Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2014

Goodbye Leninism

Filed under: Lenin,revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm
When the Books Don’t Cook

Goodbye Leninism

by LOUIS PROYECT

On August 2nd Ian Birchall wrote an article titled “Lenin: Yes! Leninism: No?” for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) website that has touched off an ongoing debate. For those trying to create an effective anticapitalist movement, Birchall’s article makes plenty of sense since it goes a long way toward putting the icons of October 1917 where they belong, into the historical archives. For those, however, who want to trace their lineage back to the Bolshevik revolution, like the connection that the Catholic Church makes between Pope Francis (a pretty good guy by the evidence) and Saint Peter, there is a need to uphold the sanctity of “Leninism”. Yet nobody outside the ranks of a Leninist party or the Catholic Church takes the lineage claims very seriously, especially people like me who went through such a painful experience (Leninism, not Catholicism.)

Ian Birchall, like many of the people involved with the RS21 website, was a long-time member of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. This group lost many members after it failed to take action against a top leader who allegedly raped a young member, a failure that led to an ongoing crisis that I discussed in an earlier CounterPunch article. SWP leader Alex Callinicos warned members that the revolt was less about the rape charge than it was about defending the party from an attack on “Leninism”, a ploy that probably accelerated the rush to the nearest door.

Read full article

November 13, 2014

Roland Boer: plagiarist

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

From Roland Boer’s “The ‘Failure’ Of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative”:

Already in the late 1950s, real wages increased by 75 per cent, returning people to pre-war levels, while collective farm workers were the beneficiaries of the first agricultural welfare and pension scheme in Europe. By the 1960s, agricultural incomes rose by 6.7 per cent per year and industrial incomes rose by 4.9 per cent annually. Consumption of healthy foods – fruit, vegetables and even meats – increased significantly, while doctors and medical facilities became commonly available. As a result, fewer children died and people lived longer. While 138.9 in 1,000 children under the age of one died in 1939, by 1990 it was 14 in 1000. And those who survived could expect to live longer: life expectancy rose to over 68 years for men and over 74 years for women. Indeed, a reasonable number could expect to make a century: in the late 1980s, 52 people were found over one hundred years of age per one million.

And where did these numbers come from?

From here, a Wikipedia article that Boer does not credit. Whoever wrote the Wiki entry did the right thing and footnoted Library of Congress papers. I wondered how this sky-pilot knows so much about Bulgarian economic performance. Now I know, he plagiarized Wikipedia like so many mediocre undergrads and high school students do.

In the mid-1950s, Soviet-style centralized planning produced economic indicators showing that Bulgarians were returning to their prewar lifestyle in some respects: real wages increased 75%, consumption of meat, fruit, and vegetables increased markedly, medical facilities and doctors became available to more of the population, and in 1957 collective farm workers benefited from the first agricultural pension and welfare system in Eastern Europe.[7]

Increases in real incomes in agriculture rose by 6.7 percent per year during the 1960s. During this same period, industrial wages increased by 4.9 percent annually.

n 1939 the mortality rate for children under one year had been 138.9 per 1,000; by 1986 it was 18.2 per 1,000, and in 1990 it was 14 per 1,000, the lowest rate in Eastern Europe.

Even before Zhivkov, Bulgaria made significant progress in increasing life expectancy and decreasing infant mortality rates. Consistent social policies led to an increase in life expectancy to 68.1 years for men and 74.4 years for women.

Roland Boer: having his cake and eating it too

Filed under: Academia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

My first reaction to Roland Boer getting the Isaac Deutscher Prize was one of shock, since Boer’s pro-Stalin blogging is antithetical to what Deutscher stood for, even if some Trotskyists—James P. Cannon in particular—viewed him as soft on Stalin.

In his comment on my last post, Boer stated that I am “missing even the slightest sense of humour.” I am not exactly sure what the joke is about but perhaps Boer’s blog is really a big put-on. He does say:

Do I want to rehabilitate Stalin, who was more ambiguous than the popular conception would have it? That is up to the reader to decide, although – in case the quirkiness of Australian humour is not obvious already – one should never take what is written here too seriously. Like Lenin’s jutting chin of history, I suspect that one of Stalin’s greatest achievements was that amazing moustache.

