Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 23, 2015

North Star workshop at Left Forum

Filed under: Left Forum,North Star — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-23 at 11.06.52 AM

Those of you attending the Left Forum at John Jay College next weekend might want to check out a workshop titled “Toward a Mass Left Party” that was organized by Matt Hoke, a member of the North Star editorial board. It meets at 12pm on Sunday in room 1.124

The abstract for the workshop is as follows:

Since the economic crisis of 2008, nor since the contraction of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, no mass pole of attraction has arisen to address the suffering of working people in the USA. Meanwhile, new mass parties have spawned in Europe in quick and stormy expansions, while also facing contradictions and difficulties. In the US, a new attraction towards intertendency politics and electoral action has emerged as expressed by the Electoral Action Conference in Chicago, and certain groups are experimenting new tactics to directly engage people’s needs, whether the $15 movement, serve the people projects, or solidarity networks.

The chairperson for the session is Loren Anderson of the Philly Socialists who has provided technical support for North Star and other related projects

Participants include:

Louis Proyect

Affiliation: North Star founder & editor

Bio: Louis Proyect was a member of the North Star Network launched by Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, an experiment in regroupment around a nonsectarian outlook that inspired the current website. Louis also identifies with efforts by the Socialist Union of the 1950s that was led by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman.

Abstract: Louis will be focusing on international developments in Syriza and Podemos.


Jim Brash

Affiliation: North Star & Green Party

Bio: Jim Brash has been a member of UFCW Local 1262 for 15 years, and is a green council member of the Green Party of New Jersey. He is also the green party candidate for New Jersey’s 26th Legislative District. Interests include studying American history, political theory, economics, religious philosphy, & miltary strategy.

Abstract: Jim will be mainly be talking about the nuts and bolts of his own electoral efforts.


Stephanie Altimari

Affiliation: Philly Socialists

Bio: Stephanie was an early member of Philly Socialists who has coordinated a wing of its serve the people project based around tutoring for English as a Second Language.

Abstract: Stephanie will be talking about the service model, solidarity networks, and the social network theory of building an organization.


July 14, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — Syriza panel

Filed under: Greece,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

This is the sixth and final in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

The question of Syriza is very fresh in my mind after seeing Alex Callinicos attack it in his prolix article “Thunder on the Left”.

More generally, evidence of a new form of left politics emerging has proved more apparent than real. The profound economic and social crisis in Greece and intense working class resistance to the austerity policies imposed by the troika of the European Commission, ECB, and International Monetary Fund allowed Syriza to skyrocket into the dominant position to the left of centre in Greek politics. After Syriza’s spectacular advances in the parliamentary elections of May and June 2012, there was much tut-tutting about my description of its politics as left reformist which, or so it was claimed, failed to acknowledge the extent to which Syriza represented a break with the old polarities of reform and revolution. In the subsequent two years, under Alexis Tsipras, Syriza has marched firmly onto the centre ground in order to project itself as a responsible party of government, in the process marginalising its left opposition. This shift is epitomised by Tsipras’s coming out after the European elections in favour of the shopworn centre-right architect of austerity Jean-Claude Juncker for president of the European commission: left reformism would look good by comparison.

Callinicos’s distinction between reform and revolution is based on an idealist conception of politics. By idealist, I don’t mean like the Boy Scout pledge of honor but in Plato’s Republic where people living in a cave only have an impression of reality rather than reality itself. As Socrates puts it:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

The role of a philosopher-king in Plato’s Republic is to educate the unenlightened cave dweller about the realities beyond the cave. Thus, the role of Marxists is to educate the mass movement about the need for revolution. Callinicos (and his fellow Leninists) are a kind of priesthood that has achieved enlightenment. They go out among the cave dwellers to explain why a revolution is necessary. This involves pointing out the “historical lessons” of the 20th century in such a manner that the recitation on the Russian Revolution will cause the scales to fall from the listener’s eyes. In some ways, this is the same approach as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have literature tables at major subway stations throughout New York.

I have an entirely different take on Syriza, similar to that of Peter Bratsis—the panelist who begins just after 33 minutes into the video. Like Bratsis, I view Syriza as a reformist party that will never be able to lead a revolution but there is no use in lecturing the masses about that. They don’t see the problem in terms of capitalism but in terms of austerity. They vote for Syriza because the party is opposed to austerity. If Syriza is elected and continues to support austerity, that will raise the question of the need to transform the economic system that imposes austerity no matter the party that is in power.

In “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”, Lenin proposed that the Communists form an electoral bloc with the Labour Party led by Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson. After WWI broke out, Ramsey MacDonald resigned in protest for its support for the war. Arthur Henderson, who joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet, was his replacement. Has Alexis Tsipras been guilty of any crime more serious than this? People like Callinicos make a big deal out of Syriza sticking with the Euro as if the currency a nation is based on makes a real difference when it is dominated by imperialism. Greece’s problems do not revolve around the currency it uses but rather in its relationship to the rest of the world capitalist system.

Finally, the real issue facing the Greek left is how to unite people on a class basis against a ruling class that is tightly coupled to the German bourgeoisie. Syriza offers a framework for revolutionaries that will enable them to connect with millions of Greeks who have not yet achieved a revolutionary consciousness. Unlike the Greek Communist Party, Syriza is relatively open and transparent—a function of the “reformism” that Callinicos disdains. The alternative to the CP and Syriza is the tiny and inconsequential Antarsya that is united around the need for revolution but a “reformist” party that can begin to serve as a pole of attraction for revolutionaries. In the event that Syriza is elected and fails to carry out its mandate, it will be up to its left wing to push the agenda for overcoming austerity in the only way possible: overthrowing Greek capitalism.


July 3, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — panel on Registering Class in 21st Century Socialist Strategy

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

This is the fifth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Bryan Palmer, a Canadian historian and James P. Cannon biographer, gave a presentation that was designed to refute the “precariat” theory of Guy Standing. This term combines precarious and proletariat as a way of accounting for the growing percentage of temporary workers such as adjunct professors, blue-collar part-timers, etc. I am not sure how much traction the theory has on the left but Socialist Register, the organizer of the panel, thought it sufficiently anti-Marxist, to recruit Palmer to refute it. Basically he argues that for most of its history, capitalism has created a working-class that is “precarious”. You can listen to his presentation or read a version of it that appears with the two other panelists here: http://www.leftforum.org/content/registering-class-21st-century-socialist-strategy.

Palmer makes the argument in his paper (and very possibly in his talk) that the lumpenproletariat should not be viewed as distinct from the proletariat:

For all that Marx and Engels could write in the pejorative language of their times about what would later be called ‘the underclass’,44 they were also not unaware of how the ‘residuum’ was reciprocally related to the stalwart proletarians on whom they based their hope for socialism. Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 had much of moralistic condemnation in it, especially with respect to immigrant Irish labour, but this did not mean that he saw the most downtrodden sectors of the proletariat as irredeemably separated out from the working class. Indeed, in an 1892 preface to his Manchester study, Engels recorded with considerable optimism the extent to which socialism’s advance in England had registered even in a former bastion of lumpenproletarianization, London’s East End. ‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool that it was six years ago’, Engels wrote. ‘It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism”’, he continued, adding, ‘that is to say the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers’.45

I think that Palmer makes some very interesting points but I would disagree with the notion that the Irish or the denizens of the East End were “lumpen”. Instead they were unskilled workers who were burdened with alcoholism, petty crime, and other “anti-social” behavior. Indeed, this is exactly the same profile of the earliest autoworkers that Henry Ford sought to “uplift”:

Wall Street Journal, May 9 2013
Henry Ford’s Experiment to Build a Better Worker

A review of “I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford” by Richard Snow.

Early in 1914 Henry Ford, spurred by a combination of wanting to cut down the high turnover in his workforce and what seems to have been genuine altruism, announced that henceforth the base wage in his factory would be five dollars a day. This at a stroke doubled the prevailing salary for industrial work, and it caused a sensation.

But Ford company workers discovered that achieving their five-dollar day came with some rigid stipulations. To qualify for his doubled salary, the worker had to be thrifty and continent. He had to keep his home neat and his children healthy, and, if he were below the age of twenty-two, to be married.

Joe landed a job at Ford, and that is when Mr. Andrews entered his life, to find him living in “an old, tumbled down, one and a half story frame house.” Joe and his family were in “one half of the attic consisting of three rooms, which were so low that a person of medium height could not stand erect—a filthy, foul-smelling home.” It contained “two dirty beds…a ragged filthy rug, a rickety table, and two bottomless chairs (the children standing up at the table to eat).” The family owed money to their landlord, to the butcher, to the grocer. The eldest daughter had gone to a charity hospital the week before. Mr. Andrews said the remainder of the family “were half clad, pale, and hungry looking.”

