Hobgoblin Journal


By David Black

June 21 2005


In the unipolar world of Bush-led US imperialism and the continued offensive of the US-backed regime in Israel, an anti-Americanism has been developing that, in some cases, is hard to distinguish from the “socialism of fools” that is anti-Semitism.

In England, the Socialist Workers Party’s initiative, “Respect”, self-advertised as a “post-modern” coalition, is spearheaded by George Galloway, “Old Labour” demagogue and now Respect MP. Galloway in his time has made common cause with both Stalinism and Baathism. He says,with some nostalgia, "just as Stalin industrialised the Soviet Union, so on a different scale Saddam plotted Iraq's own Great Leap Forward."
In the trade unions Respect has little presence, although a few leaders (such as the Civil Service union PCS’s Mark Serwotka) have lent guarded support.

Following the ‘downturn’ in class struggle caused by the de-industrialisation of the British economy under Thatcher/Major/Blair, which has halved trade union membership, the SWP have now kicked the class struggle into the long grass and opted for communalist popular frontism. If Respect has a “mass base” it is constituted by the Moslem Association of Britain (founded in 1997 by Kemal el-Hebawy, a European representive of the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood).

An editorial in the latest issue of the SWP journal International Socialism calls on the Left to work internationally with the Muslim Brotherhood, while admitting that “other sections of the left hate us for this…” This may be true; emotions can run high given the SWP’s tendency to hurl the accusation of “racist” at anyone who challenges their support for Islamic fundamentalism. There is nothing new in the fact that the SWP’s condition for unity on the Middle East is “Anti-Zionism,” which for them is a euphemism for total opposition to the existence of Israel as a state. What is disturbing is that the anti-Semitism of reactionary enemies of Israel is ignored or excused on the grounds that they are “oppressed by Imperialism” – even if they happen to be Saudi multi-millionaires. Instead anti-Semitism is projected onto the avowedly racist British National Party who, in their own sly way, have welcomed Respect’s electoral gains as a vindication of their own openly racial communalist politics (which they even talk of in terms of “multiculturalism”).

There are two related issues to be discussed in this essay: “vanguardism” and the roots of the problem in the nature of Capital itself.


Adam Curtis’ highly-acclaimed BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, charts the rise, from the 1950s onwards, of two forces whose ideas have deeply impacted on global politics: the US Neoconservatives, inspired by Leo Strauss and the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, whose chief ideologist was Sayyed Qutb.
Strauss, according to his disciple Professor Harvey Mansfield, believed that “Western liberalism led to nihilism, and had undergone a development at the end of which it could no longer define itself or defend itself… Made us into herd animals - sick little dwarves, satisfied with a dangerous life in which nothing is true and everything is permitted.”

Strauss argued that the belief in individual freedom undermined the shared moral framework that held society together. Curtis explains that for Strauss, the solution “was for politicians to assert powerful and inspiring myths that everyone could believe in. They might not be true, but they were necessary illusions. One of these was religion; the other was the myth of the nation. And in America, that was the idea that the country had a unique destiny to battle the forces of evil throughout the world.” In the 1960s, when the “evil” was communism, Strauss’s “vanguard” attracted students such as Paul Wolfowitz, Francis Fukuyama and Bill Kristol. Curtis explains that “This group became known as the neoconservatives.”

Corey Robin, in ‘Protocols of Machismo’ (London Review of Books May 19 2005) says that in the Iraq adventure the Neocons “grand idea” was not so much the democratisation of the Middle East, or imperial conquest of the world, as:

“an idea of themselves as a brave and undaunted army of transgression. The gaze of the neo-con, like that of America’s autistic ruling classes, does not look outward nearly as much as it looks inward: on their restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything – not even the rules and norms they believe are their country’s gift to the world.”

The “army of transgression” in Robin’s account, includes the torturers, assassins, blackmailers and the like whose actions in the “War on Terror” have been legitimized by the Neocon intellectuals. Robin, reading Seymour Hersh’s book, ‘Chain of Command’, sees in the Neocons a “romanticism” which is nowhere more apparent than in their struggle with “the generals, spies and analysts who make up the American security establishment.” Neocon David Brooks of the New York Times, is quoted attacking CIA bureaucrats’ “bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians,” who ignore “novelistic judgements” informed by “history literature, philosophy and theology.”

The apparent romanticism should however be seen in the context of a different “logic” which is anything but romantic; one that reveals the Neocons to be what they are: personifications of capital. But what about the other side of the equation: political Islam? The earlier-quoted article from International Socialism, while urging Islamotrot unity, also claims that “the higher ranks of the Muslim Brothers are getting more bourgeois in the sense of accepting totally reformist methods.”

