Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

At the victory banquet

November 9, 2014

George Steiner in 1959 on the bureaucratic degeneration of language in Adenauer’s Federal Republic, breeding ‘a profound deadness of spirit, such an inescapable sense of triviality and dissimulation’:

The thing that has gone dead is the German language. Open the daily papers, the magazines, the flood of popular and learned books pouring off the new printing presses; go to hear a new German play; listen to the language as it is spoken over the radio or in the Bundestag.

It is no longer the language of Goethe, Heine and Nietzsche. It is not even that of Thomas Mann.

Something immensely destructive has happened to it. It makes noise. It even communicates, but it creates no sense of communion…

[Languages] can decay and they can die…

Actions of the mind that were once spontaneous become mechanical; frozen habits (dead metaphors, stock similes, slogans). Words grow longer and more ambiguous. Instead of style, there is rhetoric. Instead of precise common usage, there is jargon…

All these technical failures accumulate to the essential failure: the language no longer sharpens thought but blurs it.


Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness (George Orwell showed how English is doing so today).

But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen; use it to make out specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality. Something will happen to it.

Make of words what Hitler and Goebbels and the hundred thousand Untersturmführer made: conveyors of terror and falsehood. Something will happen to the words. Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language.

The Axel Springer tabloid, though newly sober in tone and respectful of NATO and Tel Aviv, was no less ‘ossified with cliché, unexamined definitions, and leftover words.’

Bild inaugural

Indeed the mannered, inhibited civility of postwar German politics, its well-stocked armoury of polite euphemisms and vacuous consensus — a bland unanimity given philosophical respectability by Jürgen Habermas — was unmatched.

Conventional opinion, official as well as media and scholarly, had acquired a chronic slackness, a ceremonious refusal of straightforwardness, which couldn’t easily be shaken off.

Thus the term used by contemporary German newspapers to describe privatization of state assets (a common story since 1990) is abwickeln (‘wind up’ or ‘settle’), a task accomplished after reunification by the Treuhand (‘trust’).

Political speech, ‘like that used to sell a new detergent, was intended neither to communicate the critical truths of national life nor to quicken the mind of the hearer. It was designed to evade or gloss over the demands of meaning.’

Meanwhile the ‘arrogant obscurities of German philosophic speech’ (a reference to Heidegger) damaged the mind, impairing ‘its ability to think or speak clearly.’

The linguistic rot began, said Steiner, when Bismark’s new state usurped the German language from Goethe, Schiller, Heine and Kleist: ‘citizens of Europe’ who had been alien to the narrow ’emotions of nationalism.’

Henceforth the property of provincial Junkers and Wilhelmine functionaries, the German tongue spoken by ‘university, officialdom, army and court’ after 1871 would become a byword for ponderous and evasive.

After collapse of the Hohenzollern Empire there intervened ‘a brilliant, mutinous period’:

Brecht gave back to German prose its Lutheran simplicity and Thomas Mann brought into his style the supple, luminous elegance of the classical and Mediterranean traditions. These years, 1920-30, were the anni mirabiles of the modern German spirit.

This was followed by the long fascist era, its depredations and barbarisms recorded by Victor Klemperer, in which German became ‘half nebulous jargon, half obscenity.’

Their language threatened by Hitler’s mix of atavism and bureaucratic leadenness, its literary custodians preserved the contents of the German cultural ark by fleeing into exile.

The most capable of them, far from being deracinated, were artistically renewed. Thomas Mann was ‘a citizen of the world, receptive to the genius of other languages and cultures.’ Brecht, ‘being a Marxist, felt himself a citizen of a community larger than Germany and a participant in the forward march of history.’

In the postwar Bundesrepublik, however, no anti-fascist lustration occurred:

On the court benches sit some of the judges who meted out Hitler’s blood laws. On many professorial chairs sit scholars who were first promoted when their Jewish or Socialist teachers had been done to death. In a number of German and Austrian universities, the bullies swagger again with their caps, ribbons, duelling scars, and “pure Germanic” ideals.

The consequences for language, said Steiner, were dire:

[The] major part of what is published as serious literature is flat and shoddy. It has in it no flame of life. Compare the best of current journalism with an average number of the Frankfurter Zeitung of pre-Hitler days; it is at times difficult to believe that both are written in German…

And so far, in history, it is language that has been the vessel of human grace and the prime carrier of civilization.

Until 1989 the preeminent West German writers evaded this narrow philistinism and provincial mediocrity of the Bonn republic by living in West Berlin or, like Peter Weiss, remained abroad.

After the DDR’s collapse and annexation, Günter Grass would compare the unification of 1990 to that of 1871. The contemporary Anschluss, he said, promised little more than the first for German cultural heritage.

As the Ode to Joy played, this scandalous attempt to discredit the festivities prompted a literary critic to tear up Grass’s novel on TV:

Apparently I had disturbed the victors at their victory banquet. According to the official reports then flickering throughout the land, German unification had been a rousing success, one for the history books (despite minor flaws)…

Where is the bright side in all this? Indeed, where? Should I count off the billions that have flowed from West to East and, on balance, trickled back to the West with interest?… Were you expecting an encomium on Dresden’s brilliantly restored Baroque façades?…

The disaster of German unification has been accepted without dissent, however blatantly social injustice divides this country again…

Telegenic twaddle has won the day.


In 1997, with Kohl’s decrepit corruption yet to give way to the vigorous SPD-Greens government of Schröder, the federal capital still unmoved from Bonn, Grass could detect diffidence and hesitation in the German ruling elite:

[These] victors of history have no idea what to do with their putative victory. They’re already a little embarrassed about holding it up like a trophy while the cameras are rolling. They’ve been left sitting on their victory as though it were a slow-selling product — a “white elephant,” as the expression has it…

If you hold your hand up to your ear, you can hear the triumphant ideologies of capitalism rasping their demands into a vacuum, wagering now on globalization. They crave an echo…

I picture the victorious capitalist of just yesterday — in most un-Marxist fashion — as a person abandoned by fate, an individual: a middle-aged gentleman, properly attired, except that he just can’t seem to get his tie straight. So there he stands — no, he’s stuck to a stool — the lonely, lonesome capitalist.

He is still feared, it’s true, and probably hated as well, yet no one ever talks back to him.

Whatever comes out of his mouth is considered sacrosanct — be it the most fatuous nonsense, such as that mantra of his: “the market takes care of everything.” He has acquired, in spite of himself, an odour of infallibility, like the Pope.

Poor guy, I say to myself, without pity, and begin to make literary capital out of him.

Few writers besides Grass have since bothered to make much of the old DDR’s destruction, though Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower has just been published in English.

It is striking that the dissolution of European Stalinism, so often compared heroically to the revolutions of 1848, was for German literature a comparative dead letter. Whereas the original featured Heine, Manzoni, Petöfi and Mickiewicz in starring roles, its pastiche summoned only the Scorpions, David Hasselhoff and David Bowie. Rudolf Bahro had contributed the opus of the DDR dissidents in the late 1970s, before retreating into mysticism by the early 1980s.

Contemplating all this, and yesterday’s tawdry revelries at the Brandenburg Gate, brings to mind Fredric Jameson’s remarks on the historical novels of Peter Weiss:

Such a confrontation with the past must also necessarily include the resistance to it and disgust with which West German readers today greet the older political literature of the West German Gruppe 47 writers, as well as that which postmodern readers in general bring to the now dead past of the interwar years and of World War II — a boredom sometimes mingled with curious stabs of nostalgia, and strengthened by consumerist habits for which the outmoded and old-fashioned are somehow more intolerable than the palpable shoddiness of much of what is truly contemporary.

In today’s Restoration Germany, the population flow has reversed direction: carpetbaggers, tourists and real-estate developers flood into unified Berlin.

The local propertied classes, too, have recovered their composure and sense of mission. At officially consecrated ceremonies of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, state officials are no longer so gun-shy as in days past.

Yesterday Angela Merkel, herself an ornament to the Stalinist bureaucracy’s deft assimilation to the capitalist West, delivered a solemn, canting speech in Berlin.

Collapse of the DDR, in which the Chancellor began her political rise, was saluted as evidence that ‘dreams can come true’:

Nothing has to stay the way it is, however big the hurdles are. We can change things for the better.

This is the message… especially for the people in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and in many, many other regions of the world where liberty and human rights are threatened or being trampled.

It is a message of confidence in our ability to tear down walls today and in future, walls of dictatorship, violence, ideology and hostility…

We have the power to create, we can turn things to the good: That is the message of the fall of the wall.

German public language is now approaching the semantic nullity of its US counterpart. It is as portentous as it is substantively empty. Like ‘change we can believe in,’ its sleekness is born of the abstract rule of capital: profit and private property unencumbered by cultural tradition or institutional barrier, heedless of logic or meaning.

Such language, rudimentary and therefore infinitely capacious, is perfectly suited to statecraft by a newly ambitious and forthright imperial power. It may be directed at once towards two audiences, listeners at home and abroad, articulating domestic concerns in their own idiom, while being palatable to international audiences, catering to the needs of international diplomacy and power-projection.

Delivered with the appropriate sombreness at one of the country’s many architectural Denkmäler, memorial sites and museums, the televisual effect is striking.

Note that foregrounding 1989 in such a fashion allows Germans to celebrate themselves as historical authors of their own liberal redemption, wresting some of that honour from the United States and other Western Allies (the role of the Red Army in creating conditions for the postwar Rechtsstaat is naturally best ignored). Washington’s ownership since 1945 of the symbol ‘Bringer of salvation from Hitler’ has been a useful useful ideological tool of US hegemony.

The chance to present a similarly feelgood popular symbol of Berlin’s own — German good triumphing over Russified evil, bleached of any political content — is most welcome in the Foreign Office.

Its price — a further debauching of German language, public discourse and historical knowledge — is, for those tendering the currency, well worth it.


The useful art

July 31, 2014

Speaking at a 2012 literary festival, Jonathan Franzen expertly flattered his audience, sweeping them, himself and the US president into gratifying communion:

One of the reasons I love Barack Obama as much as I do is that we finally have a real reader in the White House. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s one of us running the US.

‘real writer type’, too: the young Obama, his early promise detected, was offered, and duly inked, a publishing contract to write his memoirs while still at college.

Released just before an electoral campaign for the Illinois Senate, that book presented the candidate in his now accustomed role: embodiment of triumph over racial prejudice, personification of national healing.

Jonathan Franzen June 2012 Artists and Writers for Obama

The breadth of presidential interests is, of course, not exhausted by the written word. Its scope encompasses all varieties of Blue State cultural output, visual as well as verbal.

Thus Obama may loyally have read Franzen at Martha’s Vineyard, but he is also a fan and sponsor of the cinematic blockbuster.

The contours of this aesthetic ecumenicism — a broad-minded taste for Hollywood dross as well as Champaign-Urbana middlebrow — adhere closely to the map of industries granted favourable copyright, patent and intellectual-property protection — now of unprecedented extent and duration — during recent decades.

The Motion Picture Association and the Association of American Publishers both have a friend, attuned to their needs and sensibilities, in the White House.

Its current occupant, following Clinton’s efforts to secure the TRIPS Agreement, is the first to establish a domestic office of Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.

The cultural pretensions of Democratic presidents, along with their financial contributors and electoral base, have accordingly changed since 1946, when Harry Truman could rail against ‘the “Artists” with a capital A, the parlour pinks and the soprano-voiced men.’

Today press, academy and the well-educated flock to the Democrats.

Amid this reconfiguration — postwar rise of the media and entertainment industries, verbal culture displaced by the visual, fortification of IP as a massive source of royalties and licence revenue — the very role of the writer has been transformed.

Professional distinctions between journalist, writer and scholar have been blurred, publicity pursued and cultural authority lost.

Franzen’s attempt to edify a self-conceived intelligentsia might therefore, at least, prompt one question.

How, examined in the longue durée, has production and reproduction of books and the written word altered the social position of authors? How have the writer’s esteem, prerogatives and benefices altered with his or her workaday techniques, tools of the trade, property rights and proximity to power?

The topic is vast, but some remarks can be made.

To organize any society’s division of labour, a ruling class always depends on technologies of information transmission and storage (e.g. written culture, number systems, monetary tokens, aides memoire).

Thus, in the temple economy of ancient Sumer, writing, numerical notation and arithmetic developed to record and tally units of sheep, wheat, fish, etc. on clay tablets.

Herodotus explained how geometry arose from the Egyptian state’s need to survey and measure land boundaries for apportionment to tenants:

Egypt was cut up; and they said that this king distributed the land to all the Egyptians, giving an equal square portion to each man, and from this he made his revenue, having appointed them to pay a certain rent every year: and if the river should take away anything from any man’s portion, he would come to the king and declare that which had happened, and the king used to send men to examine and to find out by measurement how much less the piece of land had become, in order that for the future the man might pay less, in proportion to the rent appointed: and I think that thus the art of geometry was found out and afterwards came into Hellas also. For as touching the sun-dial and the gnomon and the twelve divisions of the day, they were learnt by the Hellenes from the Babylonians.

Literate societies, which allow information to be more readily stored externally and transmitted horizontally (e.g. by telegraph) as well as vertically across generations (e.g. training manuals), can deploy a more complex labour process than non-literate ones.


Through the movement of symbols — coins, written messages, titles to deed — separate production units can be coordinated.

Or large-scale collaborative projects, such as architectural or construction works, can be undertaken, with many producers working in parallel under the same roof.

Thanks to writing and other methods of storing information, technological specialties can accrete and be taught to new generations, and society’s labour resources allocated to different concrete tasks.

The ‘disembodied word,’ wrote Ernest Gellner, ‘can be identically present in many, many places.’

The scale of productive labour commanded, and thus the capacity to extract and appropriate a surplus product (e.g. tax-raising or rent), is thereby increased by a system of extendible records such as writing.

The sovereign rulers or elite of such a territory are able to mobilize greater resources (military service, armaments, requisitioned food, etc.) to squander on war or the threat of war, or to administer in peacetime.

Thus the rulers of a literate society will be more likely to succeed in military conflict with external rivals and internal challengers.

Tokens Iran 4th millenium BC

Suppose this rudimentary level of literacy reached, as in agrarian societies.

How then has the manner in which manuscripts were copied and books printed influenced matters?

Charlemagne’s Frankish military machine, the most effective in post-Roman Western Europe, and the most ecclesiastically based, was also the first to effectively promote book copying and literary education as part of an official recovery of the classical past and its cultural treasures.

Stung by the humiliations inflicted upon the Merovingians by the tax-raising Umayyad state, the Carolingian court in Aachen — its own fiscal resources modest — opted to undertake an ambitious administrative and education policy.

Late in the eighth century Charlemagne addressed a famous letter to the abbot Baugaulf of Fulda, instructing him to forward copies to every monastery in Francia:

[The] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favour of Christ to our control, in addition to inculcating the culture of letters, also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observation of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly…

For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.

Therefore, each one ought to study what he desires to accomplish, so that so much the more fully the mind may know what ought to be done, as the tongue hastens in the praises of omnipotent God without the hindrances of errors. For since errors should be shunned by all men, so much the more ought they to be avoided as far as possible by those who are chosen for this very purpose alone, so that they ought to be the especial servants of truth.

For when in the years just passed letters were often written to us from several monasteries in which it was stated that the brethren who dwelt there offered up in our behalf sacred and pious prayers, we have recognized in most of these letters both correct thoughts and uncouth expressions; because what pious devotion dictated faithfully to the mind, the tongue, uneducated on account of the neglect of study, was not able to express in the letter without error…

Therefore, we exhort you not only not to neglect the study of letters, but also with most humble mind, pleasing to God, to study earnestly in order that you may be able more easily and more correctly to penetrate the mysteries of the divine Scriptures.

Since, moreover, images, tropes and similar figures are found in the sacred pages, no one doubts that each one in reading these will understand the spiritual sense more quickly if previously he shall have been fully instructed in the mastery of letters…

Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne describes how the king himself, though barely able to write, joined in the Frankish elite’s recovery of Latin classics and early Christian authorities:

The plan that he adopted for his children’s education was, first of all, to have both boys and girls instructed in the liberal arts, to which he also turned his own attention…

Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence.

He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them.

He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning.

The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny.

He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.

Alcuin’s letters describe that scholar’s mission, recruited to Aachen as Charlemagne’s ‘restorer of letters’.

There he would salvage and transcribe lost manuscripts, with copying accuracy improved by development of the standardized script known as Carolingian miniscule.

Alcuin would also establish and amass a library of books (Virgil, Augustine, Jerome, etc.), administer abbeys, and teach ‘liberal studies and the holy word’ to the Frankish aristocracy, court officials and clergy.

A common elite culture was thereby transmitted at the Palace School, instructions issued in a language and Church ideology that all ecclesiastic authorities could understand and apply.

Aachen palace

Van Zanden - West European monasteries

Through the serial copying of texts by scribes and notaries, and the teaching of students, this ‘culture of letters’ gradually diffused outward throughout the cathedral schools of the Frankish realm.

Common institutions (incorporated towns, monastery and cathedral schools, Catholic orders) spread from the Rhine-Meuse heartland of the Carolingian lands across Europe.