Mr. Andrews at once got the pay office to issue Joe’s wages daily instead of every two weeks. He secured a $50 loan, and such was the Sociological Department’s seriousness of purpose then that Mr. Andrews, not Joe, borrowed the money. Mr. Andrews paid the butcher and the landlord, rented a cottage, and filled it with cheap but sound new furniture, new clothes, and, he said, “a liberal supply of soap.”

Chibber’s talk was a variation on the one he has been giving at conferences ever since the publication of his book attacking subaltern studies (it is mistitled as a critique of postcolonialism, a field that includes subaltern studies.)

His emphasis is on the need for “universalism”, a principle or whatever you want to call it that it is under attack from postmodernists in the academy, including subaltern studies specialists.

At some point I am going to give all this the attention it deserves but do want to make a couple of points now. Chibber has a curious argument (I am drawing from his article rather than the talk) that capitalism does not necessarily destroy all precapitalist cultural institutions even as it becomes the “universal” economic system. This would seem to contradict what Marx wrote in “The Communist Manifesto”:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Since one of subaltern studies’ main complaints is that a mechanical Marxism failed to account for the persistence of “religious fervor” in societies like India’s, Chibber is quick to assure his readers that capitalism can easily put up with “precapitalist” customs, culture, superstitions, etc. as long as they don’t get in the way of profit-making:

This whole argument rests on the assumption that if a practice does not directly advance capitalism’s reproduction, by being part of what Chakrabarty calls its ‘life-process’, it must elicit a hostile response from capital. But we might ask, why on earth would this be so? Returning to the question I posed in the preceding paragraph, if a practice is simply neutral with respect to accumulation, wouldn’t the natural response from capital be one of indifference? Chakrabarty makes it seem as though capitalist managers walk around with their own political Geiger counters, measuring the compatibility of every social practice with their own priorities. But surely the more reasonable picture is this: capitalists seek to expand their operations, make the best possible returns on their investments, and as long as their operations are running smoothly, they simply do not care about the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment.

I am not exactly sure what Chibber is driving at here. If all that subaltern studies was about was nagging Western Marxists for their underestimation of “the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment”, I doubt that such a tsunami of books and articles would have been produced over the past several decades in the name of subaltern studies. For example, it would seem fairly obvious that despite what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “backward” institutions have never seriously threatened capitalism. Just look at Saudi Arabia.

I have not read Chakabarty so I cannot comment much more on this but I did have a look at an article cited by Chibber that supposedly makes the same sorts of mistakes, namely Gyan Prakash’s “Postcolonialism and Indian Historiography” that appeared in the dreaded Social Text in 1992, the same journal that was hoodwinked by Alan Sokal. Although Prakash’s article is burdened with the usual jargon (inscribed, palimpsest, catachrestic, etc.), he makes some essential points about the problem of Indian historiography that supersede narrower questions of cultural exceptions to a universalizing capitalism:

In fact, like many other nineteenth-century European ideas, the staging of the Eurocentric mode-of-production narrative as History should be seen as an analogue of nineteenth-century territorial imperialism. From this point of view, Marx’s ideas on changeless India – theorized, for example, in his concept of the “Asiatic mode of production” – appear not so much mistaken as the discursive form produced by the universalization of Europe, by its appropriation of the absolute other into a domesticated other. Such a historicization of the Eurocentrism in nineteenth-century marxism enables us to understand the collusion of capitalism and colonialism, and to undo the effect of that collusion’s imperative to interpret third-world histories in terms of capital’s logic.

Thanks to recent Marxist scholarship, Wittfogel’s work on the Asiatic Mode of Production has been pretty much debunked but when subaltern studies was taking off, it was still taken seriously—including on the Marxism list. You might even say that when Marxism discarded this theory it was possible to arrive at a more “universalist” understanding of Indian history, one that would make it more amenable to Chibber’s vision of things.

However, that’s not exactly the way that Irfan Habib sees it. Habib is the dean of Marxist history in India and, for that matter, a sharp critic of postcolonialism and Edward Said’s notion of “orientalism” in particular. But that does not prevent him from implicitly dissenting from Chibber as he writes in “Problems of Marxist Historiography” (Social Scientist, Dec. 1988):

Social formations constitute successive organisations of society, so that the classic order of succession has been primitive communism-slavery-feudalism- capitalism. Whether the classic order is also universal is a question on which there has been much controversy. Marx did not think that pre-colonial India was ‘feudal': it lacked serfdom, and there was identity between tax and rent. The ‘Asiatic Mode’, which Marx speculated on in the 1850s, has been resurrected as the Tributary Mode by Samir Amin; and sub-classified into ‘feudal’ (based on rent) and ‘despotic’ (based on tax) by Chris Wickham; Kosambi and R.S. Sharma have argued that India did not see the stage of slavery, but had forms of feudalism from the middle of the first millennium or thereabouts to the colonial conquest.

While the controversy is not likely to cease, I do not wish to discuss it here at length. My own views are against a universalization of ‘feudalism’ as an umbrella to cover all pre-capitalist systems whatever their actual modes of surplus-extraction (class-exploitation). I agree that failure to universalize feudalism would lead us to accept a multiplicity of social formations over different territories; but I see no scandal in this. I would reassert that this is also implicit in the Communist Manifesto, when it treats capitalism as the first universal mode of production, and speaks of complex class structures preceding it.

Suffice it to say that the ideological foundations of Chibber’s attack on subaltern studies rest on exactly the kind of “universalization” that troubles Habib. Despite their jargon and despite their fixation on the “superstructure”, the subaltern studies people were grappling with a real problem and that was seeing India through the prism of European history and British history more particularly. The underlying assumption of political Marxism is that capitalism originated in the British countryside as a result of the introduction of lease farming mostly as a contingent event and then diffused to the rest of the world. This is a topic of great interest to me and that will provide the primary entry point when I get around to reading both Ranajit Guha and Vivek Chibber.

I won’t say anything more about Arun Gupta’s talk except that it dealt with Walmart workers and was extremely powerful.

June 26, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on post-Chavez Venezuela

Filed under: Left Forum,ultraleftism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

This is the fourth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum. I apologize in advance for a brief presence of my bald pate toward the middle of the event for about 10 minutes, which thankfully did not interfere with the audio. A fellow videographer tipped me off about this intrusion and I promise it won’t happen again.

Since the panel included Steve Ellner, I was especially motivated to cover this event. For my money, Steve is the sharpest analyst of Venezuela politics. Period. During the Q&A I commented that despite the fact that I fully supported the process in Venezuela, it seemed appropriate at this point to stop referring to it as “21st century socialism” since there is little likelihood that it will ever lead to the abolition of capitalism. It amounts to a Keynesian type economic program that is committed to the welfare of the masses, something that is inspiring in its own right. Unfortunately, Steve’s reply was not recorded but he made the point that nobody in Venezuela, either on the right or the left, feels that Venezuela is socialist. But what is equally important is the growth of working class institutions of economic and political power that will ultimately clash with capitalist power. This is what explains the sharp clashes in Venezuela now, a focus of the panel presentations that were on a uniformly high level.

This prompts me to say a few words about an article by Chris Gilbert, an American now teaching at a Venezuelan university, that appeared on Counterpunch yesterday. Like many others, particularly among the “Leninists” in the ISO, Gilbert expresses impatience with the Bolivarian process so much so that he invokes the Russian Narodniks as an example of the sort of thing that is necessary in Latin America, including Venezuela.

I am sure that Chris means well but he is a bit confused about the history of our movement, especially when he writes about Marx’s disgust with those who promoted reformism in his name:

Marx himself thought differently. While growing increasingly exasperated by the German Social Democratic party and its ambition to plod (and pact) itself toward a peaceful victory through the tireless accumulation of forces, he found a breath of fresh air in the character of Russian pistol-bearing narodniks whom he called “terrorists.” These folks knew how to live with brio and die with dignity. They had a revolutionary ethic and thought creatively. They read and studied Marx but did not take him to be the last word. Perhaps the twentieth-century figure most like them is the young Fidel Castro.

To start with, Marx was not unhappy with the German party contesting in elections and in other open and legal arenas but with the influence of LaSalle’s ideology on a wing of the party that reflected an opportunist tendency to adapt to the Junkers welfare state taking shape under Bismarck. There is not the slightest hint that Marx proposed “the propaganda of the deed” in Germany. His main goal was to reorient the German party for the need to struggle uncompromisingly against the bourgeois parties until the conquest of power was posed.

