Posts Tagged ‘marxism


St Augustine vs. Empire

At some point I may get around to writing about the ‘theological turn’ in contemporary critical thought, that is the increasing tendency for communists, anarchists etc. to refer to religious discourse. For now I will just be collecting together some examples, starting with this one from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000):

”While this Heavenly City is on pilgrimage on earth, it calls out all peoples and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages’ (Saint Augustine)

 …In this regard we might take inspiration from Saint Augustine’s vision of a project to contest the decadent Roman Empire. No limited community could succeed and provide an alternative to imperial rule; only a universal, catholic community bringing together all populations and all languages in a common journey could  accomplish this. The divine city is a universal city of aliens, coming together, cooperating, communicating. Our pilgrimage on earth, however, in contrast to Augustine’s, has no transcendent telos beyond; it is and remains absolutely immanent. Its continuous movement,gathering aliens in community, making this world its home, is both means and end, or rather a means without end.

From this perspective the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is the great Augustinian project of modern times. In the first decades of the twentieth century the Wobblies, as they were called, organized powerful strikes and rebellions across the United States, from Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Paterson, New Jersey, to Everett, Washington. The perpetual movement of the Wobblies was indeed an immanent pilgrimage, creating a new society in the shell of the old…  The primary focus of the IWW was the universality of its project. Workers of all languages and races across the world (although in fact they only made it as far as Mexico) and workers of all trades should come together in ‘‘One Big Union.’’’


Adorno and the standpoint of redemption

For the critical thoughtist, Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969) is a guiding light. A secular Jewish marxist of the Frankfurt School, he proposed a negative critique of exisiting social conditions that must avoid the affirmative illusions of the present. Interesting then that in one of his key works,   ‘Minima moralia: reflections on a damaged life’ he concluded in a tone clearly influenced – like his late friend Walter Benjamin – by Jewish religious conceptions, possibly even the notion of Tiqqun as the redemption of the broken world associated with Lurianic Kabbalah:

‘The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from self contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible, but beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.’


Everything’s Relative: comedy, cabbala, communism

I first came across the Kabbalah in the unusual context of a photocopied pamphlet written by a left communist in the 1980s. Everything’s Relative was the work of Avram Corren, who I believe to have been a member of an organisation called the International Communist Current (ICC). At the time I saw myself as part of a political milieu that included the ICC, characterised by a rejection of all forms of nationalism and what passed for socialism in both its social democratic and Stalinist manifestations. Despite agreeing with many of its positions, I regarded the ICC as a fairly dogmatic and sectarian organisation – the last place in fact from which you’d expect a work like the following to emerge . There are many things I would now criticise in the text, including what I would regard as its somewhat messianic conception of the proletariat and communism, but what still impresses me is its affirmation of the value of Kabbalah and other mystical traditions. Rather than simply dismissing Kabbalah as a product of  superstition to be swept away by the superior logic of historical materialism, it is implied that it is part of the common treasury of human thought to be appreciated even as part of a non-religious project of radical social change.


Everything’s Relative: comedy, cabbala, communism (1987)

No copyright, but cite sources rigorously

 – Avram Corren

Author’s Forewarn

This essay first saw the light of day in 1983 when I was employed as a ‘historian of religion’ at a provincial university. It took the form of a lecture in a course deal­ing with initiation; originally entitled ‘The History and Mystery of the Jews’. Its aim was to use the Kabbalah as an illustration of a western system of mystical initiation, and to use the history of the Jews as an illustration of certain elements in universal history. It was not committed to paper until three years later, when a series of events prompted me to return to the question of Kabbalah.

On May 8, 1986, that is to say on my 36th birthday, there arrived in the post a pack of Tarot cards, which I had sent for some weeks earlier. In the western esoteric trad­itions, Tarot and Kabbalah are of course closely linked; and in the Jewish tradition itself, 36 is a particularly signif­icant number. In particular, it is the age of maturity when it at last becomes permissible to enter the dangerous territory of Cabbalistic studies. In any case, this was to be a year of great changes. In October, my father died, the old antagonisms between us having largely been superseded by a mutual sense of reconciliation. In November, seven weeks early, and sharing a birthday with my sister, my second son was born. As a result of all this, I was visited by an urgent desire to write this essay while I was still 36. And as a result of this haste, I found myself eliminating points which I had developed at some length in the lecture, particularly with regard to the role of the Jews in history,  and in this, context, the significance of the Holocaust and of Zionism.

