Cosmic Rays vs. Teddie Bears

Ben Watson

Contribution to “Althusser, Debord and Adorno Reconsidered in the light of Dunayevskaya: Dialectic Regained,” International Marxist-Humanist Meeting with Kevin Anderson and Dave Black at Mayday Rooms, Fleet Street, London, Wednesday, June 25, 2014. This article first appeared on the web blog of the Association of Musical Marxists – Editors

crvstbTo have one basis for life and another for science is a priori a lie” said Marx [MECW Vol 3, p. 303], bringing down many noble intellectual and philosophical systems like a house of cards. His pronouncement recalls Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the gates of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517. The Roman Catholic Church may have existed for over a millennium, it may have brought emperors low and united Europe across feudal boundaries, it may be able to pump revenue from a million sources, but if Johann Tetzel is selling indulgences with the Pope’s approval, meaning that the rich can simply pay money to have their sins absolved, then it’s a lie — and the whole thing is a vile shithouse demanding demolition. Marx’s assault on what passes for knowledge and science under capitalism is that extreme, that radical, that demanding.

Marx wrote this in 1844 in a newspaper article called “Private Property and Communism”. It was cited in 1966 by Raya Dunayevskaya in Tokyo. She was addressing Zenshin, a new grouping of the Japanese anti-Stalinist left. Dunayevskaya had been invited over from the States by student youth, auto-workers, anti-war activists and marxists to talk about Hegel [Negativity, p. 158; pp. 137-159]. So I’ve got all these names flying about: Luther, Hegel, Marx, Dunayevskaya. Some people in this room know far more about these writers than I do, and some may’ve never heard of them, particularly not of Raya Dunayevskaya. It’s said that in the 1950s, Tony Cliff, the founder of the SWP, said he’d “do the economics” of revolutionary marxism, while Dunayevskaya could “do the philosophy”. Unfortunately, Dunayevskaya wasn’t much talked about among the rank and file of the SWP in the ensuing decades, indicating a lack of philosophical discussion in the party, and is only now being talked about among the party’s dissenters, dissidents and ejectees. Dunayevskaya, although formidable and intelligent (and one of the most astute commentators on Marx’s Capital you can read) had absolutely no designs on academia. Because of a mistaken notion that fashions in academia matter a jot, the SWP mostly ignored Dunayevskaya, a flaw that is today being repaired by meetings like this.

So in 1966, Dunayevskaya was talking about Hegel to a New Left groupuscule in Tokyo. Why? These were heady times. The Civil Rights movement in the United States had introduced a new politics: an end to discrimination, a restitution of human equality, dragging Jesus’s teaching and practice away from the compromise of official Christianity. It also produced a new music: rhythm’n’blues, gospel, soul and hard bop, and their flowering in Hendrix and Coltrane. Due to the LP record, both developments were embraced all over the world, and in Japan particularly. But why Hegel? Because in turning marxism into an ideology for “socialism in one country”, by making it an excuse for Russian chauvinism, Five Year Plans, austerity and the arms race, Stalin had destroyed its intellectual integrity. Dunayevskaya was a native of Detroit. Her News & Letters group is as essential to revolutionary thinking as Motown is to soul music. To talk about marxism and revolutionary politics without mentioning Dunayevskaya is like talking about Soul music without mentioning Marvin Gaye — ridiculous. She didn’t travel to Tokyo in order to talk about Hegel just to show off she could interpret a philosopher regularly dismissed by “educated”, middle-class people in this country as “impossibly difficult”. She did it because she believed his way of thinking, his logic, his “dialectic”, his understanding of how humans relate to nature and each other … underlay all the discoveries Marx had made about industrial capitalism in nineteenth century Britain — and how it was going to scarf up the world and create a small group of trillionaires lording it over impoverished masses. And if you take off your “national” spectacles, the narrow parliamentary focus which means Jeremy Paxman never understood anything, you’ll see that that’s exactly what’s happening globally today.

Dunayevskaya on Lenin: “Lenin’s profound grasp of the universal, and the individual in Hegel made him realise … that all the contradictions of capitalism are included in the simple exchange of commodities.” (Negativity, p. 155). In other words, we are living through capitalism every day, every time we take a wage, buy or sell something on eBay, enter a shop. It’s not some wicked practice confined to bankers and black-suited specialists in the City. They may be working full-time in “the finance sector”, but capitalism is not simply finance, it dictates whether we live or we die. When we fall in love, we give up economic egoism and calculation and share what we have with another person [Adorno/Horkheimer: “the lover is always he who loves beyond measure” DoE, p.73]. That is the great ideal, according to Dunayevskaya, and so those who bring reality down to finance and profitability are our enemy. And we are our own enemies when caught in the cash nexus. When we create situations via free association, actions we do for the love of it, we have started to subvert capitalism: and we know we’re onto something when the professional compromisers start to squeal. People who’ve read Adorno and Debord may recognise those formulations as summaries of their philosophies (though maybe deprived of the pinch of Angst they put in), but since I’m not at a PhD viva “proving my case” in front of a tribunal of hostile academics, I won’t burden my talk with chapter and verse.

