Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2010

Thoughts provoked by the Platypus

Filed under: Academia,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

Last April I wrote about Platypus, a group of young academics with Eustonite politics. I thought that I had said about all that was worth saying but felt inspired to have one more go at it after participating in a thread on the Kasama Project website. This is run by Mike Ely, whose Maoist politics I do not share, but who strikes me as a remarkably intelligent and principled person.

Mike was taking exception to an interview that Platypus had conducted with Jairus Banaji, an Indian professor who I have read in the past for ammunition in the transition to capitalism debate involving Maurice Dobb, Robert Brenner et al. The interview focused on the Naxalite movement in India and Arundhati Roy’s sympathetic “Walking with the Comrades” article, which Banaji and the Platypus interviewers care little for. Banaji’s main complaint is that the Naxalites appear to have no program for India’s urban working class.

Unlike Banaji, I have no problem with movements led by Maoists. In fact, I consider the Chinese Revolution one of the epochal achievements of humanity in the 20th century despite the fact that it departed from classical Marxist norms. How can one not cheer a revolution that rids the country of a despotic landlord class in league with imperialism?

Upon further reflection, it dawned on me that I have run into Platypus type people before who remind me of those “end of the world” cartoons that appear in the New Yorker magazine, you know the kind—it shows a guy in a robe with a long beard carrying a sign with “Repent” or some such thing.

Leftists who support the Naxalites, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, Cuba, etc. are impure in their eyes. They need to repent or else a mighty flood will come along and destroy them. Like Noah, the Platypus is building a Marxist ark that true believers will board in order to survive. They are dead serious about this as evidenced by their article On surviving the extinction of the Left.  Of course, it is a bit of a stretch to think in terms of a survivalism based on a set of ideas, for that after all that is what these young professors and graduate students have to offer, not an actual ark or anything else of material value.

My first encounter with a group of leftists trying to save the left from itself was back in 1996 when members of Syracuse University’s Revolutionary Marxist Collective (RMC), who published a campus newspaper called the Alternative Orange, showed up on the original Marxism list. These were graduate students who took their cue from a troika of professors: Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton at Syracuse, and Teresa L. Ebert at Albany State. They proposed that it was only they who understood Marxism and everybody else was an impostor. Modesty was not one of their virtues.

Like Chris Cutrone, a number of the RMC’ers had been members of the Spartacist League and had assimilated sectarian Trotskyist politics into academic jargon. Stephen Tumino, now a professor at the U. of Pittsburgh, really laid it on thick in an article titled What is Orthodox Marxism and Why it Matters Now More Than Ever Before:

Any effective political theory will have to do at least two things: it will have to offer an integrated understanding of social practices and, based on such an interrelated knowledge, offer a guideline for praxis. My main argument here is that among all contesting social theories now, only Orthodox Marxism has been able to produce an integrated knowledge of the existing social totality and provide lines of praxis that will lead to building a society free from necessity.

It is only Orthodox Marxism that explains socialism as an historical inevitability that is tied to the development of social production itself and its requirements. Orthodox Marxism makes socialism scientific because it explains how in the capitalist system, based on the private consumption of labor-power (competition), the objective tendency is to reduce the amount of time labor spends in reproducing itself (necessary labor) while expanding the amount of time labor is engaged in producing surplus-value (surplus-labor) for the capitalist through the introduction of machinery into the production process by the capitalists themselves to lower their own labor costs.

This article was written in 2001, when these people made their last attempt to present their ideas in a journal dedicated to their cause. Now they have been fully absorbed into bourgeois society.

My prediction is that the Platypus group will also have a very short shelf life since there is not much future in denouncing the rest of the left for having rotten politics. Unless you have a very big endowment like the Socialist Labor Party, you tend to go out of business rather quickly.

That being said, I believe that groups like the RMC, the Platypus and the Spartacists have a very important role to play nonetheless since they can serve as a pole of attraction for people like themselves who might mistakenly join a group like the ISO or Solidarity. If you think of the left in biological terms, the Platypus is something necessary for the healthy functioning of the body. I will leave to your imagination the part I am referring to.

Back in 1995, a couple of local NY professors named Randy Martin and Michael E. Brown wrote an article in “Socialism and Democracy” titled “Left Futures” that has some interesting insights (despite the convoluted academic prose it is wrapped in) that relates to all this, especially the following:

One of the more dramatic casualties of seeing the history of the left undialectically, exclusively in terms of failures which reflect dispositions built into socialist and communist politics, was a weakening of support on the part of many democratic socialists for the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions, on the grounds that neither government was “democratic.” The principle of this rejection was undefineable as typically stated, and in no case was it or could it have been generalized rationally to other more favored nations. The judgment was, in that form, anti-historical and inconsistent with any notion of politics as a self-reflective and complexly mediated development of organization, consciousness, direction, definition, and power.

When we refer to this as a casualty, then, we mean that it is a casualty for the North American left’s understanding of itself: In particular for attempts to reconcile prescriptions for reforming that left with descriptions and analyses of what is happening elsewhere in the world. We are not claiming that particular cases should never be evaluated and criticized, but only that being judgmental in so categorical a way is inconsistent with respecting the types of non-institutional political processes which are inevitable as such under conditions which generate a left (including the left attempting to reform itself). Such a categorical attitude assumes as well that referring to historical conditions of those instances of social/political action which make it necessary and possible to reflect on further prospects of action is merely incidental to such reflections and, indeed, can only be disruptive of them.

The efforts to generate socialism within and against the global dominance of capital are recognizable along two dimensions. The first includes attempts, however fitful, deformed, or immature, to struggle for a social economy, for which the production of social life in general has priority over production for profit. The second includes all organizations in which the forms of participation–and their mediations–are conceivably consistent with the interdependence and forms of association which Marx referred to as the society of the producers beyond the producers of society. It follows that socialism and democracy are two aspects of the same politics as they are of the same theoretical problematic even when their expressions are historically compromised. It also follows that any process by which the left can be said to develop will be one which is as internally critical as it is externally articulate. From this point of view, the left’s future is, as always, now; and “now” is a distinctly historical present, both in its need to incorporate a past it nevertheless must transcend and in its need to recognize the activist, ideological, and theoretical elements which continue to constitute it despite the momentary desire of so many to redefine it beyond recognition and, apparently, beyond hope.

But this “now” is also a process of self-reflection and learning. For whether part of a distant and glorious past or an as yet unachieved future, an idealized conception of socialism–negative or positive–makes the future utterly obscure if only because practice, infinitely mediated as it can only be, is never perfectible. Therefore the idealist prospect of practical perfection can never be a basis from which to cross the utopian divide into a perfectly progressive state of being. Indeed, it can only render all present efforts as in perfect error. It is, as we hope we have shown, just such an implicitly negative utopian perspective which yields the current self-defeating desire for a yet newer, true left.


(Contact me at lnp3@panix.com if you want to read the entire Martin-Brown “Left Futures” article.)


  1. [...] Posted by Mike E on August 30, 2010 The following appeared on Louis’ blog The Unrepentant Marxist, and continues the discussion we have had around a Platypus interview critiquing the Maoist revolutionaries of India. The original name is “Thoughts provoked by the Platypus.” [...]

    Pingback by Provoked by the Platypus « Kasama — August 30, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

  2. [...] Left as an American version of Eustonism.  A few months later, upon some reflection, he came to the profound conclusion that the Platypus group was nothing more than a bunch of eschatological leftists awaiting the final [...]

    Pingback by Louis Proyect is again “Provoked by the Platypus”; Again Fails to Say Anything Meaningful in Response « The Charnel-House — October 15, 2010 @ 5:55 am

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