Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 2, 2006

Stan Goff rejects Marxism: a reply

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm


Is he to blame?

Recently Stan Goff posted an article on Feral Scholar that has generated a fair amount of discussion. Nominally an explanation for his retreat from sectarian politics, it touches on the viability of Marxist theory. While I welcome anybody’s decision to withdraw from the world of self-declared vanguard politics, I am a little less comfortable with some of Stan’s broader challenges to Marxism. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to obscure the points of demarcation between his own particular experience with Freedom Road, other sectarian groups and Marxist theory in general. Let’s take a look at the following paragraph to get an idea of the sort of confusion that this leads to:

One of my primary disappointments has been what I consider the failure to take seriously the struggle against patriarchy, and to give it the same weight in our organizing as we do class and national oppression. There have been only token efforts in this regard, and no serious initiative that I have seen to go outside the canon to understand this system. Worse, there has been a reactive embrace of liberal-libertarian “feminism” by many comrades… which I consider to be a sly academic reassertion of male power in the consumer-choice package of “freedom,” undermining the whole analysis of gender as a system. But this is not the crux of the issue for me. Feminism was the gateway to a number of other interrogations of the assumptions of organized Marxism.

Who are the “many comrades” referred to above? Freedom Roaders? If so, why not refer to exactly what kind of “liberal-libertarian ‘feminism'” they have been espousing? Without a specific reference, Stan’s complaint has a somewhat vaporous quality.

If the Freedom Roaders could be faulted on their commitment to fighting patriarchy, at least Stan gives them credit for pushing “refoundation”:

My own last association with organized Marxism was with members whose work I greatly admire. In particular, I was attracted to their analysis of national oppression, which remains in advance of most of the US left, and their stated committment to refoundation of a politically efficacious left in the US.

For those who follow left politics, the term refoundation might ring a bell. There is a party in Italy called Communist Refoundation, which is more or less of an attempt to build on Eurocommunist initiatives of the 1970s and that mixes together genuine militancy with the traditional horse-trading that has tainted the Italian left since WWII.

The Freedom Roaders proposed their own kind of refoundation in 2000, which amounted to a kind of embrace of the same ideas that were being promoted by Solidarity and Committees of Correspondence, which in the 1950s was called “regroupment”. It was an attempt to build a new Marxist or radical left without the traditional “Leninist” concepts that were actually alien to the way that the Bolshevik party operated. Although the left would have benefited from a new party that included all of these various currents opposed to sectarianism, their own habits and inertia prevented them from coming together.

Perhaps the failure of “refoundation” to go anywhere after it was proposed in 2000 led some Freedom Roaders to pull back from this approach. In an article from 2 years ago on their website, Badili Jones wrote:

I believe that Freedom Road must uphold and demonstrate to the Left at large the value of the organizational principle of democratic centralism. It must be clear that we do reject bureaucratic centralism. Democratic centralism has become the bogeyman for many on the Left. This is because the practice has been perverted and misunderstood historically.

Perhaps Freedom Road adopted Badili’s proposal and retreated to older organizational concepts. As such groups customarily keep such decision-making processes to themselves, it is impossible to say. My guess is that Stan would have been uncomfortable with moving back in that direction based on the evidence of his article.

After chewing over the failures of the sectarian left at some length, Stan switches gears and begins to look at more fundamental problems. This is where I begin to part company with him.

The industrial utopia imagined by Marx and touted by Lenin (who even embraced the soul-killing efficiency doctrine of Frederick Winslow Taylor) is not possible in the real world, and less so each day, and it is a Man’s world in any case, a notion based fundmentally on the patriarchal belief in Man-Nature dualism (and the gendered pronoun is not an accident, nor has it ever been neutral). It is the Marxist method of inquiry that exposes the fetishism of the machine — the idea that technology is innocent of the social system that produced it, and that a factory under socialist control works differently than one under capitalist control, even though the spirit-murdering machinery of capitalism remains unchanged. It was Lukacs theses on reification that gave rise to the most radical version of Western feminism, which also called the Man-Nature dualism to account. And these were summarily rejected by the “organized” left.

Well, I first heard this sort of thing from Stan about 5 or 6 years ago when he was a subscriber on Mark Jones’s a-list. It is utter nonsense from top to bottom. Marx never imagined an “industrial utopia”. He in fact was the foremost ecological thinker of the 19th century who identified declining soil fertility as a symptom of that very “industrial utopia” that bourgeois ideologists were championing. Marx wrote:

If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.

