Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 18, 2006

Neil Davidson on the bourgeois revolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:45 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 18, 2006

Although my cash outlay for individual copies and/or subscriptions to leftist print journals has slowed to a trickle, I did make an exception for the 2005, Vol 13., Issue 4 of “Historical Materialism”. There you’ll find the second part of Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions” (a reply to part one is at: http://unrepentant.blogspot.com/2005/10/neil-davidson-bourgeois-revolutions.html), a symposium on the ineffable John Holloway, and a survey on books about Trotskyism by Ian Birchall. This post takes up Davidson’s article. I plan to write about the other two as time permits.

Just a word or two about HM. I don’t really know much about the origins of the journal, but Sebastian Budgen–a rather inscrutable figure–appears to be one of the prime movers. Budgen is subbed to Marxmail and a number of other mailing lists, where he surfaces once or twice a year to announce the latest HM. He is also the acquisitions editor for Verso Books. In an article he wrote for the British Socialist Worker newspaper last December, he was identified as a member of the Trotskyist LCR in France for what that’s worth.

Although I think it is unfortunate that the HM articles can only be read in print, they are definitely worth tracking down at your local research or university library. Some are relevant to folks like us, who have discussed the topics covered in the above-mentioned three articles in the past. Others are typical academic affairs such as a discussion of the relative merits of Adorno and Habermas (yawn).

Despite my mixed feelings about the value of print publications in the Internet epoch, I do understand the need for such journals as a publishing outlet for Marxist professors. With all of the pressure being mounted by the rightwing nowadays, any help in keeping these decent souls employed is obviously beneficial.

Before turning to Neil Davidson’s article, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. There are two important questions that tend to overlap in Marxist research. The first involves the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This has been under debate since Paul Sweezy and Maurice Dobb went at each other in the pages of Science and Society in the 1950s. In an article commemorating Sweezy in the ISO magazine, Phil Gasper summed up the differences this way: “Dobb maintained that the breakdown of feudalism was due to internal factors, while Sweezy emphasized the growth of trade, overseas expansion, and the creation of colonies. Both positions were one-sided, but Sweezy’s view had the merit of identifying capitalism as an international system in which more powerful countries attempt to dominate weaker ones economically and militarily.”

The debate reemerged in the 1970s as Robert Brenner would take up where Dobb left off. Brenner argued that capitalism originated in Great Britain in the late middle ages as landlords began to sublease plots to commercial farmers rather than accepting tribute as was the case under feudalism. The introduction of market relations had a rippling effect, ultimately leading to the industrial revolution, space travel and cell phones. Two of the major critics of this analysis were Jim Blaut, who was subbed to Marxmail until his death, and Immanuel Wallerstein, who is even more one-sided than Paul Sweezy. I regard myself as a minor critic, although both Brenner and his co-thinker Ellen Meiksins Wood have responded to things that I have written–against their better judgment, I’m sure.

The related question revolves around whether there was a “bourgeois revolution”, at least in the sense understood by Marxist historians influenced to one degree or another by stagist conceptions. Until reading Davidson’s very convincing article, I tended to agree with George Comninel, a Socialist Register editor, who argued that such a thing did not exist. As I will point out, Davidson’s article resolves this contradiction on a higher level. (Long live dialectics!)

There is no necessary link between the positions one holds on the two questions. For example, Wood is a ferocious defender of the Brenner thesis but agrees with Comninel’s analysis of the French revolution. I have written tens of thousands of words in opposition to Brenner, but agreed with Wood that Comninel was right (until now that is.) Meanwhile, some of the most vociferous defenders of Maurice Dobb against Sweezy are recognized as major exponents of the “revolutionary bourgeoisie” thesis, especially E.J. Hobsbawm.

While Davidson part one was primarily concerned with the “transition debate,” the second part hones in on the question of bourgeois revolutions. The most insightful observation is found in the middle of the article where Davidson distinguishes between two forms of the class struggle. In one case, exploitation is involved: “Slave-owners extract surplus from slaves, feudal lords and tributary bureaucrats do the same to peasants, and capitalists do the same to the workers.”

In the second case, the rival classes confront each other as oppressed and oppressor, rather than exploited and exploiter, since no surplus extraction is involved. The best example is feudal aristocrats making things difficult for a nascent bourgeoisie.

(Although I am persuaded of the general validity of Davidson’s point, it seems that a more useful term than “oppressed” is needed, especially in light of the general amity that existed between sections of the landed gentry and the bourgeoisie in the years preceding the French revolution. It is also hard to think of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as “oppressed,” given their complaints against King George which seemed rather in line with today’s multimillionaires bleating about tax hikes.)

Davidson starts off by trying to establish Marx and Engels’s attitude toward the notion of a revolutionary bourgeoisie. He makes the essential point that the Communist Manifesto, despite its rather rapturous description of the modernizing capabilities of the capitalist class, says very little about its political role in leading revolutions against feudalism.

When Marx described the role of the bourgeoisie in the German revolution of 1848 –as opposed to the French revolution of 60 years earlier– he was unimpressed. He took note of a vacillating bourgeoisie more willing to confront the aroused working class than its ostensible feudal enemies. If and when revolutions took place, they tended to be “from above” and bypassed the masses that were at center stage in 1789.

These distinctions were not lost on Lenin who saw Russia at a crossroads around the turn of the century. The revolution might unfold like France’s in 1789 and like the American civil war–a result of a thoroughgoing and plebian assault on the old order–or it would look more like the Junkers “revolution from above” that consolidated the rule of the bourgeoisie while retaining many aspects of the feudal era. The abolition of serfdom in Russia was an example of how the exploiting classes in Russia would connive to maintain the status quo while giving the appearance of attacking it. In the 1907 article “The Agrarian Question and the Forces of the Revolution,” Lenin wrote:

“All Social-Democrats are convinced that, in its social and economic content, the present revolution is a bourgeois revolution. This means that it is proceeding on the basis of capitalist production relations, and will inevitably result in a further development of those same production relations. To put it more simply, the entire economy of society will still remain under the domination of the market, of money, even when there is the broadest freedom and the peasants have won a. complete victory in their struggle for the land. The struggle for land and freedom is a struggle for the conditions of existence of bourgeois society, for the rule of capital will remain in the most democratic republic, irrespective of how the transfer of ‘all the land to the people’ is effected.

“Such a view may seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with Marx’s theory. Yet it is not hard to see that it is the correct view­one need but recall the great French Revolution and its outcome, the history of the ‘free lands’ in America, and so on.”