Gilbert links to Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Road” but Shanin’s book based on an analysis of Marx’s letters to the Russian populists has zero to do with shooting Czarist officials. Instead it is an embrace of the idea that the precapitalist peasant communes could form the basis of a revolutionary government that could be the first step in a European-wide proletarian revolution. Marx explained that his focus on Britain’s economic history that proceeded from feudalism to capitalism as a basis for the socialist stage was not a universal template. He thought that the capitalist stage could be skipped entirely.

Chris seems to grasp this to a certain degree when he wrote:

 The narodniks of the People’s Will Party used violence because they did not see history as a linear universal progression in which all must follow the same route. They felt that the Russian people were sitting on potential socialism and socialist potentialities. The violence was the means to release these potentialities.

However, the Narodniks did not use violence in order to skip the capitalist stage. Instead, they did so as a way of inspiring the masses to take revolutionary action. Marx’s thinking was entirely different. He believed that socialists should be part of the mass movement, pushing it to revolutionary conclusions. In contrast, the Narodniks operated in small conspiratorial circles and had little interest in organizing strikes or running for the Duma. In fact it was their very elitist method that led to their legal party becoming a reformist obstacle to socialism—the Social Revolutionary Party of Alexander Kerensky. Terrorism and electoral opportunism went hand in hand.

Chris is fed up with the Latin American left that bases itself on Lenin’s critique of ultraleftism, directed against the immature Communist Parties that were trying to emulate the Bolsheviks. While I have no use for those who cite Lenin’s pamphlet to justify support for bourgeois candidates, it remains a good corrective to boneheaded tactics that isolate the left.

But it would be useful to remind ourselves of what Lenin had to say about the Narodniks, who had little to do with Fidel Castro who ran as an Ortodoxo candidate and who was active in the student movement. Even after he took up arms, the July 26th Movement used every opening afforded it under the Batista dictatorship to mobilize the masses, including repeated attempts to build general strikes through the trade union movement that required reaching out to the CP that had supported Batista in the 1930s and 40s.

For Lenin’s views on the Narodniks, I recommend a look at the 1902 article, aptly titled “Revolutionary Adventurism”:

The Social-Democrats will always warn against adventurism and ruthlessly expose illusions which inevitably end in complete disappointment. We must bear in mind that a revolutionary party is worthy of its name only when it guides in deed the movement of a revolutionary class. We must bear in mind that any popular movement assumes an infinite variety of forms, is constantly developing new forms and discarding the old, and effecting modifications or new   combinations of old and new forms. It is our duty to participate actively in this process of working out means and methods of struggle. When the students’ movement became sharper, we began to call on the workers to come to the aid of the students without taking it upon our selves to forecast the forms of the demonstrations, without promising that they would result in an immediate transference of strength, in lighting up the mind, or a special elusiveness. When the demonstrations became consolidated, we began to call for their organisation and for the arming of the masses, and put forward the task of preparing a popular uprising. Without in the least denying violence and terrorism in principle, we demanded work for the preparation of such forms of violence as were calculated to bring about the direct participation of the masses and which guaranteed that participation. We do not close our eyes to the difficulties of this task, but will work at it steadfastly and persistently, undeterred by the objections that this is a matter of the “vague and distant future.”

That has far more in common with Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement than the Narodniks of Lenin’s day or sad attempts to emulate them now.


June 21, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on art and gentrification

Filed under: art,housing,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

This is the third in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

As I will point out, the topic might be of great interest to those who have looked askance at the “art market” but unfortunately the presentations were not that great. I do urge you watch the video, however, since the speakers were genuine authorities in the field of how artists often unwittingly serve as the shock troops of gentrification.

As a New Yorker, this is a topic that interests me a great deal since I have seen any number of neighborhoods in New York undergo gentrification through a process that follows a familiar pattern. Artists looking for a cheap studio will buy or rent commercial lofts, often in violation of building codes, and then turn them into living lofts. Two old friends, now deceased, bought a loft on the Bowery in 1969 for that very purpose. Around the same time, further to the West, Soho was being transformed after the same fashion. I am not sure how many artists are now operating in Soho, an area that is punctuated by Moncler, Gucci, and Armani boutiques.

Soon to follow was Tribeca, an area that followed the same pattern. Besides the boutiques, Soho and Tribeca are fabulous places for hedge fund managers to live. With their tattoos and their French bulldogs, they feel utterly bohemian.

As artists kept getting priced out of Manhattan, they explored other places, eventually “discovering” Wiliamsburg. Before long Williamsburg became “Soho-ized” as artist Su Friedrich pointed out in her documentary “Gut Renovation”, about which I wrote:

Friedrich’s documentary is an angry and deeply personal look at the 20 years she has spent in a Brooklyn neighborhood that I always considered a bohemian stronghold even if there were obviously attempts to gentrify it. As is the customary practice in New York, artists like Friedrich flock to somewhat seedy but charming neighborhoods in search of cheap industrial lofts to turn into studios. The most famous example is Soho, the area “South of Houston Street” that is nothing but a warren of overpriced restaurants and boutiques nowadays. The only artists who remain there are those who are successful enough to mount shows in Madison Avenue galleries, a snooty area that the once downscale Soho now resembles.

Friedrich is a remarkable personality whose flair for vitriol is worth the price of an admission ticket. She is not above accosting well-heeled couples on the street that are toting shopping bags from Bloomingdales and accusing them of destroying her neighborhood. In one priceless moment in this darkly comic saga, she yells at a bunch of real estate agents and developers from the window of her loft. She is both shameless and priceless.

The artist/gentrification nexus appears outside of New York. One of the most egregious examples is Braddock, Pennsylvania, a destitute small city near Pittsburgh that was once home to steel mills. In the largely African-American city, a white Mayor has called for the transformation of Braddock by appealing to artists (implicitly white) to settle there. In my article on Braddock, I call attention to what the Levi blue jean corporation said during the time it was running commercials filmed there:

The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay.  Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca.  Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town.   As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.

As opposed to this cynical bullshit in the name of social justice, put forward at a time when Braddock’s only hospital was being shut down, Tony Buba fought for true working-class values as opposed to blue jean iconography.

I would call your attention to an article written by Martha Rosler, one of the two panelists in the video. Titled “The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation”, it makes some essential points about the art/gentrification problem. This “solution” to America’s deepening urban crisis of poverty and social decay is being offered to Detroit today after being dubbed a success in Pittsburgh, another hollowed out metropolis. Rosler writes:

This repopulation and transformation of cities—from spaces bereft of shops and manufacturing, starved of resources, and inhabited by poor and working-class people or squatters living in ill-maintained housing stock, into spaces of middle-class desire, high-end shopping, and entertainment—took at least a generation. It also required the concerted effort of city leaders. New York’s Soho and East Village had proved, by the late 1970s, that the transformation of old warehouses and decaying tenement districts into valuable real estate could be accomplished by allowing artists to live and work in them—if nothing else, city government recognized or identified with such people and understood their needs. Those elected officials who might, in an ear­lier era, have supported organized labor, found that such constituencies were fading away. Artists, in addition, were not going to organize and make life difficult for city governments. In the following decades, the Soho model became paradigmatic for cities around the world. (Another popular tactic was to attract small new industrial shops, mostly high tech ones.) But no matter how much the arts (whether the performing arts or the institutionalized visual arts in museums) have been regarded in some cities as an economic motor, that remedy is not applicable everywhere, and not every city has proved to be a magnet for the arts. A new urban theory was required.


June 17, 2014

Left Forum 2014 panel discussion on fracking

Filed under: fracking,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

This is the second in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Like most people on the left and particularly those with an ecosocialist orientation, I have been following the struggle over fracking quite closely. But I have an additional motivation. Sullivan County in upstate NY, where my tiny village of Woodridge growing up can be found, is a battleground over fracking drawing support from the Hollywood film star Mark Ruffalo who has a country house there.

If you grew up in the southern Catskill Mountains that extends through Sullivan County you will be familiar with the trout streams that were fed by melting snow from those mountains. Their names are legion: the Neversink, the Willowemac and Callicoon Creek. The Neversink was not just valuable for sport; it also feeds the Neversink Reservoir, one of NYC’s primary sources of exceptionally clean water.

When I was young, I used to swim in the Neversink in kind of natural pool underneath a tiny suspension bridge that was designed by John Roebling, the same engineer responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge. Although I stated in my article on Shamir that I have no use for the spiritual, that river is about as close to godlike as any I can think of. It was my Ganges.

