Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 3, 2006

The NY Review of Books versus Marxism

Filed under: cruise missile left,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:36 pm

In the “Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx wrote:

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

Even though the Communist Manifesto is widely regarded in polite, academic circles as a kind of Victorian era relic, its spectre still seems to be haunting Tony Judt, a British-born professor at NYU. In the latest issue of the NY Review of Books, his reviews of Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” and “My Correct Views on Everything”, and Jacques Attali’s “Karl Marx ou l’esprit du monde” provide an opportunity to exorcise this spectre one more time.

Tony Judt

A word or two of introduction to Tony Judt might be in order since the NY Review has two big-time intellectuals whose first names start with T and whose last name includes “ud”:

1. Tony Judt: Specialist in French and European politics with a focus on the Marxist left; the continental equivalent of people like Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes.

2. Tim Judah: Spent most of the 1990s pushing for war on the Serb. The NY Review had the same relationship to this affair that the Hearst press had to the Spanish-American war.

Tim Judah

3. These two should not be confused with Timothy Garton Ash, another NY Review contributor, who is a blend of Judah and Judt. He writes Serb-bashing material like Judah but also finds time for the occasional “Marxism is dead” hackwork.

Timothy Garton-Ash

To compound the confusion, you have to remember that NYR contributors Michael Ignatieff and David Rieff are not the same person even though their last name ends in “ieff”. Both shared Ash and Judah’s enthusiasm for war on the dastardly Serbs throughout the 1990s but Rieff (son of Susan Sontag) seems to have decided recently that US imperialism has no business meddling in the rest of the world. Ignatieff, on the other hand, still maintains an outlook like Niall Ferguson’s, namely that the savages need to be civilized at the point of a bayonet.

When we read the typical “Marxism is dead” article in the NY Review, we can’t help but be reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Princess and the Pea,” about a woman claiming to be a princess. She shows up at the door of a castle looking completely disheveled after being caught in a terrible storm. The Queen, who is looking for a mate for her son the prince, decides to use a pea in a mattress as a kind of litmus test:

She went into the bedroom, took all the bed clothes off and laid a pea on the bedstead: then she took twenty mattresses and piled them on top of the pea, and then twenty feather beds on top of the mattresses. This was where the princess was to sleep that night. In the morning they asked her how she slept.

‘Oh terribly bad!’ said the princess. ‘I have hardly closed my eyes the whole night! Heaven knows what was in the bed. I seemed to be lying upon some hard thing, and my whole body is black and blue this morning. It is terrible!’

They saw at once that she must be a real princess when she had felt the pea through twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. Nobody but a real princess could have such a delicate skin.

People like Tony Judt are just like that princess. They can’t get a proper night’s sleep as long as that pea is under their mattress. No matter how irrelevant or miniscule the communist movement is today, it requires them to write one more article calling attention to how it bothers them.

A search of the NY Review of Book archives for “Marx” reveals links to 1175 articles. These are a few from the top of the list:

December 20, 1979: On Your Marx

June 29, 1978: Inescapable Marx

September 25, 1980: Dictator Marx?

November 16, 2000: What’s Left of Marx?

It is of some interest that Judt addresses this phenomenon of the dead ideology that needs to be killed over and over again:

In recent years respectable critics have been dusting off nineteenth-century radical language and applying it with disturbing success to twenty-first-century social relations. One hardly needs to be a Marxist to recognize that what Marx and others called a “reserve army of labor” is now resurfacing, not in the back streets of European industrial towns but worldwide. By holding down the cost of labor–thanks to the threat of outsourcing, factory relocation, or disinvestments–this global pool of cheap workers helps maintain profits and promote growth: just as it did in nineteenth-century industrial Europe, at least until organized trade unions and mass labor parties were powerful enough to bring about improved wages, redistributive taxation, and a decisive twentieth-century shift in the balance of political power–thereby confounding the revolutionary predictions of their own leaders.

In short, the world appears to be entering upon a new cycle, one with which our nineteenth-century forebears were familiar but of which we in the West have no recent experience. In the coming years, as visible disparities of wealth increase and struggles over the terms of trade, the location of employment, and the control of scarce natural resources all become more acute, we are likely to hear more, not less, about inequality, injustice, unfairness, and exploitation–at home but especially abroad. And thus, as we lose sight of communism (already in Eastern Europe you have to be thirty-five years old to have any adult memory of a Communist regime), the moral appeal of some refurbished version of Marxism is likely to grow.