You’ll note, by the way, that Lenin refers to a “bourgeois revolution” above, and not to a “bourgeois-democratic revolution.” This is a key point for Davidson. Since the conflation of bourgeois and democratic is so widespread in Marxist discourse, it is necessary to explain how it came into existence, especially given its absence in the writings of both Lenin and Trotsky.

In a survey of theories of bourgeois revolution, Davidson identifies a tendency in the late 19th century to search for historical antecedents in the struggle against capitalism–a native radical tradition so to speak. This led to a search for a unifying theme in which “the people” were eternal actors against entrenched interests. That theme became democracy. As Davidson puts it:

“It became important to identify struggles that could be retrospectively endorsed and assimilated into a narrative of democratic advance, the closing episode of which had opened with the formation of the labour movement. In most cases, the radical traditions were directly inherited from left liberalism, particularly in those countries – above all Britain, but also France – where Marxism was initially weakest and where liberal connections with labour were political and organisational as well as ideological. In effect, these traditions tended to become a populist alternative narrative to what one early radical liberal historian, John Richard Green, called ‘drum and trumpet’ histories.”

While this sort of thing was innocent enough in the late 1800s, it took a more destructive character during the rise of Stalinism which required the concept of a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution to buttress its class-collaborationist approach to politics, especially in the 3rd world where feudalism supposedly still prevailed.

The most interesting findings in Davidson’s article revolve around aspects of Isaac Deutscher’s scholarship that were not known to me, and to most Marxists interested in these questions, I suspect.

In Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, he writes:

“Napoleon, the tamer of Jacobinism at home, carried the revolution into foreign lands, to Italy, to the Rhineland, and to Poland, where he abolished serfdom, completely or in part, and where his code destroyed many of the feudal privileges. ‘Malgre lui-meme’, he executed parts of the political testament of Jacobinism. More paradoxically, the Conservative Junker, Bismarck, performed a similar function when he freed Germany from many survivals of feudalism which encumbered her bourgeois development. The second generation after the French Revolution witnessed an even stranger spectacle, when the Russian Tsar himself abolished serfdom in Russia and Poland, a deed of which not so long before only ‘Jacobins’ had dreamt. The feudal order had been too moribund to survive; but outside France the popular forces arrayed against it were too weak to overthrow it ‘from below’; and so it was swept away ‘from above’.”

In Deutscher’s last book “The Unfinished Revolution,” he writes:

“The traditional view [of the bourgeois revolution], widely accepted by Marxists and non-Marxists alike, is that in such revolutions, in Western Europe, the bourgeois played the leading part, stood at the head of the insurgent people, and seized power. This view underlies many controversies among historians; the recent exchanges, for example, between Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper and Mr Christopher Hill on whether the Cromwellian revolution was or was not bourgeois in character. It seems to me that this conception, to whatever authorities it may be attributed, is schematic and unreal. From it one may well arrive at the conclusion that bourgeois revolution is almost a myth, and that it has hardly ever occurred, even in the West. Capitalist entrepreneurs, merchants, and bankers were not conspicuous among the leaders of the Puritans or the commanders of the Ironsides, in the Jacobin Club or at the head of the crowds that stormed the Bastille or invaded the Tuileries. Nor did they seize the reins of government during the revolution nor for a long time afterwards, either in England or in France. The lower middle classes, the urban poor, the plebeians and sans culottes made up the big insurgent battalions. The leaders were mostly ‘gentlemen farmers’ in England and lawyers, doctors, journalists and other intellectuals in France. Here and there the upheavals ended in military dictatorship. Yet the bourgeois character of these revolutions will not appear at all mythical, if we approach them with a broader criterion and view their general impact on society. Their most substantial and enduring achievement was to sweep away the social and political institutions that had hindered the growth of bourgeois property and of the social relationships that went with it. When the Puritans denied the Crown the right of arbitrary taxation, when Cromwell secured for English shipowners a monopolistic position in England’s trading with foreign countries, and when the Jacobins abolished feudal prerogatives and privileges and, they created, often unknowingly, the conditions in which manufacturers, merchants, and bankers were bound to gain economic predominance, and, in the long run, social and even political supremacy. Bourgeois revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can flourish. In this, rather than in the particular alignments of the struggle, lies its differentia specified.”

If Davidson concurs with Deutscher’s analysis of the bourgeois revolution, there can be no doubt that he would disagree with his views on the socialist revolution. Deutscher took at his starting point the analysis put forward by Trotsky in “The Revolution Betrayed” and pushed it even further. For Deutscher, Stalin has a lot in common with Napoleon. If Napoleon “carried the revolution into foreign lands,” wasn’t it obvious that Stalin did so as well by imposing state ownership and a planned economy on Eastern Europe at the point of a bayonet? If bourgeois revolution can be imposed from “above”, why can’t socialism–at least if it is understood in terms of abolishing capitalist property relations?

As a member of the British SWP, this would go against ‘state capitalist’ doctrine. Socialism, as opposed to all modes of production that preceded it, can only be the product of a “revolution from below”, in which the proletariat is the first exploited class in history to “make a revolution on its own behalf.”

Using this yardstick, Davidson and his co-thinkers would dismiss every social transformation since 1917 as simply a change from one form of exploitation to another. It is not just a question of the Red Army imposing bureaucratic state ownership after WWII. The July 26th movement is also the head of an alien exploiting class imposing its will on the Cuban working class.

It is truly sad to see intellectuals associated with the British SWP being able to understand and explain the dialectical contradictions of the bourgeois revolution, but collapsing into idealistic formulae when it comes to the Cuban revolution. It is understandable that a Marxist current would feel the need to reject the Soviet and Eastern European examples in the 1950s and 60s, but it singularly perplexing to see this analytical model used as a procrustean bed for Cuban society. The only way it can work, of course, is to approach Cuba indirectly through the prism of Cubanologist literature as party hack Mike Gonzalez does. His writings on Cuban society are a mélange of anti-Communist books and articles, ranging from Carmela Mesa-Lago to Theodore Draper.

The British SWP also draws upon the dubious wisdom of Sam Farber, a Cuban-American, to help understand the state capitalist dungeon 90 miles offshore. Yet Farber’s writings on the USSR are dismissed by Davidson’s comrade John Rees as a kind of left Kremlinology in his “In Defense of October.” One has to scratch one’s head at this. From the standpoint of Cliff-thought, how can somebody be a trusted authority on Cuban despotism while simultaneously being soft on Robert Conquest? Maybe we should pass the hat around and buy a ticket to Havana for Alex Callinicos. One certainly gets the sense that no party higher-up has ever visited the place.