I will not attempt to go into all of that here. But in order to avoid any confusion, I do want to make certain things clear. Firstly, that an investigation of a tradition which inevitably developed within the envelope of religion, and the recognition of its profound relevance to the project of human emancipation. is not to )be taken as an argument for preserving that tradition in aspic, still less for maintain­ing the shell of religion, which has become the enemy of humanity in every respect. By the same token, this attempt to go to the roots of the Kabbalistic tree in no way implies a search for some form of ‘cultural national autonomy’. 

Above all, I made it clear in the lecture (notwithstanding the evident limitations of the lecture hall as a forum for expounding political positions) that I identify with that standpoint which considers that Zionism, like all forms of patriotism and nationalism in this epoch of history, the epoch of capitalism’s senility, has proved itself to be a reactionary death trap. The workers have no country, and communism means the abolition of nations. If communism will integrate into itself all that is best in the previous products of human culture, it will do so not by freezing them in outmoded forms, but by fusing them into a higher and wider synthesis.

AC, Autumn 1987

The Joke

For some millennia, the Almighty had been puzzling over this question: Where is the essence of Man? History had not yet come up with a clear answer, so God decided to invite some of humanity’s finest minds to speak briefly on the subject at a Heavenly Seminar. Five of them turned up, but they were all Jews, unable to decline the prospect of a good argument. Out of deference to the process of history (a notion which He and the Jews had invented together), He asked them to speak in chronological order.

The first to rise, therefore, was Moses. In a thunder­ous voice loyally copied from the Creator, he declaimed while loudly slapping his brow:  “The essence of man is in the head, for what disting­uishes man from the brutes is his consciousness. Man, above all, is a rational, thinking creature.”

The Lord nodded His own august Head but refrained from comment. Then he gestured to the frail, long-haired, unkempt young man sitting at His right hand. “Well, son,” He said in a fatherly sort of voice, “what do you feel about this?”

Jesus stood up and laid his right hand over his heart: “The essence of man is in the heart,” he said softly, “because for man there is nothing higher than love.”

The Father of All was visibly moved by these words, and for a long time remained silent. But there were others wait­ing to speak. On God’s left, the next in line was frowning and tugging impatiently at his beard. “Well, Karl, what’s your position?” said the All-Knowing.

“My position – or rather the position of historical materialism,” he answered, vigorously rubbing his belly, “is that the essence of man is here, in the stomach, because what determines man’s activities is above all his material needs, and none of these is more immediate or central than the need for food.”

The first Cause remained non-committal, but he hummed in such a way as to show that He could see a validity in this argument. He turned to the fourth Jew, who had been puffing away on an enormous cigar. “And what do you say, Sigmund?” asked God.

Freud rose and pointed, with a hint of a smirk, to his groin. “The essence of man is here, of course, because more powerful, more primal than all other needs, is the sexual drive.”

The King of Kings could hardly deny the importance of sex in human affairs. He raised His eyebrows and bobbed His head from side to side, as though weighing up all the different viewpoints.

The last Jew was sitting still, with a quiet smile on his lips, his hair dishevelled, his eyes sparkling. “So, Albert, what have you got to add?”

Einstein stood up, still smiling, and with a shrug of the shoulders, stated his view.

“Well, you know … everything’s relative.”

Jokes should not be explained

The cardinal rule of any serious joker is that jokes should not be explained. That’s on the one hand. But on the other hand, we are investigating Kabbalah. And the rule of Kabbalah is the rule of dialectics: in fact, you can draw a line of consciously acknowledged descent from Kabbalah to Jacob Bohme, and from Bohme to Hegel and Marx. Now this rule states that you must penetrate beneath the surface, uncover the hidden other side to every meaning, in order to grasp the Whole. Furthermore, Freud (whose debt to the Kabbalah has also been pointed out) demonstrates that both jokes and mysticism, like dreams, are roads to the unconscious; both derive from the same concealed and archetypal depths. I would therefore defend the validity of using a joke to shed light on Kabbalah – and vice versa.

