Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 19, 2009

Teodor Shanin and George Soros

Filed under: bard college,economics,ussr — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

Teodor Shanin

George Soros

I am becoming increasingly convinced that as the capitalist crisis deepens in the U.S., there might be a future American president who, unlike Barack Obama, will happily accept the socialist label when it is pinned on him or her. While it is unlikely that the 79 year old George Soros will be alive at that point, the massive economic/political power he has assembled will survive him and likely play a role in getting such a person elected. Of course, as is the case with just about everything Soros has touched since the early 1980s, the leftism will only be a veneer. Like his hedge fund benefactor, whether dead or alive at that point, the main goal of such a president will be to preserve the capitalist system. And what better way to preserve it than to foster the illusion that you are trying to eliminate it.

I first became aware of Soros’s ability to co-opt the left when I discovered that Christian Parenti was on his payroll, mostly in the capacity of researching and writing about prison reform. This was at the same time that Soros was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Yugoslavia on behalf of imperialism’s quest to rid Eastern Europe of the last remnants of socialized property relations. And who was one of the most forceful opponents of imperialism’s crusade? None other than Christian’s father Michael Parenti, who-bless his soul-is the last person in the world ever to be offered a job in one of Soros’s NGO’s. Besides me of course.

I have had these concerns ever since I got wind of Soros but they have returned more wrenchingly than ever now that I have discovered that Soros co-opted Teodor Shanin, the author of “Late Marx and the Russian Road”, a book that has influenced my thinking deeply. I learned about this in Michael T. Kaufman’s hagiographic “Soros: the life and times of a messianic billionaire”. This is the second biography I am reading, having completed a comic book version written by Kaoru Kurotani last week. Despite the unconventional format, Kurotani’s treatment is as fawning as Kaufman’s. I plan to read an “unauthorized” biography by Robert Slater next week but don’t expect anything much different considering the fact that the author is responsible for no less than 4 books on Jack Welch, the scumbag who ran GE, and one titled “The Wal-Mart Triumph: Inside the World’s #1 Company”.

I am not sure how far my research will go, but in light of the importance of Soros as a major political mover in the liberal left as well as his talent for seducing some elements of the radical movement I may just try to write something myself. I am not interested in the typical biographical material such as his decision to go into psychoanalysis or the fact that he married someone half his age, etc. I am only interested in his economic record (and would even consider using a title like “George Soros: fictitious capitalist”) and the role of his “philanthropy” in turning the USSR and Eastern Europe into a huge maquiladora zone under the rubric of Karl Popper’s Open Society.

As so often happens in my amateur scholarship, I start researching one topic and then get diverted into another topic related to the first. After an associate from Swans suggested that I write a history of Bard College, I decided to begin reading about Soros since the President of Bard College is a long-time board member of Soros’s Open Society Institute. Soros is also a major donor to Bard College and has partnered with Bard in setting up Open Society type initiatives, the latest of which encapsulates Soros’s method to the tee. With some millions of dollars donated by Soros, Bard has made Al Quds University a satellite institution. While Botstein has cited this relationship as proof that Kovel’s firing had nothing to do with Middle East politics, the fact remains that the President of Al-Quds is an outspoken opponent of boycott and divestment campaigns against the Zionist state.

For those not familiar with Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx”, I would urge you to look at John Riddell’s “From Marx to Morales: Indigenous Socialism and the Latin Americanization of Marxism” on MRzine. It makes the connection between Shanin’s scholarship on Marx’s support for rural communes in Russia just before his death and Mariategui’s Marxism. Riddell writes:

The Russian Marxist circle led by Plekhanov, ancestor of the Bolshevik party, believed that the mir was doomed to disappear as Russia was transformed by capitalist development.  We now know that Marx did not agree. In a letter to Vera Zasulich, written in 1881 but not published until 1924, he wrote that “the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia.” The “historical inevitability” of the evolutionary course mapped out in Capital, he stated, is “expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe.”

The preliminary drafts of Marx’s letter, included in Shanin’s book, display essential agreement with the view of the revolutionary populist current in Russia, the “People’s Will,” that the commune could coexist harmoniously with a developing socialist economy.