Bourgeois as opposed to what? Feudal? Reformist as opposed to revolutionary? SWP founder Tony Cliff once attacked the Brotherhood as “fascist” - as shown in an article he wrote in 1945 which was recently reprinted by Solidarity to show the difference between “then and now.” Cliff however was writing about the Brotherhood in its “pre-ideological” phase, before the arrival of Sayyed Qutb on the scene. According to Curtis, Qutb, having seen the USA at close hand in late-1940s, returned to Egypt in 1950:

“Qutb realized that American culture was already spreading to Egypt, trapping the masses in its seductive dream. What was needed, he believed, was an élite, a vanguard who could see through these illusions of freedom, just as he had in America, and who would then lead the masses to realize the higher truth.”

In 1952, Nasser and his Free Officers Council formed an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to provide a mass-base for the Revolution that overthrew King Farouk. The deal also involved the elimination of the Communist Party. The Brotherhood, for their part, were given control of education. But since the Brotherhood was allied with Nasser’s worst enemies, such as the Saudi royal family, the coalition did not last long. Nasser moved against the Brotherhood in 1954 and arrested their leadership, including Qutb, who suffered imprisonment and torture. Qutb decided that the Arab world was becoming infected by spiritual disease spreading from the West which he called jahilliyah - a state of barbarous ignorance. Curtis says, “What made it so terrifying and insidious was that people didn’t realize that they were infected. They believed that they were free…”

Qutb was eventually executed for plotting to kill Nasser in 1966, but his ideas were carried forward by Ayman Zawahiri, future mentor of Osama bin-Laden.
Scholars, both in the West and the Muslim world, have pointed to the influence of Soren Kierkegaard’s existentialism on Qutb’s early thought. The Danish Christian philosopher saw Hegel’s philosophy as an attempt to subvert religion with philosophic reason and to subsume the individual into “historicism.”

Kierkegaard denounced the Christians of his own time for a kind of moral sickness and false consciousness, in which the extraordinary beliefs they professed seemed to have no practical consequences in their everyday lives. Only from a sense of terror and absurdity could the individual “leap into the abyss” of religious belief and – history be damned - act accordingly in obedience to the word of God. According to Roxanne Euben, speaking in Curtis’ film, for Qutb’s political Islam, the pervasiveness of “false consciousness” meant that “any way of fighting it becomes justified and legitimate, and in fact has a kind of existential weight, because somehow it’s doing God’s will on earth.“

Curtis points out that Qutb’s new vision for the Brotherhood was in no sense anti-modern; the new order would have all the benefits of Western science and technology. Qutb gave the intellect complete freedom to explore the material world as instrumental reason and no freedom whatsoever in the sphere of morals and “spirituality”.


The significance of such “modernism” is developed by Moishe Postone, author of ‘Time Labor and Social Domination’. At a conference at London’s Birkbeck College in November 2004, Postone, in discussing his essay, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, pointed out that in Qutb’s writings in the 1950s, the displacement of the Palestinians receives scant attention in comparison to the violence of his attacks on the Zionist project as “the bridgehead for a degenerate civilisation founded by Durkheim, Freud and Marx that saps the organic vitality of healthy societies.” This, Postone continued, “has very little to do with the Moslem tradition, and strongly echoes National Socialism.”

Postone argues that anti-Semitism is unlike other forms of racism because it projects enormous global and “invisible” power to a “Jewish conspiracy.” National Socialism saw itself as reasserting the importance of the concrete dimension, which includes technology and industrial production which are seen as part and parcel of “healthy organic social life.” Fascism saw itself “at one with the workers and peasants” against finance capital and as part of an international revolt against the bourgeois order. Accordingly, Postone reacts strongly to any mechanical separation between finance and industrial capital, which is all too pervasive in the “anti-globalisation” movement – a case of leftism infected with rightwing populism.

Postone situates his argument within his analysis of the categories of Marx’s ‘Capital’. What characterises the commodity form is that it is constituted by labour, exists in an objectified form and it has a dualistic character - both a physical and a value form. Whereas material wealth is mediated by knowledge, social organization and natural conditions, value is constituted only by the expenditure of human labour time. For Postone, Marx’s analysis is of an abstract structure of domination in which there is increasing fragmentation of individual labour (and individual existence) and “a blind runaway developmental logic.” Because of the dual aspect of the category it becomes ideologically possible to separate off the concrete, as being in some way socially “natural,” from the abstract, which is seen as impinging on the concrete and distorting it. This opposition allows us to understand the “modernity” of National Socialism.

Rejecting the old base-superstructure model of “Traditional Marxism,” Postone takes from Lukacs the idea that commodity production is not just a structured form of social practice, but is also a structuring principle of consciousness: a form of both social subjectivity and objectivity. Postone rejects however Lukacs’ notion of mass proletarian class consciousness as the identity of subject and object. Postone argues that the accumulation of socially general knowledge renders proletarian labour increasingly anachronistic, although he recognizes that because of its dualistic nature (value and use-value; abstract and concrete labour) commodity production has to reconstitute labour in order to continue. But Postone refuses to grant labour any historical subjectivity; rather, he sees the subject as capital, although he does state in ‘Time Labor and Social Domination’ that “overcoming the historical Subject”—i.e., capital—”would allow people, for the first time, to become the subjects of their own liberation” (p. 224).