On the sefiroth

The written work which most clearly expresses the Kabbalistic tradition is the Zohar, or Book of Splendour, which emerged out of Spanish Jewry towards the end of the 13th century. Here we find a more or less systematic elaboration of the concept of the Sefiroth, the cosmic Tree of Life. the archetypal spheres which are a map or diagram of, at one and the same time, the emanations of God, the true structure of the universe, the body of the Perfect Man before the Fall and after the Redemption (Adam Kadmon), and of the inner workings of man’s body and soul. This is the diagram which appears on the cover of this essay.

Moses and the two sides of consciousness

Why does Moses stand for man’s break with the animal kingdom?

For marxism – the dialectics of this age – man is distinguished from the animals in two interconnected ways. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, the emphasis is on the fact that, whereas the animal “is its life activity”, man is able to separate himself as a subject from the objects of his labour and from the objective world around him; in Capital, in the parable of the architect and the bee, the emphasis is on man’s ability to see ahead, to “raise in imagination” the objects of his production before producing them, as opposed to the instinctual spontaneity of the animal. These two definitions amount to being the spatial and temporal dimensions of the same thing.

But marxism also insists that as long as he inhabits the kingdom of necessity, man has not yet completed the break with the animal world: he remains dominated by un­conscious forces and has not yet attained a conscious mastery over his own life-activity.

This does not mean that the entirety of human history up till now has been a long night of bestial ignorance, Rather it is a dialectical process of advances and retreats, of slow, concealed development culminating in sudden qualitative leaps, a contradictory movement through which the growth of man’s productive powers has enabled him to approximate to a greater understanding of himself (even if each advance in understanding has hitherto been accompanied by the loss of other capacities or qualities).

From this angle, the revolution led or symbolised by Moses represents a qualitative leap in man’s self-awareness, since it was predicated upon a rejection of the mythical consciousness which had been characteristic of the previous social formations, going back to the earliest origins of the human species.

On its negative side, mythical consciousness, the prod­uct of a social condition in which there is “the immature development of man individually, who has not yet severed the umbilical cord that unites him with his fellowmen in a prim­itive tribal community” (Marx. Capital, Vol I), expresses man’s difficulty in recognising that he has taken a step beyond the rest of nature, and the animals in particular. In his sacred festivals, primitive man dons the mask of his animal ancestors, seen by him to be beings of superior power and knowledge. Profoundly connected to the cosmic rhythms, man at this stage cannot really grasp that he a historically active being, and lives in a cyclical time that always returns to the same atemporal, mythical present.

The dissolution of primitive communism and the emerg­ence of class society tended also to dissolve this consciousness. But while eastern philosophy, for example, definitive­ly goes beyond the old mythical projections, the societies which generated it, the Asiatic despotisms, were too strongly tied to the social basis of the primordial commune to permit a real depassement of the cyclical vision of time. The mass of the people kept to the old tribal conceptions; a disaffected elite broke away, but unable to connect to any real social development and thus deprived of the possibility of thinking in terms of human history, ended in projecting the mythical cycles onto a grander scale and tended towards a pessimistic ideology of escape from the cosmic wheel.

In contrast, then, both to primitivism and oriental ism, Moses stands for the affirmation of man as a distinctly historical being. The secret of Exodus is the struggle for the liberation from oppression, the struggle for a future goal, the Promised Land. It is the story of a fight situated in historical time, guided by a leader who denounces the nature-deities which incarnated the old mythical world-view. And though the Promised Land itself turned out to be another Egypt – because there a new class society emerged, led by a priesthood which sought to turn the salvation-message of Moses into a static code, or by kings who, alternatively, found it useful to encourage the people’s back-sliding towards the cult of the Baalim, the nature-gods – the promise itself was constantly reaffirmed by the prophets,  and indeed gradually expanded into a universal vision in which the Chosen People were acting as the vanguard in a movement towards the liberation of all mankind.
Thus Moses signifies: man struggling to see himself distinct from nature; human consciousness no longer turning ever-backwards to a mythical past but seeing forward to a new heaven and a new earth. And although this vision could only remain a dream in the material conditions in which it arose, it remains as a real conquest of man to be integrated into the true liberation which the proletariat is at last in a position to realise: Then, as Engels put it, the real history of mankind will begin; human activity will be able to translate into practice the theories, the imaginative models which constitute its aims, instead of constantly seeing these dreams turn into nightmares.