Latin Christendom’s conquest to the south, in Acquitane, northern Spain and Italy, and to the east in Saxony and the Slavic lands, created social and legal replicas rather than dependencies.

European book production, initially concentrated in the Italian peninsula, took off continent-wide.

Van Zanden - European manuscript production

A poem by the Archbishop of Mainz conveys some idea of the enthusiasm for scribes, and the written word, among the Carolingian elite:

As God’s kingly law rules in absolute majesty over the wide world
It is an exceedingly holy task to copy the law of God.
This activity is a pious one, unequalled in merit
By any other which men’s hands can perform.
For the fingers rejoice in writing, the eyes in seeing,
And the mind at examining the meaning of God’s mystical words.
No work sees the light which hoary old age
Does not destroy or wicked time overturn:
Only letters are immortal and ward off death
Only letters in books bring the past to life.
Indeed God’s hand carved letters on the rock
That pleased him when he gave his laws to the people,
And these letters reveal everything in the world that is
Has been, or may chance to come in the future.

An ingratiating manner was thus adopted towards the specialist corps of scholars, writers and clerics. Political authority, while chiefly engaged in the sordid business of territorial aggrandizement, relied for its perpetuation and its sense of mission upon scriptural authority, and its codification in writing.

The word was repository of wisdom and legitimating truth. Its custodians should be indulged.

Carolingian manuscript

Europe’s urban and commercial efflorescence of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked another development of book production.

The Pecia system, using multiple scribes, reduced the time required to reproduce a manuscript by allowing parallel copying of many fragment of the text, rather than a single serial process.

This technique was developed in medieval universities that had sprung up, the first under Imerius at Bologna, to recover and interpret the Roman civil code.

This medieval revival of Roman jurisprudence, making available classical precepts of ownership and contract, was propitious for the growth of West European commodity production, trade and urbanization.

In the more coherently developed Byzantine Empire, centuries earlier, revival of the Justinian Code by Basil I had been accompanied by renewed appreciation for Virgil, Homer and Augustine. The Macedonian Renaissance, with Photius and his famous library, presented a pinnacle then unreachable in backwards Francia. Byzantine state officials were trained in Graeco-Roman classics: Leo the Mathematician taught Aristotelian logic at the Magnaura school.

In the West, however, until the Renaissance the Church served as a ‘special vessel’ that preserved the cultural heritage of classical antiquity, ‘escaping the general wreckage to transmit the mysterious messages of the past to the less advanced future… the indispensable bridge between two epochs.’


Van Zanden - Book production and monasteries

In our own day, the practice of copying information has become more important to social production.

First lauded by Daniel Bell in the 1970s, the ‘information economy’ was the subject of more sustained and thoroughgoing ideological celebration in the 1990s, with industrial capitalism receiving bouquets for having overcome its material constraints and resource limits.

Of course, as with much else, the economic contribution made by copying information was identified long ago by Charles Babbage.

Replacement of the scribe (a serial process of copying) by the printing press and moveable type brought rapid increase in the productivity of information copying:

Printing from moveable types… is the most important in its influence of all the arts of copying.

It possesses a singular peculiarity, in the immense subdivision of the parts that form the pattern. After that pattern has furnished thousands of copies, the same individual elements may be arranged again and again in other forms, and thus supply multitudes of originals, from each of which thousands of their copied impressions may flow.

This set the scene for generalized literacy among the educated workforce required by industrial capitalism. And it ensured, for a time, the supremacy of verbal culture.

Outside the printing industry itself, mass production using interchangeable parts has, since the mid-19th century, depended on replication of standardized products made to precise tolerances. (This, in turn, makes possible the development of numerical-control machine tools, replacing jigs and fixtures.)

Copying technology in manufacturing has more recently been refined by optical and UV lithography.

Today’s books, images, recorded music and software are transmitted rapidly and in parallel using Unicode and ASCII.

Information (e.g. a sequence of words) is liberated from its dependence on any particular medium or embodiment in a specific material artifact (e.g. typeset document). Written text may be duplicated at will.

Any such item of text, able to be reproduced at low cost, must therefore become copyright if it is to be remain property and yield monetary reward.

This raises the question of the author as independent producer.

When does the writer retain property rights to his or her product?

Especially since the 1970s, copyright law has decreed that employees, or those contractors working for hire, waive ownership rights over their creative work to the commissioning or employing entity (publisher, studio, ad agency).

Staff journalists or advertising writers, for example, have no property claims in their published works, which belong instead to the periodical or agency that employs or contracts them (some exceptions apply).

Freelance writers, too, while nominally independent contractors and thus entitled to copyright, are in bargaining terms at the mercy of publishers: ‘if [writers] do not capitulate and assign rights to such conglomerates they risk being blacklisted.’

This divestment of authorship has accomplished a sharp change in the social position of writers, who had hitherto, in some measure, been independent producers: owning their own tools of the trade, working under their own direction rather than that of supervisors, preserving rights to their output and whatever fruits it might yield.

‘The author isn’t dead’, wrote Catherine Fisk, reaching for a clever epigram and duly finding it: ‘he just got a job.’

Unfortunately, as if in a company-man dystopia, he has been subsumed into the identity of his corporate employer. His disappearance is by now almost complete. Although he has gone on writing, the corporation has become the author of his oeuvre…

[Modern] creativity is exercised in an employment setting where salaried creators sign away their rights in their work as a condition of hire — sign away, in effect, their very status as authors.

In this ‘corporatization of creativity’, there is an echo of the fate of the salaried engineer, brought into a collective work team by growth of the patent system.

David Noble describes emergence of the ‘corporation as inventor’ at the in-house research laboratories (General Electric, AT&T, Bayer, BASF) of the late nineteenth century:

The frustration of independent invention led the majority of inventors into the research laboratories of the large corporations; in the process, invention itself was transformed…

Inventors became employees in corporations to spare themselves the hardship of going in alone. Their patents were thereby handled by corporation-paid patent lawyers and their inventions were made commercially viable at corporate expense. Corporate employment thus eliminated the problem of lawsuits, and in addition provided well-equipped laboratories, libraries and technical assistance for research. The nature of their actual work, however, had changed…

By employing the technical experts capable of producing inventions, the corporations were also obtaining the legally necessary vehicles for the accumulation of corporate patents…

In time… employees became required to assign all patent rights to their employer, as part of their employment contracts, in return for their salaries.

The writer’s reduced circumstances in the world have been accompanied by a marked decline in the quality of authorial output.

Little published in the decades following the Second World War stands comparison with the tightly bunched sequence of totems released after the First: works by Proust, Joyce, Mann, Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Valéry, Mayakovsky all appearing within a few years of each other.

Fredric Jameson notes the social mutations behind this post-1945 fall-off in novelistic standards — a decline everywhere grudgingly conceded but rarely dwelt upon.

The great modernist seers, not least in their own self-mythology, were independent producers, retaining an artisanal autonomy of routine, if not hieratic ritual. Pen and paper offered a self-sufficient cloister from the industrial economy of plastics, electronics and chemical factories.

These droits de l’auteur were usurped as their literary successors, obliged to do paid journalism or media work in whatever measure, have been drawn into capitalist social relations:

[There] is a deeper reason for the disappearance of the Great Writer under postmodernism, and it is simply this, sometimes called “uneven development”: in an age of monopolies (and trade unions), of increasing institutionalized collectivization, there is always a lag. Some parts of the economy are still archaic, handicraft enclaves; some are more modern and futuristic than the future itself.

Modern art, in this respect, drew its power and its possibilities from being a backwater and an archaic holdover within a modernizing economy: it glorified, celebrated, and dramatized older forms of individual production which the new mode of production was elsewhere on the point of displacing and blotting out.

Aesthetic production then offered the Utopian vision of a more human production generally; and in the world of the monopoly stage of capitalism it exercised a fascination by way of the image it offered of a Utopian transformation of human life.

Joyce in his rooms in Paris singlehandedly produces a whole world, all by himself and beholden to no one; but the human beings in the streets outside those rooms have no comparable sense of power and control, of human productivity; none of the feeling of freedom and autonomy that comes when, like Joyce, you can make or at least share in making your own decisions.

As a form of production, then, modernism (including the Great Artists and producers) gives off a message that has little to do with the content of the individual works: it is the aesthetic as sheer autonomy, as the satisfactions of handicraft transfigured.

Modernism must thus be seen as uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development, or to what Ernst Bloch called the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen): the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history  handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance.

The history of early twentieth-century avant-gardes in the visual arts easel painting stretching the limits of handicraft creativity in response to the new commercial technologies of photography, cinema and television seems to confirm this diagnosis.

But the written word has been cheaply reproducible for centuries. The printing press was invented long before sound recording or disc pressing.

Why then should authors have suddenly submitted to the depredations and indignity of the employment relationship? Why relinquish a purely commercial transaction for a relationship of command and subordination?

The background to this loss of social esteem can be plotted briefly.

The writer of ‘independent means’ — beneficiary of family fortunes and legacies, of a gebildet European bourgeoisie happy to subsidize the artistic careers of its wayward sons — had dwindled in number by the mid-twentieth century, cancelled along with the aristocracy whose ‘high culture’ the business classes were trying to ape.

In a 1946 radio broadcast, E.M. Forster described the workings of this vanished world of Mann, Gide, Proust, Zweig and himself: ‘In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts.’

He surmised, correctly, its obsolescence.

Suddenly needing to earn a salary, many writers were drawn into journalism, academia and marketing by the postwar expansion of higher education, entertainment media and advertising industries.

Creative-writing programmes, residencies, fellowships and institutional grants provided new homes in the academy, and birthed the postwar genre of campus novel. (Prescribed syllabuses meanwhile supplied a market for books that, lacking sufficient buyers, might otherwise have gone unpublished.)

State bureaucracies, massively swelled by warfare and welfare state, absorbed others into officialdom and public administration. (Proust had recommended a comfortable, undemanding sinecure as the ideal occupation for an author.)

The result today is that all writers, even the most exalted, must resort to journalism or occasional teaching. Journalists are therefore tempted to suppose themselves writers — indeed the more successful, receiving grants from university, foundation or think tank, as interim scholars.

For writers, this coming down in the world reaches its culmination with the insistence, courtesy of a copyright lawyer at Google, that the notion of sole creative authorship has always been a myth. The ‘romantic’ notion of the author disguises the reality of artistic collaboration, bricolage and cheerful plagiarism.

Bleating about usurpation of the author’s property rights, he declares, is little more than moral panic.

(Of course, Patry rather misses the point: in commercial terms, appellation of authorship is akin to indication of geographical origin, e.g. of wine or cheese, an identifying badge which is recognized under the TRIPS Agreement as similar to trademark or certification.)

Today the ‘creative industries’ — so named by their publicists — are presented as a smart new engine of economic growth, the swelling revenue of Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast and Time Warner an example of twenty-first century conditions favouring the intelligent over the dim.

The ‘creative economy’ and ‘cultural industries’ are now topics of urgent reports by UNCTAD and UNESCO, not to mention a cottage industry of scholarship, popular publications and municipal boosterism.

In reality, the high incomes of media, software and pharmaceutical firms are a form of rent based on access denial and control. This is a business model familiar from the land enclosures of the British agricultural revolution.

Patent royalties, copyright fees, licence revenue, etc. — not to mention the income earned by lawyers and agents securing such arrangements — derive not from any new productive powers or technological innovations, but from asserting exclusive property rights, and thereby securing claim over a revenue stream.

The grotesquely concentrated market of book publishing — Pearson, Bertelsmann, Lagardère and a handful of other giant houses commanding the global scene — is exemplary.

Proletarianization of the author, as with the academic scholar, therefore signals not an explosion of knowledge, but its seizure and sequestration.

Along with prolonged copyright and trademark protection, the other half of the ‘creative industry’ business model is contributed by network externalities. Low costs of reproduction, and uniformity of customer tastes, allow multiplication of copies to any number of users.

The presence of more buyers raises the value of the original copy. With greater scale comes increasing returns.

A handful of market-cornering ‘superstars’ prosper; the eager but unloved proliferate.

‘Content’ production and transmission are therefore encouraged only to the extent they can be subdued and corralled by publishing platforms and distributors. The volume of writing solicited is unprecedented (e.g. content farms), but the channel clogged with noise (recycled articles, duplicated material). The proportion of people reading books of any type has declined.

Amid this scene, the pose struck by Franzen — himself as Voltaire or Maupertuis at Frederick the Great’s Prussian court — provides buffoonish relief.

Franzen and Safran Foer - Artists and Writers for Obama

What, finally, of Franzen’s panegyric of Obama as literary patron and cultural custodian?

One of the cherished fantasy-images of postmodern politics is that of an intelligentsia, hitherto a marginalized and downtrodden caste, restored to social prominence and installing one of its own in the chancellery.

Havel in Prague provides a euphoric example, as does the short-lived spectacle of ‘civil society’, journalists and economists in Poland and post-Soviet Russia, celebrating their own professional guild-values as foundations for a new society.

The ur-reference of these contemporary fantasies is 1848, when the poets and novelists of European romanticism — Manzoni, Petöfi, Mickiewicz — played starring roles for national movements in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Belgium and Italy. For mid-nineteenth century romantic nationalism, language was the bearer of heritage, providing a cultural basis for political unity.

Such rhetoric, now hopelessly archaic but guaranteeing a prominent role for the national bard (e..g Milan Kundera), was revived with the breakup of the Soviet Union and other multi-ethnic states, the return of private ownership dressed up as a Springtime of Peoples.

In the 1990s such visions spread outwards from the newly capitalist countries, an elixir to replenish the threadbare ideological cupboards of the old. Their compensatory function is obvious for European and North American intellectuals suffering the aesthetic degradation and social indignities of globalized advanced capitalism, as described above.

Reality is, of course, unkind to this daydream of a renewed social alliance between belles-lettres and state authority.

As with his peers abroad — the parvenu crassness of Sarkozy springs to mind — today’s US president, educated at a private prep school worth over $300 million, is instead anxious to flaunt his social kinship with ‘savvy businessmen.’

In such a scene, letters today barely sustain even a vestigial role as elite decoration or philanthropic point d’honneur.

Literature has, of course, rarely drawn the attention of wealthy patrons. It lacks the monumentality and civic resplendence of architecture; cannot offer the networking opportunities and social prestige of the opera house or gallery board of directors; easily duplicated, it does not yield the returns on investment of the one-of-a-kind painting.

Yet if sponsors have always been scarce, membership of the propertied classes has, in previous epochs, meant an obligatory amount of taste, learning, connoisseurship, and reverence towards literary matters.

Books were favoured as a luxury appurtenance, patronized and consumed for ornamentation and exhibitions of status, to be sure — but also were a matter of elite self-conception, recruitment and social functioning.

In 1808 Napoleon — his Grande Armée having brought emancipation of the Prussian peasantry, state certification of teachers and foundation of Berlin University — took time out from the Congress of Erfurt to grant a breakfast-time audience with Goethe.

Goethe recounted this episode in a conversation with Eckermann:

“But,” continued he, gaily, “pay your respects. What book do you think Napoleon carried in his field library? — My Werther!”

“We may see by his levee at Erfurt,” said I, “that he had studied it well.”

“He had studied it as a criminal judge does his documents,” said Goethe, “and in this spirit talked with me about it. In Bourrienne’s work there is a list of the books which Napoleon took to Egypt, among which is Werther. But what is worth noticing in this list, is the manner in which the books are classed under different rubrics. Under the head Politique, for instance, we find the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran; by which we see from what point of view Napoleon regarded religious matters.”

The three versions of this meeting (recorded by Talleyrand, Friedrich von Müller and Goethe himself) were recorded by Luise Mühlbach in her historical novel Napoleon and the Queen of Prussia:

Napoleon, continuing to eat, beckoned Goethe, with a careless wave of his hand, to approach.

He complied, and stood in front of the table, opposite the emperor, who looked up, and, turning with an expression of surprise to Talleyrand, pointed to Goethe, and exclaimed, “Ah, that is a man!” An imperceptible smile overspread the poet’s countenance, and he bowed in silence.

“How old are you, M. von Goethe?” asked Napoleon.

“Sire, I am in my sixtieth year.”

“In your sixtieth year, and yet you have the appearance of a youth! Ah, it is evident that perpetual intercourse with the muses has imparted external youth to you.”

“Sire,” said Daru, “M. von Goethe has also translated Voltaire’s Mahomet.”

“That is not a good tragedy,” said Napoleon. “Voltaire has sinned against history and the human heart. He has prostituted the character of Mohammed by petty intrigues. He makes a man, who revolutionized the world, act like an infamous criminal deserving the gallows. Let us rather speak of Goethe’s own work—of the Sorrows of Young Werther. I have read it many times, and it has always afforded me the highest enjoyment; it accompanied me to Egypt, and during my campaigns in Italy, and it is therefore but just that I should return thanks to the poet for the many pleasant hours he has afforded me.”

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

During the late Roman empire, Symmachus had declared in a letter that his senatorial elite were the ‘better part of the human race.’ Though idle and landed, Roman aristocrats had to be familiar with Virgil and Juvenal.

Such, indeed, was the cultural pedigree later drawn upon by bourgeois revolutionaries, for whom such distant treasures of the past remained legible, banners and elevated slogans to be salvaged from history, then used to embellish contemporary campaigns.