Now I can understand why the British SWP would continue to adhere to these views. How in the world can you admit that what you have been saying for nearly the past 50 years might be wrong? Unfortunately, that is the state that “Marxism-Leninism” has evolved into since the 1920s. It becomes impossible to admit you are wrong since that would undermine one’s authority as the living heirs of Marx and Engels. Perhaps it is necessary to remind ourselves what Marx said to Ruge in 1843: “If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

If that existing order does not include small Marxist groups, then what difference is there between our movement and organized religion?

Logging, mudslide, disaster

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:43 am

From today’s LA Times:

As many as 1,800 people remained missing today after a sea of mud crushed a remote mountain village on the Philippine island of Leyte, authorities said.

The mud was as deep as 30 feet in some areas, completely covering houses and an elementary school in the village of Guinsaugon. Rescuers who dug with their hands in the soft mud Friday saved about 80 people, many with broken limbs.

“There are no signs of life, no rooftops, no nothing,” Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias said after visiting the scene.

The mudslide followed nearly two weeks of heavy rains in the central Philippine region about 420 miles southeast of Manila.

The area is known for its geological instability, and authorities warned villagers to evacuate. When the rains appeared to be easing, however, many residents returned, Lerias said.

Some villagers and environmentalists blamed the slide on ILLEGAL LOGGING carried out from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. But authorities said vegetation had returned to the area and that trees slid down along with the mud.


The results of a cursory search in Lexis-Nexis using the keywords: “logging”, “mudslide” and “disaster”:

Independent (London), May 30, 2004:

A disaster of grotesque proportions is unfolding in the Caribbean where floods on the island of Hispaniola have delivered death and destruction to one of the world’s poorest regions on a scale far greater than first thought.

Yesterday, as the death toll climbed inexorably towards 2,500, a senior United Nations official in Haiti said that some 75,000 people face a “continuing emergency”. Another feared the numbers affected could reach 100,000.

Survivors said yesterday that children and the elderly stood little chance as the waters – “like a flood in the Bible”, according to farmer Fernando Gueren – cascaded down mountains DENUDED OF TREES BY DECADES OF LOGGING on to homes below. “Imagine a tidal wave 12ft high crashing down a mountain,” said Adam Blackwell, the Canadian ambassador. “Entire families have been wiped out.”


The Guardian (London), December 22, 2003

Hundreds of villagers were buried in mud as they slept after floods and landslides swept through the Philippine province of Southern Leyte at the weekend.

Rescuers worked with their bare hands and crowbars to dig out victims after the mudslides began on Friday night. Officials fear at least 200 people are dead and many more are homeless.

“The mountain just came down on them,” a police general, Dionisio Coloma, said in a radio interview from the town of Liloan. The rescue is being hampered by continuing bad weather which has blocked roads, brought down power lines and prevented the arrival of Philippine and US army helicopters. Pounding seas around the islands of six affected provinces have made boat access perilous.

The landslides struck an area south-east of Ormoc, also in Leyte province, where landslides and flash floods killed more than 5,000 people in a few hours on November 5, 1991. Heavy rains had fallen on hillsides DENUDED BY RAMPANT LOGGING, with debris sweeping down the hillsides, leaving metres-high piles of bloated corpses.


The New York Times, August 2, 2001:

After days of torrential rains, floods and landslides poured down mountainsides early this morning on Nias, an Indonesian island 60 miles off the coast of Sumatra, sweeping away entire villages and causing at least 60 deaths, local officials said.

Hundreds more people were reported missing in the deluge that engulfed the tiny island, where surfers from around the world gather for the long breakers but where mountain settlements are cut off from the outside.

The disaster was the latest in a rising number of flash floods around Indonesia and elsewhere, where UNCONTROLLED LOGGING has stripped mountainsides of the vegetation that holds rainfall and the earth itself.


The Boston Globe, December 11, 1998, Friday

It might be easy to dismiss Hurricane Mitch as a terrible natural disaster for Central America – a case of truly ill luck. But the tragedy was more of a human disaster than a natural one.

While Mitch was the most violent storm to hit Honduras and Nicaragua in 200 years, WIDESPREAD DEFORESTATION and other environmental damage heightened its power. Much of the worst destruction occurred not where the rains and wind were strongest – but in deforested areas where people lived and farmed on marginal land. And Mitch is not an isolated incident. The shortsighted use of natural resources is causing tragic ecological disasters around the world.


The Independent (London), May 7, 1998

ENVIRONMENTALISTS yesterday blamed decades of bad land management for the mudslide disaster which struck the hilly area east of Naples in the southern Italian region of Campania following which at least 37 people were reported dead and 71 more missing. Driving rain had sent torrents of mud from surrounding hills coursing through towns and villages on Monday and Tuesday.

“This disaster was totally predictable,” said Alberto Fiorillo, a spokesman for the Legambiente environmental group.

GRUBBING UP TREES and burning off scrub-land to increase pasture or clear areas for unregulated construction has led to massive erosion in the Sarno valley, and throughout the Campania region, Signor Fiorillo said. The Sarno river itself no longer exists, its water has been drawn off by industry and its bed has been built on. There is no longer anywhere for flood waters to escape.


Chicago Sun-Times, November 24, 1996:

A mudslide that killed four people last week came down from a steep hillside that had been stripped of trees by a lumber company 10 years earlier, state forestry officials confirmed Friday.

An aerial survey of forest landslides after last winter’s flooding showed an overwhelming number of them were in AREAS THAT HAD BEEN STRIPPED or where logging roads had been built, said Andy Stahl, director of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.


The Gazette (Montreal), November 7, 1991:

More than 2,400 people were reported killed and tens of thousands left homeless after a tropical storm triggered deadly flash floods and mudslides in the central Philippines, relief officials said yesterday.

Residents of Ormoc, a city of 150,000 people, said the floodwaters, preceded by a great roar, uprooted trees, flushed cars down the street and ripped wooden houses from their foundations.

“Bodies were stacked on sidewalks. Some were bloated … They were using payloaders to dig mass graves,” said Lito Osmena, governor of nearby Cebu island, who flew to Ormoc.

