Saturday, 25 February 2017

Power, Alienation and Truth - Chaplin and Chomsky

Here are two excellent essays from the Jacobin site, just to cheer up your weekend.   Firstly, a wonderful discussion by Owen Hatherly of Charlie Chaplin, and the early admiration of him and his politics by the Russian revolutionary film industry.  Hatherly's work will be familiar to many readers of the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books.   Here he reveals the contradictory and at times strange effects of the love of Chaplin displayed by film-makers such as Kuleshov, Barnet and Pudovkin, where pro-Bolshevism is wedded to the industrial-technocratic values of Taylorism and Fordism.   This movement received the intellectual reinforcement of the great literary critic and theorist of literature as alienated language, Viktor Shklovsky, who saw in Chaplin's jerky movements a version of the actions of the industrial worker.

Charlie Chaplin in Moscow 

Moving from Shklovskian 'ostranienie' to a different form of alienation, Daniel Geary, a historian working at Trinity College Dublin, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Noam Chomsky's great essay 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', first published in the New York Review of Books in 1967, at the height of America's war in Vietnam.  Chomsky's essay, which would receive an even more formidable iteration in 1977 in his Huizinga Lecture, 'Intellectuals and the State', took the world of American policy-formulation as its subject and turned it inside-out, in the manner of all great critics: he presented American liberals with a radically alienated vision of the intellectual scene with which they had thought they were so familiar.  This essay was essentially a manifesto for the extraordinary life of dissent which Chomsky has led ever since, and which he has always believed is open to any ordinary person endowed with some curiosity and a moral imagination.  'The Responsibility of Intellectuals' is reprinted in American Power and the New Mandarins, also published in 1967, Chomsky's first openly political book, and also the place where you'll find 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship', an overwhelming indictment of mainstream American social science and its complicity with the war in Indochina.  'Intellectuals and the State' is collected in another superb volume, published early in the Reagan era, Towards a New Cold War.  Chomsky is not infallible, as Geary points out, but what a bracing example he offers to us all, as he nears his ninetieth year.  Here is Chomsky's article, and then Geary's re-reading of it:

A Special Supplement: The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Truth to Power


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Performing the Revolution - Tariq Ali on the Communist Manifesto

Yesterday - I should have written about this before enthusing about WJT Mitchell and Robert Darnton - was the 169th anniversary of the publication of Marx and Engels' Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), probably the greatest and most influential political pamphlet ever written.   Like the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916, the Manifesto is a tremendous piece of performative writing (in JL Austin's famous phrase) - its being read brings into existence that to which it refers, it does things, it makes things happen (in this case, on the most epic of scales), and this goes a long way to explaining its enduring power and haunting effect.

Here is Tariq Ali - commentator, film-maker, street-fighter - on the Manifesto - from the Verso website:

Tariq Ali: Introduction to The Communist Manifesto


American Psychosis and the Yellow Press - WJT Mitchell and Robert Darnton after Trump's First Thirty Days

Critical Inquiry is one of the finest, most stylish and most important literary/cultural critical journals in the English-speaking world - here's its website: Critical Inquiry - Official Site  Published out of the University of Chicago, it's long been edited by Bill Mitchell, himself a brilliant critic of both literary and visual culture.  Here he is, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in an essay which was originally given as a lecture at the University of Geneva, just before Trump's inauguration:

American Psychosis: Trumpism and the Nightmare of History

I first discovered Robert Darnton, one of America's great cultural historians and a major scholar of eighteenth century France, through his wonderful collection of essays, The Great Cat Massacre (1984), and then his classic study of The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995).  This book, which builds on Darnton's earlier study, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), is a superb account of the chapbook and pamphlet literature of the streets, which - by way of satire, polemic, pornography, and critique - helped to undermine the Bourbon monarchy.  Long on the staff at Princeton, Darnton now is University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard.   Here is Darnton's personal website, which contains online or pdf versions of many of his essays and reviews: Home | Robert Darnton  And here he writes about the history of the late nineteenth century 'yellow press', a notorious earlier instance of the creation of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' - an essay from the New York Review of Books:

The True History of Fake News


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Armed Insurrection - James Connolly and the European Context

Of all the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, James Connolly, the great labour leader and agitator, was the only one with military experience.  It was, after all, as an underage recruit to the British Army that Connolly first came to Ireland.   But it's also worth remembering that later in life, during the First World War, and as the pressure for an Irish uprising grew ever stronger, Connolly wrote extensively on insurrectionary history and techniques, preparing the way for the struggle to come.

As WK Anderson pointed out in his excellent James Connolly and the Irish Left (1994), Connolly's principal self-identification was as a revolutionary, and all he did was contributory to that goal and purpose.  He was not a militarist, and he was sceptical of the 'physical force tradition' in Irish republicanism.  But Connolly was no pacifist, either, and recourse to force was always one of the options at the disposal of the revolution as far as he was concerned.  