Dutch republicans sought to vindicate their revolt against Philip II’s Spanish yoke with arguments from Aristotle, Roman thinkers and the Bible. The English Revolution drew its language from the Bible.

In France, said Marx, ‘the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire’:

Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time — that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society — in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases…

Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism — the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.

But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.

Postmodern culture, of course, famously knows its own share of dress-up, pastiche and nostalgic revival.

Franzen’s grotesque embrace of Karl Kraus shows this: an example of nostalgia for the aesthetic, and of commercial culture’s wish to salvage from unprofitable ‘obscurity’ a peculiarly stringent and unassimilable modernism.

But — appropriately for a Restoration era that denies any future prospect of change — this decorative relationship to the past is enfeebling rather than stimulating. If it is to be drawn upon, any historical item must first be converted into a fashion plate, suitable for collection and ornamentation, the merest patina and embellishment.

Thus in literary necromancy, too, yesterday’s priests are replaced by today’s cheap hucksters.

The ‘past brought to life’ can involve little genuine connection to a shared cultural heritage, the latter now hopelessly remote and irrelevant. It follows instead the relentless, rhythmic turnover of the fashion cycle.

The chubby pimpernel

May 31, 2014

Charles Ryder, both eager to preserve order and hankering for a street skirmish, skips back across the Channel in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

I returned to London in the spring of 1926 for the General Strike.

It was the topic of Paris. The French, exultant as always at the discomfiture of their former friends, and transposing into their own precise terms our mistier notions from across the Channel, foretold revolution and civil war.

Every evening the kiosks displayed texts of doom, and, in the cafés, acquaintances greeted one half derisively with: ‘Ha, my friend, you are better off here than at home, are you not?’ until I and several friends in circumstances like my own came seriously to believe that our country was in danger and that our duty lay there.

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes.

We crossed together, in a high-spirited, male party, expecting to find unfolding before us at Dover the history so often repeated of late, with so few variations, from all parts of Europe, that I, at any rate, had formed in my mind a clear, composite picture of ‘Revolution’  the red flag on the post office, the overturned tram, the drunken N.C.O.s, the gaol open and gangs of released criminals prowling the streets, the train from the capital that did not arrive.

One had read it in the papers, seen it in the films, heard it at café tables again and again for six or seven years now, till it had become part of one’s experience, at second hand, like the mud of Flanders and the flies of Mesopotamia.

Then we landed and met the old routine of the customs-shed, the punctual boat-train, the porters lining the platform at Victoria and converging on the first-class carriages; the long line of waiting taxis.

‘We’ll separate,’ we said, and see what’s happening. We’ll meet and compare notes at dinner,’ but we knew already in our hearts that nothing was happening; nothing, at any rate, which needed our presence…

He collides fortuitously with his old chum Mulcaster, who already has enrolled with the defenders of property, but whose paramilitary urges remain equally unsatisfied:

We dined that night at the Café Royal. There things were a little more warlike, for the Café was full of undergraduates who had come down for ‘National Service’.

One group, from Cambridge, had that afternoon signed on to run messages for Transport House, and their table backed on another group’s, who were enrolled as special constables. Now and then one or other party would shout provocatively over the shoulder, but it is hard to come into serious conflict back to back, and the affair ended with their giving each other tall glasses of lager beer.

‘You should have been in Budapest when Horthy marched in’ said Jean. ‘That was politics.’


We went to a number of night clubs. In two years Mulcaster seemed to have attained his simple ambition of being known and liked in such places. At the last of them he and I were kindled by a great flame of patriotism.

‘You and I ‘ he said, ‘were too young to fight in the war. Other chaps fought, millions of them dead. Not us. We’ll show them. We’ll show the dead chaps we can fight, too.’

‘That’s why I’m here,’ I said. ‘Come from overseas, rallying to old country in hour of need.’

‘Like Australians.’

‘Like the poor dead Australians.’

Boy Mulcaster (Jeremy Sinden)

We were sitting round after luncheon that day when Bill Meadows came back from the telephone in high spirits.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘There’s a perfectly good battle in the Commercial Road.’

We drove at great speed and arrived to find a steel hawser stretched between lamp posts, an overturned truck and a policeman, alone on the pavement, being kicked by half a dozen youths. On either side of this centre of disturbance, and at a little distance from it, two opposing parties had formed.

Near us, as we disembarked, a second policeman was sitting on the pavement, dazed, with his head in his hands and blood running through his fingres; two or three sympathizers were standing over him; on the other side of the hawser was a hostile knot of young dockers.

We charged in cheerfully, relieved the policeman, and were just falling upon the main body of the enemy when we came into collision with a party of local clergy and town councillors who arrived simultaneously by another route to try persuasion. They were our only victims, for just as they went down there was a cry of ‘Look out. The coppers,’ and a lorry-load of police drew up in our rear.

The crowd broke and disappeared. We picked up the peace-makers (only one of whom was seriously hurt), patrolled some of the side streets looking for trouble and finding none, and at length returned to Bratt’s.

Next day the General Strike was called off and the country everywhere, except in the coal fields, returned to normal. It was as though a beast long fabled for its ferocity had emerged for an hour, scented danger, and slunk back to its lair. It had not been worth leaving Paris.

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

Counter-revolutionaries thwarted by the absence of revolution; heroic ambitions frustrated, and reduced to play-acting, by the sedate doddering of British Labourism: it is a droll picture. (This blog has described the historical context of British society in the interwar years, and aspects of the political situation in Europe during the 1920s.)

But the scene is less farcical, and the players politically sharper, than the official anti-austerity ‘opposition’ mustered today against Mulcaster’s boyish lookalike, the Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Such opposition has, for now and in the manner predicted, been successfully ushered, to the advantage of political stability, into unthreatening and expedient channels. In thrall to Labor and the Greens, faithful to the trade unions: la gauche respectueuse backed by tidy street demonstration.

One feature of this landscape is the extraordinary burst of publicity given lately by Australia’s mainstream media to Socialist Alternative, a tiny organization itself well versed in street theatre.

Dispatches from the Grand Hotel Abyss: the Frankfurt School comes to Morningside Heights

April 22, 2014

Christina Stead has had the peculiar fortune among twentieth-century Australian novelists to have enjoyed, at last count, three revivals of critical attention, reissued or newly collected works, and renewed fashionability.

The most recent bubble (they have taken place roughly two decades apart) yielded a biography and publication of Stead’s letters to her husband, William Blake.

Despite the biography’s concessions to contemporary ideological fashion, these letters remind us that all the leading figures in the Australian literary efflorescence of the 1930s (Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Jack Lindsay, Dame Mary Gilmore, Vance and Nettie Palmer and their daughters, etc.) were Communist Party members or fellow-travellers of Stalinism.

Stead’s close friendship with the economist Henryk Grossmann features heavily.

‘I had better become a bit more intelligent before my Escort turns up next,’ she joked to Blake about Grossmann in April 1942:

I wonder at my temerity (in private) in going out cheerfully with the world’s leading Marxist, etc. but my Australian brass comes to my aid.

Stead had arrived in New York in 1937 to promote House of All Nations.

She stayed there until 1942, writing The Man Who Loved Children, joining the League of American Writers and describing herself as ‘a good Stalinist’.

Her social circle in wartime New York also included Mike Gold, whom she called a ‘perverse, deep, vain and self-interested man’ who ‘gives speeches without shame, when he has prepared nothing, for the sake of the money.’

Letters Christina Stead and William J Blake

Grossmann likewise spent the years 1937-1947 as an émigré scholar in New York.

Working in solitude  having been spurned by his old Frankfurt School milieu  he was desperate for company, intellectual stimulation and a rapprochement with Stalinist circles.

Stead sought his tutelage, hoping he might provide a fictional model for a character of the revolutionary ‘type’ (Lukács’s concept of novelistic types was then in the air).

She found to her disappointment that ‘psychology does not occur to him at all. He does not think psychologically and what he said was utterly useless.’

Grossmann eventually served as a fictional model for her Jan Kalojan (or Callowjan) in her short story ‘The Azhdanov Tailors.’

When after the war Grossmann accepted a teaching position in the DDR, Blake sought his patronage to win himself an academic place at the University of Leipzig.

In 1950 the US citizen travelled to the DDR, and enthused to Stead of the life they might enjoy under bureaucratic rule:

Like Henryk I was a nobody in America relatively, here I am a Marxian writer, which in Leipzig is the highest honour in the world apart from that of the directors of party policy and actual high administration.


He lives beautifully, really like a prince. So would we. He lives in a rococo palatial apartment house opposite a beautiful house…

Sadly Blake found Grossmann in hospital, dying of prostate cancer.

Christina Stead NLA

Stead’s letters regarding Grossmann provide a useful resource about Grossmann’s banishment from the Institute for Social Research, located then in New York.

Grossmann’s complaints of ‘sabotage’, related by Stead, show how the personnel and research program of the Frankfurt School, where Grossmann had worked in the 1920s and 1930s, were evolving into their familiar postwar configuration, in which he was no longer welcome.

By purging politically suspect figures like Grossmann, Max Horkheimer established a coherent ‘Frankfurt School’ research program based around himself and T.W. Adorno.

‘Critical Theory’ would be made academically respectable and salonfähig in time for the Cold War and German economic miracle.

Henceforth the Frankfurt School, shorn of any perilous links to classical Marxism, would rival Paris as the intellectual capital of Western Marxism.

While Grossmann lay on his deathbed in Leipzig, Adorno was making a triumphant return to Adenauer’s Federal Republic, where Horkheimer had been appointed rector of the University of Frankfurt.

As Perry Anderson described in Consderations on Western Marxism, the postwar Frankfurt School would be ‘officially feted and patronized’ in what remained ‘the most reactionary major capitalist country in Europe’.

Henryk Grossmann

In The Dialectical Imagination, his history of the Frankfurt School to 1950, Martin Jay wrote how Grossmann’s relationship with the Institute became ‘scarcely more than a formal one’ during the 1930s, leading to a ‘complete break’ during the Second World War:

An enormously learned man with a prodigious knowledge of economic history, Grossmann is remembered by many who knew him as the embodiment of the Central European academic: proper, meticulous, and gentlemanly.

He had, however, absorbed his Marxism in the years when Engels’s and Kautsky’s monistic materialistic views prevailed. He remained firmly committed to this interpretation and thus largely unsympathetic to the dialectical, neo-Hegelian materialism of the younger Institut [for Social Research] members. 


More orthodox Marxists within the Institut, such as the economist Henryk Grossmann, were always criticized for their overemphasis on the material substructure of society…


Grossmann’s ideological inflexibility prevented him from having much impact on the Institut’s analysis of Nazism, or on much else in its work for that matter.

Grossmann was author of The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System (1929), a former member of the Polish Communist Party and, before then, secretary of the Galician Bundists.

Unwelcome in Pilsudski’s Poland from 1926, he had become a researcher at the Institute for Social Research, an organization whose charter announced its dedication to the ‘history of socialism and the labour movement.’

The Institute was attached to the University of Frankfurt. Independent of the latter, it was directly answerable to the local Ministry of Culture, which appointed the Institute’s director.

The first director, Carl Grünberg, was an economist and Austro-Marxist, and Grossmann’s supervisor. (Jay later derided his ‘rather undialectical, mechanistic Marxism in the Engels-Kautsky tradition’, and his ‘inductive epistemology… a tone very different from that set after Horkheimer replaced him as director.’)

In June 1924 Grünberg had launched the Institute with the following words:

[In] contrast with the pessimists, there are the optimists.

They neither believe in the collapse of Western culture or of culture in general, nor do they alarm themselves or others with any such prospect. Supported by historical experience, they see, instead of a decaying form of culture, another, more highly developed one approaching. They are confident: magnus ab integro saeculorum nascitur ordo, a new order is being born out of the fullness of time.

And for their part they consciously demand that what is outmoded should stand aside in favour of what is emerging, in order to bring it more speedily to maturity.

Many people, whose numbers and influence are constantly growing, do not merely believe, wish and hope but are firmly, scientifically convinced that the emerging order will be a socialist one, that we are in the midst of the transition from capitalism to socialism and are advancing towards the latter with gathering speed.

According to Rolf Wiggershaus’s history of the Frankfurt School, its founder’s ‘heartfelt wish was… to create a foundation similar to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, equipped with a staff of professors and students, with libraries and archives and one day to present it to a German Soviet Republic.’

Institut group photo

Just a few short years after the aborted Communist insurrection, the Institute’s academics, most of them KPD or Social-Democrat members, were naturally monitored by the Weimar authorities.

In 1926 the Frankfurt Chief of Police confirmed that Grossmann had ‘not actually drawn any attention to himself politically’. He safely ascended to an economics professorship in 1930.

Meanwhile Grünberg’s successor, Max Horkheimer, was appointed director of the Institute in 1930, despite looser ties and lesser academic standing than Grossmann and other members. The Ministry of Culture, it was felt, would deem him less ‘politically suspect’ than these others, and his appointment would be ‘easier to push through’.

Horkheimer, a mediocre scholar, was ‘more trustworthy to his university colleagues’:

With no hope of attaining a professorship in the normal way, Horkheimer was pushing for the post of director, which brought with it the prospect of an accelerated academic career.

In 1931, the Institute ceased to issue the Archives for the History of Socialism and the Workers Movement; its new review was more innocentlv entitled The Journal of Social Research.

To a correspondent, Horkheimer straightforwardly declared himself ‘not interested’ in the traditional topics of socialism, economics or history. Rather, his ambitions lay ‘in a sociological theory appropriate to the society of those years and in the research that would be helpful for this task.’ Those seeking the substance in this vacuous formula were directed to Horkheimer’s inaugural address.

If intended as an accommodating signal of complaisance, this re-badging was of little avail by the early 1930s. Fascist ascendancy soon forced a scattering abroad.

In 1937 Grossmann was invited to New York by Horkheimer, director of an Institute now transplanted to premises on West 117th Street owned by Columbia University.

Like the Institute’s other designated ‘communist’, Karl Wittfogel, Grossmann was also excluded from the ‘Horkheimer circle.’ Without an office, Grossmann worked from home.

Five years into his stay, Horkheimer terminated the Institute’s relationship with Grossmann and trimmed other scholarly personnel from the payroll. In 1941 Grossmann’s work on economic dynamics, Marx and the classical political economists was not published under its auspices.

Grossmann decried all this as ‘sabotage’, and like Erich Fromm threatened to sue the Institute for breach of contract.

Columbia building

Stead’s letters shed some light on these grubby events, which are of broader interest.

Horkheimer’s renovation of the Frankfurt School certainly involved thwarted ambition, baronial intrigue and petty envy. But its consequences were neither trivial nor limited to the direct participants.

The program was one of lustration, with the conditions of exile allowing, ahead of time, the purifying cleanse of postwar liberation.

The churn of staff allowed the director, who boasted of his ‘dictatorship’, to remove those antiquated fogies whose ‘overemphasis on the material substructure of society’ clashed with his favoured research agenda.

As Jay’s history declares openly, what Horkheimer sought to displace from the Institute was a particularly musty, hidebound central European ‘tradition’, traceable to Engels and Kautsky: the ‘relative orthodoxy of the Institut’s Marxism’,  still dimly alive in figures like the Galician Jew Grossmann, ‘the embodiment of the Central European academic.’

The regional, ethnic and generational nature of this turnover in personnel was no accident.

Initially Stead’s letters present the ‘gallant Cracovian’ Grossmann as a pitiable figure, if ‘highly presentable and entertaining’: ‘desperately lonely’, ‘crazy as a bedbug’, a ‘a splendid fellow, though quite a trial as a conversationalist’, ‘a marvellous fellow when he is not in one of his black or silly moods.’

Grossman was covetous of her time (‘I’ve noticed before with the Gallant, that although he may appear to give you a choice or choices, it always veers around in no time to his choice: pertinacious elf.’).

He moaned often to her of his deliberate mistreatment at the hands of Horkheimer and Adorno, and was bewildered by US society (‘All old people, went to bed 9 o’clock, lights out, finally he said, Isn’t there a café here [poor European!] and they said, Yes and showed him. A milk bar. Poor European’).

In 1942 Stead wrote to Blake in San Francisco regarding Grossmann:

He is very lonely. He talked about himself all the time, his past, his successes in Europe, what everyone said about him – what the newspapers said, praise from adversaries, etc. etc. – what is that (in a man of Grossmann’s mind) but utter loneliness!

They do not like him in the Institute – he has a contract with them and if they did not pay him he “would make them a law” [Stead’s rendition of Grossmann’s clumsy English] – but they say he is “genial but they sabotage, they compliment him, we all know Dr. Grossmann and at first he was too stupid, but now he sees it was only to sabotage.” (sabatayge) They want to cut down his work, take out all the parts that are really Grossmann and would make him stand out above them.

Then he sets out to explain Akkumulations-Theorie to muh! Let me tell you one thing – in his atrocious English he makes himself clear and interesting. He is a born expositor and teacher. He regrets most his “workshop”; all the brilliant young men he taught now scattered – where are they – he had letters from Yapan – now at war – a world scattered – what a world for a scholar says he.