“The forests are gone and I guess OVER-LOGGING IS ONE OF THE MAJOR CAUSES of this disaster,” Osmena said. “That area gets several typhoons a year but they never resulted in something like this. I think it is because the forests are gone.”


The Guardian (London), November 28, 1988:

Relief workers are fighting a sea of mud and mountains of logs to retrieve the victims of floods and mudslides that hit southern Thailand in one of the country’s worst disasters.

About 400 people have died and hundreds more are missing, feared dead, a week after heavy rain lashed the south, causing floods and mudslides the engulfed entire villages in the worst-hit province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The disaster has brought angry condemnations of forest destruction and ILLEGAL LOGGING by powerful vested interests are held responsible for the devastating mudslides.

February 14, 2006

Constant Gardener

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:48 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 14, 2006

“Constant Gardener” is an adaptation of John le Carre’s 2000 novel. Although flawed in many ways, it is certainly worth seeing as another example of Hollywood idealism à la “Syriana.”

Starring Ralph Fiennes as Justin Quayle, a career-minded British diplomat who has never challenged authority in his life, and Rachel Weisz as Tessa, his much younger and more idealistic wife, it dispenses with the sort of moral ambiguities and contradictions of Le Carre’s earlier and more successful fiction. Set during the cold war, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” basically made the case that there was not much difference between the USA and the USSR. Since le Carre was a career operative in the British MI5, this was a rather daring stance, especially when considered against the example of Ian Fleming–JFK’s favorite author.

With the collapse of the USSR, le Carre has shifted to the left and become a vocal critic of globalization, both in his fiction and in his journalism. As such, “Constant Gardener” is a sweeping indictment of the worldwide drug industry. After Justin and Tessa wed, she returns to Kenya with him where she becomes a kind of left-liberal version of Mother Theresa. In an early scene, she demands: “Take me to Africa with you”. When he asks her what she plans to do, she expresses no clear idea. Obviously, we are dealing with a certain kind of personality that has gravitated to NGO’s. Since she is also the daughter of an Italian countess, the almost suffocating sense of ‘noblesse oblige’ pervades her character and the first third of the movie, when we see her dispensing AIDs medication to the natives.

For his part, Justin Quayle is content to tend to the garden at his diplomat’s villa, clearly meant to evoke Candide’s observation: “That’s all very well, but let us cultivate our garden.” In other words, it is a metaphor for disengagement.

After Tessa discovers that drug companies have been using the poor, unsuspecting and Black population in a TB drug trial that often results in death, she goes on a crusade to expose them. She is murdered for her efforts. Le Carre’s novel is mostly about Justin Quayle’s attempts to discover who killed his wife and eventually complete her mission. Although she is present in a number of flashbacks, we encounter her more as a memory than as a character engaged with others.

In a bid, one supposes, to make the tale more accessible to mainstream audiences, screenwriter Jeffrey Caine makes Tessa a major character and devotes most of the first third of the film to showing her at work in the slums of Kenya and making love to Justin. This decision ultimately shifts the focus away from the novel’s attempt to portray Justin Quayle’s disillusionment with British “civilization,” particularly in the way it uses native peoples as guinea pigs. The film represents this much more as an attempt to maintain his wife’s place in his heart. Indeed, one never quite gets the sense that Fienne’s character has really understood what leads corporations to murder.

In one of the key scenes of le Carre’s novel, Quayle confronts Pelligrin, his superior in the Foreign Office, with his knowledge of the drug companies’ crimes and Pelligrin’s complicity at an elegant private club. This scene reveals le Carre at his best, with biting ironies at the expense of the blueblood but degraded Pelligrin. In the film, it loses much of its cutting edge as le Carre’s narration falls by the wayside–as it inevitably must in any adaptation of a novel. Instead, we are left with the dialogue which as good as it is cannot convey the full dimensions of Quayle’s breach with his class.

Since I was never impressed with Fernando Meirelles hand-held camera-work in “City of God,” I was even less impressed with its deployment once again in “Constant Gardener.” This Brazilian director seems an odd choice for a le Carre film since his forte, such as it is, is in depicting panoramic depictions of urban squalor. Jittery camera effects and langorous views of the Kenyan slums seem ill-placed here.

Although I have not read le Carre’s “Constant Gardener,” I would have chosen another approach entirely. I would have dispensed with the Tessa back-story altogether and focused much more on the dialogue. One of the great films of all time dealing with crime and pharmaceuticals is “The Third Man,” which is 90 percent dialogue. Since Graham Greene is obviously a major influence on John le Carre, it would have made sense to choose a screenwriter and director who have been influenced by Carol Reed’s masterpiece. Of course, such people do not exist in Hollywood anymore.

Whatever the flaws of “Constant Gardener,” it is well worth renting from your local video store–especially in comparison with the garbage that is foisted regularly on the unsuspecting public.

February 13, 2006

Marc Cooper’s “Progressive” Rhetoric

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:43 am
by Gilles d’Aymery

(Swans – February 13, 2006) Some time ago in the prehistorical age of December 2005, a new on-line publication, Truthdig, another bona fide card holder of the much atrophied “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party, published a piece by one of its directors, journalist Marc Cooper. Truthdig boasts that it is “drilling beneath the headlines” with the help of experts — pwog experts, that is — and doesn’t leave any stones unturned, lies undeciphered, and truth untold. Mr. Cooper wrote an article, called a dig on Truthdig, on Venezuela and her president, — “The Big Blowup Over Venezuela” (please, do not go and read it just yet) in which he peddles the US State department line against Hugo Chávez. The rant is then followed by a long discussion on the Truthdig forum, which I’ll visit to show Mr. Cooper’s biases and his use of gutter rhetoric to dismiss his critics. But first, let’s dispense with the article.

In 4,000-plus digging words, Mr. Cooper goes about the examination of whether Mr. Chávez is a genuine leader walking the socialist path for the betterment of the Venezuelan people or a populist authoritarian who’s consolidating his power on the model of the dictator, Fidel Castro, or Juan Peron. Being the ultimate liberal that he is, Mr. Cooper’s exercise follows the well-established balancing act to which the US media has accustomed us. Having a preconceived outlook in line with the powers that be in Washington DC, think tanks, and honeyed political salons, he proceeds to present and review both sides of the argument. In journalistic parlance, it’s known as a balanced opinion in the mold of NPR or PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He looks at the evidence, cites “experts,” details the pros and cons of the argument, and, through many platitudes, leads the reader to the predictable outcome.