Well, it is up to the reader to decide and I decided long ago that Boer is a Stalinist. Probably the best evidence for that is that when comments appear under his posts cheering him on for defending Stalin, he has never once said anything like “Er, mate, I was only kidding.”

Plus, when Boer writes for other publications the smirk tends to disappear from his face and the Stalinism oozes forth unabashedly. For example, in an article titled “The ‘Failure’ Of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative” for the Philosophers for Change website, he makes the case for Bulgarian Communism, advising his readers that the dictator Todor Zhivkov was a gentle and permissive leader who did wonders for his people. That is unless you were unfortunate enough to be a Turk. Wikipedia, which is generally deferential to Zhivkov, reports:

In December 1984, Todor Zhivkov began a campaign of forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, most notably forcing all Turks to take Bulgarian names. By 1989, resistance to this policy led to riots, which resulted in multiple deaths. In May 1989, Zhivkov suddenly granted permission of all Turks to leave the country, which led to over 300 thousand emigrating to Turkey within three months.

I imagine that this would not perturb an admirer of Stalin and/or his mustache; the tyrant was quite adept at ethnic cleansing and no friend of Muslims.

Getting back to the Deutscher prize, I can only surmise that the judges have no idea that “Stalin’s Moustache” exists. Like many academics, their emphasis is on print rather than the net. Plus, you’d have to assume that Boer’s books on Marxism and theology have zero to say about Stalin. From the little I have seen from Boer on that topic, mostly on MRZine, I found them unobjectionable but not particularly useful in terms of understanding religion from a historical materialist perspective. Boer is mostly interested in how early Christians were communist. But above all, Boer’s focus is on ideas.

Typical is “Religion and Political Thought: Introduction”, an article he wrote for “Political Theology Today”.

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in an Australian project called ‘Religion and Political Thought’ – itself part of an international project known as ‘Religion and Radicalism’. Funded by the Australian Research Council, it seeks to do nothing less than kick-start an Australian tradition of political philosophy in relation to religion and theology.

Boer has received five grants from the Australian Research Council, a branch of the Australian government that advises it “on emerging issues and strategic policy challenges.” Well, who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? Blogging on behalf of Joseph Stalin and getting handouts from a government think-tank. What a marvelous combination that certainly makes Max Horkheimer’s observation seem quaint by comparison: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

 

Full page ad in today’s NY Times for Bob Avakian-Cornel West meeting

Filed under: cults,Maoism — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

This ad costs $70,000. Where does this cult get its funding, I wonder.

avakian

Roland fucking Boer?

Filed under: Academia,religion — louisproyect @ 12:33 am

Roland Boer

The latest on the Stalin worshipper:

http://louisproyect.org/2014/11/13/roland-boer-having-his-cake-and-eating-it-too/

http://louisproyect.org/2014/11/13/roland-boer-plagiarist/

I discovered from a report on the HM conference in London that this asshole just received the 2014 Isaac Deutscher prize, the worst decision since it was given to Francis Wheen in 1999 for his Karl Marx bio. It was announced at a lecture by Panitch and Gindin:

The lecture started with the announcement of the winner of the 2014 Deutscher Prize, which was awarded to Roland Boer for his In the Veil of Tears: On Marxism and Theology, V, both in recognition of the book itself and of the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series of which it was the culmination. The other shortlisted works were Costas Lapavistas’ Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, Frederic Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism, John Saul and Patrick Bond’s South Africa – The Present as History.

I’ll take Patrick any day of the week.

Boer is a clown. His “Stalin’s Mustache” blog is the sort of garbage that could be heard at the Stalin Society in London, even more embarrassing than the junk I used to hear from Maoists in the 60s and 70s. Here’s a sample:

Screen shot 2014-11-12 at 7.31.11 PM

 

Here’s the HM blurb on the book:

In the Vale of Tears brings to a culmination the project for a renewed and enlivened debate over the interaction between Marxism and religion. It does so by offering the author’s own response to that tradition. It simultaneously draws upon the rich insights of a significant number of Western Marxists and strikes out on its own. Thus, it argues for the crucial role of political myth on the Left; explores the political ambivalence at the heart of Christianity; challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution; is highly suspicious of the ideological and class alignments of ethics; offers a thorough reassessment of the role of festishism in the Marxist tradition; and broaches the question of death, unavoidable for any Marxist engagement with religion. While the book is the conclusion to the five-volume series, The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, it also stands alone as a distinct intervention in some burning issues of our time.

“challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”?

Where have I been? How did I miss this? I guess I was lost in the woods spending all my time on putting Lenin in context than in addressing the “unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”. I’ll pick up a hernia belt at CVS tomorrow. That should help.

November 12, 2014

ISIS incubation

Filed under: humor,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm
Dear Nicola Nasser,

You article (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/the-endgame-of-the-us-islamic-state-strategy/) on how ISIS sprang from the womb of American imperialism is really fascinating:

“The IS was the illegitimate fetus born and nurtured inside the uterus of the US –  engineered political process based on a constitution legalizing a federal system based in turn on sectarian and ethnic sharing of power and wealth.”

I think that your methodology could be the wellspring of a new way of conducting historical research. It could persuade one given to leaps of the imagination that Nazism sprang from the womb of British imperialism since the onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles made economic misery in Germany inevitable.

But Lloyd George and Clemenceau were not the original architects of the Third Reich when you stop and think about it. The real blame for the rise of the modern liberal bourgeois democracy was John Locke, the naughty British philosopher whose musings on freedom and property surely must have been intended to midwife the swastika.

Digging deeper into the tentacles of this vast conspiracy, you have to put the blame on Plato and Hellenic imperialism that in many ways was the forerunner of modern fascism. Without Plato, you can’t have Locke. Plato’s Republic with its philosopher-kings–that’s obviously the incubator for “Mein Kampf”.

But why stop there? Without Neanderthal man, there is no Greek “civilization”. They say that Alley-Oop, the headman of the Gubblik tribe of Neanderthals in lower Slobovia, was bent on destroying the planet way, way back in 200,000 BC. From what archaeologists can glean from the relics, Alley-Oop was a bed-wetter whose mom used to beat him over the head with the thigh-bone of a saber-tooth tiger. If there’s any lessons to be drawn from this abysmal tale, it is don’t beat your children with the thigh-bones of saber-tooth tigers.

With a warm embrace,

Louis Proyect

November 11, 2014

A relaunch of North Star

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

Forerunners

 Frederick_Douglass_c1860sFrederick Douglass

 

Bert Cochran

Peter Camejo

The North Star website was named in honor of Peter Camejo who launched the North Star Network in 1981 as part of an effort to regroup the left around a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach. He chose that name in honor of Frederick Douglass who published North Star, an abolitionist newspaper, from December 1847 until June 1851.

As someone who worked closely with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network, I had hopes that a website would carry on in that tradition. Because competing demands made on a series of editors rendered that task impossible, the website became dormant. I hope to resurrect it and help reorient it to its original mandate, which like the network of the early 80s, was to regroup the left around a non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach.

The idea of something like North Star came to me about four years ago as I was nearing retirement at Columbia University. It would not be promoting a “party line” but instead provide a platform for socialists to report on the struggles they are involved with as well as facilitate debates about how to move such struggles forward.

Read full article

November 10, 2014

Rosewater — Jon Stewart goes to Iran

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

Despite being a long-standing enemy of the Iranian theocracy, I found “Rosewater” very unsatisfying. As cable TV comedian Jon Stewart’s maiden voyage in film (he directed and wrote the screenplay), it is hobbled by both his inexperience in this medium as well as subject matter that might defy the best efforts of a Costa-Gavras. This is a tale based on the real-life persecution of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bihari who was in solitary confinement in Evin prison after being arrested on trumped-up charges for spying in 2009.

Stewart had a personal stake in making the film since Bihari was a guest on his show and a cause célèbre for the Daily Show after his imprisonment. For those who have tuned into his half-hour satire from time to time, you’re probably aware that there’s a special place in his heart for journalists up against a repressive state like Egypt’s Bassem Youssef. For Stewart, there’s an emphasis on freedom of the press even if there’s not quite an understanding that such freedom only exists for those who own one, as A.J. Liebling once put it.