But dialectics cannot leave things there; because if one of its principles is that through all its advances and retreats, “a progressive movement asserts itself in the end” (Engels), it rejects bourgeois progressivism, the linear conception of evolution, and affirms the principle of the return at a higher level.

Thus: as long as man is bounded by the kingdom of necessity, and, particularly as long as he is caught up in a class society, his most human attributes are not only unrealised: they actively turn against him.

The emergence of man from the natural world around him becomes a relation of hostility, of estrangement; the more civilisation advances, the more man becomes a mere head, pitted not only against nature in general, but most particularly against his own body, his own natural instincts, which are held in check by an ever-mounting wall of repression. The capacity to see himself in historical time, in these conditions, tends to act in reality as an incapacity for enjoyment, a perpetual putting off of pleasure in pursuit of a future goal.

We are therefore led to the paradoxical position that in primitive communism – as in the childhood of the individ­ual – man is both nearer to and further away from his own humanity. This at any rate is consistent with Marx’s state­ment in the Grundrisse that “a man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child’s naivety, and must he himself not strive to re­produce its truth at a higher stage?” While it is necessary to keep in mind that primitive man is indeed a man and not a child, it remains the case that the communism of tomorrow will be the restoration on a higher level of the primitive human community; in the words of the 1844 Manuscripts: “the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being – a return become conscious, and accomplished within the entire wealth of previous development”. In that time, man will make his own history while recapturing the ‘primitive’ and ‘childish’ art of living fully in the present; consciously reunited with nature, he will master the energ­ies of his body through affirmation and not denial.

And this, in our view, is why the Sefiroth present two sides to consciousness. In the Tree of Life diagram the upper part of the body, the head (or, in some versions the diagram can be applied in various ways – the head and neck) is marked by the Sefiroth Hochma (Wisdom) on the male or ‘active’ column and Binah (Intelligence) on the ‘female” or ‘passive’ side. But Hochma can also mean ‘unity’, and Binah  ‘separation’: in other words, the consciousness that separates and the consciousness that unifies are two aspects of the human mind which must be brought into harmony, not set at odds. It is worth noting that Jacob Bohme made a similar distinction between Vernunft, the ‘outer reason’ of the ego, which sees only the separation between things, and Verstand, the understanding which penetrates to the hidden unity of all things. In Kabbalah, these faculties are brought together on Mount Sinai; the experience vouchsafed to Moses on the mountain top is defined not merely as the transmission of a legal document, as a purely rational communication, but as the exemplary model of mystical revelation.

Jesus: Armed Love

Marxism affirms that it is through labour that man makes the transition from the animal world. This in itself is a critique of the notion that man is” ‘essentially’ a thinker, that he lives in his head. For labour is a charact­eristic activity of the whole body, and the human brain is also a product of the human hand. But labour is always social labour; consciousness is a collective product; man can only exist in a community.

By laying his hand on his heart, by insisting on the primacy of love, Jesus insists above all on the social nature of man, on solidarity between human beings. Christianity inherits the forward-Iooking standpoint of Judaism, but sur­passes it to the extent that it was engendered in an age where civilisation was tending towards universality through the expansion of commodity relations, and was thus able to leave behind an Israel-centred ideology and embrace the gentiles – to offer itself as a solution to the whole of humanity.

On the Kabbalistic tree, this is the sphere of Hesed: love or lovingkindness, though when transposed onto the human body, Hesed is often placed in the right arm; at the heart itself we then find Tiferet, ‘beauty’, also known as Rahammim, ‘compassion’, whose function is to balance Hesed with the sphere of Gevura, ‘righteousness’ or ‘stern judge­ment’ (also known as Din), situated in the left arm.