And I see it as he speaks – he is tired, I think. It breaks his heart that after all his work in Europe, known and admired by enemies even, that no one even knows he exists here…

Poor lonely scholar. Isn’t it pathetic? I am quite sure that if you would work with him in S.F. he would go there at once – and that is positively all he has in mind.

He is getting rather bowed; very much so, in fact. He reads books about seven hours a day, and works in the evening too.

He is studying – well, he told me all about his work and he made it interesting, which I consider very smart, for it was all about Descartes, his mechanical view of the universe, quite new and revolutionary for the time; and now he is studying all the algebra that every was and mathematical economics – and the question of why the machines didn’t develop before, for it was invented long before – the Greeks had machines but only for toys, and in the fourteenth century they invented the bobbin, etc. but never used it. Why didn’t they need the machine in Greek times? Slave labour, unemployment, due to robbery abroad, etc. etc.

This guy is so clear in his thinking that though he is an abstruse marxist I keep seeing the clearest pictures and getting good ideas for writing from him…

He is simply overwhelmed that the Marxists don’t known him or criticise him here.

What lay behind the ‘sabotage’ Grossmann complained of?

Wiggershaus’s history tells how, in 1937, the double-dip Depression, and an ‘unlucky touch in investments’ in stocks and real estate, had brought a ‘drastic deterioration’ in the Institute’s balance sheet. (Its endowment had been donated by the grain merchant father of Felix Weil.)

Horkheimer elected to cut salaries and research personnel.

Staff were ‘left confused and insecure by more or less secretive hints about the Institute’s impending financial collapse and by obscure reductions in the salaries’:

When the endowment capital began to shrink, from the late 1930s onwards, Horkheimer’s main concern became to reserve a large enough part of the assets early enough to secure his own scholarly work on a long-term basis. Accordingly, Lowenthal – in his capacity as one of the trustees of the ‘foundations’ among which the funds were distributed – was one day asked to transfer $50 000 to a fund with Horkheimer as its sole beneficiary.

First to go was Erich Fromm (whom less successful members apparently resented: T.W. Adorno had once described him as a ‘professional Jew’).

The work of Grossmann, too, was altogether too redolent of Galicia and classical Marxism, with its embarrassing tendency to cite Plekhanov and Rosa Luxemberg, and its talk of capitalist ‘breakdown’:

[Grossmann’s] long, ponderous manuscripts did not meet the expectations of the Institute’s directors at all, and, with a not particularly happy life, he had become a rather difficult character.

Wiggershaus describes a conflict of interest between Horkheimer, Adorno, Leo Lowenthal and Friedrich Pollock on the one hand, and Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann on the other:

With closer incorporation of the Institute into the university [Columbia], the chances of an academic career for Marcuse and Neumann would increase; in contrast, Horkheimer and those basing their hopes on having their material needs supplied by the Institute did not want to see its independence restricted in any way.

The Institute’s co-founder informed Horkheimer that ‘Teddy’ Adorno had ‘one interest in life, to become a minor gentleman of leisure on the west coast as soon as possible’.

By 1943, the only research supported full-time by Institute funding was that of Horkheimer and Adorno. Herbert Marcuse and Franz Neumann now worked for the OSS, and every other scholar was likewise employed in the US government’s war effort.

In Pacific Palisades, a starstruck Adorno giddily assisted Thomas Mann’s work on Doktor Faustus.

Meanwhile Adorno’s stark Minima Moralia, together with his and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, provided something of a programmatic manifesto for Critical Theory’s new postwar direction. The latter would reject all the aims set out for the Institute in Grünberg’s inaugural address.

Written simultaneously, these books jointly announced, in morose but full-throated tones, the Frankfurt School’s conversion to what Grünberg had called the camp of the ‘pessimists’, taking as their theme ‘the collapse of Western culture or of culture in general.’

With its strictures against ‘positivism’ and famously grim verdict on Francis Bacon and his epigones, Dialectic of Enlightenment provided a remarkable contrast with Grossmann’s history of the Scientific Revolution, also completed during the waning days of the Second World War.

In California, Grossmann’s work would no doubt have been judged as insufficiently ‘mediated.’

Adorno Brentwood residence

After German surrender, the Institute’s return to Europe was funded by the Allied High Commission for Occupied Germany and the City of Frankfurt.

Horkheimer became rector of the University of Frankfurt. With the Institute no longer relying on Weil’s money to fund its operations, Horkheimer appealed to the premier of Hesse.

The solicitation of grants and donations is described by Wiggershaus:

Horkheimer and Adorno sought support, not from the labour movement or from opposition groups, but from the ruling authorities themselves. As Horkheimer put it in a letter of thanks to the Prime Minister of the state of Hesse, Georg August Zinn, they were looking for ‘friends in high places, the sort of friends often hoped for in vain by academics also pursuing the practical goals of genuine education’.

Thus the Cold War Berufsverbot, having been preemptively enacted in exile, would require no more victims, and the Frankfurt School little intellectual defanging.

Henceforth, the long and steady descent to today’s Habermas, an ornament of the establishment — yet a figure, one must remember, of only the second postwar Frankfurt generation, and thus lineal recipient of a virtually pure inheritance from the founders — would proceed smoothly.

Habermas Kosovo

Since the beginning of his career in the 1950s, Habermas had been committed to German Atlanticism, or Westbindung:

The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the great intellectual achievement of the postwar period, of which my generation in particular could be proud…

That opening has been achieved by overcoming precisely the ideology of the center… [the] geopolitical palaver of “the old central position of the Germans in Europe”…

The only patriotism which does not alienate us from the West is a constitutional patriotism.

If, Habermas maintained, the source of all moral and intellectual authority lay in Western benevolence, and any hope of a future ‘cosmopolitan order’ reposed in Washington, then all trace of a German Sonderweg must be erased. After General Clay and John J. Mccoy had departed, the Bonn republic would have to hunt out and destroy any lingering German pretensions to being a bridge linking western and eastern Europe.

What must go, Habermas explained in the 1980s, if one was to ’emphatically defend the Federal Republic’s orientation to the West’, was ‘an ideology of “the middle”‘:

Only since the end of World War II have Germans this side of the Elbe and the Werra considered themselves, as a matter of course, to belong to Western Europe…

What is in dispute is not whether the Federal Republic belongs to Western Europe, but whether or not the option for the West has to be broadly anchored in a renewed national self-consciousness…

For it is only in the unclouded consciousness of a break with our more fateful traditions that the Federal Republic’s unreserved opening to the political culture of the West can mean more than an economically attractive opportunity and politically almost unavoidable choice…

The West integration of the German Federal Republic has taken place step by step: Economically through the Currency Reform and the European Community, politically through the splitting up of the nation and the consolidation of independent states, militarily through rearmament and NATO alliance, and culturally through a slow internationalization of science, literature and art that was not finalized until the late 1950s. These processes took place in the power context of the constellations brought about in Yalta and Potsdam, and later on through the interactions of the super-powers. But from the very beginning, they met with “an extensive pro-Western opinion among the West German population, an opinion nourished by the radical failure of the NS-politics and the repulsive appearance of Communism”.

What exactly was the pedigree disposed of by this Westbindung, with its ‘anchoring’ of Germany in NATO?

Today the once-enormous historical influence and international renown of German culture and language across Mitteleuropa, from the Baltic to the Balkans, can scarcely be imagined.

A figure like Grossmann was emblematic. He was born into the rickety Austrian political institutions of Franz Joseph: heir to the failed revolutions of 1848, with a large, recently emancipated and urbanizing Jewish population, and a residual landowning class, sharing a mostly German-language high culture across central and eastern Europe.

Long nurtured among the cultivated middle classes of the Habsburg, German and Russian imperial monarchies, since 1945 — and especially following the nationalist fragmentation and irredentism that has consumed the region since 1989, crafting monocultural territories out of formally multicultural federations this shared lingua franca has ceased to exist.

While it lasted, however, it provided a setting in which classical Marxism, during the last third of the nineteenth century, emerged and flourished.

Both the custodians and the enemies of this heritage the opponents of ‘Judeobolshevism’ with rather more relish than its embattled practitioners acknowledged this geographical and demographic pattern.

The original Institute for Social Research thus established its firmest international connections with Vienna and Moscow.

Its early members generally partook of that ‘economic determinism’ (sic), which Horkheimer’s Frankfurt leadership would later repudiate as a cardinal and egregious error, a worn-out relic of the Second International and Stalinism.

Yet against this early continental reach can be measured the later national introversion of the postwar Frankfurt School, with its provincial retreat to Kant, Hegel and (with Habermas) a smattering of Anglo-Americans (Mead, Dewey, Parsons).

The upshot of Horkheimer’s victory can be judged by the following anodyne prospectus, setting out the Institute’s postwar research agenda:

Social research, in all its aspects, and particularly in the areas of research on the structure of society, on human relationships and modes of behaviour within the labour process, of opinion research and the practical application of sociological and psychological knowledge in the last few decades, has received a great boost.

Owing to political events, Germany has not been able to participate in this to the extent that might have been desired. The part these disciplines can play today both in Germany’s public life and in the rationalization of its economy can hardly be overestimated, if the experience of other industrial nations is anything to go by.

Social analyses will be able to throw light on many crucial political and social problems of the post-war period, such as the refugee problem. They can provide an important cognitive basis for the reconstruction of cities and industrial areas. Training in the methods of social research can help young people better to grasp the tensions within our own population, as well as those between nations, and thus allow them to make an independent contribution to overcoming them . . .

Last but not least, social research can open the way to a variety of new professions. The demand for scientists trained in the new methods is no less than that for engineers, chemists or doctors, and they are valued no less than those professions are. Not only government administration, and all the opinion-forming media such as the press, film and radio, but also businesses maintain numerous sociological research bodies.

Social research can create the optimal social conditions in their factories, ascertain and calculate in advance what the public needs in their branch of business, and monitor and improve the effectiveness of their advertising. A similar course of development can be expected in Germany as well.


The headaches and misery of the day

April 6, 2014

With plenty of time to himself during the Phoney War, Sartre mused about André Gide’s ethic of disponibilité:

Barnabooth sells all his goods, ‘castles, yachts, cars, huge properties…’ and he calls that ‘dematerializing his fortune.’ The gesture is inspired by that of Ménalque or of Michel in L’Immoraliste. Gidian.

That word ‘dematerialize’ made me dream. For when you come down to it, it’s really a question of detaching yourself from goods, as the concrete aspect of wealth, and of keeping only its abstract aspect: money. Here, moreover, in the guise of bundles of shares and cheques.

In short, that’s the advice given by Gide and followed by Barnabooth: to swap real possession for symbolic possession, to swap property-wealth for sign-wealth.

It’s no accident that Gide preaches disponibilité. Basically, the Gidian homme disponible is the one whose capital isn’t tied up. And what I saw clearly was that Gide’s moral code is one of those myths that marks the transition from big bourgeois property — concrete ownership of the house, fields and the land; private luxury — to the abstract property of capitalism.

The prodigal son is the rich grain-merchant’s child who becomes a banker. His father had bags of grain, he has bundles of shares. Possession of nothing, but this nothing is a mortgage on everything.

Do not, O Nathanael, seek God anywhere but everywhere: reject material possession, which limits the horizon and makes God a withdrawal into oneself; swap it for symbolic possession, which will permit you to take trains and boats and seek God everywhere. And you’ll find him everywhere, so long as you put your signature on this little bit of paper, in your cheque-book.

I’m not exaggerating: that’s exactly what the Gidian Barnabooth, on page 18, calls a ‘burning quest for God.’ And Gide himself, now a traveller and now head of the patriarchal community of Cuverville, is a great transitional figure between the propertied bourgeoisie of the 19th century and the capitalism of the 20th.

Try to ignore Sartre’s idiosyncratic terminology, which confuses the issue somewhat.

Here he mixes up large-scale historical changes in property systems (the movement from what he calls the ‘big bourgeois property’ of the Second Empire to the ‘abstract capitalist’ of the Third Republic) with an individual’s portfolio choice (allocating wealth between liquid financial assets and productive capital goods).

The transition Sartre describes is that from the typical nineteenth-century personification of capital — the individual entrepreneur whom Marx called ‘our friend Mr. Moneybags’ — to the twentieth-century world of corporate enterprises.

In that later period, the capitalist agent is famously personified by several different figures (shareholders, managers, etc.), each of whom takes care of a specialized financial, administrative or supervisory responsibility within a firm or spread out across an economy.

In this team effort, Gide’s homme disponible performs the rentier function.

Gide - Fruits of the Earth

Nathanael is thus exhorted to stray far from ‘the concrete aspect of wealth’ (organizing and superintending the production process). He can reap a flow of dividends, interest payments, capital gains and royalties while he idly enjoys the fruits of the earth, frittering his income away on la volupté just as an Edwardian coupon clipper might have done on servants for his country house.

This historical development (in which the business enterprise also becomes its own legal person and accounting entity) is one with the increasing scale and mechanization of production.

Sartre, himself an avid traveller, plainly regarded Gide’s advice as frivolous (‘it would be absurd to offer Ménalque as an example to an unskilled labourer, a man out of work or an American negro’. But Nathanael is ‘a rich white Aryan, the heir of a great bourgeois family…’).

The ‘princely games’ of Lafcadio were replaced in Sartre’s work by a succession of pitiful, wealthy young runaways and would-be Nietzscheans, from Lucien Fleurier to The Reprieve‘s Philippe.

And in place of disponibilité was the tough-minded doctrine of committed literature:

Since the writer has no way of escaping his time, we want him to embrace his era — tightly. It is his only chance; it was made for him and he for it… We don’t want to miss out on anything of our time. There may be better ones, but this one is ours: we have only this life to live, amid this war, and perhaps this revolution…

Thus, by taking part in the singularity of our era, we ultimately make contact with the eternal…

We are obliged to be satisfied with forging our history blindly, one day at a time, choosing from all the options the one which seems best to us at present… We are inside.

Here can be detected Sartre’s obsession with captivity, a horror and fascination, most notable in his plays, with themes of confinement and sequestration.

As an aggressive statement of art’s debt to politics, Sartre’s editorial introduction to Les Temps modernes is often grouped with the avant-garde manifestos of the mid-twentieth century. But littérature engagée was a label with no hint of a collective movement or school behind it.

As with the later invention of ‘Abstract Expressionism’ by art dealers, critics and the CIA, Sartre’s declaration was clearly a new kind of exercise in commercial self-promotion, a rather platitudinous and non-committal branding of journalistic territory in postwar France’s up-ended publishing scene.

les temps modernes ninth edition

But, more importantly, was Sartre’s ‘writing for one’s age’ not also marked by the same mutation in property forms he described above?

For the other side of this historical development (growth of the limited-liability company and a class of idle creditors) was what happened to the ‘concrete aspect of wealth’. Who took responsibility, while Nathanael larked vagrantly about, for the capital goods that were tied up in accumulation, and the production processes that needed overseeing?

Here could be found the emergence of professional managers and bureaucratic functionaries, accountable to owners, with delegated control rights in a firm or organization’s physical assets (i.e. decision-making power over how some item of equipment was to be used or task undertaken). These administrators might or might not receive property income in the form of high salaries and stock options. They might be more like Veblen’s engineers.

More to the point, their prerogatives were tied to specific assets, which they themselves could not transfer or liquidate. The factories and machines over which they exercised power could not be bought, sold, or bequeathed for their private benefit — not by anyone in the case of state property, nor by a non-owning manager in the case of privately owned wealth.

For them, therefore, not Nathanael’s possession of ‘nothing’, but acute dependence on this thing. If God was everywhere for Gide, eternity was right here and now for Sartre.

The functionary was marooned on an island rather than floating in a sea, engaged in an ongoing dyadic transaction with the same corporation, cartel or government agency, rather than a series of one-shot interactions in spot markets. He could not shirk what, in Sartre’s words, was ‘his only chance; it was made for him and he for it.’

Sartre likewise advocated a thoroughgoing embrace of one’s era and all its features. He himself practised this clinch without scruple (‘In vain would we attempt to be our own historians’), comparing it, as did De Gaulle, to a lover, participating in all its skirmishes, and (here he may have been describing his opportunistic relationship with the PCF) ‘choosing from all the options the one’ which seemed ‘best at the present.’

Deleuze, Sartre, Foucault at Vincennes

Marxists, on the other hand, have typically suggested that some critical distance from one’s contemporary circumstances is a good thing.

In January 1917 Rosa Luxemburg wrote from prison to Luise Kautsky:

Probably for you the desire for music, as for all other things, has gone by for a while, your mind is full of concern about world history, which has all gone wrong, and your heart is full of sighs over the wretchedness of—Scheidemann and comrades. And everyone who writes to me moans and sighs in the same way.

Don’t you understand that the overall disaster is much too great to be moaned and groaned about?

I can grieve or feel bad if Mimi is sick, or if you are not well. But when the whole world is out of joint, then I merely seek to understand what is going on and why, and then I have done my duty, and I am calm and in good spirits from then on. Ultra posse nemo obligatur.

And then for me there still remains everything else that makes me happy: music and painting and clouds and doing botany in the spring and good books and Mimi and you and much more. —In short, I am “stinking rich” and I’m thinking of staying that way to the end.

This giving oneself up completely to the headaches and the misery of the day is completely incomprehensible and intolerable to me.

