Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 19, 2007

Greenspan, oil and Marxism

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iraq — louisproyect @ 7:47 pm

Last Monday night Hardball, an MSNBC news show hosted by Chris Matthews, discussed the significance of Alan Greenspan’s comment in his recently published memoir:

I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.

This seemingly frank admission that the invasion of Iraq had more to do with profits than defeating terrorism led inside the beltway pundits to link Greenspan with protesters who chant “No blood for oil.” Greenspan himself has been forced to backpedal, although his explanation is not reassuring to those who want to frame the invasion of Iraq in human rights terms. In a September 15th interview with Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Greenspan tried to get George W. Bush off the hook. He explained, “”I was not saying that that’s the administration’s motive. I’m just saying that if somebody asked me, ‘Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?’ I would say it was essential.”

Apparently, according to Greenspan, there was a tacit understanding by all parties that the war was about oil, but reluctance to speak openly about it:

He said that in his discussions with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, “I have never heard them basically say, ‘We’ve got to protect the oil supplies of the world,’ but that would have been my motive.” Greenspan said that he made his economic argument to White House officials and that one lower-level official, whom he declined to identify, told him, “Well, unfortunately, we can’t talk about oil.”

Chris Matthews introduced his report on Greenspan’s comments as follows:

Ever since that first war to throw Saddam out of Kuwait, the people who hated the war said it was all about oil. We Americans have an unquenchable thirst for oil. The promoters of both Iraq wars like to say we’re bigger than that, that we fought the war for idealistic reasons, the spread of democracy, our opposition to tyranny, our love of peace and goodness.

Well, this weekend, word leaked from the recent chairman of America’s central bank, Alan Greenspan, that the war was indeed about oil. Indeed, it was largely about oil, he writes. In that quote, by the way, he also says, and everybody knows it.

Chris Matthews: studied “Sam Beer” in college

Matthews proceeded to discuss the oil and war connection with two guests, Jim Cramer, the frenetic investment guru, and Ed Schultz, a liberal talk radio personality. He directed his first question to Schultz:

You know, Ed, the old—not to disparage it, but the old left, you would do Marxist analysis of just about everything in history—Sam Beer, I think, believed this, the historian—that just about everything can be interpreted as economics—self-interest, if you will. Do you believe that this war, well, all wars are about economics. What do you think?

My guess is that the mysterious “Sam Beer” must be Charles Beard, who was not really a Marxist at all. His approach can best be described as economic determinism. Indeed, his seminal work is titled “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.” While there is a superficial resemblance between economic determinism and Marxism, the latter discipline puts much more emphasis on the tendency of class society to incorporate contradictory tendencies. For example, in the 18th Brumaire Marx pointed out that the rights of the capitalist ruling class in France had to be abrogated in the long-term interests of the capitalist system. There are times when Marxism collapses into something not much different from economic determinism, namely “Vulgar Marxism,” which reminds me of Bob Fitch’s observation that vulgar Marxism can explain about 90 per cent of the social world, but that social science is only interested in the remaining 10 per cent.

Jim Cramer’s cultural literacy appears to be on the same level as Matthews’s, since he “took that Sam Beer course” himself, adding “That was during the period when I was studying Marxism as an actual undergraduate.” According to the wiki on Jim Cramer, he was a staunch leftist as a Harvard undergraduate, naming his plan to revitalize the Crimson after Lenin’s “What Is to Be Done?” Somehow I can’t imagine anybody who refers to “Sam Beer” knowing the first thing about Lenin. Since Cramer went to Harvard, this speaks to the inflated reputation of the Ivy League almost as much as Petraeus’s Princeton PhD. My suggestion to parents is to save your money and send your kids to Albany State instead.

Jim Cramer: a “Leninist” at Harvard?

Whatever Cramer knows about Marxism or not, he doesn’t “buy it for this particular case.” He takes the Bush White House at its word. When they “talked about the mushroom cloud,” they were wrong, but he doesn’t believe that they made it up.

If there is one thing you can say about Chris Matthews, it is that he is not afraid to ask tough questions, at least when public opinion favors it. He asks Cramer, “Are we fighting for the American oil companies, for Mobil and Exxon? And they’re making these enormous profits because of access to oil over there…”

Our erstwhile Leninist replies, “I can’t—I can’t believe that!”