(“The Transformation of Surplus Profit into Ground-Rent” in V. 3 of Capital)

You will note that Marx takes aim at “large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture” and “the industrial system”. Now it is up to Stan to decide whether or not Marx has something to say on the environmental crisis, but I would at least ask him to argue with what Marx actually wrote rather than some Frankfurt School distortion.

As I stated above, Stan frequently makes an amalgam of the sectarian left with the writings of Marx, as if the author of Capital were somehow responsible for the nonsense that appears in some sectarian rag. It would have probably been better if he had settled accounts with the vanguard left in one post and Karl Marx in another, but I imagine that he is so busy that he sought to kill two birds with one stone–leaving political clarity a victim as well. This is especially true when he takes up the question of the working class, something that goes to the very heart of Marx’s writings:

Every one of the Marxist formations, in accordance with its most teleological assumption — that the working class, once forged in struggle as a class-for-itself — will be the inevitable midwife of socialism (claim for which there is not yet one shred of supporting evidence), have hewn to a dying trade union movement in the US, and one with its remainder so woven into the military-industrial-security complex as to be almost indistinguishable from it. The Crisis of Socialism can be found here, I believe, in the heart of Marxist doctrine, and not in treasons and deviations and contigent “errors.”

As I have stated in an earlier reply to an article by Stan on truthdig.com, he has a tendency to exaggerate the backwardness of working class people. Using the scare-mongering reports of the Southern Poverty Law Center as documentation (they rely on such reports to pressure liberals into donating), he tried to make the case that Timothy McVeigh was somehow typical of the American military. From there, it is only a small step to conclude that the working class is “so woven into the military-industrial-security complex as to be almost indistinguishable from it.”

I find it odd to hear such claims so soon after the Democrats swept both houses of Congress. Stan’s business about workers as willing collaborators with the military-industrial-security complex is not that much different from what we heard from Thomas Frank and other “red state” theoreticians after Bush was reelected. California and New York had to secede from the rest of a country that was an undifferentiated mass of wife-beating, football-watching, flag-waving apes.

Speaking as somebody who helped to organize antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s, I am astonished to hear such views today when ordinary working people have either voted for peace candidates or voted with their feet in union contingents on peace demonstrations. And this is without a draft. I think most socialists, including myself, assumed that the war in Iraq could go on forever as long as there was no draft and as long as the costs of the war were not too onerous to bear for the average worker. Well, we were wrong. Working people have become appalled by the blood-letting, the lies, the torture and the sheer sense of doing wrong. When they eventually come to understand that the same class system that savages the Iraqi people is their enemy as well, classical Marxism will be vindicated just as it was in 1968 when French workers joined the students in a general strike.


  1. FRSO/OSCL is a democratic centralist organization and has never backed away from it. I believe Goff just evolved to a point where he did not want to be connected to any organization.

    Comment by Fadero — December 2, 2006 @ 9:59 pm

  2. I’d agree with L. that Freedom Road tossed a mess of messes into Stan Goff’s thinking. I used to read their journal Forward Motion, and was surprised at what they believed to be the most important parts of Lenin’s work, completely devoid of context, etc.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — December 2, 2006 @ 11:16 pm

  3. I find it amazing how so many people put forth criticism of Marx,based on false readings or here say.Stan should know better ,how could he make an argument based on Marx’s supposedly “industrial Utopia” ,when any very quick reading of Marx’s basic works quickly show such notions to be false.
    I find that many people who quote Marx or criticize Marx are basing their arguments or views on third party readings.This has got to be at the root of so much of the false readings and understanding of Marx and his works.
    For sure his works are many and can appear to be daunting,but one has to take it on(it not as daunting as it might look).If one is ever to understand Marx’s views not third parties etc…

    Comment by dirk — December 3, 2006 @ 1:30 am

  4. Good response Lou. Stan Goff does much good work, but this response to Marxism is not really what it appears in the end. One just has to read Bellamy Foster or James O’Connor’s work…or talk to Eric Mann at the Bus Riders’ Union even better to know that Stan’s take on Marx and environmentalism is deeply mistaken.