The apparent disappearance of the “traditional” subject can have unexpected consequences. In Dresden in February 2005, there was a Leftist counter-demonstration against neo-Nazis who were commemorating the Allied bombing of 1945, in which 35,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in one night. What was unusual was that many of the Left were holding up pictures of “Bomber” Harris and waving US and Israel flags. Some were even sloganising “Why all the fuss over a few thousand dead Krauts.” This tendency, known as the anti-German German Left, first began to emerge when the Berlin Wall fell. Stephan Grigat, member of the Viennese “anti-German communist group,” Café Critique, says that they opposed German reunification, not because of any sympathy for the Stalinist GDR, but because they thought that reunification would erase “the last visible consequences of the German responsibility for exterminatory war and shoah… making it possible for Germany to take a new chance and make a new attempt in its delusional efforts.” He qualifies this by saying that “’German’ should always be understood in the sense of criticism of ideology. It is not a matter of an hereditary national character, but a political-economic constellation which favors extermination, where others in the West pursue certain goals with the help of certain means.”

During the 1990s, the critique was extended to deal with the “historical mistakes of traditional Marxism… Criticising anti-Semitic anti-Zionism within the Left eventually resulted in an explicit partisanship for Israel.” Furthermore, since “the anti-Semitic massacre on 9/11” revealed the “final bankruptcy of the Left,” the Anti-Germans have gone further and seem to implicitly support the US-led War in Iraq (the fact that Germany withheld support is seen as another indication of nationalist reaction):

“There is something worse than capitalism and bourgeois society: its barbarous abolition. And that is what Germany stands for, that is what national socialism and fascism stand for, that is also what pan-Arabic-nationalist ideas and Islamist ideas stand for today…”

As well as citing Marx and Adorno, Grigat and his comrades place great importance on the ideas of Postone:

“Authors who are oriented towards Marx like the Chicago sociology professor Moishe Postone have shown how and why interest capital and other aspects of bourgeois society are associated with Jews in a paranoid and delusional way.”

The question of the anti-Germans’ use of Postone’s work was raised at the Birkbeck conference by a supporter of the Aufheben collective. Regarding the War in Iraq Postone replied it had presented a “real dilemma for the left” given that the War was a clash between “an imperialist power and a local fascist – and the Baath was a fascist party; that’s it’s origins.” But this was “not a choice that people should make.” On the anti-Germans, he said, “I’m not happy that my writing is being used that way because I would want it to be used to crack open the dualism which has been mentally destructive to the Left.” So it seems that just as it is unfair to blame Marx for Stalin’s purges, or Kierkegaard for 9/11, so Postone should not be held responsible for the excesses of the anti-German Germans.


If the “traditional” Left and workers movement is dead, what might yet save us from the “blind runaway developmental logic” of capital? Peter Hudis, in his critique of Postone's ‘Time, Labor and Social Domination’ (‘The Death of the Death of the Subject’) says that the discussion of the two-dimensionality of capital “helps focus radical critique on the true problem of the contradiction between the drive to increase material wealth vs. the drive to augment value instead of on subsidiary issues like corporate greed or the lack of democratic control over corporate decisions.” But “What is original with Postone is his effort to argue that Marx's value-theoretic categories show that Marx did not consider the working class as subject.” Hudis comments:

“No one today is reaching for a universal subject, be it the proletariat or anyone else, before which all should genuflect. The notion of a singular subject, or reducing all social struggles to the proletariat, belongs to a historical period which is behind us and which will not return. But the present moment does not disclose a rejection of proletarian subjectivity per se.”

Certainly, one could point to the fact that some workers struggles are currently focused in the very field that Postone sees as so crucial, namely the domination of Labour by Time (such as strikes and protests by French workers over the attacks on holidays and retirement age). In Hudis’ view Postone’s argument that capitalism is more and more dependent on socially constituted knowledge and practices that do not involve the “productive” labourer fails to acknowledge that “such knowledge and practices are more and more falling under the sway of commodified relations which characterize the traditional factory” and that such non-traditional workers are involved in struggles with Capital.

Postone theorizes the displacement of the “transhistorical subject” of labour with the transhistorical subject that capital seems to have actually become. But he conflates the position of various post-Marx Marxists, who held that value production is to be “realized” in socialism (rather than abolished), with the early Marx’s appropriation of Hegel’s Idea of Freedom working through history and a transhistorical concept of labour at odds with value production. Despite the discrediting of “Traditional Marxism” there is no logical reason to accept that living labourers, constituted or re-constituted as a class, will never resist the dead labour bearing down on their lives. If Marx’s critique is as relevant today as Postone says it is, then it might provide a different reading: one which, though not at odds with much of Postone’s analysis, might suggest that the “labourers,” alongside the new forces, might yet reconstitute themselves as subjects of history who will uproot the fetish of the commodity and establish new human relations.

June 21 2005