The interest in armed doctrine and ideas in Connolly is mirrored in the geo-tactical ideas of his great Italian contemporary Gramsci, whose thought - as Edward Said noted many years ago - is suffused with the metaphors of military action: territories, blocs, mutual siege, civil conquest, war of manoeuvre and war of position.   I am posting here links to Connolly's essays on earlier uprisings, side by side with an essay on Armed Insurrection, 'a work of illegal propaganda written by a collective of Comintern military and political specialists', including Ho Chi Minh and Palmiro Togliatti, and now reissued by Verso: 

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Remembering Red Vienna

In January, I was fortunate enough to visit Vienna - to my shame, this was only my first visit to a German-speaking country and city.  I spent five days walking the city - visiting the Hundertwasser apartment building and museum, taking the tram back and forth on the Ringstrasse, absorbing the decadence of Klimt and Schiele at the Belvedere.  I also went out to the Zentralfriedhof, where, on an icy afternoon, I could wander quietly among the graves of great composers - Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Gluck and a whole dynasty of Strausses - and see how Austrians remember their presidents, including Kurt Waldheim.  The massive graveyard embodies formidable historical lessons for a callow denizen of the western islands of Europe - there is a large plot and commemorative apparatus of statues, walls, and gardens for the Red Army, which liberated Vienna in 1945, and there are two large Jewish plots, one of more recent vintage, the other older, with graves going back at least to the nineteenth century.  I spent some time wandering the near-wilderness of the latter, picking my way among headstones still tilted or smashed from Nazi-era vandalism.  Walking the perimeter of this section, which contains the graves of various Rothschilds and of Arthur Schnitzler, I paused silently to look down one of the many tree-lined corridors - a deer stood looking at me, vulnerable and beautiful.

I should have been reading Musil, and learning from Carl Schorske's classic study, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, but my satchel held other books.  One can't always co-ordinate one's reading with one's location.  But in this often immaculately-preserved city, with its wonderfully efficient public transport and overwhelming imperial architectural and cultural legacy, it is hard not to be forced to think historically just as one trudges the streets.  Even as I note that Vienna was the birthplace of both Adolf Hitler and Theodor Herzl, and is now home to an increasingly right-leaning political culture, it's good to be reminded that the political dispensation has not always been conservative.  Here is an essay, taken from the Jacobin website but originally published in German at LuxEmburg, which shows the other side of the story: 


Class War and Ideological Vision in the United States -

Mike Davis: MacArthur Fellow, former truck driver, genealogist of catastrophe - surely if ever there was an historian equipped to dissect Trumpian America, it is he.  So, here he is on the Jacobin website, wielding the scalpel as only he can:

The Great God Trump and the White Working Class

And also from Jacobin, a rich article from Alexander Livingston on the background to the vision of Steve Bannon, perhaps the leading ideologue of the Trump Administration.  Livingston reminds us of how important it is to take Trump's confederates seriously, to trace their inheritance within strains of American political tradition, and not simply dismiss them as sui generis ignoramuses: 


Thursday, 9 February 2017

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will - remembering Gramsci with Stuart Hall

On February 10, 1891, Antonio Gramsci, one of the most remarkable Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century, was born in Sardinia.  Gramsci spent much of the last decade of his life in Fascist jails, but it was in prison that his extraordinary, fragmentary, exhaustive notebooks were composed.   Frequently brilliant jottings, musings, prolegomena, speculations, historical outlines, theoretical analyses, book plans, unfinished essays, anticipated books - on historical issues, political problems, philosophical and philological themes - the Quaderni del carcere constituted a trove and a labyrinth for generations of leftwing scholars and activists coming in Gramsci's wake - endlessly useful and suggestive by virtue of their unfinished character, but also ripe for controversy and contestation.  Perry Anderson, often invoked and admired on this blog, has two books coming out this spring, both of which spring from his longtime interest in Gramsci.  Anderson's booklength essay, 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci', originally published in the New Left Review in 1977, was an important appropriation and explication of Gramsci's thought in Britain, coming after the publication of Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's seminal collection Selections from the Prison Notebooks in 1971, and displaying a crucial underpinning for the essays on British history developed by Anderson and Tom Nairn: the 'Nairn-Anderson theses'.   Now Anderson is reissuing this essay in book form, alongside fresh work on the genealogy of the term 'hegemony', which was developed and manipulated in virtuoso terms by the Italian communist.

Gramsci's most famous insight was that in Western liberal capitalist democracies, the socialist revolution faced not the brittle redoubts of a quasi-feudal imperial dynasty, and a disorganised peasantry, as had been the case in Tsarist Russia.  Rather, in the great industrialised powers of Europe - Britain, France, Germany, Italy - any revolutionary effort would find itself confronting richly variegated and textured societies, whose cultural, educational, religious and civil structures themselves reinforced the more openly coercive machinery of the state.  The revolution could not progress simply by seizing the state apparatus, but must rather prepare a long war of ideological contest and the creation of a new weltanschaung, or a new 'common sense'.  This ideological leadership Gramsci called 'hegemony' in its status quo form - the revolution, to be successful, needed to elaborate a 'counter-hegemony'.  