See, for example, how Goethe stood above things with cool composure. But think what he must have gone through: the Great French Revolution, which must surely have seemed like a bloody and completely pointless farce from up close, and then from 1793 till 1815 an unbroken series of wars, when once again the world must have seemed like a madhouse turned loose.

Yet at the same time how calmly, with such equanimity, he pursued his studies about the metamorphosis of plants, the theory of colours, and a thousand other things. I don’t ask that you be a poet like Goethe, but everyone can adopt for themselves his outlook on life — the universalism of interests, the inner harmony — or at least strive toward that.

And if you say: but Goethe was not a political fighter, my opinion is this: a fighter is precisely a person who must strive to rise above things, otherwise one’s nose will get stuck in every bit of nonsense. — Obviously I’m thinking of a fighter on the grand scale, not a weathervane of the calibre of the “great men” who sit around your table…

Weimar Goethe as a model held up for political emulation by revolutionary socialists?

Goethe and Napoleon at Erfurt

Perverse, one would think.

Yet in 1950 Isaac Deutscher would also include Goethe among ‘great “intellectuals” who, in a similar situation in the past [the Napoleonic Wars], refused to identify themselves with any established Cause. Their attitude seemed incomprehensible to many of their contemporaries: but history has proved their judgement to have been superior to the phobias and hatreds of their age’:

Goethe opportunistically bowed to every invader. But as a thinker and man, he remained noncommittal and aloof… His aloofness, in these as in other matters, gained him the reputation of ‘the Olympian’; and the label was not always meant to be flattering. But his Olympian appearance was due least of all to an inner indifference to the fate of his contemporaries. It veiled his drama: his incapacity and reluctance to identify himself with causes, each an inextricable, tangle of right and wrong…

All three – Jefferson, Goethe, and Shelley – were in a sense outsiders to the great conflict of their time, and because of this they interpreted their time with more truthfulness and penetration than did the fearful – the hate-ridden partisans on either side.

Now as then, the organs of conventional opinion present a menu of false choices — Napoleon or the Holy Alliance? — announcing that these options are exhaustive, and one of them must be chosen.

An urge to clamorously participate  in every ‘struggle’ — ‘the cheap ambition to have a finger in the political pie’, for fear of lost opportunity, accusations of quietism, or organizational market share — turns ambitious ‘political fighters’ into weathervanes, their ‘nose stuck in every bit of nonsense’.

Thus the ‘engaged’ activists of today’s radical protest politics, heedless of principle and refusing to abstain, participate in every trifling and dangerous ‘movement’ that arises: taking up positions in a meaningless Kulturkampf, venturing opinions on this or that media inanity, preferring one monstrous ‘lesser evil’ to another, lending support to one wing of the propertied elite over today’s provisional enemy, greeting wars of aggression as salutary ‘revolutions’.

In the political life of the advanced economies, such squabbles usually involve, at best, tinkering with markets (through subsidies, taxes or other regulation) to shift economic surpluses between groups, transferring rents from one constituency or special interest to another. To immerse oneself in these ‘policy’ debates is to live an arid life (but to do so professionally can attract its rewards).

What is described loftily as a ‘war of position’ (echoing Karl Kautsky’s ‘strategy of attrition’) typically involves the creation of a durable bureaucratic apparatus that can be used for self-dealing or provides a platform for career advancement.

Moreover, if such projects are to be sustained their participants must find solace and consolation where they can. Typically this is done by investing some political agent or figurehead with exaggerated potential, finding illusory messages of hope or imagining that headway is being made. This obliges activists to nourish illusions in what exists: to find silver linings and abandon trenchant thought.

I’ve written before about these varieties of accommodation to what exists.

Motivated mental states include wishful thinking (adapting one’s beliefs to fit one’s desires) and sour grapes (making a virtue of necessity, consenting to the inevitable, or consoling oneself by modifying one’s desires to exclude what is unattainable). Motivation affects not only high-level cognitive processing (i.e. how people think about the world) but basic activities like visual perception.

The futility and corruption of the weathervane can be avoided, as Luxemburg explained to her friend, by coolly taking a little distance. Against Sartre, doing one’s intellectual duty requires treating the present as history: sceptically and mercilessly examining its limitations, including those of its pseudo-oppositional elements, just as one would the past.

Of course, to do this has its bearing on the morale of others. As ‘incomprehensible’ as was the silence of Goethe or Shelley’s rage to their contemporaries, cool appraisals often invite accusations of cynicism (or idealism), purism, maximalism, sterility, pessimism.

Les quarante-huitards? Postmodernism and French Stalinism

February 6, 2013

In a recent post I described the novelist Saul Bellow’s reaction to the literary review Les Temps modernes, which he encountered in 1948 while living in Paris.

Bellow would ‘scan the local sottises [and] observe with brutal contempt the latest wrinkle in anguish’:

One of the things that was clear to me when I went to Paris on a Guggenheim grant was that Les Temps modernes understood less about Marxism and left-wing politics than I had understood as a high-school boy.

Jean-Paul Sartre was ten years older than Bellow and a graduate from the rue d’Ulm. Among his prewar friends and fellow Normaliens were some prominent PCF intellectuals, like Georges Politzer and Paul Nizan. Yet Sartre didn’t read Marx seriously until the 1940s.

Nonetheless, in post-Liberation Paris, bestowed suddenly with enormous fame and influence, Sartre was esteemed as an authority on this and every other topic. Eager to consolidate this position, he leapt into print, with Les Temps modernes appearing from October 1945.

His early ventures into political pronouncement, like the 1946 essay ‘Materialism and Revolution’, in which the oracular tone betrayed rather than concealed the author’s ignorance, were accordingly embarrassing.

In them and in ‘political’ plays like Dirty Hands, Sartre used Marxist language and concepts (‘permanent revolution’, ‘united front’, etc.) with little regard for their established meaning.

Meanwhile his journal gradually developed a house ideology. For several decades this would remain stable yet incoherent: perched just off the PCF’s shoulder, it mixed relentless criticism of the party with, in the words of Edgar Morin, ‘courtesy, deference and flirtatiousness’.

Thus Bellow wrote later to Philip Roth: ‘When I landed in Paris in 1948 I found that the intellectual leaders (Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, etc.) remained loyal despite the Stalin sea of blood.’

By this Bellow meant Merleau-Ponty’s sinisterly fatuous remarks on the Moscow Trials, published in 1947. In them the philosopher had announced that ‘we are as far from [the prosecutor Andrey] Vyshinsky’s interpretation of them as we are from the leftist [Trotskyist] view.’

Sartre went on to draw closest to the PCF in the period between 1952 (Ridgway’s visit to Paris) and 1956 (the Hungarian uprising).

But neither before nor after this period did he develop any firm stance on the PCF based on an evaluation of Stalinism.

Responding in Les Temps modernes to the Hungarian events, Sartre expressed disappointment that the ‘path imposed on it by circumstances’ had led the ‘hidebound’ Kremlin leadership to ‘compromise on its principles’.

To a great extent, the lenient attitude of France’s marxisant intellectuals towards the Soviet bureaucracy (and the professional success enjoyed by these rapidly multiplying writers and academics) stemmed from the country’s unique political circumstances.

By 1948, Truman’s USA was undertaking a ‘de-Marxization of the intelligentsia’. Writers, artists and critics like Bellow, James Burnham and Clement Greenberg were shedding their anti-Stalinist socialism of the 1930s for the more salubrious fit of Cold War liberalism, on the way to full-blown reaction.

In contrast, les trente glorieuses, spanning France’s Fourth Republic and into the Fifth, involved a kind of permanent Popular Front, with Stalinism tolerated in official political culture and accommodated in the latter’s journalistic offshoots.

In 1952 Bellow’s friend and former socialist Mary McCarthy explained the contemporary behaviour of US intellectuals in a letter to a newly arrived Hannah Arendt.

Ex-Trotskyists, she said – including Greenberg, Sidney Hook and others from the Partisan Review crowd – were cooperating so intently with the HUAC because of bad memories from the Popular Front era:

They live in terror of a revival of the situation that prevailed in the thirties, when the fellow-travellers were powerful in teaching, publishing, the theatre, etc., when stalinism was the gravy-train and these people were off it and became the object of social slights, small economic deprivations, gossip and backbiting. These people, who are success-minded, think in terms of group-advancement and cultural monopoly and were really traumatized by the brief stalinist apogee of the thirties, when they suspected that their book, say, was not being pushed by their publishers because of stalinist influences among the salesmen or even the office-workers.

In postwar France different incentives prevailed. Ambitious intellectuals were presented with alternative prospects for networking, sources of patronage and routes to cultural authority.

Postwar, the eminence of Maurice Thorez’s PCF (le parti des 75 000 fusillés) had been restored. Along with the Stalinist party’s fortunes, so was the Popular Front, that travesty of socialism, revived. (The African-American novelist Richard Wright and Bellow’s friend, Ralph Ellison, had broken with Marxism due to disgust with the US version of this policy, which involved the prostration of Earl Browder’s CP to FDR’s Democrats, the party of Jim Crow.)

From Liberation until May 1947 the PCF formed a series of coalition governments with the SFIO and the Christian Democrat MRP.

During this time Thorez, as vice-premier, and four other Stalinist ministers approved the Monnet Plan for the reconstruction of the French coal and steel industries. This involved reductions in real wages and increases to hours worked.

In April 1947 Thorez was forced to posture as a defender of 30 000 striking Renault workers, whom the Stalinists had initially tried to force back to work, when the SFIO came out in support of the striking employees.

As a mainstream correspondent noted:

[The] Renault strike is a revolt against wages policy and union leadership. The Communist-controlled Confederation of Labour [CGT] intervened on Tuesday with the aim of taking the strike under its control, but it became clear yesterday that the Communists felt they could only counter an attempt to outflank them by supporting the demands for wage increases.

Thorez and the other PCF figures were expelled from the government ministry.

With France threatened by ‘armed insurrection’ and ‘civil war’, the government was granted emergency powers. It duly invoked anti-strike and anti-sabotage measures to mobilize the armed forces, and in December 1947 the CGT ordered employees back to work.

The governing troika was succeeded by an anti-communist parliamentary alliance, as the following years saw a wave of strikes.

These were the formative circumstances greeting a generation of young French thinkers, born around 1930, as they graduated from lycée, khâgne and grande école. They would go on to be feted (and mischaracterized) as the clerks of la pensée 68:

Derrida (born in 1930), Foucault (1926), Lyotard (1924), Deleuze (1925), Baudrillard (1929), Sollers (1936), Irigaray (1932), Ricardou (1932), Wahl (1925), Thibaudeau (1932), de Certeau (1925), Genette (1930), Meschonnic (1932), Debord (1931) and Guattari (1930).

Derrida would later describe how ‘very difficult’ it had been for him, studying under Louis Althusser at the ENS during the early 1950s, ‘not to join the Party’, and thus ‘to be thought of only as a crypto-Communist or fellow traveller.’

When later, in 1971, Phillipe Sollers and Tel Quel broke finally from the PCF and embraced Maoism, the PCF’s La Nouvelle Critique and Les Lettres Françaises embraced Derrida, and he, with some ambivalence, reciprocated.

His contemporaries in the social sciences were just then forming the brilliant cadre of the Rockefeller-funded École des hautes études en sciences sociales:

Le Roy Ladurie (b. 1929), Le Goff (1924), Bourdieu (1930), Touraine (1925), Furet (1927), Nora (1931), Ferro (1924), Castel (1933), Morin (1921), Augé (1935), Lefort (1934) and Godelier (1934).

The thoroughgoing anti-communist purges that took place elsewhere following the ascent of Cold War liberalism did not occur in France until the mid-1970s, when the electoral alliance between PCF and SFIO made the Stalinists likely participants in a future government.

Until then, from roughly 1945 to 1975, the existence of an avowedly revolutionary socialist party with a mass base influenced French intellectual and creative matters to a remarkable extent.

The PCF funded daily newspapers, maintained literary reviews, served as chief patron for other publications, colleges and institutional entities, and held ‘progressive’ writers, scholars and artists within its orbit.

The PCF, through Georges Sadoul and trade unions, had played a major part in the Comité de Défense du Cinéma Français, which organized film-industry lobbying, strikes and demonstrations against the postwar Blum-Byrnes Agreement – mostly on grotesquely nationalist and anti-American grounds.

In 1948 state funding was secured for local film production. Thereafter funds were distributed by the Centre nationale du cinéma, in whose administration, led by Michel Fourré-Cormeray, PCF and CGT members exercised disproportionate influence if not the preponderance claimed by right-wing alarmists.

Though the early 1950s saw a purge of suspected PCF sympathizers from official positions, what Mary McCarthy had called the ‘Stalinist gravy train’ survived intact to a degree unknown elsewhere.

Meanwhile the comparative weakness, marginality and disorganization of French intellectual liberalism, represented by Raymond Aron, Jacques Rueff, Maurice Allais and Bertrand de Jouvenel, was striking.

The managerial elite and civil servants, trained at Sciences Po and the Ecole nationale d’Administration, were raised on a distinctly dirigiste ideological stew. This technocratic doxa was most appropriate for the reconstruction of a postwar society playing productivity catchup, in which the largest social class remained independent farmers and the technological frontier was patrolled by state-owned enterprises (energy and transport firms) and state-financed infrastructure projects (commercial banks and insurance companies had been nationalized).

To be sure, the CIA-financed Congress for Cultural Freedom had an influential local branch in the review Preuves. Atlanticism was favoured on the editorial pages of Le Figaro. French intellectuals, as distinct from businessmen, were well-represented in the Mont Pèlerin Society.

But the US State Department’s sway over cultural and intellectual life was limited as, backstopped by nuclear autonomy, De Gaulle kept France out of NATO integrated command. Aron and his anti-communist associates went through the necessary motions, but the PCF was tolerated, plainly presenting no genuine revolutionary threat.

Raymond Aron, Denis de Rougemont, Michael Josselson

Thus, during the Cold War, French thinkers offered a glamorous source of apparent dissent and free thinking to people elsewhere (especially US or West German academics) whose available outlets for radical political activity and cultural avant-gardism were few. (The enormous influence of Sartre on the thought and style of US cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, for example, has never been adequately emphasized.)

In such circumstances, the fact that people like Sartre and his epigones understood only a bowdlerized and travestied form of Marxism – never enlisting in the PCF but never being sure exactly why they didn’t – was of deep consequence.

The enormous postwar pretensions of French culture also rested, to be sure, on Paris’s traditional status as a global clearing house for literature and the visual arts. It remained a central site for discovery and diffusion of new talent if no longer for its production.

It also prospered thanks to various eminent refugees, imports and transfusions from the colonial empire and Francophone world. (This was one reason why the Congress for Cultural Freedom devoted so much of its efforts and funds to shifting the world’s art market from Paris to New York.)

But the political context mattered deeply. In France there flourished a kind of Popular Front culture, of the sort that in the United States did not survive the 1940s; and it allowed postwar French cinema, for example, together with that of Italy (home to the even stronger PCI), to resist the craning towards commercial mediocrity that characterized US and other entertainment products of this era.

Therefore André Malraux’s ballyhooed stint during the 1960s as De Gaulle’s Minister for Cultural Affairs coincided with a shift in the composition of French intellectual exports to the world.

The longstanding hierarchy of the beaux-arts, with letters at its apex, crumbled. Though Camus was awarded the Nobel in 1957 and Sartre famously rejected the prize in 1964, literature had lost its pre-eminent place in the cultural and media pantheon. It was replaced by an interdisciplinary social science, mixing linguistics and anthropology with philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary theory and radical politics.

In the world’s intellectual shelves and shop windows of the 1970s, France’s contribution would not be the defanged grandeur of Voltaire, Montaigne, Flaubert and the Louvre.

Instead, it would be gauchiste iconoclasm, marketed to a demographic bulge of college students and intellectuals in the advanced capitalist countries, who had been radicalized by imperialist war and the end of the long economic boom.


Assigned a prominent place in the intellectual marketplace, these radical-sounding but harmless notions – pumped out by assorted Maoists, crypto-Stalinists and anarchists – were shopped to a largely Anglophone New Left that had come to understand French produce as a guarantee of quality and the acme of political trenchancy.

Wahl, Sollers, Pleynet, Barthes

As previously mentioned, the avowed adherence to Marxism of many French intellectuals did not break until the mid-1970s.

Before it did, post-1968 reforms to French higher education granted secure academic positions to a cohort of younger intellectuals. Official approbation and media renown eased their dependence on Stalinist patronage for income, and eventually opened up wider vistas of career opportunity.

In the wake of the May-June évènements, the government established new campuses like the Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes, now University of Paris VIII.

According to François Dosse’s History of Structuralism, the new minister for education, Edgar Faure, approached Jean Dubois, linguist at Nanterre and ‘a PCF member known for his fair-mindedness’, to be dean of the new ‘experimental centre’.

Faure had declared before the National Assembly: ‘If those who claim to possess imagination have not seized power, it remains for power to seize imagination’. Dubois demurred at the official request, and Faure instead turned to Raymond Las Vergnas, dean and director of the Institut d’Anglais at the Sorbonne.