A good ninety percent of the film takes place in the confines of Bihari’s cell in Evin Prison as an Iranian cop nicknamed Rosewater for the cologne he wears pressures him to confess to being a CIA agent. No matter how committed you are to the rights of journalists, there is simply not that much drama you can wring out of an interrogator making absurd demands on a prisoner when he is not beating him. Additionally, there is very little suspense as to how things turn out since one can only surmise that Bihari did not end up with a bullet in the head. Jon Stewart is not the sort of person who would spend good time and money on creating such a downer.

An additional problem is that as a character, Bihari has no strong beliefs. Although obviously in support of the Green movement that was protesting in the streets against what it considered a rigged election, he is like most professional reporters–somebody making a living rather than a fuss. As such, his tendency is to remonstrate with Rosewater that—as Joseph K. put it—there must be some kind of mistake. There are and were revolutionaries locked up and tortured in Evin but surely we can agree with Jon Stewart that a Newsweek reporter was there only because an out-of-control theocracy was ready to victimize a reporter seen mistakenly as an enemy of the Islamic Republic.

Maziar Bihari was nothing like his father who spent years in Evin prison in the 1950s for his Communist opposition to the shah. To create a contrast between father and son, Stewart has an actor play the father in a number of scenes in which the son conducts an imaginary dialogue with his father. As expected, the father speaks in terms of a revolutionary duty to oppose dictatorship while the son replies that he is mostly interested in getting out and back to his pregnant wife and his job.

There are some odd casting choices in the film. Best known for his performance as Che Guevara in Walter Salles’s “Motorcycle Diaries”, Mexican actor Gael García Bernal plays Bihari while his tormentor is played by Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor who was unforgettable as a low-level drug dealer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Pusher”. Given such an international cast (Rosewater’s superior is played by a Turk and Bihari’s driver is played by a Greek with British citizenship), he directed everybody to affect an Iranian accent—something that was a bad mistake especially in the case of Rosewater who kept reminding me of those American or British actors playing Nazi prison guards: “Ve haff a way of making people talk.”

But the worst miscalculation—a function of the “based on reality” framework—was turning Rosewater into a stick figure, a prison interrogator out of central casting. Now I would be the first to admit that anybody serving in that capacity for the Islamic Republic would be a real rat-hole but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the character had some complexity? There was a scant 30 seconds when that possibility floated past. Toward the end of the film, when Bihari was about to be released, Rosewater tells him that he was never tortured like his father was in Evin prison.

If I had written the screenplay for “Rosewater”, I would have turned that into a backstory. I would have made the extremism of the interrogator more plausible by showing what his father endured and what led Iranians to back a dictatorship that harped on American imperialism so much. An American audience does not need to be convinced that Ahmadinejad and his tools were shit but it certainly needs some education on why Iranian students so often burned Uncle Sam in effigy.

As absurd as the charges against Maziar Bihari, the Iranians were on to something when they kept harping on Newsweek being a den of spies. Again, if I had written the screenplay, I would have had Rosewater read excerpts from Carl Bernstein’s Rolling Stone article from October 20, 1977—back at a time when the CIA rather than reporters like James Risen were on he defensive:

… At Newsweek, Agency sources reported, the CIA engaged the services of several foreign correspondents and stringers under arrangements approved by senior editors at the magazine.

… “To the best of my knowledge:” said [Harry] Kern, [Newsweek's foreign editor from 1945 to 1956] “nobody at Newsweek worked for the CIA…. The informal relationship was there. Why have anybody sign anything? What we knew we told them [the CIA] and the State Department…. When I went to Washington, I would talk to Foster or Allen Dulles about what was going on …. We thought it was admirable at the time. We were all on the same side.” CIA officials say that Kern’s dealings with the Agency were extensive.

… When Newsweek was purchased by the Washington Post Company, publisher Philip L. Graham was informed by Agency officials that the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes, according to CIA sources. “It was widely known that Phil Graham was somebody you could get help from,” said a former deputy director of the Agency. . . . But Graham, who committed suicide in 1963, apparently knew little of the specifics of any cover arrangements with Newsweek, CIA sources said.