Of course, this is a variation on a theme often heard in the NY Review. As one of the higher profile voices of social democracy and left-liberalism in the USA, the magazine frequently offers up warnings about the party in power increasing class polarization to an intolerable level. Like the supporters of FDR in 1932, they seek to save capitalism from itself. They don’t understand, however, that the anti-working class policies of Bush and company are driven not by greed, but by the iron laws of capitalist competition. When Bill Clinton was in power, welfare was abolished. That act dwarves any domestic measure ever taken by the Bush administration. The New Deal is being whittled away by both parties. The chief policy differences revolve around the tempo. The Republicans seek a quicker tempo, while the Democrats urge a go-slow policy. It should be noted that the Democrats are likely to be more effective dismantlers of the welfare state than the Republicans for the same reason that Nixon was able to travel to China.

The NY Review is fairly rife with this sort of stuff. In a review of George Soros’s “On Globalization” titled “A Fair Deal for the World,” Joseph Stiglitz writes:

Soros explains that the case for free movements of capital is far less clear than that for free trade. He could have gone further: the evidence is that liberalizing capital markets does lead to increased risk but does not lead to increased economic growth. Soros explains something that most observers of the recent stock market bubble know intuitively, but that market fundamentalists deny: “Financial markets, left to their own devices, are liable to go to extremes and eventually break down.” Robert Shiller, in his book Irrational Exuberance, has documented this tendency of markets to excess volatility. The history of capitalism, Soros writes, is “punctuated by crises.” As he points out, the problem is not new. What was exceptional about East Asia, as I have written, is not that it eventually had a crisis, but that it went so long without any serious economic downturn. Soros also points out that it is the developing countries on the “periphery” of the system that suffer the most. And herein, he writes, lies the problem for reform. Those who believe in market fundamentalism “are reluctant to accept that the system may be fundamentally flawed when it is working so well for those who are in charge.”

When I read this sort of thing, I am reminded of all the hawks who have converted to doves over the war in Iraq. It seems that this conversion had everything to do with the resistance of the Iraqi people to occupation rather than some newly discovered principles about self-determination. If the invasion were as successful as the ones mounted against Panama and Grenada, one imagines that people like John Murtha and John Kerry would have never turned around. The same is true for “globalization,” a new word for imperialism. People like Soros are understandably upset over the rise of Hugo Chavez, who openly states that socialism is superior to capitalism, as well as Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who has retreated from the open door policies of his predecessor that left his country in ruins. (To Stiglitz’s credit, he has begun lately to hail Chavez’s reforms.)

In a June 1, 1998 Nation Magazine article titled “The Harvard Boys Do Russia,” Janine R. Wedel reminds of the time when George Soros didn’t let the fact that capitalism was “punctuated by crises” bother him:

Anne Williamson, a journalist who specializes in Soviet and Russian affairs, details these and other conflicts of interest between H.I.I.D.’s advisers and their supposed clients–the Russian people–in her forthcoming book, How America Built the New Russian Oligarchy. For example, in 1995, in Chubais-organized insider auctions of prime national properties, known as loans-for-shares, the Harvard Management Company (H.M.C.), which invests the university’s endowment, and billionaire speculator George Soros were the only foreign entities allowed to participate. H.M.C. and Soros became significant shareholders in Novolipetsk, Russia‘s second-largest steel mill, and Sidanko Oil, whose reserves exceed those of Mobil. H.M.C. and Soros also invested in Russia‘s high-yielding, I.M.F.-subsidized domestic bond market.

Even more dubious, according to Williamson, was Soros’s July 1997 purchase of 24 percent of Sviazinvest, the telecommunications giant, in partnership with Uneximbank’s Vladimir Potanin. It was later learned that shortly before this purchase Soros had tided over Yeltsin’s government with a backdoor loan of hundreds of millions of dollars while the government was awaiting proceeds of a Eurobond issue; the loan now appears to have been used by Uneximbank to purchase Norilsk Nickel in August 1997. According to Williamson, the U.S. assistance program in Russia was rife with such conflicts of interest involving H.I.I.D. advisers and their U.S.A.I.D.-funded Chubais allies, H.M.C. managers, favored Russian bankers, Soros and insider expatriates working in Russia‘s nascent markets.

