Though written 170 years ago, The Communist Manifesto and its authors Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels still profoundly shape civilizations and human history through Socialist and Communist doctrines. Even today, Americans debate the merits of a more Socialist or Capitalist society. One Chicago group still draws inspiration from Marxist teachings to navigate the political issues of today.
The Platypus Affiliated Society is a member-based organization that looks to Marxist philosophies in the 21st century.
“The Platypus Affiliated Society is an international student-based organization focused on interrogating the problems and tasks of the historical Left and the possibility for emancipatory politics today,” said Suzy Vogenthaler, Midwest regional coordinator for Platypus.
As part of their mission—the reconstruction of a Marxian left—the group held a free presentation in Logan Square’s Comfort Station (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) July 29 to examine the development of human history through a Marxist perspective. Speaker and Chapter Head Ant Morales used the presentation as an introduction into both Marx and the topics Platypus grapples with.
The point of the afternoon lecture, according to Morales, was to answer one simple but fundamental question: Is Marxism still relevant today?
Running through different moments in the development of human history—from the agricultural revolution around 10,000 B.C. to the Industrial Revolution, where Marxism comes into play—Morales laid out the foundation and worldview that Marx and Engels based their philosophies from.
But Marxism as a whole failed to dominate the same way Capitalism has, and Morales and Platypus as a whole note that Marxism is one of history’s “most interesting failures.”
“This is where Platypus’ mission really begins,” Morales said.
During the presentation, Morales noted Marxism failed due to theoretical differences among its followers and parties. This confusion provided a launchpad for Platypus to examine the political issues of today, namely the current state of the Left: “Platypus as a whole deals with the confusion of the past to deal with the confusion of the present,” Morales said.
“Our goal—the reconstitution of a Marxian Left—is objectified in the task of clearing away the ideological obstacles inherited from the already disfigured New Left of the 1960s, further distorted through its legacy in the post-political Left of the 1980s, and again in the Millennial Left today,” Vogenthaler said.
Platypus first arose as part of the anti-war movement during the Bush administration. As a new Millennial Left began emerging, early members of Platypus realized “that without proper self-education and self-criticism, this emerging Left was doomed to reproduce the self-inflicted wounds” of previous Left movements, according to Vogenthaler.
But what’s with the name? Vogenthaler explained that Engels was perplexed when he read the description of a platypus—a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, venomous mammal—and could not fathom a creature like that. He came to the conclusion that it had no sensible place in natural history, certain that the creature was a hoax created by English taxidermists.
It wasn’t until Engels saw the creature living and breathing in a zoo that he come to the realization that “reason” in history, both human and natural, doesn’t have to accord with present standards of human reason.
“That our organization exists—that something of the historical Left, and of Marxism persists—is itself like that platypus today,” Vogenthaler said. “It may appear to have no justification in history, after a long series of defeats and disfigurations … and yet we affirm that it has every right to exist, just as much as the platypus does, despite how difficult it may be to categorize.”
The group itself is made up of campus-based chapters across the country, including Berkeley and Yale, and campuses across Chicago, Knoxville, New York and Pittsburg. Each chapter organizes its own reading groups and initiatives to draw campus support and receive support from regional coordinators.
Although Platypus’ mission has always been to bring about the emergence of a New Left that allows for a proletarian rule, the group is currently grappling with the complex current political state American finds itself in.
“Recently we’ve been dealing with the death of the Millennial Left and its total liquidation into the Democratic Party and becoming defenders of the status quo and abdicating responsibility for world politics to the established capitalist parties in the process,” Vogenthaler said. “So the questions facing Platypus now are: What was the potential for the Millennial Left? Was it stillborn? What does its death mean for our project?”
To find out how Platypus is grappling with these issues, or to find out more about Platypus’ activities and local events, you can check out their website.