I am not sure what Americans will get out of this film, but there is at least one Iranian it left cold. This is what Kaveh Mousavi, “the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies” and “a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher”, had to say:

Bahari appeared on a program called Pargar, on BBC Persian TV. In that program he not only defended his caving as a right thing to do (which is defensible), he attacked people who remained resilient under torture. He called them – repeatedly – romantics, and foolish revolutionaries behind the flow of times, and he said all of this to the face of Iraj Mesdaghi, a man who was a political prisoner in the 80s, when the regime was ten times more vicious than 2009, who had barely escaped a massacre, and had remained resilient under severe torture, which eclipses Bahari’s torture by miles.

It was from that time that I abhorred Bahari. Many of people I knew abhorred him already for confessions, but I find that wrong. No one can demand others to act in a certain in face of torture. He had the right to choose his own safety and freedom. But I abhor him for belittling real heroes, real freedom fighters, people he’s not worthy of licking their shoes. It’s one thing to defend your own choice, it’s another to demean the choice of those who made other (arguably more honorable) choices. And this was in the heat of the time we felt Green Movement is being defeated, and we felt desperate and very angry. It wasn’t a good time to shit on the heroes of an oppressed movement, and there was no need to.

Let me conclude with a few words about Jon Stewart, a comedian I tend to avoid nowadays for the same reasons I avoid Stephen Colbert and MSNBC. For the past six years we have been living under a regime that is in many ways worse than the one that preceded it, at least if you compare it to George W. Bush’s relatively chastened second term. I simply don’t want to be reminded of how lousy the Koch brothers are when Obama has deported more “illegal” immigrants than Bush.

Comedy is all about biting the hand that feeds it. The Viacom Corporation owns Comedy Central, the cable station that hosts “The Daily Show”. Viacom’s Rupert Murdoch is a nonagenarian named Sumner Redstone, whose net worth is $6.2 billion. Despite being a life-long Democrat, Redstone endorsed George W. Bush in 2004. In addition to his control over Viacom, he also has effective ownership of CBS, formerly the parent company of Viacom.

CBS and Viacom are major players in a media oligopoly that has been reduced to a smaller number over the past several decades, the fiefdom of people like Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch. In a country where the free press reigns, there is no need to torture journalists or imprison them. The system works by making the stakes for reaching a mass audience so impossibly high that critics of the system in effect suffer solitary confinement. There is no need to put a gag over the socialist press since the costs of becoming a “player” are so high. Once that movement begins to gain the hearing that the Green Movement got in Iran, trust me that our own Maziar Biharis will end up in our own Evin prisons. Take a look at what James Risen is up against right now to get a feel for what awaits us.

November 9, 2014

Slavery, capitalism and economic growth: a response to Timothy Shenk

Filed under: Academia,economics,slavery — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 2.30.54 PM

Timothy Shenk

In the latest Nation Magazine there’s an article by Timothy Shenk titled “Apostles of Growth” that is a review of recent books making the case that slavery was integral to the rise of American capitalism, as well as a platform for some questionable theorizing about economic growth. Since the article is nearly 10,000 words long, one wonders how a mere dissertation student can exercise such clout. (Then again the editorial judgment of the magazine is suspect, demonstrated most recently by its urging a vote for Andrew Cuomo.)

This is not the first time that Shenk has used the magazine as a bully pulpit. Earlier this year our Ivy League prodigy had a 9,500-word article there titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that was also notable for a hefty word count and its confusion over what Marx stood for. After it came out, I wrote:

Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.

You find the same misunderstanding of Marx in his latest article. He writes: “In Capital, Marx wanted to prove not just that capitalist practices were uglier than the soothing fables its theorists spun (though he made that point too), but that capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse.” Although Shenk is a dissertation student, he has apparently not learned the need for citation. Where would you find Marx saying anything like “capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse”? I doubt that you could find such sentiments in Capital. (I just checked on www.marxists.org. There aren’t any.)