So the point of marxism is being able to descry the Universal in the Particular, understanding how everytime we earn or shop we are connecting to global capitalism. Religious, political and media racketeers seek to corral the Universal within their systems and charge a price of admission, but it’s the price of admission which is the truly universal moment. According to Dunayevskaya, Charles Denby, the auto-worker who wound up editing News & Letters, had a favourite quote from Hegel. It was from Phenomenology of Spirit (1807): “Enlightenment …upsets the housekeeping of Spirit in the household of Faith by bringing into that household the tools and utensils of this world.” [Negativity, p. 290, PoS §486] In this case, philosophy was ahead of art. Hegel’s statement anticipates a Dadacomposition in which a picture of nail clippers cut from a sales catalogue is glued over a picture of the Virgin Mary. It was not for nothing that Magritte named a picture Hegel’s Holiday. I was pleased to discover this was Charles Denby’s favourite quote. In 2004, before I discovered Dunayevskaya and the Detroit News & Letters group, I gave a lecture on Frank Zappa and Hegel at Zappanale #14. I quoted that sentence. I used it to gloss the cover of One Size Fits All, where God smokes a cigar and contemplates his sofa floating in cosmic space. Am I saying that Frank Zappa was deep in Hegel and I should be awarded points for tracking iconography in a manner worthy of art-historian Erwin Panovsky? Er, no. The image of ideas as a kind of “pass-the-parcel”, handed down by cultured minds to each other through the ages, is idealist, bogus and bad. It confuses ideas with property, and is completely redundant now that capitalism has created a global class whose commonsense — anti-banker, anti-war, pro-pleasure, debunking — is philosophically in advance of the connoisseurs and experts. Real ideas, and all real ideas are essentially revolutionary, are articulations, expressions, coinages made of the general currency, concepts made possible by the turmoil of the mass, the crisis of the totality. I realised this when I started finding “coincidences” between Zappa, funk and punk and the so-called “elitist” music criticism of Theodor Adorno … all were in fact just echoes of the 60s Big Bang, which was a global mass experience.

This argument is there in Dunayevskaya when she inveighs against Francis Bacon’s dictum “knowledge is power” (one I see has been enthusiastically embraced by Birkbeck Night School), dissing it as a “purely cultural” observation, ignorant of the social base of ideas (Negativity, p. 40). She polemicises against Mao’s “cultural” revolution for the same reason (Negativity, pp. 118-119). As Walter Benjamin observed, those who call for a purely cultural or spiritual revolution, without changing economic inequalities, can only be served by fascistic political movements [“Artwork” essay].

Now, one of the tasks handed me by the IMHOs today is to “reassess Theodor Adorno in the light of Dunayevskaya”. However, I am going to precede this reassessment (which I will get to, by the way) by doing a dialectic switch and assessing Dunayevskaya in the light of Adorno, although an Adorno torn from his cultural roots, as indeed he was as a Jewish refugee from Nazism. Aware of art movements in the Berlin of the 1920s, Adorno and his friend Benjamin understood and sympathised with Dada. Adorno’s writings about so-called “classical” music — Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler — cannot be understood without realising he’s looking at classical culture after it’s been made absurd by what Lenin called “the simple exchange of commodities”. Hence his interest in sheer physical affect, the bodily impression music makes, rather than on musical education and such pastimes as recognising tunes (I couldn’t believe it at Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson’s wedding, when Chris Bambery bounced up to me and showed off by telling me which Mozart Kirkle opus number was being played by the string quartet — whereas if he’d noticed how the sound of the strings was made bizarre by mixing with the beeps of mobile phones and the chatter of the guests, a phenomenological observation such as made by those who produce music themselves, I might have given him the time of day).

Despite being an avid reader of Marx and Lenin, Dunayevskaya embraced new political movements — Civil Rights, the Women’s Movement, Black Power. However, she reserved the moment of immediacy, the idea that we can all contemplate the universal, and it’s not the preserve of priests or economists or marxist academics, for Hegelian philosophy. For her, Hegel, the philosopher of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, sets us on course for abolishing all inequalities, all oppressions, all limits to the infinite expansion of human freedom. But although she could see why most people deem “politics”, the bourgeois democratic charade, irrelevant, her focus remained on politics and philosophy. By taking musical expression seriously, Adorno opens our minds to pop culture. Paradoxically, since he was often accused of elitism, he starts us listening to messages from our bodies, our animal species being. His approach is polemically anti-dualist, and rejects the split between matter and spirit which justifies elitist ways of thinking. We set up the Association of Musical Marxists because we think that without this collective discussion of music — not “learning the classics”, Bambery-style, but psychoanalysing our drives and desires, paying attention to our instinctual, unguarded responses — politics, however “revolutionary”, becomes dry, stale, moralistic and mechanical: humourless, undemocratic and unutterably boring.

