“Mostly harmless”

Three people are members of a far left group. Two are put under heavy internal pressure concerning writing they produce outside the organisation’s purview, on personal blogs (and one of these is additionally heavily criticised for contributions to the ‘party organ’). The third receives a little in the way of collateral griping. After the group’s annual conference, all three leave. One of them becomes irreconcilably hostile to his erstwhile organisation; a second mounts political criticisms without ostracising his erstwhile comrades; the third remains broadly in solidarity with them, but from a more forgiving position outside organisational discipline.

This is dog-bites-man stuff, of course, but the organisation in question is the Platypus Affiliated Society, a semi-academic post-Trot group operating mainly out of Chicago and New York, and so there is inevitably an odd twist: the level of hostility of their ex-comrades is entirely inversely proportional to the roughness of the ride they got when they were ‘on the inside’. There circulates an open letter, calling on people to “disengage” from Platypus, on the basis that they want to ‘destroy the left’; this is being put about by Ben Campbell, who was a member for a few months, before leaving for apparently personal reasons in April and immediately launching a crusade against the egg-laying mammal. I cannot say that his campaign is being particularly successful, since the list of signatories is full of people who already hated Platypus anyway (only obvious exceptions are the hipster-communists Jodi Dean and Bruno Bosteels).

I am in an odd position vis a vis Platypus, really. Some disclosure is necessary – my better half is a member of theirs; I am friends with others of them; I attend their reading groups in London when I can. On one level, that ought to put me in a better position than, say, Richard Seymour to divine whether my girlfriend has joined – as Campbell’s letter believes – a weird pro-imperialist personality cult; on the other, I have a ‘vested interest’ in that not being true.

On the political side of things, the story is a little more complicated. Platypus exists to defend a peculiarly precise sub-variant of hyper-Hegelian Marxism, in which (crudely speaking) our time is an epoch characterised by regression, in which the left – by failing to play its role as immanent critic of bourgeois society – has died. Without the left, the only likely future is barbarism. It’s a heady brew of Lukacs (commodity-reification theory), Adorno (the regression stuff, mostly); Moishe Postone (a more interesting case, in that Postone’s argument that the proletariat is internal to capital as a social relation is ‘turned on its head’: for Postone, this is explicitly an argument against the ‘traditional Marxist’ focus on the working class as historical agent, but for Platypus quite the opposite) and the Sparts (from whom they pick up, mainly, a suspicion of post-New Left identity politics and so forth). Their primary form of intervention is getting leftwing activists and academics onto a panel discussion, and asking them strange questions (“acutely symptomatic conversation”, goes the jargon) in the hope that the subject’s ‘voice will crack’ and be confronted with the deadness of his or her leftism. Perhaps – exactly how remains unclear – a better, more historically conscious left will emerge from this process.

I have serious problems with all these figureheads, of course. I am not a Hegelian Marxist; I believe Lukacsian reification theory is inherently idealist and obfuscatory; I like Adorno as literature, but he is at one with Lukacs where Lukacs is hopeless; Moishe Postone can only build his case for ‘reconstructing Marx’s mature critical theory’ by discarding more or less all of Marx barring the early sections of Capital and convenient parts of the Grundrisse, resulting in plenty of windmill-tilting and a completely distorted view of Marxism. As for the Sparts, well, they’re the Sparts.

I find them a little harder to shrug off than that, however; we may quibble over the word ‘dead’, but the left is at least undead, shambling through old rituals for the sake of it. They partially identify some of the problems that have brought us here – the rise of gesture politics, the depoliticisation of ostensible Marxism (for example, the rise of an ‘anti-imperialism’ that consists mainly in a load of pseudo-arguments for ‘rooting for the underdog’ in liberal style), the complete failure to deal with the collapse of the USSR.

As an aside, I equally derive a certain amount of pleasure from certain facts of it existence. Platypus is contemptuous of gender/race/whatever tokenism, yet nevertheless is an organisation with an unusually healthy membership balance on all these matters. After talking at their convention this year, I was immediately accosted by a 19-year old Chinese-American woman who argued my ear off for about an hour; this sort of thing never happens, ironically, in groups that bureaucratically engineer such outcomes. It demonstrates a strength of Platypus – it is exceptionally good at ‘cadreising’ people, educating its membership pretty effectively in what is (after all) a highly abstruse catechism of outsider-Marxist theory. (Perhaps the Labour Representation Committee could learn a lesson here, instead of blindly imposing a sort of PC version of the Tsarist Duma’s curia system on 100 or so mostly aging mostly white mostly men?)

