Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 24, 2006

Russell Jacoby versus Eric Lott

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 24, 2006

There’s a rather negative book review of Eric Lott’s “The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual” in the latest Nation Magazine by Russell Jacoby. Jacoby pokes fun at what he sees as Lott’s academic pretensions, even if they are ostensibly tied to a worthy goal, namely carving out “a space for radicals to the left of detestable ‘boomer liberals,’ who have seized the limelight and distorted politics.”

These ‘boomer liberals’ include Todd Gitlin, Michael Lind, Joe Klein, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz and Henry Louis Gates Jr. I myself am not sure about Stanley Crouch’s “liberalism” since most of his writing nowadays seems consumed with bashing Black Nationalism and making the ideas of Booker T. Washington popular once again. On most days, Crouch sounds dismayingly like Clarence Thomas–that is, if Thomas actually would ever say anything.

Summarizing Lott’s thesis, Jacoby puts it this way:

For Lott this “new liberal front” oozes with a “piecemeal, reformist self-satisfaction.” The new reformers represent a “bone headed degeneration of the radical spirit.” They have “created the political fog that obscured the left from view” and buried the “liberal alternative to hawkish conservatism.” These liberals pander to state power and American nationalism. They yearn for the “old-boys’ left” that was largely white and that claimed to be universal. Their work is “anti-corporate” rather than anticapitalist. (Disclosure alert: Along with Mark Crispin Miller and Thomas Frank, I am listed as suffering from this particular ailment.) They turn politics into adjuncts of the John Kerry presidential bid. They are a “secret sharer of neoconservative ideology,” and they legitimate the Bush White House and its politics. They constitute an intellectual and political “disaster.”

I don’t know. This sounds like a book that should have been written long ago. Lott obviously has a handle on the Dissentoid left and anybody else who wants to turn back the clock to a New Deal type politics that long ago lost any objective basis for its existence, if there ever was one.

Since Jacoby is a sworn enemy of post-Marxism and anything remotely smacking of academic obscurantism (he was seen as an ally of Alan Sokal in a Lingua Franca article on the fight against jargon, while Lott has taken Sokal down a notch or two in the pages of the Village Voice), it is to be expected that he would attempt to smear Lott with alleged connections to figures such as Etienne Balibar (there are surely much worse than Balibar) and a propensity for terms like “intersectionality” and “the praxis potential of antinormativity.” Frankly, with what I have learned about Alan Sokal and his anti-postmodernist rightwing allies over the past 8 years or so, I am more inclined to line up with the winners of Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contests of yore.

Improbably invoking Lenin, Jacoby suggests that Lott’s work smacks of ‘infantile leftism,’ but when “Lenin used the term he was referring to new political parties, not professorial posturing.” I don’t quite know how to put this, but there should be a law against somebody like Russell Jacoby invoking Lenin. This is what the Turks call chutzpah.

But you can really figure out where Jacoby is coming from through his defense of Todd Gitlin’s and other “old fogies” call for a “universal left.” Let’s get something straight. This “universal left” has nothing to do with reconstituting the Communist International. All it is a call for rebuilding the Labor-Civil Rights-Democratic Party coalition under the leadership of a latter-day Hubert Humphrey. Gitlin voted for Humphrey in 1968 and will never forgive the radical movement for telling the truth about Humphrey, namely that he was a warmonger and a corporate stooge.

Russell Jacoby is coming from the same place ideologically as Gitlin and others who have complained about how multiculturalism (ie, uppity women, gays and Blacks) alienates blue collar workers from voting Democrat. It is really a tiresome litany that has appeared in many guises, from Gitlin’s “The Twilight of Common Dreams” to Robert Hughes’s “The Culture of Complaint.”

I think that Eric Lott has it right. In many ways, the “culture wars” involving postmodernism and its detractors (Russell Jacoby, Alan Sokal, et al) are basically reflecting genuine problems facing the mass movement that have to be resolved in order for fundamental change to occur in American society. They are actually not new debates, since Marxism has always had to grapple with tendencies within it that pit some “universal” working class against “sectoral” impediments thrown up by forces outside the point of production. In a previous lifetime, I used to refer to this phenomenon as “workerism” and it is unpalatable coming from within the dogmatic left or from tenured professors like Russell Jacoby.


  1. I for one am very pleased that the Unrepetant Marxist would take this position, and and thrilled that he would write, “Frankly, with what I have learned about Alan Sokal and his anti-postmodernist rightwing allies over the past 8 years or so, I am more inclined to line up with the winners of Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contests of yore.” This bespeaks the UM’s open-mindedness and his ability to avoid (the no-doubt tempting) knee-jerk anti-postmodernism.

    Comment by michael d — April 21, 2006 @ 5:13 pm

  2. Thanks for the Village Voice link. I’m at UVA and have taken classes with Lott, and his lecture voice is a lot closer to his Village Voice voice than his liberal intellectual voice, to say nothing of his “let’s talk about it over a beer” voice. I often find myself at odds with snakes-within-snakes phrasings that read more like 19th C. German philosophy transcripted into 21st C. English. I’m of the mind that if an individual is stuck within a certain grammar and vocabulary to the point that they can’t translate it for their differing audiences, they probably don’t understand the material all that well in the first place. Although some of Lott’s phrasings are misfortunate, I know the man can translate when he needs to. Maybe the need for a better editor is the question.

    Comment by J — April 28, 2006 @ 8:11 pm

  3. […] wrote about the Jacoby attack on Lott not long after it […]

    Pingback by Dueling Utopias « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 26, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

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