The Croton Bridge (named after the company that built it in 1897)

The Riverkeeper Website is a good source of information on the threat posed by fracking:

The entire West-of-Hudson portion of the New York City Watershed (supplying 90% of drinking water to over half the state’s population) sits on top of part of the Marcellus Shale, a large mineral reserve deposit deep beneath the earth’s surface. Oil and gas companies have known about this shale reserve for decades, but the technology to extract natural gas from it has become available only recently. The Marcellus Shale spans across at least five states. To extract natural gas from the mineral reserve, oil companies plan to use a process called “hydraulic fracturing.”

“Fracking” involves injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water under high pressure directly into shale formations. This toxic brew, along with any natural gas, is then extracted, or leaked to the surface. Whether any toxic discharges will flow into New York City’s drinking water supply is uncertain.

I keep track of the fracking fight in my hometown newspapers, the Middletown Times-Record and the much smaller circulation Sullivan County Democrat, the newspaper my mom used to write for. Since the hotel industry went bust, Sullivan County has become one of the poorest counties in the state. As such, landowners—many of whom are impoverished farmers—are tempted to lease their land to an energy company. For the time being, Cuomo has suspended fracking but given his shitty politics, there’s some question how long that will last. The third speaker on the panel dealt with NY state issues.

A Middletown Times-Record video on the Neversink River:

The first speaker was Steve Horn, who you may know as the foremost journalist covering the fracking beat right now. I strongly suggest you bookmark his blog: http://www.desmogblog.com/blog/steve-horn

This article from the Middletown Times-Record should give you a sense of the sharp divisions in Sullivan County:

Emotions run high as fracking divides neighbors
Takes toll on communities

By Steve Israel

Times Herald-Record,  02/17/13

An anti-fracking hunter no longer hunts in the woods he’s trod for decades. He says he was made to feel so uncomfortable by the pro-fracking hunting friends who own the land, he just doesn’t feel like he’s wanted there.

A pro-fracking volunteer at a public radio station quits the station. She feels ostracized because of what she says is the anti-fracking atmosphere.

Then there’s the builder of second homes who’s potentially put hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction on hold in Sullivan County towns where fracking is a possibility. He’s waiting until the state finally decides whether the natural gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will be permitted.

The possibility of fracking – and all its explosive divisiveness – has insinuated itself so deeply into so many aspects of local life, the fabric of that life has been frayed.

That is the one thing both sides of the issue can agree on.

“Everything has become politicized,” says builder Charles Petersheim, who will not build his Catskill Farms homes in certain western Sullivan County towns until the state issues a decision on fracking.

“The grocery store, the town board, the chamber of commerce. And there’s no rest.”

“I don’t think anything has had the impact on the town as much as fracking,” says Town of Highland Supervisor Andy Boyar, whose Delaware River town banned fracking last summer.

“The residue, the hard feelings still exist and we need to heal.”

“It’s permeating other issues in ways we never would have predicted,” sums up former Sullivan West School District Superintendent Ken Hilton. When his district tried to sell one of its unused schools, the issue of whether to keep or sell the mineral rights for natural gas beneath school property became a point of contention.

No subject is immune

From real-estate values that anti-frackers say would plummet and pro-frackers say would soar, to farms that anti – and pro-frackers say would either be ruined or saved, the implications of fracking have, for many local residents, become as much a part of the daily conversation as the weather. And even that weather would be affected by fracking, say those against it, because of the polluting climate change they say fracking would cause.

But nowhere in the region is the reach of the fracking divide more obvious than the town, planning or zoning board meetings of Sullivan County that once attracted a handful of residents but now can be standing-room only whenever there’s a chance fracking might be discussed.

Take the recent public hearing on the proposed comprehensive plan – or blueprint for growth – in the western Sullivan Town of Callicoon. The plan includes a provision for gas drilling, which fracking opponents (and the county planning department) want removed and supporters want retained.

The steady flow of remarks to the Town Board by the standing-room-only crowd of more than 60 made it obvious that virtually every aspect of local life would be hurt or helped by fracking – depending, of course, how you felt about an “issue (that) can affect us all whether we want it or not,” said Nathan Swenberg.

“Are you really ready to gamble with our tax base, our health, our economy,” asked fracking opponent Jill Wiener, ticking off the areas of local life she said will be at risk if the town allows fracking.

The heart of local life

That’s why emotions always run high whenever this potential strand in the fabric of local life is mentioned as a possibility. It’s no exaggeration to say that for some, the debate over fracking gets at the heart of what local life is all about.

Those for it view it as the key to economic progress and livelihood in this county where the unemployment rate hit 10 percent in December.

Some struggling farmers “wait every day to see what New York is going to do,” says Callicoon Supervisor Tom Bose, who mentions a farmer raising cattle in nearby Broome County who’s waiting for gas drilling – and its royalties – to begin, to pay Bose the money he owes him.

But those against it say fracking and its industrial activity will ruin the lifeblood of Sullivan – its pristine water and pastoral land.

“I know people in the city who want to buy homes but won’t consider the area until this thing is resolved,” says Cristian Graca of Shalom Mountain Retreat in Livingston Manor.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the fracking debate has been on the community itself.

“A lot of people are unfriendly to one another,” said Earl Myers at that comprehensive plan meeting.

John Ebert, who supports fracking and the comprehensive plan, put it like this at that meeting when he said he spoke for “the silent majority of citizens in this township” and expressed a sentiment of the most vocal pro-frackers:

“We also have a minority group with a lot of mouth, money and misinformation to slow progressive progress in this township.”

‘You can be blacklisted’

In fact, fracking is so divisive, and so controversial, some choose not to express their real opinions about it for fear they – or their businesses – will be hurt. Others say longtime acquaintances with opposing views on fracking no longer speak to them because of how they feel.

“If you’re not part of the anti-fracking community, you can be blacklisted,” says Petersheim, expressing a sentiment many for fracking say. He’s spoken out against the legality of towns trying to zone out fracking, as well as the laws that are supposed to protect roads from fracking truck traffic, but, he says, would also hurt construction activity.

Bose agrees that folks for fracking often remain silent.

“We’ve seen contractors who can’t wait for this to happen, but they’re cautious in what they say because they don’t want to hurt their business,” he says.

And because whatever decision the state ultimately makes on fracking will bound to be appealed, the divisiveness in so many strands of the fabric of local life is likely to deepen.

That’s why Boyar – who mentions the cursing and obscene gestures he’s seen because of fracking – speaks not only for his town, but also for just about every area that’s been torn by the divisive issue.

“The town really has to go through a healing process.” he says. “It really does.”


June 15, 2014

Left Forum panel discussion on Lenin and democracy

Filed under: democracy,Left Forum,Lenin — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

This is the first in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Even though I was reconciled to making some points about Lenin and democracy within the sixty seconds allotted me during the Q&A after the presentations above, I was not ready to limit myself to a question. After 30 seconds (I timed myself) of making some points about the Bolsheviks opposing democracy in the Ukraine after 1917, someone in the audience interrupted me, telling me that I could only ask a question. I gave up at that point and walked out in disgust. If I knew who the nitwit was, I would have written an open letter warning him that if he ever did it again, he’d regret it–dagnabit.

Now that I am back in my ‘hood—the Internet—I don’t have to show anybody my stinking badge as the Mexican bandit told Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”. I will have my say on these questions now and that’s that.

As might be expected from a panel organized by Paul Le Blanc, there was effusive praise for Lenin as a democrat. Nimtz just wrote a book titled “Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets – or Both” that can be yours for a mere $85. An educated consumer can listen to him and decide whether to pony up the cash. Ty Law focused most of his talk on the election campaigns being run by Socialist Alternative, including his own in Minneapolis.

If you go strictly by what Lenin wrote, there’s not much to disagree with. Of course, we know from experience that Marxists reading the same Lenin texts can draw violently opposed conclusions, as is the case with the works of Marx and Engels as well.

With Lenin, this becomes even more of a problem when considering the actions of the Soviet state in the period following the October 1917 revolution when the survival of the state required sacrificing socialist principles in the interests of national security. What becomes even more confusing is that the sacrifice was often defended as serving socialist principles when they were in fact violating them. In a way, it was analogous to the character in “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, the very powerful Iranian film, who insisted that he was serving God by killing agents of the “Cultural NATO”.

We are used to cynical defenses of indefensible actions after Stalin took power but there is ample evidence that the Soviet Union was ready to apply realpolitik in the same fashion. The tragedy was that the application of realpolitik backfired as the Soviet victims came to the conclusion that when it came to their own interests and that of the Soviet state, they came in a distant second.