The questions nevertheless remain: is Platypus a cult? is Platypus pro-imperialist? And is it a threatening opponent of the left, an enemy within to be shunned like state agents and so forth?

In the first place: my judgment is that Platypus is not a cult. It does not exhibit any of the classic cult behaviours. Contacts in the group’s periphery are immediately bombarded with the Platypus reading list, a great wodge of material spanning Hegel, Kant, Marx, Lenin and the esoterica of 20th century Hegelian Marxism. For an organisation recruiting mainly from students, it has an education programme more worthy of academic accreditation than much of what their charges will be studying in an official capacity. Cults recruit soft – and then go in hard when it’s too late.

Its members are capable of independent argument without reference to the works of the ‘chief pedagogue’ every five seconds. Ex-members, in several cases at least, remain friendly and are not arbitrarily excommunicated (treated better, in other words, than Richard Seymour is by the SWP). Leaked internal emails have Chris Cutrone loudly asserting his pre-eminent authority (“this is a guru-led organisation. Get over it!”); something he would not need to do if he actually had the kind of absolute authority ascribed to him by Campbell. This does not mean it will not become a cult – organising around a full philosophical rather than political programme tends to produce cults, thanks to the inherently fissile nature of philosophy. But we can call off the deprogrammers for now.

The pro-imperialism tag has more justice, although it has to come with caveats. Cutrone recently outlined the Platypus ‘position’ on imperialism (a sign of sorts that external pressure is taking its toll, since Platypus is not supposed to have ‘positions’). He focuses on Iraq, and it is essentially the Alliance for Workers Liberty position, with one or two differences of nuance – “we don’t support the US in Iraq, but we don’t call for it to withdraw from Iraq either.” Since the question actually posed by the Iraq (and other) misadventures is whether we consent to them – ie, whether or not we are prepared to actively campaign for their interruption – the AWL and Cutrone alike find themselves on the same side for practical purposes as Hitchens & co, albeit without the overlay of crass bloodlust. Still, what we have here is not an American antideutsch, as has been suggested, but rather a very traditional form of third-camp slippage. It should be (and is easily) challenged in polemic, not placed inside a cordon sanitaire.

As to whether or not Platypus is a threat, to be avoided like carriers of the dreaded lurgy – it isn’t, which is ultimately a problem for them. Speaking on a Platypus panel is an odd experience – a lot of people ask you questions that aren’t really questions, but have been grammatically tortured into a question sort of shape. The result is that voices rarely, to my mind, ‘crack’ – such questions can be answered any which way you like. And they are. A well-made polemical point is not so easily batted away.

But if it’s that easy, why so much hostility? In this scenario, there is one version of leftism which is not opened up to criticism – the Platypus version. There develops a sense that one is a kind of museum piece, being intrusively investigated by a gaggle of inquisitive schoolchildren on a day trip. There is no hidden agenda with Platypus, really – all the ‘scandalous’ stuff is on their website – but the idea of one is compelling for real reasons.

My view is that this is a pretty paralysing situation. The chosen mode of intervention almost precludes really putting the ‘dead left’ under political pressure; it equally carries some subliminally off-putting baggage. Platypus could become a old-fashioned far-left group, by taking its opponents on directly in polemic; or it could become a mundane academic project, with all the collegiate chumminess that implies. The comrades are horrified at the prospect of either, and their practice is perched between the two; but they are stuck there, like a man hanging off a cliff by his fingertips. They can’t hold on forever. In this predicament, also, their own theory will stagnate, because it is insulated from critique – and God knows that reading list could do with a cull, stuck as it is in the baleful circularity of Hegelian Marxism. For all the talk of death and destruction, the platypus is – like the human – mostly harmless.

Meanwhile, the corpse continues to decompose. There is no injury any hundred-strong group of Marxist students could inflict on the left that it has not already inflicted on itself.


3 thoughts on ““Mostly harmless”

  1. Three left, but if the third is who you seem to imply it is, then there are four. I should know, I was one of them and co-founded the Seoul chapter which is now defunct. I am part of the North Star, but I did not sign Ben’s letter for reasons that should in line to your second person. But anyway, I agree with your general assessment of the situation as it played out.

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