    Comment by Steve Philion — December 3, 2006 @ 4:09 am

  5. Thank You Louis! Your critique greatly reinforces my impression that Stan’s remarks were made, as he explains, “after months of intense reflection”. He makes no claim to having spent months of “intense investigation.”
    I found valuable insights in his piece but it is good to see your exposure of some of the weaknesses.

    His third sentence indicates a tendency to confuse his weakness for his strength: “I will not attempt to separate the personal from the political reasons”. In other words, I will attempt to confuse the personal and the political.

    Comment by Doug Nielson — December 3, 2006 @ 12:50 pm

  6. Oops! I should have said: In other words, he will attempt to confuse the subjective with the objective, the personal and the political.

    Comment by Doug Nielson — December 3, 2006 @ 12:59 pm

  7. Stan can’t be entirely blamed for not seeing an environmentalist tradition in Marxism. It’s present in Marx but too few modern Marxists spend any time talking about it…

    Comment by Kalkin — December 3, 2006 @ 5:14 pm

  8. Kalkin, Stan was quite friendly with Mark Jones, a good friend of mine who died of cancer about 5 years ago. Mark and I were very forceful on the issue of Marx as ecologist. I can understand somebody first coming around Marxism not knowing about this, but Stan is another story altogether.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 3, 2006 @ 5:34 pm

  9. Having seen the situation evolve, Fadero is the one who is most on target here. Democratic centralism — which we have always maintained as different from bureaucratic centralism — was always at the core of FRSO/OSCL’s practice and theory. Left Refoundation did not change that. In the end, Stan left both because his personal situation changed and because he changed his mind on a lot of things that can’t be boiled down to individual changes within FRSO/OSCL or some defection from Marxism to the Frankfurt School per se. And by all his talks on that topic, he has FRSO/OSCL amicably.

    As for your asides (and they are asides), that Stan is somehow a unique apostate from Marx (and Lenin) on critically assessing the military and the working class, I believe this rosy picture of the working class doesn’t do any well. There’s a whole body of work dating to Marx and his “labor in a white skin is not free until labor in a black skin is free” that treats the working class with enough respect to point out its mistakes. That it makes the white working class “look bad” isn’t half as bad as the fact that the white working class acts badly (that is to say, acts in a self-negating manner).

    Comment by Modern Pitung — December 3, 2006 @ 10:28 pm

  10. Correct the last sentence of the first para: “he has left FRSO/OSCL amicably.”

    Comment by Modern Pitung — December 3, 2006 @ 10:29 pm

  11. I just recently printed off Stan’s post,so I could study it better.Reading off a screen,just does not cut it.Anyway,I think some are “misinterpreting” Stans post.
    It is not so much a rejection of Marx or his work as it is a rejection of organized groups,parties that identify as Marxist,Marxist -Leninist,…
    I would agree such orgs have little chance of raising above sectarian politics never mind reaching out and touching the working-class with any authority.
    Marx’s ideas are but away of understanding capitalism,Marx never intended to provide a “blue print”,indeed such an endeavor would be impossible.
    As for Stans remarks on “industrial utopia” he is mistaken.As Louis points out Marx was very conscious of ecology and the idea humankind must live within sustainable means.Nothing comes from nothing,as the saying goes.
    So again,over all I agree with much of what Stan writes.There is no future for sectarian politics,Marxism is not a thing or a mantel one takes on.Its but a tool to understand the world,a way of thinking and logic through materialism etc..
    I flirted with the idea joining the CP of Canada but the reality of the world as opposed to that of the CPC seemed just to far apart.Their politics just seemed to absurd at times.Thanks to Marx and his favorite saying “doubt everything”I managed to avoid getting caught up in sectarian politics.It is kind of ironic,my studies of Marx’s works “saved” me from joining the “Communist” Party.
    But this is not to say the CP or some of its more dedicated members did not do some good work.But again as Stan pointed out much of this good work was done outside of the CPC,indeed the good work itself grew out of activism etc that was also outside of the CPC

    Comment by dirk — December 6, 2006 @ 11:51 pm

  12. When will people get real? Lou, how much time do you need to squander on people like good old Stan? It would be much appreciated by the idiots of this world (of which I belong) were you to focus on the realities we confront and stay away from intellectual masturbations. Love your take and wish you’d take it in more creative and thoughtful directions.

    Life’s too short.

    Comment by Gilles d'Aymery — December 13, 2006 @ 2:28 am

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