In fact the idea that capitalism will collapse because of internal structural defects like the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is a crude reading best described as vulgar Marxism. Ernest Mandel, who was widely regarded as the foremost Marxist economist of his time, had a far more nuanced analysis in his 1990 “Karl Marx”:

Does Marx’s theory of crisis imply a theory of an inevitable final collapse of capitalism through purely economic mechanisms? A controversy has raged around this issue, called the `collapse’ or `breakdown’ controversy. Marx’s own remarks on the matter are supposed to be enigmatic. They are essentially contained in the famous chapter 32 of volume I of Capital entitled `The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation’, a section culminating in the battle cry: `The expropriators are expropriated’. But the relevant paragraphs of that chapter describe in a clearly non-enigmatic way, an interplay of `objective’ and `subjective’ transformations to bring about a downfall of capitalism, and not a purely economic process. They list among the causes of the overthrow of capitalism not only economic crisis and growing centralisation of capital, but also the growth of exploitation of the workers and their indignation and revolt in the face of that exploitation, as well as the growing level of skill, organisation and unity of the working class. Beyond these general remarks, Marx, however, does not go.

Turning to Shenk’s critique of the books under review, it is worth noting that although he rejects their premise, it is not from the “Political Marxism” perspective—one which describes the plantation system as “precapitalist”.

For Shenk, the new books, such as Edward E. Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”, are defined by their shared belief that capitalism can be defined as a system based on economic growth:

Viewed from this perspective, capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results—not by what it is, but by what it does. The variety of ways in which labor can be commodified, the diverse forms that capital can assume, the different institutions that structure relations of production and exchange—all of these are just means subordinated to the larger end of economic growth. A weak definition of capitalism that might seem banal when reduced to its simplest terms—“capitalism’s only constant is change”—supports a historical narrative of remarkable scope.

Although I have yet to read Baptist or the other books under review, it seems unlikely to me that they were attempting to theorize capitalism. These are historians much more interested in identifying the role that slavery played in capital accumulation in the 18th and 19th century. For example, there’s not a single entry for Marx in Baptist’s index and a cursory examination of the pages indexed under “capitalism” reveals nothing of theoretical consequence. I suspect that the real importance of works such as his and Walter Johnson’s is the empirical data that will help confirm Eric Williams’s original hypothesis that without slavery capitalism could have not taken off in Britain and the USA. These are works that rest on the minutiae of receipts and tax records, not theorizing. At a certain point, Shenk has to admit as such:

According to Johnson, tracing the path of a single bale of cotton reveals more about the antebellum economy’s workings than any number of theories targeting “the grand abstraction” of capitalism.

It is too bad that Shenk found matters of cotton less interesting than “grand abstractions” of the sort that mesmerize him. If he had given more time to the authors’ research than his own agenda, the review would have served some use.

Understanding that the books got short shrift, let’s turn to some of our dissertation student’s Grand Theorizing, which was really the main focus of the nearly 10,000-word article.

The real agenda of the article is to investigate the possibilities for “economic growth” in the 21st century. He writes:

But what if growth stalls? That question has increasingly occupied economists, many of whom are convinced that we have reached a new stage in growth’s history. Those parts of the world with the longest experiences of growth—Europe and the United States—face the prospect of a sustained decline in the metric that has come to define prosperity, and the planet as a whole confronts the even more daunting challenge of mitigating the environmental damage that has accompanied economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. The irony is conspicuous. Historians have begun in large numbers to rewrite modernity as the history of growth at precisely the moment when moderns might have to learn to do without their accustomed rates of economic expansion—one last swoop for the Owl of Minerva before climate change ravages its natural habitat.

In this section, he makes sure to misrepresent Marxists once again:

A future in which the small amount of economic growth that is eked out accumulates in the bank accounts of the rich and boils the planet bears little resemblance to the bright forecasts of perpetual prosperity conjured by optimists in the mid-twentieth century. This bleak vista has convinced some that capitalism has entered its final days: absent the possibility of unlimited growth, the system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions.

