that thought is necessarily an attribute of matter (and let the record show that a truly decisive argument for this necessity remains to be discovered), constitute the two main speculative frameworks on which Ilyenkov builds his cosmology, which he reservedly calls a “hypothesis.” The third premise connects the previous two: it is the assumption that this cyclical development of the universe passes through a phase involving the complete destruction of matter—through a galaxy-scale “fire.” This premise reflects both the “spirit” of dialectical negation, known since Heraclitus, as well as theories of the “big bang” and the so-called “thermal death of the universe,” which presumably precedes the final explosion.

This universal destruction will inevitably involve the destruction of humanity, endowed with the faculty of thought. At this point, Ilyenkov’s speculative drive accelerates even more. As we remember, he started from the premise that thought is a necessary attribute of matter. But how is this necessity of thought effectuated? How does it prove itself? Here we enter the proper realm of Ilyenkov’s cosmology. The elements that Ilyenkov introduced at previous points in his argument come together into an astonishing narrative.

As he himself acknowledges, this narrative is a rather “poetic fantasy.” However, he still grounds his argument in the authority of dialectical materialism, mostly referring to Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, which also raised questions about the end of the universe due to its thermal death—definitely not what one expects from the optimistic coauthor of the Communist Manifesto! Engels devotes several pages to the issue of thermal death and suggests that the movement of matter will overcome the entropic threshold in an as-yet-unknown way. Here Engels also discusses the ideas of Rudolf Clausius, a nineteenth-century German physicist and mathematician who was the first to introduce the concept of entropy based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Engels notes that “only a miracle” can neutralize entropy.

What Engels called a “miracle” will, in Ilyenkov’s hypothesis, turn into a gesture of self-destruction on the part of communist reason. When thermal death is imminent, the sun and other stars will gradually cool down. But with scientific-technological progress, argues Ilyenkov, humanity will be able to access a new and more powerful source of energy, as well as the capacity to restructure matter itself. This will lead to humanity’s increasing autonomy from the material conditions of its existence, including from the most fundamental laws, such as the law of the cosmic growth of entropy. However, these new powers will not save humanity from a lethal cosmic standstill: “This turns out to be the absolute boundary in which all conditions under which the thinking spirit can exist, inevitably disappear.” We have arrived at the most striking part of Ilyenkov’s cosmological narrative.

He claims that contemporary science still cannot explain the transition from the thermal death of the universe to the big bang, since the law of entropy only suggests that the collapse of the universe will bring it to a “zero outcome”—absolute homeostasis at the lowest point.  The universe needs a special intervention to rechannel the energy that was radiated during the cycle of matter’s development into a new “global fire.” The question of what (or who) sets the universe on fire is crucial. According to Ilyenkov, it is the cosmological function of thought to provide the conditions to “relaunch” the universe, which is collapsing due to thermal death. It is human intelligence which, having achieved the highest potency, has to launch the big bang. This is how thought proves in reality that it is a necessary attribute of matter. As Ilyenkov writes:

In concrete terms, one can imagine it like this: At some peak point of their development, thinking beings, executing their cosmological duty and sacrificing themselves, produce a conscious cosmic catastrophe—provoking a process, a reverse “thermal dying” of cosmic matter; that is, provoking a process leading to the rebirth of dying worlds by means of a cosmic cloud of incandescent gas and vapors. In simple terms, thought turns out to be a necessary mediating link, thanks only to which the fiery “rejuvenation” of universal matter becomes possible; it proves to be this direct “efficient cause” that leads to the instant activation of endless reserves of interconnected motion, in a similar manner to how it currently initiates a chain reaction, artificially destroying a small quantity of the core of radioactive material … This being said, thought remains a historically transitional episode in the development of the universe, a derivative (“secondary”) product of the development of matter, but a product that is absolutely necessary: a consequence that simultaneously becomes the condition for the existence of infinite matter.

Especially touching here are phrases like “in concrete terms” or “in simple terms,” which contrast with the universal scale and singularity of the event. After proposing such a mind-blowing hypothesis, Ilyenkov is very careful to repeat that this narrative does not break with any of the principles of dialectical materialism. For Ilyenkov, this science-inspired speculation, based on contemporary physics, also matches with the classic philosophy of Spinoza and his notion of the attribute; an “attribute” designates something that is strictly necessary for the infinite existence of substance (i.e., matter, from a dialectical-materialist point of view). As Ilyenkov notes, if the thinking brain, as the highest form of matter, were only contingent and “useless,” it would be, in Spinoza’s technical language, merely a “mode” (modus) and not an “attribute.”