Let me review a few examples:

1. Turkey:

The USSR welcomed the new Kemalist government in Turkey as an anti-imperialist partner, which it was. Just as the Red Army drove back the Whites, Mustafa Kemal defeated the imperialist-backed Greek army. But in addition to being anti-imperialist, the Kemalists were also anti-Communist. In volume 3 of his history of the infant Soviet republic, E.H. Carr describes the willingness of the USSR to look the other way when it came to the democratic rights of the Turkish Communists:

The suppression of Edhem [a Makhno type figure] was immediately followed by drastic steps against the Turkish communists. Suphi was seized by unknown agents at Erzerum, and on January 28, 1921, together with sixteen other leading Turkish communists, thrown into the sea off Trebizond — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution. It was some time before their fate was discovered. Chicherin is said to have addressed enquiries about them to the Kemalist government and to have received the reply that they might have succumbed to an accident at sea. But this unfortunate affair was not allowed to affect the broader considerations on which the growing amity between Kemal and Moscow was founded. For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.

2. Poland:

Thanks to Paul Kellogg, we are now privy to the USSR’s violation of Polish democratic rights when Lenin was alive and kicking. To put it in a nutshell, there was a tendency in the early 20s to consider the use of the Red Army as being roughly equivalent to Napoleon Bonaparte’s peasant army. Where Napoleon used the army to extend bourgeois-democratic social relations, the Red Army would serve to extend socialism where it did not exist beforehand as well as defend the USSR.

In giving the green light to an invasion of Poland in 1920, Lenin overruled Trotsky’s objections. Here is Kellogg’s explanation of the differences between Russia and Poland:

But Poland was not Russia. True, the Polish peasants were oppressed by a rich and corrupt landlord class, just as were the Russian peasants,. But they were also oppressed by Russia, through a long history of invasions and occupations. The relation of Poland to Russia was analogous to that of Ireland to Great Britain, Quebec to English Canada, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) to the United States. The Polish people were an oppressed nation within the prison‐house of nations that had been Tsarist Russia. An army of Russian peasants was not going to be greeted as a liberation army any more than would be a British army in Ireland, an English Canadian army in Quebec, or an 18th‐century U.S. army in Haudenosaunee territory in what is today New York state.

The Russian invasion was a disaster, not just for the Red Army that was routed but for Polish Jews who fell victim to the Red Army’s demoralized deserters as Lenin noted:

A new wave of pogroms has swept over the district. The exact number of those killed cannot be established, and the details cannot be established (because of the lack of communication), but certain facts can be established definitively. Retreating units of the First Cavalry Army (Fourth and Sixth Divisions) have been destroying the Jewish population in their path, looting and murdering … Emergency aid is vital. A large sum of money and food must be sent.

3. Ukraine

This was the most glaring example. I find it singularly depressing that much of the left is either unaware of the painful realities of early Soviet history are—even worse—prefers to sweep it under the rug. I can only recommend once again the article titled “For the independence of Soviet Ukraine” (written when the Ukraine had not gained its independence) by Polish Trotskyist Zbigniew Kowalewski.

It will not only show how little interest the Bolsheviks had in the democratic rights of the Ukraine but the degree to which today’s problems have their origins in the Soviet state arrogating to itself the right of sovereignty over a “lesser nationality”:

Skrypnyk, a personal friend of Lenin, and a realist always studying the relationship of forces, was seeking a minimum of Ukrainian federation with Russia and a maximum of national independence. In his opinion, it was the international extension of the revolution which would make it possible to resist in the most effective fashion the centralising Greater Russian pressure. At the head of the first Bolshevik government in the Ukraine he had had some very bitter experiences: the chauvinist behaviour of Muraviev, the commander of the Red Army who took Kiev, the refusal to recognize his government and the sabotage of his work by another commander, Antonov-Ovseyenko, for whom the existence of such a government was the product of fantasies about an Ukrainian nationality. In addition, Skrypnyk was obliged to fight bitterly for Ukrainian unity against the Russian Bolsheviks who, in several regions, proclaimed Soviet republics, fragmenting the country. The integration of Galicia into the Ukraine did not interest them either. The national aspiration to sobornist’, the unity of the country, was thus openly flouted. It was with the “Katerynoslavian” right wing of the party that there was the most serious confrontation. It formed a Soviet republic in the mining and industrial region of Donetsk-Kryvyi Rih, including the Donbas, with the aim of incorporating it into Russia. This republic, its leaders proclaimed, was that of, a Russian proletariat “which does not want to hear anything about some so-called Ukraine and has nothing in common with it”. This attempted secession could count on some support in Moscow. The Skrypnyk government had to fight against these tendencies of its Russian comrades, for the sobornist’ of the Soviet Ukraine within the national borders set, through the Central Rada, by the national movement of the masses.

What all these violations of democracy have in common is their belief in the special role of the USSR. As a cradle of socialism, it had the right to run roughshod over the democratic rights of other nationalities as part of a larger effort to defend socialism and by extension the worldwide revolution.

As should be obvious from the tendency of people like John Rees and Tariq Ali to line up with Putin against Obama, the same disregard for “lesser nationalities” never went away. What is bizarre, however, is the application of this Red Realpolitik to states that have nothing to do with socialism. A simple algebraic formula is applied. You take the position that any struggle that emerges against client states of Russia is ipso facto pro-imperialist. Since the world is divided between the “imperialist” bloc and the “non-imperialist” bloc, all you need to do is locate a struggle within the two camps. Any effort to understand or even sympathize with a Syrian or a Ukrainian sick and tired of oligarchic rule is excluded.

Of even greater concern is how this methodology feeds reactionary tendencies even as it is deployed on “anti-imperialist” grounds. As has been pretty well established, the European ultraright, including Golden Dawn that now sings Nazi anthems at its rallies, has thrown in its lot with Russia, which they see as a brake on European Union ambitions. The emerging alliance between ultraright parties and Russia also rests on social questions, such as the need to support “traditional values” such as Christianity and the nuclear family, as well as nativist opposition to immigrants. I sometimes wonder how in the world such people can fail to see the handwriting on the wall but then again I remember how blind the CP was in another period of a protracted economic downturn. If Marxism is to have any value in this period, it will be on the basis of drawing clear class lines. The time for building multiclass alliances in the name of questionable “anti-imperialism” is long gone.

June 2, 2014

Notes on the 2014 Left Forum

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

John Jay College of Criminal Justice: the appropriate place for a Left Forum conference?

Returning on the 57th street crosstown bus to the east side of Manhattan on Saturday evening from the Left Forum, held this year for the first time at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, I found myself sitting on the opposite side of the aisle from two other people who had been at the event. One, a man in his mid-seventies with jack-o-lanternish missing teeth and a ponytail, was lecturing a somewhat younger woman about the evil Left Forum organizers who had chosen this college for the event. Didn’t they know that the cops are enemies of the working class? What a bunch of hypocritical bastards they were. Every attempt she made to stress the good points of the event being held there such as the convenient location, he escalated his rhetoric to the point that I began worrying that he might bite her ankle. Sizing him up, I was willing to bet a hundred dollars that he listened to WBAI at least 12 hours a day.

Growing impatient with his blather, I spoke up. I said that John Jay’s faculty was no different than any other CUNY school. Michael Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ son, had been the chair of the economics department. I went to hear a lecture by Paul Buhle at John Jay chaired by Meeropol. Furthermore, the University of Utah—a place solidly under Mormon rule—had an economics department much more to the left than any “progressive” college in the USA. Of course, none of this would register on the congenitally ultraleft as I long ago figured out. At least it gave me the opportunity to ventilate—something that helps keep my high-blood pressure down.

As it turned out, Sunday morning’s NY Times backed up the point I was making. In a fascinating article about prisoners taking part in college-level seminars, John Jay’s supposedly sinister reputation came up:

On a recent afternoon, 10 men gathered under the tutelage of Baz Dreisinger, a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to share some of their writing and to talk about the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” One of the students, Theron Smith, serving time on a second-degree murder conviction, noted that Freire’s work called to mind Hegel and the theory of double consciousness. Mr. Smith is an avid consumer of sociological texts; his longtime friend Rowland Davis, next to him in class that day, has immersed himself in theology. Another student had been creating an elaborately illustrated graphic novel.

Not only that, a John Jay professor named Susan Kang chaired a panel discussion on “Lenin and Democracy” that I attended Saturday morning. Kang is the author of “Human Rights and Labor Solidarity: Trade Unions in the Global Economy”, obviously not a primer on the use of interrogation methods. Kang was a dissertation student of August Nimtz, who was one of the panelists. His talk consisted mainly of quotes from Lenin on the importance of participating in the Duma, as well as some thrown in from Marx to the same effect. He said that he did not discover the quotes but only connected the dotted lines between them in his new book. Paul Le Blanc, an ex-member of the SWP (arguably the largest group on the American left) had invited fellow ex-member Nimtz as well as Ty Moore, a Socialist Alternative member who had run an energetic election campaign for City Council in Minneapolis after the fashion of Kshama Sawant.

