Rebel Lives: Walter Benjamin

benjaminBy Andrew Raba

Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish writer who was born in Berlin in 1892 to a wealthy family with a background in banking and antiques trading. In 1912 he enrolled at university where he studied philosophy and developed a lifelong interest in Romantic literature and poetry. It was also at university that Benjamin first encountered the ideology of Zionism; a feature of Jewish political life that he had been sheltered from by his liberal upbringing. Benjamin arrived at a position which valued and promoted the spiritual depth and cultural value of Judaism whilst rejecting Zionist politics. His commitment to the reality of spiritual Judaism would remain a central feature through his life and writing. Then, in 1924, Benjamin made two discoveries that profoundly affected his philosophical and political thought. The discovery of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923) and his introduction to Bolshevism via the Latvian theatre director and Bolshevik Asja Lācis, led him to place Communism and later historical materialism at the centre of his thought.        [Read more…]

Introducing Gramsci

GramsciBy Josh Parsons

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist, active in the 1910s and 20s before his imprisonment by the Italian state under Mussolini. It was while he was imprisoned that Gramsci made his most well-known contributions to Marxist theory, including the key concept of hegemony.

Gramsci’s contributions are valuable not only theoretically, but for the many practical lessons that can be drawn from his life and writings.

Hegemony, the most well-known of Gramsci’s contributions, is at its essence the idea that the ruling classes are dominant in more than a purely economic sense. Not only do the classes at the top control vast amounts of wealth and the power of the state, but the ideas, theories, and values that come to be accepted by all as ‘common sense’ and ‘normal’. Through everyday life in the capitalist system – working for a wage, paying for one’s necessities, competing with fellow workers or businesses – and through the constant barrage of capitalist economics and theories in our schools and media, the capitalist system becomes naturalised. It is assumed that competition, individualism and economism are values shared by all, and that this is simply the way things are. This, in short, is the capitalist hegemony. [Read more…]

Daniel Bensaïd’s Slow Impatience


Daniel Bensaïd, An Impatient Life, trans. David Fernbach (Verso, 2013)

This absorbing, affecting memoir is a beautiful testament to a richly productive and dignified life. Daniel Bensaïd spent over forty years as a partisan of the revolutionary left in France, writing, campaigning, organising and agitating. Drawn into Communist politics as a young man and then radicalised, along with a significant section of his generation, by anti-colonial struggle abroad and the events of 1968 at home, Bensaïd was a leader and theorist in the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, a Trotskyist party that emerged, as a libertarian, free-thinking and inventive gathering together of the best of 1968. He represents so much of what is admirable about the militants of his generation. As well as being a fine writer, if David Fernbach’s elegant translation is any indication, Bensaïd was a thoughtful and reflective strategist. Too many memoirs of 1968 grub about in complacent nostalgia; Bensaïd’s interest was always in our possible future.

[Read more…]

Georg Lukács: the Actuality of the Revolution

lukacs-hungarian-soviet“Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.” This is how Georg Lukács opens his short book Lenin: a Study in the Unity of his Thought. Lukács was writing just as the peak of European revolutionary ferment had passed – his book was published in 1924 – and his message is clear. He restores the active, living aspect of Marxism – the self-emancipation of the working class – to full view, and, against the mechanical distortions of Marxism that had grown up through the period of the Second International, reminds us that historical materialism is, first and foremost, a guide to action, a tool for politics. At the heart of this politics is working-class agency:

Historical materialism is the theory of proletarian revolution. It is so because its essence is an intellectual synthesis of the social existence which produces and fundamentally determines the proletariat; and because the proletariat struggling for liberation finds its clear consciousness in it. 

The theory of proletarian revolution fuses knowledge about the conditions that create working-class life (the ‘social existence which produces’) with knowledge created by the struggle against that life. The class learns its world as it fights to change that world, to liberate itself. This is a radically democratic, flexible, open, living, breathing Marxism, a Leninism for learning. [Read more…]

May Day: 2013

GarlandforMayDayKaimahi kaha – workers’ power!

May Day greetings to all our readers. Although Labour Day has had more official recognition and celebration in Aotearoa / New Zealand over the decades, May Day is the internationalist celebration of workers’ struggle and solidarity. You can read about the history of May Day here.

May Day marks our ongoing struggle for workers’ rights, democracy, dignity and socialism. In Wellington Unite union are holding a film screening and discussion on their campaigns for better wages and conditions, a great way to commemorate past victories by planning future struggle. Unite union members in Auckland’s Queen Street McDonalds store are set to strike this afternoon – what better way to mark international workers’ day! [Read more…]

Order Prevails in Berlin! Remembering Rosa Luxemburg

Luxemburg94 years ago today Rosa Luxemburg was murdered. She was one of the great leaders in the history of the socialist movement internationally – a fierce opponent of imperialist war, suffering in jail for her opposition to the carnage of World War One, an original and innovative economist, a theorist of workers’ democracy.

Her book Reform or Revolution remains the classic statement of the case for revolution. Her writings on the mass strike –as fresh today as when they were first written – study how workers’ economic activities lead into political struggles, and how the self-activity of workers in the form of mass strike action is key to democratic, socialist revolution. Her acute analysis of the Russian Revolution – written with warm, but critical, solidarity – contains many insights still of vital relevance. [Read more…]