Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2007

A reply to Göran Therborn

Filed under: Academia,socialism — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Perry Anderson: “the world has moved on”

As many of you know, the January-February 2000 issue of New Left Review carried an article by Editor Perry Anderson titled “Renewals” that basically set a new direction for the journal. He characterized the period as one of diminished political expectations:

Ten years after the collapse of Communism, however, the world has moved on, and a condition of re-launching the review is some distinctive and systematic approach to its state today. What is the principal aspect of the past decade? Put briefly, it can be defined as the virtually uncontested consolidation, and universal diffusion, of neo-liberalism.

Given such objective conditions, it was necessary for NLR to downsize its politics as well:

What kind of stance should NLR adopt in this new situation? Its general approach, I believe, should be an uncompromising realism. Uncompromising in both senses: refusing any accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power. No sterile maximalism follows. The journal should always be in sympathy with strivings for a better life, no matter how modest their scope. But it can support any local movements or limited reforms, without pretending that they alter the nature of the system.

Although I haven’t paid that much attention to NLR since it made this turn, I have continued to admire the work that Tariq Ali has done in challenging American imperialism. Additionally, the journal did seem to pull back a bit from Anderson’s pessimism and has always had at least one or two articles worth reading in the past 7 years, even if they haven’t had any direct relevance to struggles that the organized (or disorganized) left was involved with.

In the latest issue, however, there is a long article (unfortunately, it can only be read by subscribers or people like myself with university access) by Göran Therborn titled “After Dialectics: Radical Social Theory in a Post-Communist World” that practically cries out for a response, especially from a troglodyte Unrepentant Marxist like myself.

Göran Therborn: empire and imperialism have staged a triumphant return

Like many of his colleagues at NLR, Therborn is a big-time academician who is currently serving as a director at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies. He has been writing books about Marxism for 30 years, but I have the strong suspicion that he has never written a leaflet or organized a demonstration. That in itself does not condemn him. I would only suggest a bit more modesty on the good professor’s part when it comes to issuing directives to ‘sans culottes’ like us.

His article is a mish-mash of observations on various intellectual currents that have arisen to challenge classical Marxism (no problem there) with ill-considered conclusions about what is politically feasible today. Suffice it to say that he shares Perry Anderson’s pessimism about what is feasible.

Perhaps as a reflection of his own gold medal academic achievements, Therborn begins his article by stressing socialism’s ability in the past to attract people of his own caliber:

Socialism and Communism exercised a powerful attraction over some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century: Einstein was a socialist, writing a founding manifesto for the American Marxist journal Monthly Review; Picasso was a Communist, who designed the logo of post-World War ii Communist-led peace movements. In spite of its conservatively defined original task and its own staunchly conservative traditions, the Swedish Academy has allotted the Nobel Prize for literature to a series of left-wing writers, from Romain Rolland to Elfriede Jelinek.

Well, I don’t know. I think that Sartre had the right idea when he told the Nobel Prize committee to keep their stupid award. But I suppose that for a Swede like Therborn, there is a bit more panache associated with a home-grown institution that got its original impetus from a Swedish arms baron.

But things ain’t what they used to be. Sharing Perry Anderson’s belief that “the world has moved on,” Therborn is even more crest-fallen:

Then, suddenly, the high water withdrew, and was followed by a neoliberal tsunami. Socialist constructions were knocked down, many of them proving ramshackle or fake in the process; socialist ideas and Marxist theories were engulfed in the deluge. Privatization became the global order of the day, formulated in the Washington Consensus of the US Treasury, IMF and World Bank. At the dawn of the 21st century, not only liberal capitalism but empire and imperialism have staged a triumphant return, and with them the worldviews of the Belle Epoque.

Francis Fukuyama couldn’t have said it better. Of course, he has changed his tune since he issued his triumphalist “End of History” manifesto. Not only has Fukuyama developed the kind of weak-in-the-knees pessimism that characterized Perry Anderson 7 years ago, you find articles practically everywhere you look about Marxism’s continuing relevance. Perhaps the NLR folks aren’t aware of it, but there’s something called the NY of Books (nearly as high-toned as the NLR) that sees things differently. I would call their attention to Tony Judt’s review 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”, which suggests that it would premature to donate your collected Marx and Engels to the Salvation Army:

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.

For Therborn, a large part of Marxism’s problem is that it is joined at the hip to modernity, a broad cultural-intellectual trend that began in the 19th century and stopped being relevant shortly around the time that Madonna became a pop star and when irony was adopted as the lingua franca of the educated classes.

During the period that modernity was in effect, Marxism still had a time staying afloat. It was always being driven off-course by opportunist temptations, like a rowboat in a stormy sea:

A Marxist mode of politics never attracted enough support to become consolidated in Western Europe as a distinctive political practice. It was always open to opportunistic enterprise, and to authoritarian legitimation. This made what perhaps may be called the ‘natural’ Marxist coalition of politics and social science difficult and rare.

I am rather amused by the way that Therborn regards the failure of Marxist politics to gain support. It is a matter of being “open to opportunist enterprise”, as if you were describing somebody who indulges in unprotected sex. Without getting into too much detail, I would suggest that opportunism is a product of capitalist hegemony–something that has existed since Marxism’s birth. Indeed, the ability of the capitalist system to disorient, coopt and subvert oppositional tendencies predates Marxism by some centuries. It is a dialectical tension that will exist as long as the system exists. Through its brutality and exploitation, capitalism generates revolutionary movements. Through its economic and social power, it retains the ability to blunt their assaults. If you are uncomfortable with this contradiction, I suggest some other hobby besides socialism.