As you might expect, all three gave benedictions to Lenin as the farsighted, brilliant, strategically advanced architect of the Russian Revolution that stands as one of the greatest expressions of democracy since Adam and Eve. I was in no mood for such encomiums after reading a dozen articles on the post-1917 relationships between the USSR and the Ukraine, especially those that highlighted the Bolshevik decision to depose the Rada, the Ukrainian version of the Duma that had voted for radical land reform. Most Ukrainians did not view that as particularly democratic, except of course for the ethnic Russians in the Donbass region.

I raised my hand to discuss this but felt a bit constrained by Kang’s stricture that the Q&A was for the audience to ask questions and that the questions must be limited to sixty seconds. Well, okay, I’d give it a shot. As I began referring to these problems while keeping track with my Timex, a young man in the audience began interrupting me after thirty seconds. He demanded that I ask a question and nothing else. As I tried to continue, he got louder and more vociferous. I finally gave up and walked out. When I was in the SWP, heckling was enough to get you suspended from the party if not expelled. When Spartacist League members came to our forums, they were always allowed to harangue the speakers as long as they didn’t throw punches. Etched in all our memories were the lessons of the 1920s when Stalin’s faction shouted down the Left Opposition. I was troubled by Kang’s stricture to only ask questions and her indifference to my being interrupted, especially in a workshop on Lenin and democracy.

Speaking of being interrupted, I ended up attending the Socialist Register panel discussion on Sunday at noon where I encountered my last heckler, the NYU sociology professor Vivek Chibber. I had volunteered to video various sessions as a way of getting into the Left Forum for free and the SR panel was the winner by default. Among a group that was tilted in the direction of empty theorizing, this one seemed least objectionable. The panel was titled “Registering Class in 21st Century Socialist Strategy” and featured SR editor Vivek Chibber smacking around postmodernism. His fellow panelists were Bryan Palmer, a friend of SR  and James P. Cannon’s biographer, who debunked Guy Standing’s “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class”, as well as Arun Gupta talking about the miserable life of Walmart employees.

I will be posting links to Vimeo once I have uploaded my recordings so you will be able to get the substance of the two panel discussions mentioned above as well as the others I covered. But in the meantime, I want to conclude with some observations on Chibbek’s jeremiad against the dreaded postmodernists.

His talk was a rehash of the arguments against postmodernism I used to read in the SR and Monthly Review in the 1990s around the time that the Alan Sokal Social Text hoax had gone viral. There was in fact an Indian physicist named Meera Nanda who was writing the same sort of thing long before Chibber, all about the need to defend Enlightenment values against obscurantism and bad prose, etc.

My initial reaction was to hoist Sokal and Nanda on my shoulders but after closer reading I discovered that this was not so simple. Sokal got the idea to do the hoax from Norman Levitt, an NYU professor who had organized a “science wars” conference at NYU funded by the ultraright Olin Foundation.

Like Sokal, Nanda’s focus was on the damage that postmodernism was doing to science:

In this two-part essay, I will examine how this postmodernist left has provided philosophical arguments for Hindutva’s claim that Vedas are “just another name” for modern science. As we will see, postmodernist attacks on objective and universal knowledge have played straight into Hindu nationalist slogan of all perspectives being equally true – within their own context and at their own level. The result is the loud – but false – claims of finding a tradition of empirical science in the spiritual teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta.

For her part, Nanda had made support for the Narmada Dam a litmus test for the left. If you were opposed to the dam, it meant that you were a fuzzy-minded tree hugger like Vandana Shiva. Like most of these mega-dam projects, this one required the dispossession of thousands of peasants as well an assault on the environment—all in the interests of supplying cheap electricity to India’s capitalist sector.

Since Chibber is a sociologist rather than a physicist, his emphasis would be on society rather than the laboratory. He is evidently fed up to here with all those tenured professors who lecture on the dangers of Grand Narratives and who write obscurantist prose rather than drink from the clear waters of the Enlightenment tradition. In a revealing moment, he said that it might have been a conspiracy by the ruling class to allow men and women like him to get jobs as tenured professors since the net effect is to marginalize them in a vast wasteland of “postal” studies hostile to the sort of rock-ribbed, class-oriented scholarship he embodies and that can be found in Socialist Register.

Listening to him, I wondered how he could have become so detached from academic realities. The academy is sinking under the weight of corporatization and an adjunct precariat, but he is worried about whether there will be a place at the table for professors who agree with the orientation of Socialist Register? To start with, the price of entry into the academy for anybody on the left has become prohibitive. Close to 75 percent of all professors are untenured and desperate to find a tenure track position. This is the fate awaiting all recent PhD’s in the humanities, whether their dissertation was on Derrida or Farrell Dobbs. The real crisis is the assault on the humanities in general, not the inability of Marxism to get a hearing.

And just as importantly, it is necessary to understand that Chibber’s real beef is not just with the postmodernists but those Marxists who do not agree with his “Political Marxism” ideology. Back in 1996 Rethinking Marxism held a conference at the U. of Massachusetts that featured a number of Marxist luminaries who never would have submitted an article to Socialist Register. They were open to postmodernist ideas even if they continued to defend socialism. The same thing was true of Social Text. Their Marxism incorporated elements of Derrida and Foucault, no matter how others viewed them as threats to the Established Church of Marxism.

This search for orthodoxy seems misplaced. When we look back at Lenin’s writings, it is hard not to be struck by the campaign against Empirio-Criticism, the postmodernism of its day. It even shared the antipathy toward “relativism” that was threatening to destroy the Marxist project from within, like a Trojan Horse.

We are relativists, proclaim Mach, Avenarius, Petzoldt. We are relativists, echo Mr. Chernov and certain Russian   Machians, would-be Marxists. Yes, Mr. Chernov and Comrades Machians—and therein lies your error. For to make relativism the basis of the theory of knowledge is inevitably to condemn oneself either to absolute scepticism, agnosticism and sophistry, or to subjectivism. Relativism as a basis of the theory of knowledge is not only the recognition of the relativity of our knowledge, but also a denial of any objective measure or model existing independently of humanity to which our relative knowledge approximates.

–V.I. Lenin, “Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy

Well, whatever you think of Lenin, at least he was someone risking life and limb to build a revolutionary party under Czarist rule. Vivek Chibber, by contrast, is an NYU professor whose main goal in life is to discredit a group of Indian scholars who most people have never heard of and who have little reason to bother finding out about. This is not really about advancing the cause of the proletariat but fighting over academic turf where the ferocity of the polemics is inversely proportional to the importance of the matters under debate.

As has been the case for many years, the Left Forum allows me to chat with Marxmail subscribers who in some cases I have been connected with for over a decade.
I had a beer with Jon Flanders on Saturday evening and caught up with what he’s been up to since retirement. He is a few years younger than me and is enjoying life after decades of repairing diesel locomotives for Amatrak. I first met Jon in 1971 when he had decided to join the YSA after reading Karl Marx. Before that he used to walk around the U. of Vermont campus wearing a cape. I am not exactly sure why but I did things at Bard a lot stranger. Like me, Jon has kept very busy after retiring. In his case, that meant working for the reform slate in the Machinists union. For me, it means doubling up on my movie reviews.

I also ran into David Walters. We didn’t discuss the Lawrence-Wishart business but how to bring my blood pressure down. I first met David in 1969 or so when he had joined the YSA out of nursery school. He was a very advanced thinker.

Finally, last and by no stretch of the imagination last, I chatted with Michael Perelman who is even older than me. At 74, Michael plays basketball with guys in their 20s. His blood pressure is about 90. He told me that he plans to continue teaching at Chico until he dies, and maybe even afterwards.

While I did my best to dominate the conversation with Michael, he did get in a few words edgewise. Of particular interest was his explaining where the term robber barons comes from, prompted by my discussion of the film based on “Age of Uprisings: the Michael Kohlhaas Story”. In my review I noted: “It was Kohlhaas’s misfortune to have trusted a baron with the proper care of two black horses that he had surrendered as collateral in order to pass through his domain en route to his estate, where he raises horses for a living.

Michael explained that this is where the term robber baron comes from. Sure enough, he is right. From wikipedia:

The term robber baron derives from the medieval German lords who charged nominally illegal tolls (tolls unauthorized by the Holy Roman Emperor) on the primitive roads crossing their lands or the larger tolls on ships traversing the Rhine—all such actions without adding anything of value,[4] (see robber baron) but instead lining one’s pockets to the detriment (added costs) of the common good.