Only a false pietism and quietism – beginning with Paul who sought to make the gospel acceptable to the political powers of the day – reduces Jesus to Hesed alone. Jesus also personifies Gevura when he said “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10.34), and “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12.49), and, in his practice, when he took a whip to the money-lenders in the Temple. Jesus proclaimed the imminent destruction of the old world order, the arrival of the King­dom of Heaven, and he saw the poor and the down-trodden as the heirs to this Kingdom. In this sense, he did not preach a false community uniting rich and poor, but a true commun­ity which the rich could only join by ceasing to be rich. Christianity in its original form thus reveals itself as the product of the oppressed and the exploited, of their revolt against the iniquitous ruling powers of the day.

But these rebellious classes were not revolutionary classes: they were not the bearers of a new mode of product­ion. Unlike the modern proletariat, ·they were not in a position to do away with class divisions once and for all. They could see no further than a communism of possessions, while the modern proletariat aims to communise the very means of the production of wealth. Jesus rightly foresaw the end of a world; but it was only the collapse of a particular mode of production, of the slave-empire of Rome.

The Christ­ian revolt was doomed to incoherence: in this sense, the Jews were right to go on insisting that the Messiah had not yet come. Like all incoherent critiques, Christianity’s fate was to be recuperated by the very powers of the world whose destruction it had prophesied and welcomed. In particular, it was to become the ideological glue of the newly emerging feudal order. Hesed was diluted into the wishy-washy notion of goodwill to all men regardless of social position, into a call for social pacifism which the most bloodthirsty ruling classes can live with quite comfortably, since it obscures the fact that a genuine humanity can only be affirmed by rebelling against an inhuman order. Gevura, meanwhile, was once reserved for the ruling classes who handed out ‘stern judgement’ to those sects, strata or classes who throughout the feudal era and into the dawn of capitalism kept on harking back to the-communist ideals of original Christian­ity. Thus, in history, Hesed and Gevura have not yet been brought into balance. But now at last we are approaching the Last Days which were glimpsed in outline by Jesus and the prophets who paved the way for him. The proletarian revol­ution will issue its judgement on the capitalist order and on the whole epoch of class domination; it will inaugurate a community in which love and solidarity will no longer be pious hopes, but concrete expressions of the realisation of man’s social nature.       

Marx: the Emancipation of the Senses

And so we descend to the Sefiroth Iinked by Yesod, ‘foundation’, located in the genital region and signifying both sexual energy and ‘work of creation’. In other words, to the substructure, the material roots, the realms of sex­uality and labour. Above Yesod and connected to it are the Sefiroth referred to rather obscurely as Hod, ‘reverberation’ and Netzah, ‘Eternity’: but in the body of man reverber­ation refers to the relation between the senses and the outside world, and eternity is the cyclical movement of the automatic functions of the body (and thus, as part of this, the processes of digestion).

It is a fondly held tenet of bourgeois ideology that Marx was an economic determinist; in the terms of the joke, that he wanted to turn the human being into a mere belly (though the joke has the advantage over ‘serious’ bourgeois thought because it hardly conceals· the fact that all its statements are ambiguous. It should also be pointed that in any case bourgeois society undervalues the belly as well: civilisations of the past, China for example, identified man’s inner centre with the actual gravitational centre of the body, which is a few inches below the navel).

The bourgeois critiques of Marx’s ‘reductionism’ are aimed, in the first place, at evading the central issue posed by historical materialism: is it or is It not the case that the processes whereby man reproduces the basic necessities of, life provide us with the key to understanding the movement .of history? It is interesting to note that, in its studies of the very remote past, bourgeois thinking has little trouble in defining social systems and in explaining histor­ical change in relation to basic material processes – hence the whole archaeological terminology of the ‘stone age’, the ‘neolithic’, the ‘iron age’, etc. It is only when it begins to focus upon more recent history the bourgeoisie cannot admit that the increasingly evident collapse of its civil­isation derives from the irresolvable contradictions of its economic system. Therefore, all bourgeois complaints against reductionism must be seen as attempts to prevent the exploited class from stripping away the mystifications which cover the putrefaction of capitalism as a historical mode of production.