Of course, Matthews was not always the fearless crusader for truth and justice. We learn from FAIR that he had the following to say before things started turning sour in Iraq.

“We’re all neo-cons now.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)

“We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 5/1/03)

“Why don’t the damn Democrats give the president his day? He won today. He did well today.” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, 4/9/03)

“What’s he going to talk about a year from now, the fact that the war went too well and it’s over? I mean, don’t these things sort of lose their–Isn’t there a fresh date on some of these debate points?” (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, speaking about Howard Dean–4/9/03)

This illustrates a point that I have made repeatedly, namely that the dovishness of people like Chris Matthews or most Democrats is a function of the war going badly. If the US had been able to stabilize a puppet regime along the lines of post-Noriega Panama, you’d never had heard a peep out of them.

Turning to the question of whether the war was about oil or not, there is not much of a consensus among Marxists over this. One of the more interesting challenges to the “no blood for oil” line of reasoning came from a group of academics (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts) in the Bay Area of California organized into a study group called Retort. On April 5, 2005, the London Review of Books published an article by them titled “Blood for Oil?

However, their arguments seem directed more at the peak oil crowd than at what classic Leninist theory would posit:

Our view is that scarcity and price – the twin sisters of Malthusian pessimism – don’t provide a basis on which the Iraq war can or should be understood. The history of oil in the 20th century is not a history of shortfall and inflation, but of the constant menace – for the industry and the oil states – of excess capacity and falling prices, of surplus and glut.

And add:

It is true that there has been an avalanche of ‘end of oil’ prophecies, connecting to a longer history of apocalyptic thinking about modernity’s wholesale dependence on a finite resource. That oil is running out is incontestable; the question is when. The Malthusians feed on the opinion of certain hard-rock geologists, Colin Campbell and Kenneth Deffeyes chief among them, who believe that we have already reached maximum global production.

This seems to amount to something of a straw man. It is not as if a bunch of politicians were sitting around listening to a Powerpoint presentation by Dick Cheney that showed the Hubbert Curve kicking in by 2010 or something. According to this scenario, George W. Bush would jump out of his chair like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland and cry out, “Let’s do something before time runs out!” That would certainly be economic determinism or vulgar Marxism.

A counter-explanation from the Retort group is one that while sounding reasonable seems overly complicated:

Rather, what the Iraq adventure represents is less a war for oil than a radical, punitive restructuring of the conditions necessary for expanded profitability – it paves the way, in short, for new rounds of American-led dispossession and capital accumulation. This was a neo-liberal putsch, made in the name of globalisation and free-market democracy. It was intended as the prototype of a new form of military neo-liberalism. Oil was especially visible at this moment of extra-economic imposition because, as it turned out, oil revenues were key to the planning and financing of the military exercise itself, and to the reconstruction of the Iraqi ‘emerging market’.

I would maintain that the 2003 invasion of Iraq is simply the latest battle in a century long war to dominate the Middle East, which is an area distinguished by the presence of one of the world’s most precious commodities. Iraq itself has been one of the most bitterly contested countries, with invasions and coups taking place like clockwork. In addition, the Zionist project attracted imperialist support since Israel was perceived as a gendarme for Western oil companies. Even where oil is not present, such as in Egypt, there has been continuous violence unleashed against workers and peasants in order to make sure that a nationalist government hostile to Western oil companies could not survive.

This is not to say that oil is the exclusive cause of war in the region. The Middle East is also a geopolitically sensitive area in close proximity to the Soviet Union, when it existed.

But in the final analysis, it is extremely difficult to prove causation in the social sciences. Until one has access to the secret files of the permanent government that rules American society, we cannot really say what motivates the ruling class to go to war. One thing is for sure, however. It has never been about promoting democracy.


  1. Matthews is the only semi-intelligent right-winger on T.V. that I can think of. At least he has a partially functioning brain.

    Comment by Binh — September 19, 2007 @ 7:54 pm

  2. Oh and I’m surprised you didn’t have anything to say about the death of Dave Cline, president of VfP, founding member of VVAW, and GI organizer at Ft. Hood (he helped start the Oleo Strut). I’m guessing you didn’t hear about it?