June 19, 2013

Left Forum 2013

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

To preface my report, I should mention something that I probably never have mentioned before. As a rule of thumb, I go to workshops that hold out the promise that I will find out something new. By the same token, I avoid plenaries since they tend to be opportunities for celebrities on the left to address the Big Questions of the day in a vaporous manner.

The only other point worth making is that the weekend was graced by the opportunity to have lunch with a couple of Marxmailers I have known for some time now, “Red Arnie”, a veteran of the Asian student movement of the 60s and 70s, and Robbie Kwan Laurel, who came over from the Philippines to the Left Forum for the second time since 2009 and who presented me with a gift copy of his new book “Philippine Cultural Disasters” that has a chapter on “Academic Entrepreneurship and Scholarship in the Age of Hyper Capitalism”. Not having read it yet, I confess to a sneaking suspicion that Leon Botstein and John Sexton come under scrutiny based on the title. Here’s a nice profile on Robby timed to the publication of an earlier book, a collection of short stories.

1. Class Struggle in Contemporary Quebec

This was the perfect example of what I am looking for in a Left Forum panel discussion. I think that most people on the left are like me. You followed the student struggle over tuition hikes when it was happening and sort of lost track after it came to an end. The discussion was not so much centered on the outcome, which was to be taken up in a separate panel and appeared to be something of a compromise, but on the social and economic background that was most illuminating. Since two of the panelists were student activists, the discussion was really quite detailed and interesting.

There were two things I learned. To start with, a Quiet Revolution in Quebec took place in the 1960s that led to the province becoming a secular welfare state with the least amount of social inequality in the Western Hemisphere.

In keeping with the austerity drive taking place everywhere, the Liberals tried to impose higher fees by demagogically appealing to tax payers about the “privileged” students gaming the system. The alternative to the Liberals is the Parti Quebecois that despite its leftish coloration proposes a more “intelligent” approach to managing austerity, reminding me of the Social Democrats in Greece.

The session was chaired by Matthieu Dufour who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which like the U. of Utah economics department is an unlikely hotbed of leftism.

2. Unpacking the University-National Security State-Corporate Complex

With my keen interest as indicated above in Academic Entrepreneurship as displayed, for example, by Bard College hosting a week-long conference on the mystical droolings of a self-published jeweler to the big bourgeoisie, I was anxious to hear what Marxmailer Alan Ruff and FB friend and fellow CP contributor Steve Horn had to say about Khazakstan, a nation I have more than routine interest in since a young woman I had a lot of contact with when she was working on PhD at Columbia University Teacher’s College on Education Reform in Khazakstan turned out to be a neoliberal opportunist with a distinct aroma of the CIA about her.

Alan and Steve are looking into how major American educational institutions with a liberal veneer like U. of Wisconsin, where they have close ties, are like buzzards feasting on the carcass of Khazakstan—a country that is developing a GINI coefficiency rating that threatens to break past the 100 percent ceiling.

Joining the two intrepid investigators was the inimitable Liza Featherstone who spoke about the ties between “leftist” academics and the war machine through their research on “focus groups” intended to gauge what is effective propaganda—in other words movies and radio shows that were intended to get young Americans to go kill axis soldiers. Brilliant stuff.

3. The Future of World Capitalism

This involved a bit of false advertising but not egregiously so. I went to this panel chaired by Alan Freeman to find out when the Big One was going to hit according to the FROP crystal ball. But it turned out instead to be talks from the authors of a series of Pluto Books that Alan and Radhika Desai are editing. I was more than mollified to meet Henry Heller for the first time. He spoke about his book on “The Birth of Capitalism” that I couldn’t recommend highly enough as the definitive answer to the Brenner thesis.

And just as enticing is another book in the series titled “To Live and Die in America: Class, Power, Health and Healthcare” that was reported on by Robert Chernomas, a co-author. Chernomas makes the claim that most modern diseases that cut life short, from cancer to high blood pressure, are a function the capitalist mode of production. Two hundred years ago cancer was an uncommon illness.

For her part, Radhika Desai spoke about “Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire”, a book that challenges the idea that the US ever was a true hegemon in the same way that Great Britain was. It sounds like a good companion piece to the new Gindin-Panitch book.

4. Prospects for the Syrian Revolution

I blogged about this stellar session here: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/10/prospects-for-the-syrian-revolution/

5. Political Ecologies of Developmental Terrorism: Neo-liberalism and People’s Resistance in India

This was a presentation by members of the Sanhati collective, a group of mostly Indian academics and activists in India and the USA committed to the cause of India’s most oppressed, including the indigenous forest dwellers that provide the basis of the Maoist movement. While the comrades are not Maoists themselves, as far as I can tell, they know which side of the barricade they are on. These are not only some of the sharpest people politically I have run into in recent years but also some of the most fearless. One speaker, Partho Saratha Ray, had some interesting comments in reply to a question I posed about a possible disjunction between the forest-dwelling adivasis (tribal people) and the city dwellers appeared dedicated mostly to a consumerist life-style, alluding to problems that I had read about in the Mexican revolution of 1910 when a similar city-rural divide existed. Partho talked about his own experience in the struggle, one in which the conditions of life in the city were just as miserable. Here is a BBC report on this remarkable comrade’s dedication to the cause:

18 April 2012 Last updated at 05:55 ET

Indian Professor Partho Sarathi Ray freed from jail

A molecular biologist who was arrested in India’s West Bengal state for allegedly participating in a protest, has been freed after 10 days in jail.

Partho Sarathi Ray was arrested on 8 April for protesting against a slum eviction drive in Calcutta.

He says he was not even in the city on 4 April, the day of the protest.

More than 50 activists and academics from India and abroad wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to intervene.

A well-known scientist, Prof Ray’s work has been published in respectable journals around the world.

Police charged him with assaulting policemen during the protest, but he denies the charge.

His lawyers say he was at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Nadia district to attend a faculty meeting on the day. They say he stayed there for the night and did not leave until the next day.

‘Clear message’

His arrest was condemned by scientists and academics who wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to intervene to secure Prof Ray’s release.

“There seems to be a clear message to others not to raise voices of dissent,” said the letter, signed by activists and academics including Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Noam Chomsky, Mrigangka Sur, Abha Sur and others.

7. Hollywood and the CIA

Got a chance to exchange ideas with a couple of leftie film buffs. Dumped all over Katherine Bigelow and Ben Affleck. Yeah!

March 19, 2012

Left Forum 2012

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 6:59 pm

The Left Forum is always a mixed bag but even if some panel discussions turn out to be duds, there is always enough there to warrant the time and money spent. Apparently about 4000 other lefties agree with me, at least based on Stanley Aronowitz’s announcement of registration figures at Friday night’s plenary. What follows are my impressions of various workshops I attended with no pretense of objectivity. In fact they will be highly opinionated so please be forewarned.

After the Crisis, is a New New Deal Possible? Do We Want One?

To start with the best, After the Crisis, is a New New Deal Possible? Do We Want One? was just what I hoped it would be: a debunking of the FDR presidency in the spirit of chapter 13 of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ironically, the participants were all from the economics department of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a city college nominally geared to training cops. I am not sure how this came about, but the school apparently has a fair share of leftists. Michael Meerpol, who recently retired from the economics department, had been the chair of a lecture series on social justice with my good friend Paul Buhle a recent guest. Perhaps there’s a certain cachet in having socialists on a faculty of a school with an ostensible reputation for being politically backward. The Mormon-oriented University of Utah also has an economics department with a bunch of Marxists, including the good Hans Ehrbar who hosts the Marxism list.

The first speaker was Ian Seda-Irizarry, a graduate of the U. of Massachusetts, another haven for left scholarship. Ian is a Marxmail subscriber whose dissertation on the Latin music industry in New York sounds like just the thing that can be turned into a good book, unlike the usual sterile credentials-earning exercise.

The talks, delivered from notes, were a model of concision and clarity, qualities missing from many others I heard over the weekend. My suggestion to any of my readers who plan to be a featured speaker at future Left Forums is to not read papers and if you do so, please try to make eye contact with your audience and to pause between sentences occasionally as if you were speaking one-on-one otherwise you will put people to sleep.

The last speaker, who is in the audience, was Josh Mason, an URPE member who teaches at William Patterson University and who speaks in favor of a new New Deal. Again, that’s another good idea. When you stack a panel with speakers who agree with each other, it is counterproductive. Marxism is based to a large extent on dialectics, a Greek word for dialog involving opposing different viewpoints.

