by Seth Weiss
On January 31, a particularly unprincipled attack was launched against MHI on a “friends only” Facebook page. At the center of things is Harrison Fluss, co-author with Landon Frim of two pieces in Jacobin, “Aliens, Antisemitism, and Academia” and “Dialectical Enlightenment,” that are touched on in Part IV of MHI’s 2018 Perspectives, “Combatting ‘Post-Truth Politics.’” Fluss, in responding to the Perspectives, opened up a forum for a series bizarre personal attacks on an MHI member, Andrew Kliman. Such ad hominem attacks represent a retreat from reasoned argument and threaten to stifle the free discussion of ideas and the forward development of left thought.
Here, I will take up both the personal attack and Fluss’s more substantive remarks.
Fluss begins with the contention that Andrew Kliman called him insufficiently Hegelian and a reformist. As evidence, Fluss points to a passage from Part IV of the Perspectives:
Nor does the return to Enlightenment reason advocated by Fluss and Frim, shorn as it is of the dialectical reason of Hegel and Marx, open a path forward. Inasmuch as a position that begins from Spinoza’s Substance lacks a concept of internal contradiction, it occludes recognition of the possibility of capital engendering its own opposite, and thus tends to reinforce the reformist and substitutionist tendencies of today’s left populism.
MHI’s 2018 Perspectives are the product of a collective organizational effort, and a number of MHI members and supporters contributed in their preparation. (In fact, I— not Kliman—wrote the section on Fluss and Frim’s work and the bulk of the piece on “post-truth politics.”) What’s more, the Perspectives were subject to extensive discussion, throughout the organization, both during their preparation and prior to their unanimous adoption at MHI’s annual conference in December of 2017.
It is hard to understand Fluss’s attribution of authorship to Kliman as anything other than an effort to divert from the issues at stake by personalizing the disagreement. And it appears to have worked. A number of other commenters chimed in, saying that Kliman literally has some kind of disorder, is the biggest asshole on the planet, is a raging dick, etc. While eager for the opportunity to engage in character assassination, not a single one of these commenters could be bothered to engage with MHI’s critique. Even if it was not Fluss’s intent to elicit such a response, he sanctioned it by not immediately condemning it.
It is difficult to ignore the cowardice of this attempt at character assassination in a forum (a “friends only” venue) in which the target has no recourse to defend himself. But a good deal more is at stake here. This type of behavior is particularly pernicious because of the threat it poses to the development of ideas and of left thought. If you take the development of ideas at all seriously, then reasoned debate is absolutely essential. What’s more, debate needs to be public; there needs to be public scrutiny of all sides. Rather than engage in the public discussion that MHI initiated with the publication of the Perspectives, Fluss and the other Facebook commenters endeavor to discredit MHI’s views while shielding their own views from public scrutiny.
In another post, Fluss alleges that the Perspectives take an undialectical and uncharitable attitude towards Spinoza, one which, he says, Marx and Engels didn’t share. The critique of Spinoza in Part IV of the Perspectives comes directly from Hegel:
They [Fluss and Frim] never touch on Hegel’s famed critique of Spinoza’s concept of Substance: “In my view … everything depends on grasping and expressing the ultimate truth not as Substance but as Subject as well [Preface to the Phenomenology].”
By Subject, Hegel meant that which has movement and self-movement. Self-movement is the product, not of contradictions between things, but contradictions within things, and it was this that Hegel found to be absent from Spinoza’s concept.
Hegel’s concept of “absolute negativity”—which Marx calls the “the moving and creating principle” (while also criticizing the dehumanized form it took in Hegel’s hands)—was developed directly through his critique of Spinoza: “Spinoza stops short at negation as determinateness or quality; he does not advance to a cognition of negation as absolute, that is, self-negating, negation” (Science of Logic, para. 1179). Perhaps Fluss finds an undialectical approach in Hegel, too?
In the same post, Fluss also pointed to a sentence from a May 31, 1868 letter by Marx to Lassalle as evidence of Marx’s attitude to Spinoza. Marx wrote, “Even in the case of philosophers who give systematic form to their work, Spinoza for instance, the true inner structure of the system is quite unlike the form in which it was consciously presented by him.” This sentence, however, points only to a general distinction between the “inner structure” of a philosophical system and its mode of exposition. It says nothing about Marx’s view of the content of Spinoza’s system.
As well, Fluss stresses that the return to Enlightenment reason that he and Frim propose is a dialectical one. Moreover, he says, they never called for a simple return to Spinoza, but to the Left Hegelians and Soviet Marxists that developed the dialectical themes in Spinoza. In their “Dialectical Enlightenment” piece, Fluss and Frim point to a number of such thinkers. But all they do here is drop names, saying little more than that these figures “treat Spinoza as a dialectical thinker avant la lettre.”
Finally, a few words on a post from another commenter that emerged in the course of things which alleges that MHI is shilling for Hillary Clinton. MHI has never supported Clinton and has never shied away from critiquing her. MHI has, however, critiqued those on the left who have drawn false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton. Pointing out that it is just plain stupid to encourage people to “vote their conscience” in a swing state hardly qualifies as “shilling” for Clinton. Millions of ordinary Americans cast their vote for Clinton, likely with no great respect for her in most instances, because they recognized the extraordinary dangers that Trump presents, including resurgent Neo-Nazism, a drive toward one-man rule, and the threat of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. It is high time that “soft-on-Trump leftists” concede their folly and acknowledge their part in our present nightmare.