    Comment by Binh — September 19, 2007 @ 7:55 pm

  3. I would have thought that the PSAs being negotiated to develop and control Iraqi oil would be pretty conclusive. How high a test do you need?
    If you wait for the secret files we’ll all be dead. When someone is pointing a gun at you do you wait for the bullet for proof or jump?
    The best way to test theories was according to Lenin a Democratic centralist party. That was the workers’ science.

    Comment by Dave — September 19, 2007 @ 8:16 pm

  4. I think at the start of the Iraq invasion, authentic idealism played a role in initiating it. If it was only oil, all they had to do, was make a deal with Saddam.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 20, 2007 @ 6:52 am

  5. Louis mentioned a San Francisco Bay Area collective of left intellectuals called Retort. Their book, Afflicted Powers, was published within six months of 9-11, and it still presents the most interesting, multi-faceted analysis of that event I have read. It’s a short book, available on Amazon, and well worth reading.

    In addition to discussing the oil motive, they discuss Israel, Islamic terrorism, military neo-liberalism and the relevance of Debord’s concept of “spectacle” in explaining the original attack and Bush’s ill-conceived response to it. One comment includes the memorable phrase: “those who begin to think in terms of “spectacle” (read “image” or “spin” or “public opinion”) soon lose the ability to think strategically.”

    Comment by plato's cave — September 20, 2007 @ 1:40 pm

  6. A Fed Panic and a Massive Bailout of American Banks Paid for by the Entire World
    by Rodrigue Tremblay / September 22nd, 2007

    Finally, let’s put the cherry on the cake. Indeed, there is a most disturbing piece in former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s recent Memoirs (The Age of Turbulence) and in the explanations he gave in interviews granted to promote his book, and it is his confession that while he was acting chairman of the Fed he actively lobbied Vice President Dick Cheney for a U.S. attack on Iraq. If this was the case, it was most inappropriate for a central banker to act this way, especially when he had other things to do than lobbying in favor of an illegal war. Does it mean that Mr. Greenspan was an active member of the pro-Israel Lobby within the U.S. government and joined the Wolfowitz-Feith-Abrams-Perle-Kissinger cabal? It would seem to me that such behavior would call for an investigation.

    Indeed, to what extent was the pro-Israel Lobby responsible for the Iraq war and the deficits it generated? Already, polls indicate that forty percent of American voters believe the pro-Israel Lobby has been a key factor in going to war in Iraq and that it is now very active in promoting a new war against Iran. This figure is bound to rise as more and more people confront the facts behind this most disastrous and ill-conceived war. Indeed, how many wars can this lobby be allowed to engineer before being stopped? And, to what extent can the current financial turmoil in U.S. and world markets be traced back to the influence of this most corrosive lobby?

    Comment by Tony — September 22, 2007 @ 11:38 pm

  7. that Sam Beer sounds like an interesting fellow. I would like to hang out with him.

    Comment by Graeme — September 23, 2007 @ 4:43 pm

  8. There really really is a Professor Samuel Beer who is a retired professor of government at Harvard and is 90+ years old. Apparently he is best known for his book British Politics and he also won something called the Isaiah Berlin Millennium Award for Life Long Achievement in Contributing to Political Science. See:


    So far I haven’t been able to determine what his views may be concerning Charles Beard’s economic determinism.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — September 24, 2007 @ 2:41 am

  9. Sam Beer did teach at Harvard, but Chris Matthews went to Holy Cross. Furthermore, Beer was not connected in any way with Charles Beard type economic determinism or Marxism of any sort, even the vulgar variety. My guess is that Matthews simply misspoke.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 24, 2007 @ 3:32 am

  10. Samuel H. Beer wrote “To Make a Nation
    The Rediscovery of American Federalism.” He was a brilliant and fabled political scientist at Harvard who shaped such men as Harvey C. Mansfield, the Straussian political philosopher and nurturer neoconservative thinkers. Cramer would have liked Beer (regardless of his politics) because Beer was a brilliant and hugely original interpreter of texts (whose main work is really about Great Britain).

    Comment by Susanne Klingenstein — November 6, 2007 @ 6:15 pm

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