One of the points that had the biggest impact on me during the workshop was made by Eric Pineault, the chairperson who teaches sociology in Montreal. In drawing a contrast between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of today, Pineault referred to the different forms that the attack on the working class took. In the 1930s, the problem was obviously massive unemployment but today working people are being crushed by debt much more than by joblessness. He used the term debt peonage to describe the problems faced by millions as they confront home foreclosure and collection agencies trying to get a worker to pay for a huge Visa or Mastercard bill.

In the 1930s, layoffs in a place like Detroit or Chicago would affect workers as a social layer. Since this was at a time when workers tended to live near the factory and even walk to work in many instances and when they hung out at the same saloons or parks, they tended to think in terms of joint action.

But today someone in debt will tend to see themselves as an individual whose adversary is another individual at a bank or a collection agency. Since going into debt often strikes people as a personal failing, they will also tend to blame themselves rather than larger social and economic forces. I was reminded of this the other day when I was speaking to a very old friend about my age who hasn’t worked in a couple of years. Not only is the job market poor, he has developed Parkinson’s, an ailment that will make getting hired as a salesman even harder. It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are (and my friend was great at this) if your hands are trembling. That is the reality of a fucked-up system that places so much emphasis on appearances.

To keep a roof over his head and to pay for other basics, he has gone into debt—owing over $40,000 on various credit cards. He now pays $300 per month, the minimum required. At this rate he will be paying until he dies and have not made a sizable dent into a debt that mounts steadily as he continues to dip into Visa or Mastercard to pay for food or other necessities. This is the same treadmill that millions of other Americans are on, with no end in sight. We might be living under advanced capitalism, but the social relationship is not that different than the one described in B. Traven’s novels. Fortunately, there are no debtors’ prisons today—at least for the time being.

I was reminded of this at a panel discussion on Capitalism in India: Glitter, Commodities, and Blood presented by Sanhati, a network of academics and activists committed to social justice in India, and chaired by my friend and fellow Marxmailer Taki Manolakos.

Deepankar Basu, another good Marxist economist ensconced at U. of Mass., spoke on peasant suicides, a problem that Sanhati has devoted much attention to.  During the discussion period, with Eric Pineault’s comments on debt peonage fresh in my mind, I asked Deepankar if the epidemic of suicides might be related to the phenomenon noted earlier in the day. Was debt peonage in India leading to mass suicide rather than mass struggle for the same reason that debt-burdened workers in the USA were tending to seek individual solutions?

A bit of research this morning turns up some evidence that connects the two societies. From a blog post by Barbara Ehrenreich on July 28, 2008:

Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock’s brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. “All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once,” Scurlock told a gathering of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, “describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, ‘If you don’t help me, I’ve got a gun in my car.’”

India may be the trend-setter here, with an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers succumbing to suicide since 1997. With guns in short supply in rural India, the desperate farmers have taken to drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.

Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition – like an ever-rising number of Americans – you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”

For reasons I can’t quite fathom—maybe it is just psychological—I decided to check out a couple of workshops run by the ISO. Unlike the New Deal discussion described above, the comrades felt no need to include a point of view opposed to their own. Despite everything that Paul Le Blanc has written, I strongly doubt that they are open to the idea of a multi-tendency left organization since their actions suggest a preference for something far more homogenous if not quite so stifling as the American SWP of yore. The SWP of my youth would have been as open to the idea of publishing an article in the Militant that went against the party line as they would be to running ads for tobacco (even though Iskra did in Lenin’s day.)

Their workshop on Evo Morales was chaired by Jefferey Webber, the author of a book titled From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia that the ISO speakers agreed with, but in terms probably more extreme than anything Webber has ever written. One of them, a young man named Jason Farbman who compared Morales to the former dictator Hugo Banzer, felt compelled to repeat a Facebook comment on a confrontation between the Bolivian police and a protest of the disabled:

The handicapped BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THE COPS. The cops only covered themselves with their shields. They didn’t do shit. The handicapped went loco, BUT REALLY LOCO. Hardcore, they were blowing up firecrackers in [the cops’] faces and [the cops’] helmets barely protected them. They threw real rocks at them…

I should add that after I forwarded a London Review blog post about this incident to Marxmail, Richard Fidler, a long-time subscriber, offered this comment:

“Cambio dwelled on the injuries sustained by the police and blamed the violence on a group of infiltrados posing as disabled people….

“As evidence of the violent infiltration, Cambio unveiled a photograph of a man in a striped sweater standing in front of a policeman in riot gear, accompanied by the caption ‘Activist beats up policemen at disabled protest’. Below that were two more photographs, purportedly of the same man protesting against the TIPNIS road.”

The story says nothing about Cambio alleging the disabled themselves attacked the police — which would be pretty incredible to begin with.

It would have been nice if the ISO had invited someone with a different perspective, one like Frederico Fuentes whose critique of Jefferey Webber the ISO was nice enough to print in their magazine. (My guess is that Fuentes’s membership in the Socialist Alliance in Australia gave him the clout necessary to get a hearing.)

As I pointed out in the discussion period, there has been an ongoing debate about these questions and recommended that people check out Fuentes’s and Roger Annis’s responses to Webber (I mistakenly referred to Annis when I meant John Riddell, who works closely with Annis–and Richard Fidler as well.)

Despite my recommendation to the audience that they check out what Fuentes et al had to say, my own view was different from both the ISO and the other side in the debate. I never thought that Morales was going to make a socialist revolution in Bolivia but welcomed the kind of changes that he was likely to foster. Perhaps they do not measure up to the ISO’s yardstick but nothing ever would, when you stop and think about it.

The competition, as I pointed out in my comments, is between a living social reality with all its contradictions and the ideas in the cranium of Ahmed Shawki, Tom Lewis and all the other people who write for the ISO press about how socialism should work. Living reality obviously can never compete with someone’s ideals. I had an uncle like that in Kansas City. No matter how many women my mom introduced him to, they could not match his ideal which was a combination of Betty Grable’s looks and Katherine Hepburn’s wit. He died a bachelor.

There was more of the same the next day at a workshop titled State and Revolution in the 21st Century: Is Lenin Still Relevant? that included Todd Chretien, one of my favorite ISO’ers who was fairly close to Peter Camejo. Another speaker was Sam Farber, who the ISO’ers dote on for some unfathomable reason. Farber has written loads of bullshit about Cuba in the ISO press that I have tried to clean up over the years, like the guy with a dustpan following the elephants in a circus parade. This is the same Sam Farber whose new book on Cuba Jefferey Webber blurbed as follows: “Samuel Farber’s work on Cuba has long championed revolutionary democratic socialism from below.” I can only wonder if Webber has ever read Farber since the Cuban-American professor emeritus much preferred the Stalinist party in Cuba to the July 26th Movement:

Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

Yeah, we know how important it is to claim that you are “socialist” or “Marxist” to stay friends with the ISO, a group for whom ideals loom so large. Who cares if the PSP’s socialism was compatible with support for Batista? That’s not half as bad as being “antitheoretical”, I suppose.

Farber’s talk took the form of a lecture to the Occupy movement over its refusal to formulate demands on the state. He invoked the history of the civil rights movement to instruct the anarchists, who would not be found dead in a workshop like this, that in order to achieve genuine reforms you have to put demands on the state. He was generous to a fault to the young people who risked police attack and other hardships to occupy Zuccotti Park but felt that for the need for their full development as revolutionaries they had had to take a different path.

Radhika Desai, a political science professor at the U. of Manitoba, was far more polemical than Farber, lacing her talk with references to neo-Proudhonism and anarchism that were practically spitted out. We learned from her that there were petty-bourgeois tendencies in the Occupy movement that had to be combated. She recommended that the young people who were getting their heads busted at Zuccotti Park find the time to read Lenin’s State and Revolution, a work that was recommended in the same spirit that a navy doctor used to recommend prophylactics to sailors on shore leave.

While the ISO is not nearly as batty on these questions as the American SWP (nobody could be), you can’t escape the feeling that they approach it in the same spirit that they approach Evo Morales’s Bolivia. Somehow the articles in their magazine that defend classical Marxism against reformism or anarchism are meant to change people’s behavior.

In reality groups or individuals only modify their actions when a positive example becomes prominent and accepted by the great majority of the left. That is why Lenin’s party became the party of the Russian working class, not because its words were so convincing but because they led by example.

Unfortunately for the ISO, this new movement has emerged with zero input from them or any other “classical Marxist” groups. It has all the problems you might expect to see in such a movement, including bouts of adventurism as displayed by the black bloc or fetishism over consensus, horizontalism and all the other pet schemas of the anarchist or autonomist movements. But whatever the problems of the new movement, it has reached ordinary working people in a way that no Marxist movement has done since the 1930s. For that they deserve our respect and our collaboration, not patronizing lectures from above.

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