So that’s what Adorno might contribute: an attention to music lacking in Dunayevskaya. In turn, Dunayevskaya help us reassess Adorno. Really useful ideas, what Hegel called Begriffe, grasp something in the real world, embody reality, they are three dimensional. They are not flat “opinions” which can be ticked off according to a personal checklist. One way to treat Adorno is to try and split off the earlier, more dadaist Adorno from the gloomy moralist of the post-war years, where he became famous as the philosopher of a de-Nazified Germany, saying things like “After Auschwitz there can be no more poetry”. These later texts have provided rich pickings for sententious essays and dubious politics (I am thinking of art-world Adornoism, Hannah Arendt and the anti-Deutsch movement here). However, genuine ideas are three-dimensional, everything depends on how they are lit. I have found that revolutionary proletarians read Adorno’s statements differently from bourgeois specialists — because they read by a burning torch called the Necessity of Revolution rather than by a drawing-room lamp called the Inevitability of Defeat. Maybe our light catches less in the later Adorno, but there are still some marvellous twinkles.

True, there are explicit criticisms of Adorno and his colleagues in Dunayevskaya. She is spot on each time, proving that testing her marxism on car-workers rather than philosophy students made it harder and sharper than theirs. Herbert Marcuse was the poster-boy of Adorno’s circle, a populariser, and in 1964 he had a bestseller with One Dimensional Man. Nevertheless he developed that professorial tic, which is to abraid the revolutionary aspirations of his students as “immature” and “romantic”, even though the good professor has made a career out of peddling revolutionary writers. This led him to write a forward to Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom where he dissed her political acumen and her romanticism about the American working class, accusing her of merely reviving Marx, not making the “thorough theoretical modification” his ideas required for today [p. 12]. It must have greatly satisfied Dunayevskaya to oversee the English edition in which she replaced Marcuse’s preface with one by Harry McShane, Red Clydsider and chair of Glasgow Trades Council.

In 1974, Dunayevskaya was asked to talk to the Hegel Society of America at Georgetown University, not people noted for their sympathy for Lenin and the Bolsheviks or for auto-worker trade-unionists. In the event, she went down a storm as they realised the vitality and urgency of her Hegel. She used the opportunity to issue a fabulous polemic versus Adorno over his travesty of Hegel in his book Negative Dialectics. To be fair, Adorno did not actually call Auschwitz, Hegel’s “negation of the negation”, a pet concept for Dunayevskaya, but “absolute negativity”. However, his formulation, making of Nazi genocide a horror so great that no culture and politics can survive it, did give a green light to much histrionic, self-aggrandising tripe. Active anti-fascists cannot read these maunderings without a certain writhing in the stomach, about how “we” are all guilty because we are still living but six million died. It’s prime fodder for the New York Review of Books, but I don’t see how it’s going to help Paz Thompson and the Antifascist Network break up Britain First’s proposed “Roadshow” in July. Indeed, like Lukács, I harbour a suspicion that the agonising “despair” of Adorno, the self-serving pretence to stare into the abyss when no-one else dares [“Hotel Abgrund“], can only come from someone who assumes privilege as a mantle and a comfort blanket; hence my title contrasting Teddie Bears (“Teddie” was Adorno’s nickname, from “Theodor”) to Cosmic Rays, since I find Dunayevskaya’s Hegelian sense of the exalted role we play as conscious nature truly “cosmic”, satisfying all the spiritual pangs which wracked me during my adolescence – and which I suppressed during my “intellectual” twenties.