Ilyenkov’s hypothesis also undermines any religious or idealistic teleology that ascribes to human (or nonhuman) intelligence the goal of self-perfection or absolute knowledge. The real goal, notes Ilyenkov sarcastically, is “endlessly greater” than “those pathetic fantasies.”

Finally, there is one more important point in this narrative, which appears rather marginal in the text but remains crucial for its interpretation. The political condition that Ilyenkov mentions in his text, as something obvious, is communism, or a “classless society”:

Millions of years will pass, thousands of generations will be born and go to their graves, a genuine human system will be established on Earth, with the conditions for activity—a classless society, spiritual and material culture will abundantly blossom, with the aid of, and on the basis of, which humankind can only fulfill its great sacrificial duty before nature … For us, for people living at the dawn of human prosperity, the struggle for this future will remain the only real form of service to the highest aims of the thinking spirit.

What was obvious for Ilyenkov is far from obvious to us now, in a so-called “postcommunist” time that is much more pessimistic about social progress. Ilyenkov’s hypothesis now appears as more conditional and more dramatic: if humanity is unable to achieve communism, then collective human intelligence will not achieve its highest stage of power either, as it will be undermined by the capitalist system, which is as far as one can get from any self-sacrificial or otherwise sublime motivation. If, to follow the assumptions of Ilyenkov’s phantasmagoria, the final thermal death of the universe is imminent, and even the materialist ontology will crack, then thought ceases to be an attribute of matter, degrading into a contingent outcome of its local development. Thus, “Cosmology of the Spirit” proclaims the necessity of communism from the point of view of the universe’s immanent logic of becoming. In Ilyenkov’s text, communism turns out to be a much more serious historical and cosmic event, not limited to the scale of the planet. If the world still exists, this is because it was shaped by a previous cycle of the ontological machine whose necessary cog is fully actualized communist reason.”

– Alexei Penzin, “Contingency and Necessity in Evald Ilyenkov’s Communist Cosmology.” e-flux #88, February 2018 issue

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Fascism and Aesthetics
The rise of fascism in Europe was perhaps the epochal transformation of Benjamin’s era, and had menacing overtones for him as a radical and a Jew. Benjamin offers an original theory of fascism, which situates it within cultural transformations. He rejects both the orthodox Marxist view that fascism is simply a dictatorship of finance capital, and the progressivist view that it is some kind of premodern or anti-modern relapse into barbarism. Instead, he argues that capitalism arises from particular changes in everyday culture, or ‘ideology’ in an Althusserian sense, arising from the development of capitalism.

In the epilogue to ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin argues that fascism seeks to respond to proletarianisation and massification without altering the property structure. It does this by giving the masses ‘a chance to express themselves’, as a substitute for power. It offers emotional rewards instead of material rewards.

Fascism logically leads to the aestheticising of politics. Politics is turned into the production of beauty, according to a certain aesthetic. This is achieved through an immense apparatus for the ‘production of ritual values’. Benjamin is thinking of the Nazi propaganda-machine, with its choreographed torch-lit marches and rallies, iconic posters and statues, and films such as Triumph of the Will. This machine is widely recognised as a forerunner of the modern PR industry.

Fascism is thus partly a product of spectacle. Benjamin relates it to the spectacular nature of commodities, which are transformed in their presence from simple objects to spectacle or phantasmagoria. Fascism expands the logic of spectacle into the field of politics, with its charismatic leaders, eye-catching posters, movie-like Manichean discourse, torchlit rallies, and powerful logos and symbols.

According to Benjamin, fascism inevitably leads to war. War is the only way to channel mass movements and intense emotions, without challenging the property system. It simultaneously serves, in classic Marxist fashion, to channel the forces of production which are blocked by the property system.

Some Marxists see crises such as those of the 1930s and today as crises of overproduction. This means that capitalism is in crisis because it can’t get people to consume as much as it can produce, usually because people aren’t being paid enough. As a result, people are left unemployed and machines and factories are left idle. People who adhere to this theory see the Second World War as a resolution of the crisis of overproduction. The state artificially inflated demand by producing weapons. It then destroyed a lot of other resources by using them. This got people producing again, and was a way out of the crisis.