Let’s put it this way: Mr. Cooper’s verdict is closer to Mr. Rumsfeld (the Hitler analogy) and Carlos Fuentes (“Chávez is a demagogue, a tropical Mussolini”) than to William Loren Katz (see “The Meaning of Hugo Chávez”) or Harry Belafonte. Unbelievably, the entire dig makes no reference to the racial element of the struggle taking place in Venezuela; but Cooper cannot even fathom, or entertain the possibility, that the actions undertaken by the Chávez administration are a direct response to the positions (and actions) taken by the US government in alliance with the white elite and corporate interests. That Mr. Chávez is working hard on the consolidation of his power, which he has earned repetitively at the polls, is undeniable. It should be viewed and analyzed in light of the efforts to destabilize his administration and ultimately overthrow him. Strangely, one is left with the sentiment that the very significant threats posed to President Chávez, resulting in his legitimate defensive moves, are recurringly being ignored by pwogs, but they all the same brandish these defensive reactions as proof of the authoritarian nature of the Venezuelan regime. Perhaps Mr. Cooper would prefer a repeat of the 1973 Chilean experience that saw the killing of Salvador Allende and the advent of 17 years of darkness and fascist repression — just another sacrificial lamb to allow these refined liberals, from the comfort of their sinecure, to shed a few crocodile tears and shout “Neither Pinochet nor Chávez” (or anybody who does not espouse their great conception of a social democracy based on free-market neo-liberalism — e.g., Castro, Milosevic, et al.). Please excuse this little rhetorical snippet. Enough said.

Rhetoric, however, seems to be a forte of Mr. Cooper as the ensuing discussion on the forum proves abundantly — a discussion much worthier of reading than the article itself. On the one hand, because it demonstrates Cooper’s preconception and bias against Hugo Chávez in the first place, hence invalidating the contention that his presentation is “fair and balanced”; and on the other hand, it illustrates how he deals with his critics through demeaning comments, ad hominem attacks, name calling, innuendoes, guilt by association — the whole panoply of intellectually-challenged, score-card holder, members of the great American tradition of sold-out leftists and whoring columnists (I apologize to the second oldest profession, purveyor of much relief to human nature.) To make my point, I’ll highlight three individuals who got the brunt of Cooper’s dissing repertoire: Louis Proyect, Justin Delacour, and Camila Piñeiro Harnecker.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/ga204.html

February 10, 2006

Truthdig racism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Occasionally I drop in on Robert Scheer’s website at truthdig.com, which he set up after being canned by the LA Times. Generally, you can find mainstream liberal journalism of the sort that is found on Alternet, Commondreams, and Huffingtonpost. These places are in a perpetual frenzy over the latest outrage from the Bush administration but have absolutely no clue about the underlying economic and social causes of the drift to the right in the USA, which includes both Reagan and Carter, as well as Bush and Clinton.

But occasionally something so egregiously offensive crops up that it goes beyond the parameters of mainstream liberalism and practically screams out for attention. For example, Marc Cooper wrote an absolutely vile attack on Hugo Chavez that is his stock in trade. He recirculated all the rightwing lies about the lack of democracy in Venezuela, while covering his ass with a pro forma defense of the right of Venezuelans to not be invaded. He has Hitchens’s politics but is not willing to make the kind of break that Hitchens did. I guess that getting invited to Huffington’s cocktail parties is still important to him, although based on his appearance on the PBS Las Vegas documentary, he should lay off the hors d’oeuvres.

In keeping with the idiotic “free speech” campaign on behalf of the racist Danish cartoons being mounted by Kathe Pollitt on the Nation Magazine blog, Doug Ireland and Cooper (surprise–surprise) on their own blogs, not to speak of the upfront Islamophobia of the openly rightwing Harry’s Place, Norm Geras, Little Green Footballs, etc., we get a truly toxic outburst from a character named Sam Harris on truthdig. In an article titled “Sam Harris on the reality of Islam”, we learn the following:

It is time we recognized–and obliged the Muslim world to recognize–that “Muslim extremism” is not extreme among Muslims. Mainstream Islam itself represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty, gender equality, secular politics and genuine pluralism. The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no center. In Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and the Christians of the 14th century are pouring into our world.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. The demographic trends are ominous: Given current birthrates, France could be a majority Muslim country in 25 years, and that is if immigration were to stop tomorrow. Throughout Western Europe, Muslim immigrants show little inclination to acquire the secular and civil values of their host countries, and yet exploit these values to the utmost–demanding tolerance for their backwardness, their misogyny, their anti-Semitism, and the genocidal hatred that is regularly preached in their mosques. Political correctness and fears of racism have rendered many secular Europeans incapable of opposing the terrifying religious commitments of the extremists in their midst. In an effort to appease the lunatic furor arising in the Muslim world in response to the publication of the Danish cartoons, many Western leaders have offered apologies for exercising the very freedoms that are constitutive of civil society in the 21st century. The U.S. and British governments have chastised Denmark and the other countries that published the cartoons for privileging freedom of speech over religious sensitivity. It is not often that one sees the most powerful countries on Earth achieve new depths of weakness, moral exhaustion and geopolitical stupidity with a single gesture. This was appeasement at its most abject.

This is basically the Pim Fortuyn, Oriana Fallaci line. It is racist through and through. It is so nasty and so ignorant that I won’t even waste time refuting it.

In the 1920s, as the crisis of German capitalism deepened, the working class found itself represented by two utterly bankrupt parties. The SP was determined to adapt to the agenda of the bourgeois parties in order not to appear too extreme to voters (who were mostly ready to go to war in the streets at this point anyhow), while the CP was off on an ultraleft binge that makes Avakian’s cult appear sensible by comparison.Now, as everybody knows, I don’t think we are facing an immanent fascist threat in the USA today. But we are certainly faced by many of the same problems that were faced back then. If we can’t find a way to repudiate the naked racism of the “free speech” left, then we are failing our elementary task as educators and activists in the radical movement.

Joyeux Noël

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 10, 2006

Scheduled for theatrical release later this year, “Joyeux Noël” is a reenactment of an actual historical event that took place on Christmas Eve in 1914. In the north of France, Scottish and French troops were in one trench and the enemy German troops were arrayed against them not more than 50 yards away–as was often the case in the Great War. That night, as they heard each other singing Christmas carols in each others’ language, they were moved to stop fighting for a day and fraternize with each other.

The film opens in three classrooms as Scottish, French and German schoolboys tell their classmates how the enemy must be wiped off the face of the earth. Moving ahead ten years, we see these young men eagerly hurrying off to war, as if they were going to a soccer match.

Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) is an opera singer whose solo is interrupted by an announcement from a German officer who has mounted the stage that war has begun. In a fictionalized back-story, Sprink has to leave Anna Sörenson (Diane Kruger), his singing partner and lover, after being drafted. But she joins him at the front on Christmas Eve after the top brass decides that it would be good for German morale to hear them sing. The Kaiser has also decided that morale would be bolstered by the presence of Christmas trees in the trenches, so a virtual forest of pine trees with matching decorations is sent out to the beleaguered troops as well. This detail, as well as many in this outstanding film, is borne out by the historical record.

On that fateful night Scottish bagpipers take the first step in a feeling out process that would eventually lead to the men greeting each other as brothers. After hearing them perform a plaintive Christmas tune, the Germans spontaneously applaud. Inspired by the bagpipes, Sprink and Sörenson reply with a duet which the allied troops respond to in kind. At this point, Sprink takes what appears to be a death-defying initiative. Ascending from his trench with a lighted Christmas tree in his hands, he advances toward the enemy trenches singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night). Although I am generally a rather impassive sort, tears came to my eyes at this point.

Over the next 24 hours, war comes to an end in the snow-covered, desolate no-man’s land they are fighting to win control over. They show each other photos of wives and lovers, play soccer or cards, drink each other’s liquor, etc.

Eventually reality sinks in and they are forced to return to killing each other. When the British high command learns of the key role of the Scottish chaplain in bringing about a truce, they ship him off to another unit. To put the troops back on the right track, a Bishop comes in and delivers a sermon on the need to exterminate the enemy. Although this is a minor role, veteran actor Ian Richardson turns in a memorable performance as the bloodthirsty priest. If a film audience had any doubt about the relevance of this film to the current political situation, it is put to rest by his sermon, which includes a reminder that the British are not like their barbaric enemies who attack civilians. It is like listening to Pat Robertson with an Oxonian accent.

Director Christian Carion, who grew up in the region of France where the 1914 Christmas truce took place, was inspired to make this film after discovering “Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918” by Yves Buffetaut, which contained a passage titled “The Incredible Winter of 1914.” Buffetaut recounted the fraternizing among the troops, a German tenor being applauded by his enemies, a soccer match, the exchange of photos, etc.

There was one historical detail that he was forced to leave out, even though it was true. He feared that the credulity of audiences would be strained upon discovering the trial for spying and execution of a tom cat shared by the enemy camps! (In the film, he was Nestor to the Scottish and Fritzi to the Germans. Carion decided to cut the trial scene from the film when extras working on the film thought it went overboard. Of course, if one ever decided to make a film about the war in Iraq, one can easily imagine Carion’s footage being salvaged.)

Although the film functions more as a pageant than as straightforward drama, it is entirely captivating. While watching it, I was reminded of another WWI antiwar classic: “King of Hearts”. In that film, a British foot soldier turns his back on the fighting by disguising himself as a mental patient. That film in turn made me think about “Brokeback Mountain,” which also deals with questions about what it means to be normal. How normal is it for two men who love each other to live apart, because society will crucify them? How normal is it for men to kill each other out of abstract notions of patriotism rather than to play soccer or exchange photos? The world we seek is one in which belief in war and homophobia is as outdated as is belief in the devil.


The Guardian (London), November 22, 2005
Last survivor
In 1914 Alfred Anderson witnessed one of the first world war’s most remarkable events: Christmas Day truce veteran dies, aged 109

By Gerard Seenan

The last soldier to have served during the first world war’s Christmas truce in 1914 died peacefully in his sleep yesterday aged 109.

Alfred Anderson, who was also the oldest man in Scotland, died at a care home in Angus, bringing to an end a life which spanned three centuries and marking the end of a generation who were witness to one of the most remarkable events of the great war. Mr Anderson fought with the 5th Battalion the Black Watch and was the last surviving veteran to have served during the 1914 truce. There are now believed to be only eight survivors of the first world war left in Britain.

The former soldier was 18 when he was sent to the western front. Although he was stationed back from the front lines when the truce broke out, he remembered the silence of temporary peace and shouting out “Merry Christmas” when he and his friends first heard it.

Announcing his death yesterday, the Rev Neil Gardner, minister at his church in Alyth, Perthshire, said: “He was Scotland’s oldest man but he remained lucid almost until the end. He was a very gracious and unassuming man. He . . . lived a truly remarkable life.”

Shortly after dawn on Christmas Day 1914, the sound of Silent Night, or Stille Nacht, was heard from behind German lines. As the carol ended, a German soldier appeared in no-man’s land. “Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot,” he is reported to have said. It was the beginning of an unauthorised truce that would gradually spread across the 500-mile front, where more than a million men were stationed. Soldiers from both sides shook hands, sang carols and played football. In some parts the ceasefire lasted for weeks, but Mr Anderson heard gunfire by afternoon.

Lieutenant Colonel Roddy Riddell, regimental secretary of the Black Watch, said the death of Mr Anderson, whose funeral is expected to take place on Friday, was the “end of an epoch”. In 1998, Mr Anderson was awarded France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, for his services during the first world war. In interviews, he said he never forgot the trenches. “I saw so much horror,” he told the Observer last year. “I lost so many friends.”

Jack McConnell, Scotland’s first minister, said the sacrifices that Mr Anderson and his generation of young Scottish men made and the horrors they endured must never be forgotten.

February 8, 2006

Stephen Jay Gould, genetic engineering, and Marxism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:46 pm

I just received email from Stuart Newman, a professor at NY Medical College and a subscriber to the Science for the People listserv, informing me that Gould “had only a fleeting relationship to Marxism” and calling my attention to an article he wrote about Gould and genetic engineering in the Oct. 2003 Rethinking Marxism. Fortunately, it is online at:


This is an extremely important article and a model for seeing progressive thinkers in context. Although nobody can question Gould’s credentials as a fighter for social justice through works like “Mismeasure of Man,” Newman points out some basic flaws in his methodology which err on the side of a kind of mechanical Darwinism.

While some of this involves some fairly arcane but important discussions about how to interpret the Cambrian age, etc., the more relevant issue for me is how Gould dealt with the question of genetic engineering. To put it bluntly, he was nearly as off on this question as people like Virginia Postrel and the spiked-online gang.