But then, one can always throw urgencies of activism in the face of philosophical endeavour. It’s been done to me many times. So let me try and explain what Dunayevskaya is defending in Hegel, and how it is relevant to what Paz and co are up to. What exactly is “the negation of the negation”, this phrase from Hegel that crept into Capital when Marx was defining the historic role of the global working class? To me, dialectical concepts prove their worth analysing something concrete, something particular. “Negation of the negation” is an essential idea because it prevents you getting stuck in the world of concepts, that dreadful place where you have to support something you know to be hypocritical, corrupt and unjust because “it’s better than the alternative”. You know what I’m talking about. It’s called voting Labour. The “negation of the negation” raises a banner for real thinking, for real perception, for honesty — for what the Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu with his inspiringly half-formed English calls “truthness”. It’s for going beyond the choices we’re offered and the stuck-concepts they’re based on, and thinking something new, something never seen or heard before. To talk personally, I first realised what it meant when I pondered why I liked Frank Zappa and Punk Rock so much. Rock music, the counter-culture, the Blues Boom and the hippies were the first negation of capitalist pop music, the first intimation that somehow it wasn’t delivering the goods, that we wanted something more real, “heavier” – but the counter-culture was insufficient. You can only understand the politics of music, you can only get beyond Paul McCartney and Richard Branson if you negate the negation, and see what scabrous things Zappa and Rotten had to say about the record industry and the hippies.

The labour movement in Britain was smashed by Margaret Thatcher and Ian MacGregor when they won their victory against the miners in 1985. This meant that the Dialectic, which I follow Dunayevskaya in calling the human need for freedom, was pushed underground. The 80s and 90s were years when, as a music journalist, I was told not to use the words “capitalism” or “working class” in my record reviews because “they look old-fashioned” and would “alienate” my readers. The Battle of Seattle and J18 in 1999 changed that and put “anti-capitalism” on the map, and politically we’re no longer living through the worst. But I’m convinced that if we say Hegel and the dialectic are “too difficult” — an “algebra of revolution” only available to revolutionary experts, who then formulate so-called accessible demands like “oppose austerity” and “fight the cuts” to win mass opposition — we are on a hiding to nothing. We are imitating the capitalists who hide all the real deals behind the scenes and have politicians to spout twaddle no-one really believes. The Enlightenment discovery that there are no Gods above us — whether named Jehovah, “financial realism” or Political Correctness — that WE are the pinnacle of the material universe, human consciousness which wants to be truly human and not exist by preying on our fellow beings, that is the Dialectic Regained. And anyone who believes this and acts on this is a philosopher, and should guide us and instruct us, whether or not they’ve read Hegel — or Dunayevskaya — or whether, like Frank Zappa, they’ve read very few books at all.

A mentor of mine, Cambridge poet Ian Patterson, once responded to something I’d written by sending me a postcard with the phrase “many keyholes through the same door” written on it. I took it as a rebuff to my singularity at the time, but I find I have now grown to like the idea. In the spirit of that motto, I’d like to finish with a couple of quotations from socialists other than Dunayevskaya. My first is from Bishop Brown, the Red Bishop of Galion, Ohio, who in the early 1920s shocked his congregation by deciding that the Church of America was lying about everything in order to justify class privilege, and that Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, not the Bible, described the universe correctly. However, Bishop Brown retained a sense of the poignancy and reality of our lives which too often evaporates when people swap religion for politics. It is this dimension, you can call it “religious” or “existential” or “punk rock” if you want, which is what we need to … never mind “change the world” … to be happy, to talk, to live, to find true friends and comrades …

No man [said Bishop Brown] can live the moral part of his psychical (soul) life on the truth of another, any more than he can live his physical (body) life on the meals of another. Everyone must have his own truths, even as he must have his own meals. [Christianism and Communism Analysed and Contrasted from the Marxian and Darwinian Points of View, 1932, pp. 46-47] [my emphases OTL]

And I’ll finish with a quote from Helen Macfarlane, nineteenth-century revolutionary polemicist and herself a Hegelian, the first translator of the Communist Manifesto into English, a text published in the pages of the Red Republican, a Chartist newspaper, in December 1850. Dave Black has spent a couple of decades bringing Macfarlane back from oblivion, a necessary resurrection, since she brings to socialism the same kind of religious fervour (is that what today we call “communication skills”?) as Bishop Brown:

But the new religion, that of unlimited spiritual freedom — whose dawn is now visible, whose banner bears the sacred inscription, Equality, Liberty, Fraternity — will also find a befitting secular mode of expression. It will bring in its train corresponding institutions and social forms. It will assume the outward form of a republic such as the world has never yet seen. “A republic without helots”; without poor; without classes; without hereditary hewers of wood and drawers of water; without slaves, whether chattel or wage slaves. For if I treat all men as divine, how can there be for me such a thing as a slave? A society, such indeed as the world has never yet seen — not only of free men, but of free women: a society of equally holy, equally blessed gods. [Helen Macfarlane, “Signs of the Times: Red-Stockings versus Lawn-Sleeves” Friend of the People 26-xii-1850]

I cannot stand to be among people whose prime aim is to “get right” what someone else said in the past, to prove you’ve read something and can repeat it. This to me resembles people who treat the Bible as a bible – THE book – rather than as a poetry, something to open the floodgates of your own possibilities.  The entire universe is our book. Let’s read it!


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