Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2008

Latin America and the dependency theory debate

Filed under: Introduction to Marxism class,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

After Robert Brenner wrote his attack on dependency theory in the 1977 NLR, the impact was immediate. Marxists in the academy found the appeal to return to a class-based Marxism very seductive, especially among Latin American specialists. The Marxist-oriented journal called Latin American Perspectives became consumed with debates between supporters of Robert Brenner and Andre Gunder Frank almost immediately and the summer and fall issues of 1981 were combined to discuss the Dependency and Marxism debate.

Unfortunately, the archives of Latin American Perspectives are only available to those with a subscription to JSTOR, but I have selected two fairly representative items from the two sides for your review.

John Weeks, a supporter of the Brenner approach even though he does not mention Brenner by name (others do), contributed an article titled “The Differences Between Materialist Theory and Dependency Theory and Why They Matter”. Before presenting his article and my interspersed comments, I want to offer some personal reflections even though their relationship to the matter at hand might seem tangential.

In 1990 I organized a debate on behalf of the NY Nicaragua Network just prior to the Nicaraguan elections that would result in the FSLN being voted out of office. It was not hard to figure out that Paul Berman was the ideal candidate to speak against the FSLN. This Village Voice self-described anarchist (he now calls himself a liberal) had been writing attacks on the FSLN for a number of years, all in the spirit of casting the Sandinistas as enemies of true working-class socialism. Berman evolved into a cold war type liberal subsequently and gained some notoriety as a “leftist” supporter of George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our good friend Richard Seymour has a chapter on Berman in his forthcoming book from Verso that I am awaiting with bated breath.

For the pro-FSLN perspective, I gave Michael Moore a call and he was more than happy to debate Berman. Just a year or so earlier Moore had been fired from Mother Jones for refusing to print one of Berman’s hatchet jobs on the FSLN and was looking forward to a chance to nail him. Although I cannot remember exactly why we decided not to go with Moore, we instead extended an invitation to John Weeks on the advice of NACLA, the journal on Latin America that had not yet degenerated into the kind of mixture of civil society bullshit and State Department liberalism that fills its pages today.

Berman spoke first and was obviously well-prepared, even if his ideas were bogus.

When Weeks began to speak (I was chairing the meeting), I was astonished to see that he did not have anything written down and just “winged it” for 15 minutes. The gist of his presentation was that the FSLN was no different than the PRI in Mexico and there was never any reason for imperialism to be so determined to overthrow it. He characterized it as bureaucratic and mildly social democratic, etc. In other words, in accepting our invitation to defend the FSLN, this knucklehead did not have the common decency to state that he was some kind of ultraleft opponent of the FSLN. Following the meeting, a group of us headed over to a nearby bar where a savvy veteran of the Central America solidarity movement whispered to me that Weeks was some kind of Maoist.

The reason Weeks was so dismissive of the Sandinista revolution was that it was not “class” oriented enough for him. There were far too few industrial workers in the vanguard and far too many small ranchers and members of the “informal economy” to satisfy the litmus test of those who had mastered their Grundrisse.

The main difference between the dependency theorists and those influenced by Brenner was over the question-in my opinion-whether national oppression was a viable category in Marxist terms. I have written about this at some length here and invite you to have a look at some point.

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