Gramsci's powerful sense of civil society as a battleground where, in Foucault's words, 'discourse is the power to be seized'; his intuition that culture must be understood as itself a kind of material force in society where traditional and new identities are made and unmade, was particularly important for the brilliant Jamaican sociologist and theorist Stuart Hall, most especially in his analyses of Thatcherism in the 1980s.  Hall recognised the striking success of the Conservative Party in 1979 and its basis in an exceptional hegemonic bid, where Mrs Thatcher and her confederates were carried to power on a substantial working-class vote - a vote where a major bloc in British proletarian society was ideologically captured by its enemies, and persuaded to vote for them.  In the Trumpian moment in America, Hall's deployment of Gramsci's insights finds a renewed pertinence.  Here is a section of Hall's book The Hard Road to Renewal, excerpted on the Verso website:

Monday, 6 February 2017

'The role of accuser is the only one appropriate for the oppressed' - Learning from Blanqui

Louis-Auguste Blanqui was one of Marx's most formidable and uncompromising revolutionary socialist contemporaries.  Marx admired Blanqui, while also differing from him in important ways, when it came to thinking the role of the proletarian masses in revolutionary change.  He was born just over 212 years ago.  Here, from the Verso website, is an essay on the French agitator and political prisoner by Doug Greene, author of a forthcoming study, Spectres of Communiism: Blanqui and Marx:

Why Blanqui?


Saturday, 4 February 2017

Prelude - David Bromwich on Trump's First Two Weeks

Only lately have I become aware of the work of David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale.  But he's a veteran scholar of Romanticism, with a very fine intellectual biography of Edmund Burke in progress (first volume of two published in 2015, second on the way), a critique of teaching and theory in the university, and a collection of political essays now due out in paper, Moral Imagination.  That  title, derived from Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, should make it clear that Bromwich is not remotely in hock to the poststructuralist or more broadly 'theoretical' wave of the last four decades in the Anglophone academy.   But this has not made him any less formidable a critic; rather the contrary, as he has turned himself into a blisteringly powerful opponent of the Obama Administration - chiefly in the pages of the London Review of Books - and is now entering the lists to face the Trump Administration.  The term 'moral imagination' seems in just two words to sum up a great deal of what was lacking in Trump personally hitherto, and is now absent from his government.   Here is Bromwich's opening salvo, from the current LRB:

Act One, Scene One


Friday, 3 February 2017

Prepared for the Worst - A History of the New Left Review

In the last couple of years, Perry Anderson and Francis Mulhern, both veterans of the New Left Review, have written long and considered articles on the new radical and leftwing journalism in the United States.  One of the journals they have picked out as noteworthy for its dynamism, ambition and intelligence is Jacobin, to which this blog frequently draws its readers' attention.  Another, perhaps more stylish and 'literary', is n+1, started by, amongst others, Benjamin Kunkel and Mark Greif.  Greif has recently published a collection of his essays, under the rather silly (alas) title Against Everything (just the kind of undergraduate attitudinizing which a writer like Adorno would have scorned).  Kunkel had earlier published an smart, streetwise introduction to contemporary Marxism hot on the heels of his fictional output.

Now I see (belatedly) that n+1 returned the favour with a long and intelligent review by Nikil Saval of a history of the NLR by Duncan Thompson, Pessimism of the Intellect? A History of the New Left Review (2009).  Saval, interestingly, will have none of Thompson's castigation of Perry Anderson's 'Olympian' 'pessimism', and sees resources of hope in the Review yet.   Here is Saval's review-essay, from the n+1 website:

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Coming to Terms with Defeat - An Interview with Enzo Traverso

Enzo Traverso is one of the most interesting writers I've encountered in the last couple of years.  A radical historian of ideas, he teaches now at Cornell, but has a background on the Italian far left.  His Fire and Blood, published in 2015, is a remarkable intellectual history of the World Wars of the twentieth century, conceived as a great and terrible European civil war.  The End of Jewish Modernity is a sad and grim stock-taking of the fate of the great Jewish contribution to European Enlightenment - from Spinoza to Benjamin - and its decline with the advent of Jewish ethnic nationalism, that is, Zionism.  A new pair of books is on the way, led  by Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory (out from Columbia last month), where Traverso suggests resources for the reinvention of the contemporary left in the melancholy of defeat.  Here is an interview with Traverso, reprinted on the Verso Books website, but first published by LibĂ©ration and translated by David Broder:

"The Left is a history of defeats": an interview with Enzo Traverso