In the second section of Therborn’s interminable article, he deals with “Modes of Left Response–Thematics”. This amounts to a whirlwind tour of just about every intellectual fad for the past 30 years or so. We learn about a “theological turn” that found expression in Regis Debray’s 2004 “God: An Itinerary”. (I would as soon read Debray today as I would when he was hyping ‘foquismo” back in 1970.)

Therborn is also much taken with a trend he describes as “futurism”, which amounts to an intellectualization of China Mieville’s novels:

Jameson is only the most recent exponent in a spectacular arc of creative American utopianism, of which he stands at one pole, focusing on the utopian ‘desire’, its ‘disruption’ of the future and its literary form, above all science fiction.

As some of you probably know, I have very little use for utopian thinking. I regard books such as Russell Jacoby’s “The End of Utopia” (actually a call for a renewal of utopian thinking) as not worth the paper they are written on. While Therborn describes John Roemer’s “coupon socialism” as “ingenious”, I regard it as little better than Rube Goldberg.

Therborn aligns himself with social theorists who regard the concept of class as outmoded, including the post-Marxist Ernesto Laclau who “dismisses Slavoj Žižek’s invocation of class and the class struggle as ‘just a succession of dogmatic assertions’.” What a strange world we have entered when somebody like Žižek can be accused of “dogmatic assertions”. In a page or two, Therborn describes Žižek as “the only Leninist with an admiring Western following in recent years.” Well, whatever. If I can’t imagine Lenin writing favorably about David Lynch movies, I suppose that’s because of my limited political horizons.

Therborn’s article concludes with a section devoted to “The Repertoire of Positions”, which despite sounding like a marital hygiene manual, is devoted to “Current Left Theoretical-Political Positions”. The most viable of them are post-Marxists, including Žižek and Hardt-Negri. As was the case with Žižek, Hardt-Negri also appears to have Leninist credentials of some sort:

Hardt and Negri also refer to the Lenin of State and Revolution as an inspiration for the ‘destruction of sovereignty’, though here combined with the Madisonian conception of checks and balances.

Poor Lenin. He is not only amalgamated with David Lynch movies, but with Madisonian conception of checks and balances. In this kind of “six degrees of separation” theorizing, I imagine that it would not be that hard to link Leon Trotsky with Leon Redbone.


  1. Your point about capitalism generating revolutionary movements is apt. Kill the revolutionaries, but you can’t kill the revolution. Seems that Göran Therborn and co. have remembered pessimism of the intellect and forgotten optimism of the will.

    Comment by Doug — February 23, 2007 @ 12:33 am

  2. Well the high water mark of socialism in Sweden was the Meidner plan, but when that was rejected in the 1980’s, I suspect that some Swedish socialists began slipping away from their intellectual moorings. Besides, a certain complacency among leftish Swedish academics is understandible given that Sweden and the other Scandanavian countries have come about as close as one is going to get to “capitalism with a human face”.

    As for utopian thinking, (a) if you can’t dream a bit in your socialism, what the hell good is it?, and (b) utopian movements have accumulated a fair amount of experience in cooperative production and communities that needs to be taken account of in working out socialist arrangements.

    Comment by Feeder of Felines — February 23, 2007 @ 1:20 am

  3. Same old third way garbage. Let them abandon class as the unit of analysis, then sit back and watch how the neo-liberal state moves in to fill in the power vacuum. The absence of a class based analysis will lead to the resurgence of elite class rule and a renewed stratification of wealth. Of course, one has to have an eye on the global division of labor and not simply see the benifits of global capitalism in filling your abode with cheap plastic gadgets.

    That said, I must comment on Zizek (how do you do the little accentuation marks?), I have spent much time ploughing through the vast majority of his books (ok they were entertaining) and have come away with very little in the way of poignant insights. In fact, the whole experiance left me in an odd space of structuring my writing in such a way and using such abstract prose as to render it unreadable to all but the priviledged Zizekians.

    Comment by brad — February 23, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  4. Re: this and comments on “Lenin Reloaded” on Marxmail: when did anti-intellectualism become a point of pride on the Left?

    Comment by Poulod — February 25, 2007 @ 2:17 am

  5. Poulod: where do you see the anti-intellectualism here?

    Comment by Martin Wisse — February 26, 2007 @ 7:42 am

  6. Has it occurred to first world theoretician that there analysis is as it is precisely because they are first world theoreticians? The world has changed, the free market blowtorch burns on other bellies, it’s ugliness elsewhere.

    Comment by john — March 14, 2007 @ 8:34 am

  7. I don’t see the point of this “reply” to Therborn. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read Therborn’s article because I am not one of the privileged few with access to the NLR online. What exactly do you find problematic about Therborn’s article? From your description here, it sounds like Therborn’s original piece is descriptive rather than having an argument. It certainly doesn’t sound like he was “issuing directives to the ‘sans culottes’.” After all, as you point out, many of them do not have access to NLR anyway.

    Would you dispute that neo-liberalism is on the rise? Or that some opportunistic enterprises did, in fact, hijack Marxist movements of the 20th century? If so, why? I’m not supporter of Therborn’s view per se, but the critique or “reply” could be more thorough.

    As for comment by M. Wisse, this piece is dripping with anti-intellectualism as evidenced by all the snarky comments about Therborn being an academic and the jab at his credibility because he’s had the audacity to write books instead of pass out pamphlets.

    Comment by Carl — March 25, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  8. […] Laclau and Mouffe. Before I begin however, readers might be interested in Louis Proyect’s (Unrepentant Marxist) view of this chapter as it appeared in New Left Review in 2007. Louis quotes disdainfully the […]

    Pingback by » Review: From Marxism to Post-Marxism Though Cowards Flinch: “We all know what happens to those who stand in the middle of the road — they get run down.” - Aneurin Bevan — April 25, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

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