So when Vladimir Putin decided to call an end to this sort of bloodsucking behavior by foreign investors, George Soros grew alarmed. It is better not to be overly greedy–that is the lesson. It is akin to burglars deciding not to break into a house because there are infrared alarms in the window. Too much trouble.

As we stagger forward into the 21st century, it will be interesting to observe the twists and turns of people like Tony Judt and Joseph Stiglitz. Eventually, the contradictions of the capitalist system will produce the equivalent of the kind of armed gangs that broke up trade union and socialist meetings in the Weimar Republic, except they will rally under the Stars and Stripes and Cross rather than the Swastika. When those turbulent times arrive, it will be interesting to see if the NY Review intellectuals value civilization more than they do the capitalist system, because in the final analysis they are incompatible.


Reading the Maps Blog: Tony Judt, Leszek Kolakowski, and the Stalinist school of anti-communism


  1. That’s more like it, don’t worry too much about the pea of conspiracy theories,its only another kind of pea

    Comment by paul — September 3, 2006 @ 10:55 pm

  2. Thanks for a well deserved rebuttal to the review of Kolakowski’s book and Tony Judt’s feeble attempt to make him out as a prophet of sorts. I read Kolakowski’s book years ago as a student and even then found it verbose, and unconvincing.

    Comment by bhupinder singh — September 4, 2006 @ 2:20 am

  3. My history teacher in high school told me that he once heard Kolakowski speak, and the entire lecture was a reframing of human history in terms of a struggle between God and the Devil. I suppose I should read him eventually, but for the next year or so, enough said.

    Also, I highly recommend the essay on Timothy Garton Ash in Perry Anderson’s latest book, Spectrum. The first half is a bit charitable; the second, which focuses on Garton Ash’s more recent book (“Free World”…) is absolutely merciless and utterly hilarious, in a perfect dry British way.

    Comment by Poulod — September 4, 2006 @ 3:24 am

  4. Libertarian socialists like M. Stirner, P.J proudhon, M. Bakunin and G. Maximoff make far stronger and better deconstructions of Marxism…still this Polish dude soon has E.P Thomson and Sartre’s heads over his fireplace. Marx bashing is fun and good for you so lets see much more of it please. Thank you L Proycet.

    Comment by professor rat — September 4, 2006 @ 3:30 pm

  5. It’s cool to see the Communist Manifesto and some of Marx’s other works dug back up for further examination. A lot of his material is out-dated and often forgotten/discounted.

    Comment by Dave — September 5, 2006 @ 8:37 pm

  6. Eventually, the contradictions of the capitalist system will produce the equivalent of the kind of armed gangs that broke up trade union and socialist meetings in the Weimar Republic, except they will rally under the Stars and Stripes and Cross rather than the Swastika.

    After the imminent collapse of capitalism, the prediction of fascist takeover must rank as the all-time great of ludicrous Marxist ahistoricism. You really can’t teach an old dog new tricks, eh Proyect?

    Comment by Joe Blow — September 7, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

  7. […] A few weeks ago I wrote an attack on Tony Judt’s errant musings on Marxism in the New York Review of Books. It would be remiss of me to not mention that Judt has also been sticking it to the Cruise Missile Left as well as doing some yeoman work on the Middle East around the question of the Israel Lobby. […]

    Pingback by Tony Judt update « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 5, 2006 @ 2:29 am

  8. “People like Soros and Stiglitz are understandably upset over the rise of Hugo Chavez”

    That’s not entirely right. As far as I know Stiglitz is sympathetic to most of Chavez’s policies. Read his articles in the Project-Syndicate website or on New Persectives Quarterly.

    Comment by José del Solar — October 23, 2006 @ 8:38 pm

  9. I’ve been reading the sections on Capital in “Main Currents.” I have to wonder whether Kolowkowski has ever read “Capital” with any care, or whether he has just forgotten what he read. These pivotal sections of “Main Currents” are simply awful as a reflection of what Marx really said – as are Judt’s statements in his review of “Main Currents.” Neither should get a passing grade on a college test dealing with Marx. I recommend Harrington’s “Socialism” as a rebuttal. (Incidentally, I say all this as someone who has very ambivalent feelings about Marx and is far from a true believer.)

    Comment by Jim Bush — June 21, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

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