The latter contacted a young Hélène Cixous, along with other ‘left-leaning colleagues associated with the Institut d’Anglais (notably Bernard Cassen and Pierre Dommergues) who all knew and admired the American university system’:

In October 1968, he invited a commission of twenty well-known figures, including Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Georges Canguilhem, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, to discuss the orientation of the programs at Vincennes. A dozen of those present were quickly appointed to a central committee responsible for naming the academic staff…

Michel Foucault was in charge of hiring the teaching staff for philosophy; Jean-Pierre Richard was responsible in French literature; Jean Dubois, Jean-Claude Chevalier and Maurice Gross decided on the teaching staff in linguistics. The university included a department of linguistics, which was a real first, headed by Serge Leclaire, second in command in the Lacanian organization.

‘The grand project was to make Vincennes a small MIT, an American university, a model of modernity, an internationally known enclave with overtly interdisciplinary amibitions…

Here, especially among the linguists, flourished roseate visions of North American intellectual life, with MIT exemplifying a cutting-edge modernity worthy of emulation, envy and longing trans-Atlantic glances.

‘Faure loved the project, and Cixous’ group suddenly found themselves in charge of creating a new university out of thin air.’

PCF members at the Sorbonne such as the historian Guy Bois were apparently consulted, and decided to ‘throw their weight’ behind the Vincennes idea.

The recruits to Foucault’s philosophy department would be ‘structuralist-Maoist.’ Its leader had spent the 1950s and 1960s on friendly terms with Gaullism after a shortlived stint in the PCF. More recently, in Les Mots et les choses (1966), he had derided Marx as a minor Ricardian.

But, following his typically well-timed gauchiste pirouette, Foucault brought to his faculty the likes of Lyotard, Deleuze, Étienne Balibar, Alain Badiou and Daniel Bensaïd.

Deleuze, Sartre, Foucault at Vincennes

The linguistics and politics departments acquired eminences like Cixous, Tzvetan Todorov, Henri Meschonnic, Mitsou Ronat and Nicos Poulantzas.

The psychoanalytic school boasted Guattari and a nest of Lacanians: Jacques-Alain and Judith Miller, Gérard Miller and Jacques Rancière. All were formerly of Cahiers pour l’analyse; most were now part of the Maoist groupuscule Gauche Prolétarienne, which waged campus battles against Badiou’s tiny sect and other ‘Marxist-Leninist’ anti-revisionists.

Thus at Vincennes, and elsewhere, a flow of state funds and media promotion nurtured what may, at a stretch, be called an intellectual ‘research program’.

But (as later disputes over the label ‘post-structuralist’ would attest) members of this milieu were unified mostly by their allegiance to ‘radical’ or New Left ideology. For all its revolutionary phraseology, the latter had proved during May-June 1968 that it presented no threat to the French state and the existing social order, nor to the Stalinist leadership of the PCF and CGT.

Official indulgence and the seal of academic respectability were thus granted costlessly. This concession of institutional territory and prestige to stars of the  intellectual New Left (whose members favoured Gramscian rhetoric about ‘wars of position’) soon brought rewards for the forces of order.

Bensaïd Krivine 1969

In July 1972 the PCF, shifting to ‘Eurocommunist’ parliamentarism, announced a Common Program with the Parti socialiste. This electoral union, raising the likely prospect of renewed Stalinist participation in government, immediately provoked anti-communist hysteria throughout the organs of public opinion.

Amid stagflation and geopolitical disorder, the party’s usefulness had abruptly been exhausted.

As France’s unique postwar compromise was finally erased, the responsibility for pronouncing obloquies of socialism fell to writers and academic ‘radicals’ who until recently had been members or enthusiasts of avowedly Marxist organizations.

In the literary world, the occasion for this thoroughgoing anti-Marxist upheaval among intellectuals was the translation of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This 1974 publication became the pretext for an explosion of commentary concerning ‘totalitarianism’ and its political roots, and to the widespread abandonment of old commitments.

The arrival to media fanfare of the Nouveaux philosophes smoothed the scholarly ascent, in the person of François Furet, of revisionist histories of the Jacobin Terror.

Suddenly French intellectuals underwent a transformation that their counterparts in other countries had experienced during the late 1940s: the enthusiasm for Dostoevsky, the turn to Zionism and Atlanticism, and various antiquarian rediscoveries and revivals (in France, of Tocqueville, Constant and Guizot as weighty political thinkers).

As described above, Bellow’s cohort of New York intellectuals (Hook, Podhoretz, Kristol, etc.) had undergone just such a postwar conversion to Zionism, market liberalism, State Department cheerleading and full-blown reaction.

In 1970s France, at the forefront of these efforts to reconquer old territory was Claude Lefort, the former contributor to Les Temps modernes, and his old ally in the third-campist outfit Socialisme ou barbarie, Jean-François Lyotard.

In Instructions païennes (1977), Lyotard invoked Solzhenitsyn as an example of how ‘little narratives’ (stories from the prison camps) could defeat ‘master narratives’ such as ‘le grand récit marxiste‘.

Daniel Bell’s ‘end of ideology’, for which Raymond Aron had tried forlornly to gain a French audience during the 1950s, finally found a belated echo in Lyotard’s declarations of the death of ‘metanarratives’ and renunciation of ‘the desire called Marx’.

Time September 1977 - Nouveaux Philosophes

Marcel Gauchet, another former Socialisme ou barbarie philosopher, would soon found the influential centre-right journal Le Débat, bringing liberalism to the centre of national ideological life.

Together with the Saint-Simon Foundation, a think tank co-founded by Furet, Le Débat sponsored a vision of NATO Atlanticism as France’s natural external posture

Claude Lanzmann, another member of the Sartre-Beauvoir ‘family’ at Les Temps modernes, would achieve international renown by directing the film Shoah, on which he commenced work in 1974 at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. (Lanzmann elevated Primo Levi’s ‘Hier ist kein warum‘ from the motto of a camp guard to a general prohibition applying to treatment of the Judeocide, declaring the ‘obscenity’ of seeking to understand the calamitous event.)

The temper was such that Furet could rapidly ascend to the summit of domestic intellectual life, wrangle a measure of international fame and win a position in Bellow’s Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

That the revelation of crimes by the Soviet bureaucracy involved such world-shattering novelty and induced such demoralization in French littérateurs of the 1970s testifies to their own wilful preservation of ignorance (and to France’s still rather monoglot intellectual layer, who apparently formed their own sturdy Maginot Line against the intrusion of ideas common abroad). There was, of course, much cynicism in these exclamations of shock and betrayal.

But the disorientation was genuine, and that fact is incomprehensible without noting the decades-long hold of Stalinism and the PCF over France’s ‘left’ intellectuals, both within the party and outside.

Of course, as decades of the Fourth and Fifth Republic passed, the PCF’s radical appeal had sharply subsided thanks to its support for the colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria and its opposition to the ‘spontaneism’ of 1968.

Thus the increasing popularity during the 1960s of other avowedly socialist groups or perspectives. Yet, though critical to varying degrees of what uniformly was described as a ‘hidebound’ PCF, these organizations or networks taught members little principled opposition to nationalism and Stalinism.

While deploring the PCF’s policy or outlook on this or that matter, most continued to nurse hopes in the party’s revitalization, and would re-establish contact at intervals and then periodically feel let down by it. These groups displayed scanty historical or political understanding of the Soviet Union, China, Algeria, Vietnam and other societies; and the ‘anti-Stalinist’ scene was characterized by a curious circulation of members back and forth between different groups labelled Communist, Marxist-Leninist, state capitalist, Guevarist or Trotskyist.

Emblematic figures were people like Pierre Frank or Alain Krivine, for whom the PCF retained a lifelong attraction. 

The collapse of French Stalinism alongside the Kremlin bureaucracy’s embrace of capitalism thus led to a rush for the exits during the 1980s. Territory was abandoned and the vacuum was filled by Pierres Nora and Rosanvallon, etc.

During the 1980s ‘left’ intellectuals universally accepted, as sufficient excuse to despatch Marxism and make a complete break with socialism, arguments that were astonishingly feeble and uncompelling.

Mass ideological conversions of this sort may be explained by material incentives, herd behaviour and the lure of social advancement (as in McCarthy’s description of ‘success-minded’ intellectuals).

But similar explanations may also apply in retrospect. The ultimately flimsy adherence to socialism of many French intellectuals, the shallowness of declared commitments revealed in a sudden cascade of apostates during the 1970s and 1980s, suggests the confused and corrupted – if not wholly cynical and ersatz – character of much intellectual Marxism during the 1950s and 1960s.

Perry Anderson has described the ‘extraordinary vitality’ of French culture during the Fourth and early Fifth Republics, comparing its ‘full flowering of the intellectual energies’ to today, when figures like Bernard-Henri Lévy’s have a ‘bizarre prominence’:

It would be difficult to imagine a more extraordinary reversal of national standards of taste and intelligence than the attention accorded this crass booby in France’s public sphere, despite innumerable demonstrations of his inability to get a fact or an idea straight. Could such a grotesque flourish in any other major Western culture today?

This assessment of the earlier period may itself be explained by the tastes of Anderson’s own New Left Review.

The journal’s editorial line has always displayed an ambivalence about Stalinism and nationalism; and during the late 1960s and 1970s the NLR enthused over Althusser and the ‘student movement’, provided fascinated attention for the latest academic fashion, and served as a platform for the ambitious to reach an Anglophone audience and its related perks: a visiting position at a US university, lecture and publishing opportunities, media attention.

Paris’s transformation during the late 1970s into a global ‘capital of intellectual reaction’, alongside Chicago, was not a simple annulment of all that came before. The counter-revolution in thought had been prepared for decades, and the most vicious reprisals accompanying the return of the old regime were performed by those who had hitherto been the most enthusiastic cadre for the existing order.

The source of the later deluge was France’s national anomaly during the 1950s and 1960s: a singularly fortunate reprieve from Cold War strictures that, elsewhere throughout the advanced capitalist world, scrubbed any trace of socialist ideas from respectable public discourse and eliminated Stalinist influence in trade unions and state agencies.

This local respite, given world conditions, provided an institutional setting for the survival and growth of intellectual carpetbaggers and parasites, feeding off the apparatus of Stalinism. Here was the heartland of so-called Western Marxism.

Anti-socialist tropes that found early expression elsewhere (c.f. the New York intellectuals once again) were thus postponed in France, only to assume more toxically inane forms when they did finally emerge.

These historical circumstances, rather than any peculiar national talent for obscurantism, account for France’s competitive advantage in the production and intellectual export of theoretical dross during the 1970s (in any case, import substitution quickly took over and the industry migrated to North America).

Who knows Marxism and its flaws better than the seers at Vincennes, the Sorbonne, the rue d’Ulm? people could say with a straight face during this period.

Thus Lévy’s nomination of Sartre as a personal hero and the ‘philosopher of the twentieth century’ is not merely the grotesque and undignified appropriation of intellectual credibility that is usually claimed. Sartre – lacking professional competence as a philosopher, novelist, playwright and political theorist – nonetheless became world-famous in each of these fields.

Was he not in this sense the forerunner of BHL, Glucksmann, Finkielkraut and Bruckner?

Sartre Glucksmann Aron

At the crossroads

October 16, 2012

Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day is set in a typically fantastic version of the period 1890-1915.

In his pre-release synopsis, Pynchon joked: ‘With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.’

This Gilded Age is also (like our own) an era of intense Great Power rivalry. Each character seems to have his or her own Lewisian counterpart, a spectral double working for the enemy.

This is the case, for example, with the novel’s two geographers, British and German, modelled on the real-world figures H.J. Mackinder and Karl Haushofer:

[A] pair of rival University professors, Renfrew at Cambridge and Werfner at Göttingen, not only eminent in their academic settings but also would-be powers in the greater world.

Years before, in the wake of the Berlin Conference of 1878, their shared interest in the Eastern Question had evolved from simple bickering-at-a-distance by way of professional journals to true mutual loathing, implacable and obsessive, with a swiftness that surprised them both. Soon enough each had come to find himself regarded as a leading specialist, consulted by the Foreign Office and Intelligence Services of his respective country, not to mention others who preferred to remain unnamed. With the years their rivalry had continued to grow well beyond the Balkans, beyond the ever-shifting borders of the Ottoman Empire, to the single vast Eurasian landmass and that ongoing global engagement, with all its English, Russian, Turkish, German, Austrian, Chinese, Japanese – not to mention indigenous – components, styled by Mr. Kipling, in a simpler day, “The Great Game.”

[…Over] their cloistering walls and into the map of the megacosm, the two professors continued to launch their cadres of spellbound familiars and enslaved disciples. Some of these found employment with the Foreign Services, others in international trade or as irregular adventurers assigned temporarily to their nations’ armies and navies – all sworn to loyalties in whose service they were to pass through the greater world like spirit presences, unsensed by all but the adept.

Later one of the protagonists visits Renfrew at Cambridge, allowing the professor to rehearse his/Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. This strategic outlook was distilled by the actual Mackinder into the dictum ‘who rules the World-Island commands the World’.

In Pynchon’s fictional version:

[Renfrew] motioned Lew to a smaller room, where a globe of the Earth hung gleaming, at slightly below eye-level, from a slender steel chain anchored overhead, surrounded by an ether of tobacco smoke, house-dust, ancient paper and book bindings, human breath…. Renfrew took up the orb in both hands like a brandy snifter, and rotated it with deliberation, as if weighing the argument he wished to make. Outside the windows, the luminous rain swept the grounds. “Here then – keeping the North Pole in the middle, imagining for purposes of demonstration the area roundabout to be solid, some unknown element one can not only walk on but even run heavy machinery across – Arctic ice, frozen tundra – you can see that it all makes one great mass, doesn’t it? Eurasia, Africa, America. With Inner Asia at its heart. Control Inner Asia, thefore, and you control the planet.”

“How about that other, well, actually, hemisphere?”

“Oh, this?” He flipped the globe over and gave it a contemptuous tap. “South America? Hardly more than an appendage of North America, is it? Or of the Bank of England, if you like. Australia? Kangaroos, one or two cricketers of some discernible talent, what else?” His small features quivering in the dark afternoon light.

“Werfner, damn him, keen-witted but unheimlich, is obsessed with railway lines, history emerges from geography of course, but for him the primary geography of the planet is the rails, obeying their own necessity, interconnections, places chosen and bypassed, centers and radiations therefrom, grades possible and impossible, how linked by canals, crossed by tunnels and bridges either in place or someday to be, capital made material – and flows of power as well, expressed, for example, in massive troop movements, now and in the futurity…”

The Chums of Chance, meanwhile, are a group of young balloonists. They are employed or contracted by a shady organization that accepts missions from various governments and private detective agencies.

The Chums are commanded to set out for Bukhara, on the Silk Road. Ostensibly in search of Shambhala, the balloonists learn that their true mission has to do with Great-Power rivalry between Britain, Russia, Japan, China and Germany.

The historical reference here is to covert expeditions, across central Asia and into northwest China, made by imperial envoys such as the Tsar’s military-intelligence offiicer Mannerheim (who set off in 1906).

Soon the Chums are visited by a mysterious figure from the future:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present – your future – a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty – the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources are limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate… We might ask you to accept a commission from us now and then – though, regrettably, with no more detailed explanation than you currently receive from your own Hierarchy.”


“So this is supposed to be like Squanto and the Pilgrims,” Chick reported to the plenary session called hurriedly next morning. “We help them through their first winter, sort of thing.”

“And suppose it isn’t like that,” said Randolph. “Suppose they’re not pilgrims but raiders, and there’s some particular resource here, that they’ve run out of and want to seize from us, and take back with them?”

Confused but unwilling to turn back, the Chums see prophetic visions of the terrible events due to take place, soon, in the grasslands, deserts and tundra of central Eurasia:

“Whatever is to happen,” [the visionary] reported upon his return, “will begin out here, with an engagement of cavalry on a scale no one living has ever seen, and perhaps no one dead either, an inundation of horse, spanning these horizons, their flanks struck an unearthly green, stormlit, relentless, undwindling, arisen boiling from the very substance of desert and steppe. And all that incarnation and slaughter will transpire in silence, all across this great planetary killing-floor, absorbing wind, stell, hooves upon and against earth, massed clamor of horses, cries of men. Millions of souls will arrive and depart. Perhaps news of it will take years to reach anyone who might understand what it meant…”

…”Who are they?”

“German or Austrian, would be likely, though one mustn’t rule out the Standard Oil… Make your way to the surface, get back to England at all cost. They must be told in Whitehall that the balloon is up… Go! find someone in the F.O. intelligence section. It is our only hope!”


Meanwhile, for days, weeks in some places, the battles of the Taklamakan War were raging. The earth trembled. Now and then a subdesertine craft would suddenly break the surface with no warning, damaged mortally, its crew dead or dying… petroleum deposits far underground were attacked, lakes of the stuff would appear overnight and great pillars of fire would ascend to the sky. From Kashgar to Urumchi, the bazaars were full of weapons, breathing units, ship fittings, hardware nobody could identify… which all the Powers had deployed. These now fell into the hands of goat-herders, falconers, shamans, to be taken out into the emptiness, disassembled, studied, converted to uses religious and practical, and eventually to change the history of the World-Island beyond even the unsound projections of those Powers who imagined themselves somehow, at this late date, still competing for it.