The system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions? Where in the world does he encounter such vulgar Marxist formulations? The New Left Review? Socialist Register? Unless he is reading material I am unfamiliar with, the only collapse noted by Marxists with a functioning brain is the one gripping the socialist left, a movement much more in a state of collapse than capitalism. After the financial crisis of 2007, there was suffering across the planet, especially in southern Europe. But who in their right mind would have argued that capitalism in Greece was about to collapse under its own weight?

Most people with a background in Marxist politics—unlike Shenk—understand the importance of the subjective factor. With a divided left in Greece, one in which the Communists stubbornly refuse to back Syriza and anarchists hurl Molotov cocktails as if flames can destroy commodity production, who thinks that the system will collapse? In 1914, the European bourgeoisie were ready to destroy billions of dollars in property and the lives of millions of working-class soldiers to protect their own narrow interests. If it had not been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the miserable war might have lasted for another decade. As Mao Zedong once said, “It is up to us to organize the people. As for the reactionaries in China, it is up to us to organize the people to overthrow them. Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.” (Probably the only useful thing he ever said.)

Despite the article’s focus on economic growth, there’s little indication of how Shenk thinks this is possible or even if it is worthwhile. Flirting with the “no growth” current of the environmental movement, he writes:

Prophets of an end to economic growth, or of its triumphant resurrection, beg to be made into fools by an unpredictable future. Indictments of contemporary policy, however, don’t hang on forecasts of what is to come. That fact was clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against climate change in September, and to anyone who felt a twinge of recognition after seeing the protesters in Zuccotti Park—or to the 58 percent of Americans who reported in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that protecting the environment should take precedence over economic growth.

Missing from this gargantuan article is any consideration of the real measure of an economic system. It is not simply a question of a rising GDP. Class society is marked by violence both explicit and implicit. In South Africa striking workers are gunned down. In the USA, striking workers might not get gunned down but their factory might disappear to another country if the boss so decides. In my view people are far less interested in growth than they are in security and the right to live in dignity. I suspect that the well-heeled, Democratic Party supporting owners of the Nation Magazine had everything to gain by giving such ample space to an “expert” on Karl Marx who had so little interest in such questions.

 

NUMSA takes on COSATU and the ANC

Filed under: South Africa — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm

Cosatu CEC November 7, 2014

Numsa GS Presentation

Comrades,

I stand here as the General Secretary of the biggest affiliate of this federation, as a founding member at the Congress of 1985. I will be reminding comrades here of our common history.

I stand here because the Central Executive Committee of this federation has offered Numsa an opportunity to explain to you why we should not be expelled or suspended from this organisation. I am going to fulfil that task thoroughly. I will explain in great detail exactly why Numsa should not be expelled or suspended and why, instead, this federation should obey its own constitution and allow workers, as owners of the federation, to decide on its future. When we founded this federation, we were wise enough to foresee that there might be political conflict in the future. We put in place a rule to cater for that eventuality. The rule says that if one-third of the affiliates of the federation ever think that there are issues that require the consideration of a Special National Congress, they can require the President to call that congress.

What kind of issues would require such a special congress? There are two powers of a National Congress which no other structure has.

o It makes policy

o It elects leadership.

The purpose of the rule is precisely to deal with conflict over policy and leadership. Right now, we have a crisis of policy and leadership. The reason that Cosatu is paralysed by this dispute, resorting to the courts and expensive lawyers to decide our future, is that we have refused to decide it for ourselves. We have committed the most heinous sin against the spirit of the founding fathers of this federation. We have refused to decide our own future.

In order to abandon this responsibility, the leadership of this federation has chosen to break its own rules. To violate its own constitution. As so often happen with corruption, when it starts, it doesn’t stop.

oThose who break rules have to defend themselves against those who challenge them for that act.

oThe leadership of this federation knows that it will be defeated in any National Congress of the federation. Whether that is a Special National Congress or an ordinary national congress. It can’t have a Congress because it will lose.

o So it must try to ensure that by the time it gets to a Congress it can win. o That is the reason for these expulsion hearings here today.

But underneath that, is a profound political division.

oIt is a division between those who recognise the political bankruptcy of the ANC / SACP government and those who don’t.

oBetween those who support the interests of the working class, as our Constitution requires us to do, and those who are prepared to sacrifice those interests for a class alliance.

 

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