Newman writes:

“In another essay, Gould (1997a) analogizes heightened concerns (often voiced by critics of genetic engineering of crops) about the stability of evolved ecosystems against disruption by exotic species to the Volkist nationalism of Nazi-era ideologues, though he ultimately ends up taking a characteristically moderate position.”

This is truly disappointing. As some of you might know, there was a fairly large-scale effort to smear the emerging green movement in Germany as having something in common with the Nazis. For example, see Luc Ferry’s “New Ecological Order,” which publisher U. of Chicago Press describes in the following terms:

“[Ferry] demonstrates that German Romanticism embraced certain key ideas of the deep ecology movement concerning the protection of animals and the environment. Later adopted by the Nazis, many of these ideas point to a profoundly antihumanistic component of deep ecology that is compatible with totalitarianism.”

It is really a cheap smear that I deal with at:


I must say that this does not completely take my surprise since–as Newman points out–Gould’s fellow progressive scientist and Harvard colleague Richard Lewontin also failed to understand the full ramifications of GM crops. In a June 21, 2001 NY Review article titled “Genes in the Food!”, Lewontin blithely assures his reader that:

“We find ourselves in a puzzling situation. None of the books on the subject of GMOs gives us any reason to think that the known dangers to human health and natural ecosystems posed by agriculture have become radically greater because of the introduction of genetic engineering as a technique. Nor do we even have a single case of a catastrophe that might have engendered widespread public anxieties.

“Yet in North America, and much more so in Europe, there is a widespread, passionate, and politically effective opposition to the use of recombinant DNA techniques in agriculture. Only a rare defensive newspaper advertisement paid for by the Council for Biotechnology Information speaks against the general consciousness, and we all know whom they represent. Is this just another chapter in MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds?”

Finally, I was pleased to discover a favorable mention of the late Hans Jonas in Dr. Newman’s article. Jonas was a philosophy professor at the New School and author of “The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age.” I knew Jonas as an authority on German existentialism and phenomenology in the 1960s when I was his student but would learn more recently that he had evolved into a leading Green theoretician.

February 4, 2006


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:24 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 4, 2006

Ordinarily I only write about films for which I have some degree of enthusiasm (my father would always say, “If you can’t say something nice about somebody, say nothing at all–of course, he was one of the most taciturn people on the planet), but every once in a while I run into a real stinker that the mainstream media hails as a progressive statement. I try to make room for them in my busy schedule. One such film was the meretricious “In My Country,” that dealt with the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa. Paul Haggis’s “Crash” is another ambitious Statement on Race. Described by the Rolling Stone as “a provocative, unflinching look at the complexities of racial tolerance in contemporary America” and by the New Yorker as a film “about the rage and foolishness produced by intolerance, the mutual abrasions of white, black, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian citizens in an urban pot in which nothing melts,” one might expect something worth the price of admission. Fortunately for me, I was able to take in this sorry spectacle for free, courtesy of a studio screener. If I had wasted $11 on it, I might have taken my case to small claims court.

“Crash” is apparently in the mold of “Magnolia” and “Short Cuts”, two other films set in Los Angeles with large casts and structured as a series of overlapping vignettes orchestrated by coincidence. Robert Altman, who directed “Short Cuts,” of course invented this genre. At least for me, his films have become Robert Altman imitations in recent years and not worth watching–let alone an imitation like “Magnolia,” whose blandishments I have found all too easy to resist.

At the beginning of “Crash,” we are introduced to two young, well-dressed and articulate African-American men–Peter (Larenz Tate) and Anthony (the rap star Ludacris)–who have just emerged from a fancy Italian restaurant. Like all the other characters in the film, they seem preoccupied with race. Watching the anxious expression on a white woman’s face as their paths cross, Anthony complains bitterly that a Black has more to fear in this white-dominated, upper-class neighborhood than she does. Based on everything you have seen up to this point, your expectation is that Peter and Anthony might be a couple of UCLA students or “public intellectuals” from a Spike Lee movie.

Since Haggis’s stated intention in making this film is to demonstrate that you can’t judge a book by the cover, the two youths unexpectedly point guns at the woman and her husband as they are entering their Lincoln Navigator, announcing that they are taking the car. They are not students or website designers or shopkeepers, you see. They are professional carjackers.

Apparently Haggis was inspired to write and direct this film in 2004 after having been haunted since 1991 by his own experience as a carjacking victim:

“It was 1991, and I was with my wife at the time, coming home from the opening of ‘The Silence of Lambs. We pulled over to get a movie at Blockbuster, and when we came out two guys with guns said, ‘We’ll take your car.’ I said, ‘Absolutely, you will.’ We never found the car, and the people were never identified. “Ten years later I woke up in the middle of the night wondering about those kids and wanting to write about them. I made them the protagonists in my story.

“As a writer, you ask yourself questions other people never ask. I wanted to know who those kids were. Were they best friends or had they just met recently? Had they thought of themselves as criminals? Was this just something they were doing to make a couple bucks, or was this was a profession?”

“It’s a hopeful film”

(Denver Post, May 22, 2005)

Whatever is hopeful in this film is more a function of characters going through Charles Dickens type conversions than any hint of social or political change. Since every character is utterly detached from the underlying economic realities of modern-day Los Angeles, the answer to “race hatred” is moral transformation rather than changing those realities.

In setting up these transformations, Haggis employs a series of plot twists that are utterly unbelievable. His characters find ways to bump into each other in this geographically dispersed city of 10 million that defy logic (hence the title “Crash,” both figuratively and literally.) In watching these far-fetched coincidences, I was reminded of my experience hitch-hiking across the Deep South in the summer of 1965. Upon learning that I was from NYC, a truck-driver from Mississippi asked me if I knew his old army buddy who was also from New York.

This takes the most extreme form with Officers Ryan and Hanson, partners played by Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe, crossing paths with just about everybody in the film. Early on, they pull over Cameron (Terrence Dashon Howard), an African-American television director, and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) mainly–it seems–to allow the sadistic Ryan to humiliate them. Ryan’s racism is so extreme that he might even have shocked Mark Fuhrman, the white supremacist cop who testified against OJ Simpson. A search for weapons, for example, gives Ryan a pretext to grope the man’s wife. For his part, Hanson–a seemingly open-minded soul, at least for the LA police department–is so offended that he later asks for a new partner.

To once again illustrate didactically that you can’t judge a book by the cover, Officer Ryan bumps into Cameron’s wife just hours later that day, as she is pinned in the smoldering wreckage of her car that has been involved in a freeway accident. He risks his life to pull her from the car, even though–having recognized him from the groping incident earlier in the day–she screams at him to leave her alone. The lesson? Even racist cops can transcend their racism when duty calls.