Here  with the description of an apocalyptic military engagement in Central Asian Turkestan, as the contending imperial powers nurture and suppress various local ethnic separatists  the book’s reference to contemporary realities is obvious.

China’s northwestern frontier (bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) is a gateway for locally-owned firms (and a bridgehead for Beijing’s armed forces) to the energy resources of the Caspian basin and southwest Asia.

On the far side of the Central Asian republics, along China’s western flank, sit deepwater oil and gas fields off Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and the giant Tengiz, Karachaganak and Kashagan fields in Kazakhstan.

Slightly to the south is the greatest prize of all: the vast bounty of the Persian Gulf, along with access to Indian Ocean ports like Karachi.

From the 1990s an increasingly dense supply network of railways, roads and pipelines has been laced across the central Eurasian steppe. As ever, commercial trade routes do double duty as military lines of communication. They are available, if needed, to provide logistic support linking combat units with bases of supply.

Xinjiang itself contains uranium and coal reserves, and its Tarim Basin apparently has non-trivial hydrocarbon deposits.

Since the 1960s Lop Nur in Xinjiang has been the site of a nuclear weapons test range, missile storage facility, production complex and an air base with launch facility.

As discussed on this blog many times before, one key plank of US grand strategy, over the past few decades, has been to establish client governments and military protectorates in parts of the world where large deposits of energy and raw materials are found.

Washington has pursued this agenda through various violent means: ‘preventive’ regime change, humanitarian intervention and so forth.

The US state leadership no longer enjoys the clear-cut strategic primacy granted to it, as in decades past, by the competitive ascendancy of US-owned firms; nor is it able to prevent rivals with strong balance-of-payments positions from gradually gaining international influence through outward flows of investment and cheap loans. Therefore it has been forced to rely on the one dimension in which its supremacy remains unchallenged: military power, in which the international gradient is steep.

But, as well as planting garrisons near the world’s largest oilfields themselves (in southwest Asia, the Caucasus and Caspian basin in Central Asia), Washington has also sought to achieve military control over the energy supply corridors and transit routes that link them to China, Russia, Europe, Japan and India.

This ability to interrupt the flow of oil and gas, and thus to cut off the supply of fuel available to competitive rivals for use in industrial activity and for military purposes, is of the utmost strategic worth.

As Churchill, Hitler and Stalin insisted to their generals (who listened with varying degrees of buy-in and obtuseness) sequestering and controlling energy supplies is decisive during war. The ability to disrupt supplies is also useful during peacetime as a means of gaining leverage during commercial and diplomatic negotiations. (Among other things, it now sustains demand for US Treasury securities and thus underpins the liquidity of the world’s deepest financial markets.)

Since 1945, Washington’s naval pre-eminence has granted it control of the world’s sealanes and made the US state the ultimate guarantor of global maritime trade (and sea lines of communication). If necessary, these shipping channels may be closed and the maritime commerce (including energy supplies) of rivals interdicted.

But the ability to deny its rivals’ land-based transit (and military logistics) has been another matter, one inherently more difficult. Advancing its position there, at the centre of the Eurasian landmass, has been the chief goal of US militarism since the end of the Cold War.

Thus the oft-stated focus from US policy strategists on bringing Poland and Ukraine into NATO. During the 1990s, Zbigniew Brzezinski, RAND’s Stephen Larrabee and Sherman Garnett from the Carnegie Endowment stressed that Ukraine was the ‘keystone in the arch’ of Washington’s Drang nach Osten.

NATO’s eastward expansion would not only create a cordon sanitaire between Germany and Russia, and allow US missiles to be placed up against Russia’s western border. It would also secure Washington’s military-strategic position in the Black Sea (Moscow retains a naval base in Sevastopol). And with this the US ruling elite would completely dominate the Caucasus and energy-rich Caspian basin.

Meanwhile, from the south, Washington has sought strategic control over the Transcaucasus transport corridor for oil and gas products  (which the EU-funded TRACECA styles as ‘the Silk Road of the 21st century’). In a bid to destroy Moscow’s influence over this southern export route, the US State Department has struck security ‘partnerships’ and helped to foment a sequence of ‘revolutions’ in the GUAM countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova). The Kremlin has attempted to stall Washington’s advance by encouraging separatism in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Azerbaijan (Karabakh).

Most obviously, the invasion and decade-long military occupation of Afghanistan has created a Central Asian buffer that separates the Persian Gulf from the US’s competitive rivals.

And, over the past decade, Turkey’s status as Washington’s energy broker between the Caspian and Europe has been elevated. This has assumed particular importance lately during Syria’s slow-motion regime change.

The overall result fulfils what Brzezinski in The Grand Chessboard (1997) presented as the basic desiderata of Washington’s Eurasian geostrategy:

To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.

This means (1) preventing the European ‘vassal’ states from developing any autonomous capacity, outside the NATO security umbrella, for projecting military-strategic power (and similarly for Japan); and (2) obstructing those potential peer competitors that are not integrated into Washington’s set of hub-and-spokes military ‘partnerships’, namely Russia and China, from striking alliances with each other and with energy producers and regional powers such as Iran.

(An identical outlook, from a different wing of Washington’s policymaking elite, was laid out in the Pentagon’s 1992 Defense Planning Guidance. This document decreed that post-Cold War ‘strategy must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor’ and ‘preventing the domination of key regions by a hostile power.)

To help resist this agenda, Moscow and Beijing have formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Central Asian republics. The two imperial powers have managed to build a few bilateral and regional instances of diplomatic, commercial and military cooperation. But within the ‘strategic partnership’ the conflicting interests of the parties are insurmountable. And even the slightest move towards a regional military-political bloc is enough to induce hysteria in US security-policy circles. In 2010 an alarmist article written by Robert Kaplan for the CFR magazine Foreign Affairs featured the following map. It purported to display the geographic scope of Beijing’s strategic influence.

The tendencies described above  and above all the belligerence of the US state elite  presage another terrible global conflagration between imperial rivals.

I therefore want to conclude this post by returning to the period written about in Pynchon’s long novel.

I wrote an earlier post here regarding the lead-up to the First World War. It described the decades of self-delusion and obliviousness before general war arrived abruptly, like ‘a clap of thunder in the summer sky’. Yet the plot of Against the Day, over the course of 1000 pages, reveals the slow accretion of countless minatory signs, clear evidence pointing to the coming catastrophe. It is not merely in fiction or in retrospect that these clues appear: contemporary observers, properly equipped, were indeed alert to a looming showdown between the contending powers.

What then accounted for the mass confusion and unpreparedness that was revealed when war eventually arrived?

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the Second International’s Basel Congress. This extraordinary congress was called following the outbreak of hostilities on the Balkan peninsula. The manifesto agreed upon by social-democratic delegates in Basel declared the ‘complete unanimity of the Socialist parties and of the trade unions of all countries in the war against war’:

[Each] section of the international has mobilized the public opinion of its nation against all bellicose desires. Thus there resulted the grandiose cooperation of the workers of all countries which has already contributed a great deal toward saving the threatened peace of the world. The fear of the ruling class of a proletarian revolution as a result of a world war has proved to be an essential guarantee of peace…

The Congress records that the entire Socialist International is unanimous upon these principles of foreign policy. It calls upon the workers of all countries to oppose the power of the international solidarity of the proletariat to capitalist imperialism… Let the governments remember that with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves… It would be insanity for the governments not to realize that the very idea of the monstrosity of a world war would inevitably call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class…

The Congress therefore appeals to you, proletarians and Socialists of all countries, to make your voices heard in this decisive hour! Proclaim your will in every form and in all places; raise your protest in the parliaments with all your force; unite in great mass demonstrations; use every means that the organization and the strength of the proletariat place at your disposal! See to it that the governments are constantly kept aware of the vigilance and passionate will for peace on the part of the proletariat!

Mainstream historians have compared this resolution from November 1912 to the social democrats’ spectacular embrace of the national cause in August 1914. In these scholarly examinations, the later treachery is presented as an abrupt reversal of the earlier position. But these events, and the history of subsequent antiwar and ‘pacifist’ movements, hold another great lesson for today:

It is not possible to prevent war by ‘mobilizing the public opinion’ of a nation against the ‘bellicose desires’ of its leaders. Neither the strengthening of trade unions, nor the placement of social-democratic representatives in parliament, nor ‘great mass demonstrations’, not the raising of protests nor loud proclamations of the common people’s desire for peace are adequate. None of these contributes a ‘great deal toward saving the threatened peace of the world’, nor provides an ‘essential guarantee of peace.’ The ruling classes’ fear of ‘the indignation and the revolt of the working class’ will not stay the hand of capitalist imperialism  only the latter’s complete annulment will do.

Though it may be ‘insanity not to realize’ that ‘they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves’, the governing elite of the various rival states cannot be swayed by pleas for them to see reason, any more than than they can be persuaded by appeals to their better nature.

By allowing the working population of Europe to hope for ‘the possibility of normal progress’, the social-democratic parties and the trade unions misled their class constituency, and gave advance warning of their eventual opportunism.

In 1911 Rosa Luxemburg sought to dispel the mirage of what she called ‘peace utopias’:

[The] friends of peace in bourgeois circles believe that world peace and disarmament can be realised within the frame-work of the present social order, whereas we, who base ourselves on the materialistic conception of history and on scientific socialism, are convinced that militarism can only be abolished from the world with the destruction of the capitalist class state.


To explain this to the masses, ruthlessly to scatter all illusions with regard to attempts made at peace on the part of the bourgeoisie and to declare the proletarian revolution as the first and only step toward world peace – that is the task of the Social Democrats with regard to all disarmament trickeries, whether they are invented in Petersburg, London or Berlin.

In other words, the consolations of parliamentary reformism, activism and ‘protest politics’ (as described in the previous post) are dangerous illusions. They themselves threaten ‘the annihilation of the flowers of all peoples’.

The statesman speaks

September 9, 2012

For two whole days, earlier this week, a storm of cheers and hurrahs rang out across the liberal commentariat  your Brad DeLong-types along with columnists from The Atlantic and The Nation  for what was described as the persuasive force and uncommon seriousness of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Liberal writers have occasionally turned a critical eye on the style of such televised events, with their gaudy solemnity and razzmatazz religiosity.

Generally, however, the likes of Eliot Weinberger reserve their scorn for one wing of the US state leadership. Few professional rewards are sacrificed nor any social standing risked with such efforts.

Rare is the non-radical who will portray with real venom an entire assembly of establishment creeps and crooks, as did Philip Roth in his description of Richard Nixon’s 1994 funeral  at which Clinton delivered one eulogy:

[The] whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable. The Marine Band and Chorus performing all the songs designed to shut down people’s thinking and produce a trance state: ‘Hail to the Chief’, ‘America’, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, and, to be sure, that most rousing of all those drugs that make everybody momentarily forget everything, the national narcotic, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Nothing like the elevating remarks of Billy Graham, a flag-draped casket, and a team of interracial pallbearing servicemen – and the whole thing topped off by ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, followed hard on by a twenty-one gun salute and ‘Taps’ – to induce catatonia in the multitude.

Then the realists take command, the connoisseurs of deal making and deal breaking, masters of the most shameless ways of undoing an opponent, those for whom moral concerns must always come last, uttering all the well-known, sham-ridden cant about everything but the dead man’s real passions. Clinton exalting Nixon for his ‘remarkable journey’ and, under the spell of his own sincerity, expressing hushed gratitude for all the ‘wise counsel’ Nixon had given him. Governor Pete Wilson assuring everyone that when most people thing of Richard Nixon, they think of his ‘towering intellect’. Dole and his flood of lachrymose clichés. ‘Doctor’ Kissinger, high-minded, profound, speaking in his most puffed-up unegoistical mode – and with all the cold authority of that voice dipped in sludge – quotes no less a tribute than Hamlet’s for his murdered father to describe ‘our gallant friend’. ‘He was a man, take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again.’ Literature is not a primary reality but a kind of expensive upholstery to a sage himself so plumply upholstered, and so he has no idea of the equivocating context in which Hamlet speaks of the unequalled king. But then who, sitting there under tremendous pressure of sustaining a straight face while watching the enactment of the Final Cover-up, is going to catch the court Jew in a cultural gaffe when he invokes an inappropriate masterpiece? Who is there to advise him that it’s not Hamlet on his father he ought to be quoting but Hamlet on his uncle, Claudius, Hamlet on the conduct of the new king, his father’s usurping murderer? Who there at Yorda Linda dares to call out, ‘Hey, Doctor – quote this: ‘Foul deeds will rise / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes’?

Who? Gerald Ford? Gerald Ford. I don’t ever remember seeing Gerald Ford looking so focused before, so charged with intelligence as he clearly was on that hallowed ground. Ronald Reagan snapping the uniformed honour guard his famous salute, that salute of his that was always half meshugeh. Bob Hope seated next to James Baker. The Iran-Contra arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi seated next to Donald Nixon. The burglar G. Gordon Liddy there with his arrogant shaved head. The most disgraced of vice presidents, Spiro Agnew, there with his conscienceless Mob face. The most winning of vice presidents, sparkly Dan Quayle, looking as lucid as a button. The heroic effort made by that poor fellow: always staging intelligence and always failing. All of them mourning platitudinously together in the California sunshine and the lovely breeze: the indicted and the unindicted, the convicted and unconvicted, and his towering intellect at last at rest in a star-spangled coffin, no longer grappling and questing for no-holds-barred power…

The style of these official events has been honed to even more ghastly effect over the subsequent two decades, as the US president has actually acquired no-holds-barred power.

Since Washington made its strategic turn towards unrestrained belligerence to counteract the emergence of competitive rivals  and since the state’s executive branch arrogated for itself the right to conduct ‘military and national security operations’, such as killing people anywhere any time, without having to grant due process or ‘publicly disclose the criteria which guide its actions’  the praetorian flavour to proceedings, the loving attention devoted to the murderous deeds of the ‘finest warriors in the history of the world’, has become more pronounced. So has the vicious gangsterism of the speakers’ language (see John Kerry, Joe Biden, etc.)

Witness the vice president’s extraordinary performance.

Faced with this, it seems reasonable to quote Walter Benjamin’s 1936 remarks on the aesthetics of imperialist war: on the historical emergence of a social order that allows ‘war to supply artistic gratification’, and encourages the population to ‘experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.’

Elsewhere I’ve described the brutalizing effect on audiences of many contemporary mass-entertainment products (TV, films, video games), and the functional purpose such cultural decay serves.

In Nixon’s day, US society had room for professionally-successful ‘progressive’ antiwar intellectuals, producing material like Roth’s Our Gang. But our own time is rather different. Special historical circumstances are needed to make possible something like the following scene from the TV series The Newsroom, created by the Democrat servant Aaron Sorkin.

Saul Bellow and the assassination of Chicago

August 18, 2012

In Saul Bellow’s published letters he aims a few short jabs at Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, et al:

One of the things that was clear to me when I went to Paris on a Guggenheim grant [in 1948] was that Les Temps modernes understood less about Marxism and left-wing politics than I had understood as a high-school boy.

This sort of remark might be read — too hurriedly — as the familiar boast of the right-wing apostate, eager to promote himself as an ‘authority’ on the renounced creed.

After all, Bellow regularly enough mixed petty egoism with toxic politics. In 1998 he delivered Philip Roth a dreary epistolary lecture, upbraiding the author of I Married a Communist for excessive indulgence towards his main character, a blacklisted actor whose wife had denounced him to the HUAC.

Yet the sentence quoted above is uncharacteristically unadorned and shorn of self-importance. Bellow’s claim was simply true.

At Chicago’s Tuley High School, during the early 1930s, he was close friends with Yetta Barshevsky, who eventually married Max Shachtman. He later joined the Socialist Workers Party, before leaving in the 1940 split following the Red Army’s invasion of Finland.

With Shachtman, James Burnham, C.L.R. James and Dwight Macdonald, Bellow helped form the third-campist Workers Party. As with Burnham, re-evaluation of the Soviet Union led swiftly to (or was the pretext for) Bellow’s abandonment of socialism altogether, and to his blossoming affection for the status quo: visits to the White House, funds from the Olin Foundation, etc. (‘Look at me, going everywhere!’)

Most of the other splitters eventually followed the same rightward trajectory.

All this left its mark on Bellow’s subsequent literary work, about which Harold Bloom’s assessment bears repeating: he was ‘an immensely wasted talent’ who offered easy pleasures without making ‘things difficult enough for himself or for us’.

Bellow himself aspired, so he said repeatedly, to the weightiness of Dickens, Balzac, Theodore Dreiser, the nineteenth-century Russians and Walt Whitman. And twentieth-century Chicago presented him with material of astonishing drama and historical significance, comparable to that of Dickens and Mayhew’s London.

To be sure, Bellow’s stories do capture, like few others, the abundance and tumult of the sprawling metropolis. The dog turds, the sooty facades, the smell of mud and decay — the descriptive power of his style is overwhelming. The raptures stirred in his characters by ‘massive, clumsy, amorphous’ Chicago derive, so his narrators say, from the city’s ‘absence of a formative power’.

This lack of order is meant to be life itself, in all its ‘idiot joy’, ‘all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding’, devoid of solidity, coherence and intelligibility.