And in the second place, the bourgeoisie has every interest in concealing the fact that it is capitalism, not marxism, the theoretical standpoint of the proletariat, which reduces man to a mere economic category – whether it embellishes this dupery with grandiloquent phrases about the imperishable spirit, or whether it adopts the frank and brutal realism of the behaviourists, of the Stalinists and the whole gamut of pseudo-marxists, who openly ascribe man as capital really sees him: as a machine, an automaton devoid of an active consciousness. Marxism, by contrast, expresses the true revolt of the human species against being reduced to a cog in the machine that produces that inhuman fiction known as capital.

Far from considering that man was ‘just’ his stomach, Marx wrote in the 1844 Manuscripts that “eating, drinking, procreating etc., are genuinely human functions. But abstractly taken, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.” For Marx, man could not be fully human until his specifically human activity – labour – ceased to be a ‘travail’, an instrument of torture (to give it its linguistic origins) and became a pleasure, a source of self-affirmation. This is why, in the same work, Marx argues that the free activity which, in communist society, will replace alienated labour, will permjt “the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities”; that it will bring about a condition in which “man is affirmed in the objective world not only in the act of thinking, but with all his senses.” A free humanity, in other words, will no longer be either an abstractly thinking head or a mechanically toiling body, but a species consciously, sensuously in harmony with itself and thus with the world around it.

Of course there are the wretched Stalinist ‘theoretic­ians’ like the appalling Althusser who reject all this as Marx’s youthful, still-Hegelian excesses, and then proceed to turn Marx into a sterile academic pedant and a gloomy economic reductionist – a man in their own image, in fact. But while Marx, of course, matured, he never abandoned his original vision of a totally transformed humanity. He recog­nised the need to plunge into what he called “this economic shit” in order to lay bare the material processes that would ultimately compel the working class to pose the question of the revolutionary destruction of capital; he understood the necessity to throw himself into the political fight because he knew that the proletariat could not create a new world without first establishing its political dictatorship to sweep away the old one.

But he never lost sight of the final goal. Thus it was the mature Marx of the Grundrisse who looked forward to the replacement of wage labour by an act­ivity that is “discipline, as regards the human being in the process of becoming; and, at the same time, practice, exper­imental science, materially creative and objectifying science, as regards the human being who has become, in whose head exists the accumulated knowledge of society. For both, in so far as labour requires practical use of the hands and free bodily movement … at the same time exercise.”

Confronted with the radical nature of the change that Marx and marxism demand, bourgeois apologetics has another escape clause, whereby Marx can be explained away as a reincarnated Hebrew prophet, with the proletariat as the Chosen People or the Messiah. Such banalities obscure the revolutionary character of the old prophetic vision itself, and its real historical continuity with marxism; but above all they seek to suppress the discovery that Marx announced to Ruge in a crucial letter in 1843: that while the vision of human fulfilment could exist “in dream” in the societies of the past, the time was now coming where these dreams could become flesh. Today it is more clear than ever that, just as through its prodigious development of the productive forces capitalism has made the ancient apocalyptic nightmare of world-destruction into a practical possibility, so because of this same development the proletariat is the first ex­ploited class in history which not only can carry out, real­ise the old messianic dream, but must do so if the human species is to survive at all.

The marxist conception of human emancipation is not a mere restatement of the old mystical and mythical themes. It surpasses them to the extent that it explains how the raising up of the suppressed depths of man’s nature can cease to be the pursuit of privileged elites and become the practical, scientific goal of a collective humanity.

