Friday, December 17, 2004

Radical Philosophy 129

Radical Philosophy 129 (Jan-Feb 2005) has arrived. I'm sure this is turning up much more regularly than every other month, how can I keep up? Not yet up on the Radical Philosophy web-site , but the print copy is worth-looking out for, it's got a rather eye-catching cover with photos of a besuited, ungainly, but determined looking Jacques Derrida playing cricket (of a sort) in front of a shed in an unkempt garden - apparently in Warwick, home of continental philosophy. There is an entire symposium devoted to Derrida's obituary with contributions from David Cunningham, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Simon Critchley, David Macey and David Wood. The overall tone is of indignant and heartfelt defence of a philosophical hero against vulgar and ignorant attacks and misunderstandings. Of course the pieces are all too short to really set out and propound what is of essential value in Derrida's work. But if you're looking a short appreciation of Derrida and his significance from a Marxist try Alex Callinicos's piece in Socialist Review for November 2004.

Radical Philosophy's Commentary section includes Ken Hirschkop on 'It's Not the Culture, Stupid: Interpreting the US Election' and Barry Schwabsky on 'Patriotism as Paranoia: Steve Kurtz and Hirschkopl the Critical Art Ensemble'. I want to concentrate on Hirschkop (a long term American academic in Britain and noted Bakhtinist) here as he both takes up one of my favourite US writers, Tom Frank and makes reference to Gramsci. I've been looking out for Gramscian approaches to the current conjuncture in the US (and I'm also looking for references to Marx's 18th Brumaire as the starting point for analysis). Hirschkop cites Gramsci as saying certain elections can be 'defining moments in the political life of a nation', so suggests that the 2004 election was the most important political events for decades. And its significance will also depend on how the results are interpreted.

Hirschkop presents the pro-Kerry view in which the US is split between two cultures; secular, liberal, cosmopolitan (and all the good things) versus the bad evangelical, conservative, chauvinist. The split is geographical: the blue Democrat states versus red Republican states ( a colour coding described by Hirschkop as a telling exceptionalism, one that is starting to get into wider cultural commentaries).

The 'red states' are driven by a cultural populist backlash conservatism, rooted in anxieties, deliberately constructed by political conservatives - here comes the reference to Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? The great political-cultural mobilising grounds aren't going to be dealt with legislatively, so can be used to motivate voters to 'defy their class interests' time and again. And this 'trick' worked again in 2004.

But here Hirschkop complicates and undermines the story by saying it's not 'belief in God' that divides the country, or that believers are uniformly more right-wing. Instead 'God' is a symbolic resource against the 'erosion of the familial-sexual myths.. central to their sense of self and their notions of fulfillment'. And here he turns to Habermas's Legitimation Crisis for a predictive explanation in which religion is framed for providing meaning to advanced capitalism. And Hirschkop uses Habermas to critique the 'social-democratic' analysis of Frank, who advocates a focus on economic and welfare issues (an explicit 'economic populism'). Hirschkop argues that in the contemporary US there isn't enough 'value' to go provide prosperity, etc. Habermas is criticised for not seeing that cultural systems are 'often struggled over, made and destroyed', but Hirschkop finishes - disappointingly vaguely on the failure of social movements to synthesize with the concerns of the labour movement, the defeats of the movements and a need
to avoid buying into the culture wars that the Right is 'anxious to sell'. But which way forward?

The single most entertaining thing in the journal is Ben Watson's polemical review of Ian Birchall's Sartre Against Stalinism. Here we have two great SWP non-conformists, both feisty, independent and gloriously polemical thinkers, of very different political generations, but again both talented writers and committed to revolution, and with very different takes on Sartre. Watson is, of course, famous for being a committed Adornoite and Zappatista (who could forget his meeting on Frank Zappa at that 'Marxism' in the early '90s in which he brilliantly (I thought) laid out the categories for a Marxist critique of avant-garde music, but failed to present the expected and pedestrian run-thorough of Zappa's life, odd and contradictory politics and musical career and denounced the Lukacsian realism of Socialist Review and the cultural politics of 'Marxism'. Ooh, what a telling-off he got, and sad to say, hasn't seem to have been invited back since.) Basically, Ben here sets up Tony Cliff and the IS/SWP tradition as a model of 'activist party Marxism' (with a very strong unconscious Anglocentrism), against which Sartre's vacillations about the CP and Stalinism comes out very badly (and as a species of masochism) and his philosophy - from existentialism to the 'turgid grotesque' that is Ben's view of the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Sartre as 'pompous centrist' seems to be the concise version of Ben's view. Birchall's clear enthusiasm for and defence of Sartre leads Ben to the damning view that if he took his 'political positivism' seriously he would 'be in the Labour Party, not the SWP'. The Sartre that had French troops demanding his death while they marched in formation doesn't get a look-in.

Instead of Sartre, Ben points to a hidden, suppressed and genuine Marxist alternative - the surrealist Pierre Naville, Colette Audry, Daniel Guerin, Victor Serge, Socialisme ou Barbarie - and in the end the main virtue of Birchall's book seems to be in its mentions of these thinkers.

Birchall is a sharp polemicist and can look after himself - I'd just love to read his reply or even just hear his comments when he took time to read this assault. I must mention my personal (politically Pooteresque of course) connections here. I've known Ben for a long time and am in the index of Ben's brilliant book on Frank Zappa (The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play) for recommending the best (academic) book on pornographic film (Linda Williams' Hard Core if you must know). More recently I have had a sharp exchange with Ben in which my accusation that his view of Nietzsche was that of a hack was met with the view that I was a boring old fart who wasn't in the SWP couldn't talk to young people (but I had already prepared the ground for this by public denunciation of Ben's views about creativity and democracy by pointing out that it seemed incompatible with being in the SWP). And Ian Birchall had greeted my question at the very first 'Marxism' I went to ( a very long long time ago) about whether Cliff had changed his line on Luxemburg with a finely honed put-down clearly prepared to deal with impertinent 'sectarians' rather than further knowledge and understanding or answer my question ('no big deal' is the answer I'd accept now!). But I don't want anyone to think that I hold anything against of these dear and interesting comrades.

Another take on Birchall's Sartre Against Stalinism is provided by Rebecca Pitt in ISJ 102 ('Reclaiming Sartre') - questioning, but much more more balanced, although that bland word would be an intolerable provocation to Ben. Socialist Review in September 2004 had Gareth Jenkins also taking on the book ('Say It Ain't Joe' )

Older pieces by Birchall on Sartre are also available. Ian's 'Sartre and theMyth of Practice' appeared in two parts in the old International Socialism First Series. These are available on the excellent Reds web-site.
There is also a review by Ian of a noxious book on Sartre (Le Siecle de Sartre) by Bernard-Henry Levy in Historical Materialism 10, 3 (2002)
An earlier piece that focused on Audry ('Prequel to the Heidegger debate: Audry and Sartre') is to be found in Radical Philosophy 128
Ian's longstanding and I thought famous enthusiasm for Daniel Guerin (especially Guerin's work on the French Revolution) can be seen in his paper ('Daniel Guerin's dialogue with Leninism') to the September 2004 International Guerin conference on 'Daniel Guerin's dialogue with Leninism' .

For more by Ben Watson see the Militant Esthetix web-site.


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