Emotionally, too, Bellow’s output might seem to capture the entire range of experience. It is characterized by abrupt mood swings: exuberant amor fati in one novel alternates with cantankerous misanthropy in the next.

But his high and low moods are more than a little self-willed and self-exhorting: the language getting carried away with itself and generating the content, which then provides excuse enough for the style. (Hence the common remark that Bellow makes an ‘ethic’ or a ‘metaphysical principle’ of close perception).

Augie March’s postwar song of himself (1953) heralded, like Whitman’s ebullience one century earlier, a moment of economic upswing and national self-assertion. But, rather than the delirious immersion announced by his predecessor (‘myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme’), Bellow’s swollen individuality followed the renunciation of youthful commitments and marked a retreat inward, away from engagement with the external world.

Roth himself pointed out this ‘spurning of our world’ in Commentary in 1960. Speaking of Bellow’s ‘bouncy’ prose style, the ‘self-conscious language making’, the display of ‘stamina or good spirits’:

The writer pushes before our eyes—it is in the very ordering of our sentences—personality, in all its separateness and specialness. Of course the mystery of personality is nothing less than the writer’s ultimate concern; and certainly when the muscular prose is revelatory of character—as in Augie March—then it is to be appreciated; at its worst, however, as a form of literary onanism, it seriously curtails the fictional possibilities, and may perhaps be thought of, and sympathetically so, as a symptom of the writer’s loss of the community as subject…

[If] the world is as crooked and unreal as I think it is becoming, day by day; if one feels less and less power in the face of this unreality, day by day; if the inevitable end is destruction, if not of all life, then of much that is valuable and civilized in life—then why in God’s name is the writer pleased?

Bellow’s exuberance and descriptive mania thus strive to fill some kind of gap. They provide ornamental compensation for meagreness elsewhere (in narrative, among other things) and distract from domains of reality that are missing (as Bloom says, most types of person and varieties of human relationship are absent from Bellow).

Beneath all the bustle and noise sits intellectual swampland: first, Dostoevksian piety and abjection, to which generations of remorseful literary ex-revolutionaries have inevitably turned. Later there is Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, against whose appeal Andrei Bely stood already as a cautionary example.

Thus Fredric Jameson described ‘the anti-hero of the sad sack, Saul Bellow type… a kind of self-pitying vision of alienation’, as the latter was designated formulaically in ‘middlebrow media acceptation’ of the 1950s and 1960s.

There is something contrived and decorative, too, in Bellow’s funny, critically vaunted fusion of low slang, on the one hand, with displays of erudition and allusive hyper-intellectualism, on the other. Praised as both ethnolect and comprehensive, style-shifting survey of high and popular varieties in US culture, Bellow’s linguistic merger is in fact an instance of the relaxed postwar synthesis (‘the highbrows and the lowbrows have intermarried’) that Harry Levin complained about in 1960.

While executed spectacularly, it must nonetheless be judged as one more eclectic composite among countless postmodern hybrids. The style, presented for admiration and enjoyment, neither corresponds to nor unveils anything given in reality. But it (along with the Steiner) does reliably produce its own themes, e.g. that Herzog and Artur Sammler should lighten up and stop being such pedantic bookworms.

Bellow’s style of course conveys something of the lives and mimic the multiple registers used by the striving sons of émigrés from Galician shtetls. But its true purpose, plainly, was ornamental, displaying its author’s mastery and breadth of knowledge, to wow readers who then bathed indulgently in the virtuosity. (Bellow’s self-impressed work then licensed much worse from subsequent generations of US novelists, who continue to give us brilliant new Herzogs with pseudonyms like Hal Incandenza.)

As Roth put it: ‘Look at me, I’m writing.’

Having deliberately deprived the Bellovian city of form, order or meaning (another period preoccupation), its creator could craft from it little that would compare to the efforts of his literary heroes. In a brief programmatic essay, he describes ‘the very special debt to truth’ acknowledged by the ‘greatest of the realists.’ This obligation, he says, demands that the writer be ‘reliable about the lower ranges of fact’ — ‘the details of labor in Walt Whitman, the knowledge of navigation in Mark Twain’ — while also being accurate about ‘the arrangements that shape our destiny.’

How did Bellow do on this second criterion?

In the real world, from the midpoint of Bellow’s career Chicago’s urban core (and that of Detroit, Newark and other riot-struck industrial cities) began to be hollowed out, its schools ruined, its phone booths smashed, its small proprietors driven away or made extinct, its pavements become cracked and dirty, its people forced to endure decades of stagnant real wages, even while enormous fortunes blossomed for a tiny few.

Much of the population was cast to the social winds, intellectually disfigured and spiritually demoralized, while a semi-criminal lumpenproletariat thrived: ‘specialists in every sort of prostitution, male or female, adult or minor. Here one sees junkies, alcoholics, derelicts. Here assaults, knifings, and shootings occur. Wilson Avenue, bad even in the thirties, is now, fifty years later, a disaster area.’

Bellow describes all this with the appropriate sense of loss. How did this grandiose former ‘home of the steel mills and the stockyards’ become a ‘shattered city struggling to survive’?

I drive through the old Chicago neighborhoods. They weren’t much to look at in their best days; but was it necessary to smash, strip, board up, burn, or raze so many of them? Was this demolition a judgment on their petty-bourgeois ugliness? When you turn your head, you see the sparkling skyscrapers of the new Chicago which have risen in the Loop. From the  seventieth floor of the Hancock Building or of the Sears Tower, the fields of rubble in the  middle distance form part of the privileged executive’s view. He doesn’t have to look at the  minute particulars of the middle distance. He can fix his gaze on the horizon. At the rim of  the city residential areas are still standing, but no one can predict how long they will last. Yes, in in the twenties these streets through which I drive were dull, and in the thirties they were depressed and grim, but it was not because they were dull that they were forsaken, boarded, burned, or bulldozed. In less than a century some force – we may call it for convenience the world-historical spirit – raised up a giant city and then scraped most of it away. Fifty years ago we all thought it would endure forever.


Immigrant Chicago of the nineties, square, wooden, and upright, rotted away – no more industrial villages strung together, but a core of skyscrapers, a “magnificent mile” where retailers gross billions; beyond this a wasteland; then a slum horror; then a region of precarious stability – Greek, Italian, Scandinavian, Irish; and finally the suburbs…

Chicago stood for something in the twenties and thirties. That something was not entirely good, but it was distinctive. What is there to distinguish it now? Many economists agree that the American balance has shifted, the South and West have made progress, the Northeast and the Midwest are declining, and now Chicago is part of the disorder of the country. It stagnates, rots. The chief justice of the Supreme Court declares that urban America is in the hands of its own terrorists. When America does a Third World number, it does it with a vengeance.

In the streets, an armed population. In flats and houses, the unarmed with their newspapers, magazines, radios, television sets…

Chicago is, in its own way, a battlefield. So at least it seems to me.

On the benches where garment workers and carpenters [once] read Ibsen you now find drug pushers and adolescents who belong to street gangs. There is a large narcotics market on Rockwell Street. Porsches and Jaguars from the suburbs pull up here for heroin and cocaine.

In these backstreets where an occasional wife-beating once scandalized the neighbors and brought out the cops, muggings, rapes, stabbings, and shootings happen daily. There are still relatively safe enclaves in the city looking much as they did in the old days – wide, clumsy, lumpy streets, brick bungalows, cottonwoods, geraniums which seem to have been cranked up from the soil; but these Irish, Polish, Scandinavian enclaves are not at peace, they are in a state of siege. In the brick bungalows there are guns in the closets, cans of mace under the beds, doors and windows wired with alarm systems.

Chicago’s white population is declining. The black middle class is also trying to escape to the suburbs. Factories are pulling out.

Bellow notes ‘the tragic impotency of a civilization challenged by a phenomenon like the city of Chicago, its failure to build anything behind its gorgeous façade, to educate, to keep order, or to attach its population to life.’

Such remarks echo those of his memorable protagonist Artur Sammler, who sees in urban decline, as in the Nazi Judeocide, a challenge to civilization itself:

Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice.  He did not agree with refugee friends that this doom was inevitable, but liberal beliefs did not seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay. You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly. You wondered whether this Western culture could survive universal dissemination—whether only its science and technology or administrative practices would travel, be adopted by other societies. Or whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments—attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom. For what it amounted to was limitless demand—insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Nonnegotiable. Recognizing no scarcity of supply in any human department. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn’t it?

Thus disaster is said by Sammler to have arisen because ‘the children of bourgeois civilization’ demanded the impossible: ’the privileges, and the free ways of barbarism, under the protection of civilized order, property rights, refined technological organization, and so on.’

Of course the ‘Polish-Oxonian’ Sammler is a parody of the austere, uncomprehending central European exiled in coarse North America (an Adorno-like figure, terrified of student radicals and their ‘confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling… arrested in the stage of toilet training… Who had raised the diaper flag? Who had made shit a sacrament?’).

But with this character (in what its author confessed ‘isn’t even a novel’ but ‘a dramatic essay of sorts, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties’), and in his late fiction, Bellows gives indulgent voice to something that tempted him throughout his work.

Sammler, on Bellow’s behalf, asserts the popular postmodern idea, a conservative notion both trivial and ancient, that order is something draped deceptively over primordial chaos. Morality is a shallow gloss applied to the surface of the barbaric human animal by ‘civilization’ (or Hobbes’s Leviathan), and nature is intrinsically without categories — is something (according to Nietzsche) ‘changeable and untamed and in everything a woman, and no virtuous one’.

This is a shallow notion and Bellow surely wouldn’t have devoted so much attention to it if he wasn’t, bafflingly, attracted by it. Being human, Sammler concludes, is ‘not a natural gift at all. Only the capacity is natural.’

And both meaning and order aren’t qualities intrinsic to things themselves — history, the city, society or humanity — but are merely applied to them from outside.

Sammler warns repeatedly against the urge to comprehend things:

You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

In other words, Bellow here forswears investigation of those ‘arrangements that shape our destiny.’ Understanding is renounced.

In the late fiction, the author’s imaginative sympathy and analytic eye are swallowed up by his apparent real-life adherence to Reagan conservativism and hostility to ‘welfare dependency’:

My own opinion [this is Bellow speaking in his own voice] is that American confidence in education and progress went wrong somehow when the country made a giant effort to improve and to assist and lift up and to educate, and when, under  the New Deal, the New Frontier and, later, Johnson’s Great Society programs, hundreds of billions were spent on liberal programs. The efforts of the government gave the country a sense that  all the problems were manageable, that its troubles were being handled by experts, and that solutions could be bought and paid for. Washington was being moral for us.

With just a bit of novelistic attention, Bellow might have noted that the proximity of ‘the opulent sections of the city’ (downtown Chicago and his university district) to low-income ‘inner-city wastelands’, inhabited mostly by African Americas, made the real estate in the latter neighbourhoods extremely valuable.

Dreiser, for example, surely would have realized that the social and physical deterioration of places like Cabrini-Green involved deliberate planning by the local elite (developers, bankers and Democrat city administrators playing the role of Hegel’s Weltgeist).

Public housing was being allowed to rot and become a den of misery and criminality, so that federal housing authorities could take over, the buildings safely be demolished, the residents moved on and the locality be profitably gentrified — as indeed occurred under Bill Clinton during the 1990s.

‘A phenomenon like the society of Chicago’ was indeed subject to a ‘formative power’ — one more intelligible than Bellow, for political and artistic purposes, liked to suppose.

Madam, have you ever heard of a place called Dachau?

July 23, 2012

Having endured Susan Sontag’s self-serving essay about Victor Serge, I was pleased to read the foreword to Unforgiving Years, written by the novel’s translator Richard Greeman.

Greeman quotes something Serge wrote concerning Walter Krivitsky. In 1941 Krivitsky, a defector from the GRU, was found dead in a Washington, D.C., hotel room with a bullet in his skull (FBI files here). Serge’s words seem to describe himself much better than they do Krivitsky:

There had been some fine moments in his life; he had been courageous and devoted. Now in his soul, he was a defeated man. But these types of struggles are so out of proportion to any man’s powers—and to one who was misled during the decisive years of his life, that it didn’t astonish me. Rare are those who know how to resist demoralization in defeat.

The third section of Serge’s novel is set amid the 1945 firebombing of Germany, in one of the few ‘oases of habitation’ left in ‘a ghostly city bristling with the skeletons of churches’, where people were ‘baked like potatoes in ashes… a volcanic realm of sudden explosions, smouldering dormant fires, smoky eddies of soot, dust clouds, the stench of rotting corpses’.

A US journalist, having been ferried in on a jeep, tries to interview an elderly German schoolteacher, whom he takes for a ‘former officer and civil servant by the looks of him’. The old man, his brain ‘vaporized by the heat of events’, is a loyal supporter of the Hitler regime, a self-described ‘peaceful citizen’ whose sons have died heroic deaths in Courland and Libya. He had crept out, along with others waving white rags, to meet their conquerors, in ‘avid anticipation of violence and handouts… people were appearing across the ruins like larvae emerging from the soil – and they were indistinguishable, on the whole, from the inhabitants of Chicago’s slums or any other poverty-stricken corner of the world.’

The fictional exchange records Serge’s burning contempt for those, like the journalist, who would attribute collective guilt to people based on nationality – the Michael Hanekes and Bernhard Schlinks of his day, the Daniel Goldhagens, William Deanes and Paul Keatings.

There is no national ‘we’, so far as Serge the one-time Bolshevik and long-time internationalist was concerned. There were plebeian ‘poor bastards facing exploding volcanoes’, people for whom ‘the social consciousness matched the conditions’. And there were a few helmsmen, ‘leaders wielding infinite powers of secrecy and authority’, commanding the ‘organized brutality that drives great empires.’

The fat journalist, resembling ‘some big shot’, displays no sympathy for the starving people. From behind his sunglasses and with hands on hips, he scrutinizes suspiciously the women with their powdered faces and rouged lips (‘Make mental note of this vignette’), and the ‘fairly well-dressed’ children: ‘however did they manage?’

A swift pencil and shorthand pad recorded the schoolmaster’s extravagant ramblings for the benefit of countless newspaper readers.

‘Do you people feel guilty?’

If there was one emotion which had never been experienced by Herr Schiff (at least not since his adolescent religious crises) in his half century of diligent service, that emotion was guilt. It is healthy to live one’s life in the meticulous fulfilment of duty. The schoolteacher cocked his head obligingly. ‘Pardon me, I didn’t quite catch…?’

‘Guilty for the war?’

Schiff’s gaze swept the horizon of the broken city, strewn with the dead doves of humiliation. The grander generalizations existed for him on a different plane from everyday reality. The Second World War was already down as a great historical tragedy – a quasi-mythological one – which neither Mommsen, Hans Delbrück, Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Oswald Spengler, or Mein Kampf could elucidate entirely… The sons immolated themselves upon the altar of blind gods. A new, unholy war, unworthy of human nobility, had begun with the destruction of Altstadt; and this war alone existed in reality.

‘Guilty?’ Herr Schiff said in flinty tones, with the air of a livid turkey-cock. ‘Guilty of that?’ (And he bobbed his head at the surrounding devastation.)

‘No,’ the reporter said, not quite grasping the response, ‘guilty for the war.’

‘And you’, Herr Schiff retorted, ‘do you feel guilty for this?’


‘My dear professor, the journalist began, striving for an offensive politeness, ‘you started this war… You bombed Coventry.’

‘I?’ said Schiff, in frank astonishment. ‘I?’


Franz [a former NCO, now a cripple with a hook for a hand] butted in unceremoniously: ‘Well, I fought in the war, as perhaps you can tell by looking at me. I give you my faithful, one-hundred percent amputee’s word of honour that I didn’t start it.’

‘Herr Professor’, whispered a daring old lady in a black lace cap, ‘do ask them whether the soup kitchens will be allowed to continue? Or do the American gentlemen intend to feed the city?’ She spoke the last three words more loudly, to make sure that the authority would hear them. The reporter’s eyes popped with outrage behind his shades. No shame, no guilt, not a shred! These folks seem to think we come over, leaving a hundred thousand of our boys underground along the way, just to sort out their next meal! He turned on the old lady.

‘Madam, have you ever heard of a place called Dachau?’

Intimidated by his tone, but happy to help out, she quavered enthusiastically: ‘Oh yes, it’s a pretty little town in Bavaria, where they held interesting popular festivals in the old days…’

‘That’s all?’

‘Yes, sir…’ (The old lady blanched at the covert fury of the question.)

‘What about the concentration camp?’

‘Ooh, that may be, I can’t tell you about that, I’m afraid… I so seldom read the newspapers.’

Franz was grinning maniacally, Alain’s face too was that of a madman, a dangerous one. The old lady felt inexplicable tears wetting the corners of her eyes. She murmured, very humbly, ‘I beg the gentleman to excuse me if I’ve offended him’, for these were clearly military persons of great influence.


The burly [US] officer with the round beard, like a sailor in an old-fashioned illustration, hailed the reporter. ‘We’re leaving, old man. Happy with your little interview?’ ‘They are staggeringly unconscious of everything’, the journalist said. ‘Well, if you’re looking for consciousness from bombed-out towns…’