Freud: happiness is not just a penis

Now we arrive at Yesod itself, the genital region. And once again, a revolutionary refutation of reductionism. Freud started his career as the crudest exponent of mechanical materialism. He wanted to explain the neuroses with reference to strictly quantifiable ‘bits’ of mental energy; he was soon compelled to recognise the centrality of hidden sexual desires, of a whole realm of repressed wishes, symbols and dream-longings. And then, having tried to pin things down to ‘sex’, that is, to present adult genital sexuality as being the ultimate, if concealed key to human behaviour, he was obliged to subsume mere ‘sex’ into Eros and Thanatos, into what he called “those mythological’ beings”, the instincts, which in his later writings clearly correspond to the whole dynamic of cosmic nature as expressed in man. He was forced to conclude that genital sexuality was a diminished, repressed form of our true erotic nature, which encompasses the entire body. What human beings really longed to do was to restore the “polymorphous perversity” of childhood, to return to the golden age before the gates of repression slammed shut; and, beyond this, to the “oceanic” bliss which corres­ponds to the primal origins of the individual: “originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world for itself. Our present ego-feeling is there­fore only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive -­indeed all-embracing feeling, which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it” (Civilisation and its Discontents). Thus Freud confirms scientifically the teachings of all the old mystical schools, from Zen back to Kabbalah: what is the most profoundly repressed in us is the longing for union, the yearning to embrace the whole world.

But Freud was already the product of a bourgeoisie which, while sending off a few late, spectacular sparks (psychoanalysis, relativity theory. impressionism etc.), was, sinking deeper and deeper into pessimism as its period of decline opened up and was confirmed by the outbreak of the first imperialist world war. Faced with such a dark horizon, the founder of psychoanalysis could not permit himself to hope that the forward-moving dynamic of Eros could triumph over the regressive movement symbolised by Thanatos (or made ‘scientific’ by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that cosmic projection of bourgeois nihilism). For Freud, the desire to return to the paradise of childhood or the nirvana of earl­iest infancy could only be a backward flight into dark unconsciousness; and that is because he could not grasp the dialectical principle of the return-on-a-higher-level, which enabled Marx to call for the reproduction of truths of child­hood at a higher stage for a “return become conscious and accomplished within the entire wealth of previous develop­ment”. And whereas Freud, after admitting that techniques such as yoga could, indeed uncover otherwise inaccessible areas of the unconscious, then turned his back on them with a timorous appeal to ‘reason’, the emancipated humanity of the future need have no fear about rationally developing such techniques in order to effect this return become conscious, this journey in which the way back is the way forward.

Einstein: Everything’s Relative

At the beginning of the twentieth century, as capitalism enters what the Communist International called its “epoch of inner disintegration” there ·occur certain startling break­throughs in physics, the first of all the sciences – ­discoveries which announce the disintegration of the solid Newtonian universe upon which the bourgeoisie has hitherto based its definition of reality. Einstein’s relativity theory demonstrates that there is no absolute space and time; sub­atomic physics dispels the notion that reality can be broken down into solid lumps: the uncertainty principle attacks the illusion of the ‘detached’ observer contemplating a universe divorced from himself. But only for the bourgeoisie does the punchline ‘everything’s relative’ signify a state of total disorientation, to which it must respond with black nihilism or by retreating into prescientific religious illusions. For the proletariat, the collapse of the universe of bourgeois ego-atoms is only the collapse of the bourgeoisie’s alienated projections onto the world. Just as the disintegration of the capitalist commodity economy is a precondition for the reorganisation of society by the proletariat, so the downfall of the bourgeoisie’s cosmic vision both confirms the dialectical standpoint which marxism championed long before capitalism lapsed into senility, and ‘clears the ground for a genuinely human outlook based on the conscious reunification of man and nature. And thus, every thing will be related; every thing’s relative will be man.

Having descended the Tree, man can now attain the heights. For the Tree of Life, the Sefiroth, like many a shaman’s tree, is an inverted tree, with its roots in heaven. This accords with what Marx wrote in the 1844 Manuscripts: “The human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order that he might yield his inner wealth to the outside world.” Man has had to be reduced, to sink deeper and deeper into alienation, in order to be able to storm the heavens and seize the Kether – the crown of God.

In Kabbalah the formula is: “in Kether is Malkut, and Malkut is in Kether.” Malkut is the kingdom; and the unific­ation of Kether and Malkut, the two poles of the Tree, is the descent of heaven to earth, the conquest of the earthly paradise.