Meanwhile, Hanson, the “good” cop, has picked up an African-American hitch-hiker late at night. Just by coincidence, it turns out to be the carjacker Peter, who has been ejected from Cameron’s car that he and Anthony have unsuccessfully tried to commandeer. First of all, the idea of hitch-hiking in Los Angeles is so implausible that Haggis might have well introduced a new twist in which it is revealed that Hanson is actually an extraterrestrial. But that would be not be as far-fetched as what actually transpires. After driving along for several moments, Hanson begins to grow wary of Peter and then opens fire on him, assuming wrongly that the youth is reaching for a pistol in his pocket. The lesson? Hanson, despite his liberal pretensions, is just as racist as Ryan, who turns out to be okay after all.

Despite its stylistic debt to Robert Altman’s films, the true inspiration for “Crash” are the liberal “problem” dramas of the late 1950s and early 60s like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “The Defiant Ones.” These films were attempts to frame racial oppression in the USA in terms of a failure to communicate and thinking in stereotypes rather than racial supremacy. The answer to these problems is more understanding. One might even have expected Rodney King’s “Why can’t we all get along” to appear on screen as the film begins.

Originally from Canada, Paul Haggis launched his entertainment career as a TV screenwriter with shows like “The Love Boat” and “Walker, Texas Ranger” to his credit, so to speak. He made a kind of breakthrough with his script for Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” another film with dubious claims to high-mindedness.

February 2, 2006

Alan Sokal and science

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 11:11 am

Posted to www.marxmail.org on February 2, 2006

Dear Richard and Brett,

I was glad to see your commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man” in the current Monthly Review, especially as it resonates with Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science”, a book that I am about 1/3 the way through now. Cliff’s book can be described as a marriage of Stephen Jay Gould and Howard Zinn and it doesn’t get much better than that.

I do want to raise an issue that is close to my heart, namely your linking of Alan Sokal to the project of rescuing science from postmodernist obfuscation. As an old friend of Alan’s, as president of the board of the nonprofit that placed him in Nicaragua and as a long-time opponent of postmodernism, I was initially excited–as most socialists were–by his hoodwinking of Social Text.

Now with the clarity afforded to me by hindsight, I have a somewhat different take on the whole affair.

To start with, it is important to acknowledge that the Social Text issue, that was devoted to the “science wars” and which published Alan’s spoof, was itself a response to a conference held at NYU on the topic. Norman Levitt, who Alan describes as a social democrat, was the chief organizer but funding came from the ultraright Olin Foundation.

In your footnote on Sokal, you quite rightfully place some distance between him on one hand and Norman Levitt and Paul Gross on the other. I am much more familiar with Levitt’s reputation but assume that Paul Gross has pretty much the same ax to grind. You put it this way:

“Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, published in 1994, in part inspired Sokal to perform his hoax. Gross and Levitt deserve credit for rightly criticizing some anti-science scholars, but, unfortunately, present only a partial truth, in that they fail to seriously acknowledge the strong anti-science tendencies of the right and the long tradition on the left of commitment to reason.”

I think it is important to understand that Norman Levitt is actually part of the right, although not the Christian/Republican right. Surely the Olin Foundation has a way of discerning who is promoting their agenda. If Levitt would not be caught dead being associated with “intelligent design”, he has had a long and sordid record supporting corporate domination in the name of science. For this sector of the right, DDT, nuclear energy, GM crops, etc. are the salvation of humanity.

Levitt can be placed ideologically on the libertarian right that includes Virginia Postrel’s “Reason” magazine and spiked-online, a publication associated with the same crew that used to put out LM magazine. Levitt, Postrel and the spiked-online people mounted a conference at the New School about 5 years ago that warned about fear of risk. In their eyes, worrying about Frankenfood is the same thing as worrying about Friday the 13th.

In a recent article in spiked-online, Levitt lashed out at the academic left in terms found on David Horowitz’s Frontpage. He warns that some professor might be fired for “Suggesting that affirmative action might conflict with other standards of justice and equity, or that opponents of affirmative action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their white sheets to come back from the laundry.” As far-fetched as this seems, he really believes it. He also believes that your own university, the University of Oregon, is a spawning ground for such threats to academic freedom, especially under the auspices of ‘cultural competence’, a program designed to ensure that the school respect diverse cultures. This program has infuriated Horowitz, the Murdoch press and all the other usual suspects.

It should not be assumed that it is easy to distinguish between the libertarian right’s enmity toward postmodernism and our own agenda as socialists. Back in 1997, MR published something called “Science and the Retreat from Reason” by John Gillot and Manjit Kumar that was sent along to them from Pluto Press with the assurance that it was in the same vein as Sokal’s efforts. Alan was originally intended to review it.

But when I got wind of this, I felt compelled to warn MR that their reputation would be damaged since Kumar and Gillot were long-time adherents to the LM sect. Upon reading it, John Bellamy Foster was alarmed to discover a vitriolic attack on Rachel Carsons as well as a paean to DDT, which in those circles has the same weight as the Transitional Program has in the Trotskyist movement. Foster went on to review the book in MR magazine and was forced to disassociate himself from the more noxious aspects of the book, which seemed largely beside the point. Kumar and Gillot’s problem was not in what they said about Rachel Carsons, but in their estimation of the role of science as a discipline beyond a class analysis and existing in a pure, almost Platonic, sphere.

Returning once again to the aforementioned Cliff Conner, this is an outlook that is challenged on virtually every page of his ground-breaking work. Unlike Gross, Levitt and even Sokal, he believes that science is indebted to the very peoples whose “local knowledge” they disparage. Indeed, without the American Indian’s discovery of the anti-malarial effects of quinine bark or the pain-killing powers of the willow tree (ie., aspirin), the world would be a lot worse off.

In solidarity,

Louis Proyect


Dear Louis,

Thank you for this highly informative and thoughtful message, which has added quite a bit to my understanding of this complex issue. I will look into Conner’s work right away.

Thanks again and best wishes, Richard York

Dear Louis Proyect,

Thanks for the insightful and informative message. Our intent in the footnote was to indicate a difference, but obviously it would have been useful to be more explicit in our statement. Incidentally, last week I actually picked up a copy of Clifford Conner’s book and started reading it. It is a wonderful book.

Yours, Brett Clark

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