Benjamin is unusual in linking this account to the cultural usefulness of war. For Benjamin, war does not only serve capitalism by consuming resources. It also provides a way to channel intense emotions and frustrations which would otherwise destabilise the system.

Benjamin links the fascist aesthetic to the Futurist Marinetti’s claim that ‘war is beautiful’. The Futurists were a mainly Italian art movement whose work celebrated modern technology, speed and power. Initially progressive, some of them went over to fascism. Their aesthetic is often associated by Benjamin with fascism. He viewed them as symptomatic of the aspect of fascism which glorified technology.

The aspect of war which can most easily be aestheticised is the display of technology, and the power of human agents as masters of powerful technology. In order to aestheticise war, it is necessary to edit out human suffering, whether of soldiers or civilians. Benjamin suggests, however, that destruction is integral to the process. Humanity is now so alienated that it can contemplate its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.

Marinetti expected war to supply sensory and aesthetic enjoyment in a world changed by technology. This is the ultimate in alienation. Humanity observes itself from outside, as an object of contemplation. Benjamin sees this as the culmination of the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ – or in Marinetti’s slogan, ‘let art be created, let the world perish’. The appropriate response, according to Benjamin, is to politicise art.

War is further aestheticised by inter-war writers such as Ernst Jünger. In his ‘Theories of German Fascism’, engaging with Jünger, Benjamin extends his critique of fascistic trends in art. Jünger extends the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ to war. (This ‘war for war’s sake’ also appears in Deleuze’s digression on the bad type of war machine, which takes war as its object).

Mass technological warfare is an image of everyday actuality – the destructiveness and meaninglessness of mass alienated technology. But it appears to the likes of Jünger as a magical force of eternal war. This leads to a ‘mystical’ view of war: the state must show itself worthy of the magical forces of war.

For Benjamin, this is not simply a matter of false consciousness. Rather, it is derived from a particular ‘primal experience’, or constitutive trauma. Jünger was a professional soldier for whom warfare is the natural or habitual environment. His literature defends his particular professional habitus, his conventional way of life. He simply celebrates what he is familiar with, without any basis for preferring it. Benjamin asks, ‘Where do you come from? And what do you know of peace?’ The criticism here is that Jünger and those like him can’t extol war as preferable to peace, because they only know war.

The authors of war literature, according to Benjamin, are expressing a particular class perspective. Many of them are specialist soldiers, commandos and engineers – the military equivalent of the managerial class. The ideology of endless war, of a magical power of war, is implicitly portrayed as a kind of class ideology of the elite soldier.

These former soldiers were to become the social basis for fascism, as Benjamin recognised. Many of them graduated from the army to the Freikorps to the Nazi Stormtroopers. Today, this underlines the importance of demobilising and reintegrating former soldiers – many of them economically disadvantaged and war-traumatised – in the aftermath of conflicts. It also underlines the persisting importance of militarised masculinity in the securitisation of civilian spaces.

According to Benjamin, the literature he refers to is an effect of World War 1. Technological warfare has exhibited a disastrous gap between massive destructive effects of technology, and minimal moral illumination arising from such effects. This produces a kind of meaninglessness (a common theme in Frankfurt School work). The main danger today stems from the difficulties in organising human relationships in accord with the relationship to nature and technology, so as to use technology as a key to happiness instead of destruction. In short, people are losing control of their technology because they retain competitive relationships which lead to mass destruction. Benjamin sees his era as having the last chance to overcome this discrepancy. This would be a transition to socialism through the conversion of the world war into a global civil war.

Technological warfare dispenses with the symbols of heroism. War has become akin to sports in that its achievements are not so much personal as ‘record-setting’ – how many are killed. The escalating power to kill in huge numbers associated with gas warfare (and later, nuclear weapons) renders war extremely risky, and predominantly offensive (rather than defensive). The protection of civilians is lost. The winner is now the side which conquers the war, not the adversary, and avoids losing control of its meanings and effects.”

– 

Andrew Robinson, “Walter Benjamin: Fascism and Crisis.Ceasefire, August 14, 2013.

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