This is also the rebirth of Adam Kadmon, the cosmic, luminous being that man was ‘intended’ to be prior to the Fall. The crown, Kether, is situated above his head because the human being’s achievement of mastery over his own energies culminates in a lightning flash of consciousness which transcends the boundaries of the separate individual. This notion is echoed in Kundalini Yoga: by directing his ‘serpent power’ through the various ‘chakras’ or energy centres of the body, beginning with those at the region corresponding to Yesod, the yogin finally awakens the highest chakra, the ‘thousand petalled lotus’, situated above the head in order to symbolise the transcendence of the ‘normal’ limitations of the body.

But whereas the mythical systems of the east outweigh those of the west in the depth and subtlety of their applied techniques, western approaches such as those of Bohme or of Kabbalism surpass the oriental traditions to the extent that they preserve the notion of a forward-moving tendency whose goal is the collective redemption of the human species. Adam Kadmon is thus not an isolated master, but the true destiny of the human race, whose fall through the abyss of estrangement is only the other side of its advance towards fulfilment.

But even Adam Kadmon is not the end of the story: ‘everything’s relative’ also implies an infinite spiral of development. In the Zohar it is expressed thus: the roots of the Tree are in En-Sof, the ‘Nothing’ which is the fathomless Everything: En-Sof is the sky to the Tree’s branches, and the sap which flows through it, connecting the Sefiroth, feeding all life and movement. This level of reality, in the east, was sometimes called Sunyata, the Void. But it is not the void or nothingness of bourgeois nihilism; it is its very opposite. But all the Kabbalisms east’ and west are agreed that this is a matter beyond all words and all symbols, and so we will stop talking now.

To those exploring similar paths

Except to say this: the fact that this text is a so-called ‘individual’ effort is a weakness rather than a strength. It is evident that I do not welcome this isolation, otherwise I would hardly have committed the unpardonable faux pas of ‘revealing Kabbalah to the goyim’, so to speak. Consequently, anyone interested in further discussion about the general issues raised by this text, and in the possibil­ity of some sort of journal dealing with these issues, should write to me at the following address:
Avram Corren, c/o 234 Camden High St. London NW1 80S UK  [nb this was the address of the late lamented Compendium Bookshop – do not write to this address now, it is closed]

Meanwhile, I can do no more than announce my good intentions: the next task, as I see it, is to examine that fundamental element in the consciousness of the primitive human community: the dreamtime. This concept, or state of being, has been analysed from a number of angles in the past; but never, to my knowledge, from the standpoint of the communist revolution.

[In relation to the last point, the author followed up this text with another published under the name Alan Cohen in 1990: The Decadence of the Shamans or shamanism as a key to the secrets of communism]


A dream of Walter Benjamin

I have started recording my dreams; as it says in the Zohar ‘A dream must be interpreted, or else it remains an unread letter’. I have done this before and it is surprizing how quickly the practice of writing down dreams improves the recall of what was dreamt. Of course there is a danger of overinterpreting every sleeping as well as every waking hour, something unintentionally signalled in the use of the term ‘dream work’ to describe this practice – our days are already dominated enough by work, let us not subject our rest to labour. And indeed one of the depressing results of recording dreams is acknowledging how much of our nocturnal brain capacity is wasted on processing petty work anxieties- dreams of job interviews and office politics, of photocopiers and emails.

No noticeably Kabbalist content in my dreams yet, except perhaps this recent one. In the dream I came across a stall in Luton Arndale Centre, selling only books by Walter Benjamin. They were luxury hardback editions, burgundy and purple covers embossed with gold lettering and a portrait of the author. What Benjamin would have made of the Arndale we can only wonder – he did after all devote years to his unfinished arcades project.  But for me he is a key figure, a marxist in the 1930s who didn’t lose his critical bearings in the age of Fascism and Stalinism and who maintained an interest in jewish mystical thought as well as altered states of consciousness, experimenting with drugs in Ibiza a full half century before acid house!

He was also a close personal friend of the great Kabbalist scholar Gershom Scholem. Indeed the latter dedicates his ‘Main currents in Jewish Mysticism’, first published in 1941, as follows: ‘To the memory of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the friend of lifetime whose genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretatitve power of the Critic and the erudition of the Scholar. Died at Port Bou (Spain) on his way to freedom’. The latter is a reference to Benjamin’s tragic death – he took his own life after being refused entry to Spain while fleeing the advance of the Nazis.