These drafts drew on Marx’s extensive studies of Indigenous societies during that period, a record of which is available in his little-known Ethnological Notebooks.17 We find his conclusions summarized in a draft of his letter to Zasulich: “The vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater than that of Semitic, Greek, Roman, etc. societies, and, a fortiori, that of modern capitalist societies.”

The only thing that needs to be added, of course, is Mariategui’s belief in the vitality of Incan ayllus, the Peruvian counterpart of Russian mirs.

So how does Soros get interested in Shanin’s scholarship, you might ask, especially since Soros has the same reaction to Karl Marx’s writings that a vampire has to sunlight. To start with, we should recognize that Soros is no dummy. He completed most of his work on a PhD at the London School of Economics in the 1950s and has shown himself to be far more erudite than the average hedge fund manager, even if his ideas are rotten.

Somewhere along the line he got his hands on Shanin’s writings on peasants and decided to recruit him to Open Society. Kaufman, who is a really crappy writer, does not bother to explain what value Soros found in the writings, a serious lapse in light of the fact that Soros’s major orientation is to cities in those countries where he seeks to establish a beachhead.

Soros made contact with Shanin when he was a sociology professor at the University of Manchester in the early 1990s and the two struck a deal to pay for Russians to come study there. Kaufman mentions that Shanin had fought for “an Israeli state in Palestine”, a sign that his sympathies for peasants did not extend to the unfortunate Palestinian fellahs. In the initial phases of their work in Russia, much attention was paid to lifting up the Soviet sociologists from their savagery as the Independent reported in August 16, 1990:

IN AN English language class at the University of Kent, a group of young sociologists from the Soviet Union are learning how to ask directions and how to turn down an invitation to tea without causing offence.

”You must ask politely,” stresses their teacher, Christina Danilewicz. ”Remember what we said about verbal stroking.”

”Verbal stroking” means getting not just the words right, but finding a suitably pleasant intonation – something the Soviet academics find difficult, according to Ms Danilewicz. ”The problem with them is that they are very direct . . . they are not good at asking questions in a non-aggressive way, and this upset their lecturers to begin with.”

There are 21 Soviet sociologists, all under 30, in Canterbury for instruction at what might be described as a finishing school for academics. The object of the exercise, which runs from July to September, is to turn them into accomplished ”international scholars”. It involves lessons in computing, a heavy lecture programme and work on individual projects – all in English…

It is a vitally important discipline for the Soviet Union at a time of social upheaval, according to Professor Teodor Shanin, who held the first Soviet sociology summer school at Manchester University last year. Among the topics he believes Soviet sociologists need to confront urgently are criminology, welfare and agricultural reform.

Shanin told Kaufman that “one reason he liked him [Soros] was that he could not be explained by the simple Homo economicus formula since he was plainly doing things that were not maximizing his wealth.” One wonders if Kaufman clued Shanin in during the interview that there was a bit more economicus than met the eye. In page 170 of his book, Kaufman explains why Soros first looked into philanthropy:

A charitable lead trust is a very interesting tax gimmick. The idea is that you commit your assets to a trust and you put a certain amount into charity every year. And then after you have given the money for however many years, the principal that remains can be left [to one’s heirs] without estate or gift tax. So this was the way I set up the trust for my children.

Shanin and Soros decided that a Transformation of the Humanities Program is just what the Russians needed to wean them from the Marxism-Leninism that had clouded their minds. One imagines that during these discussions, Shanin did not broach the subject of how favorably he viewed Lenin once upon a time, especially since that might have spoiled a perfectly lovely evening at the kind of 5-star restaurants Soros used to take poor schmucks like Shanin to in order to impress them.

The program focused on getting texts into Russia that Kaufman described as “unavailable classics”, including those of Friedrich Hayek. Apart from the tax breaks that philanthropy afforded him, Soros was certainly astute enough to understand that Hayek’s “classics” would serve as manure in the fields he was plowing in Putin’s Russia. What more could a hedge fund operator hope for than intellectual elites who took Hayek’s cut-throat libertarianism to heart except a bumper crop in profits?

Eventually the funding for Shanin’s project reached 20 million dollars. This was only a couple of years after my own non-profit went defunct. We were such dopes to send computer programmers and engineers to revolutionary Nicaragua, where Shanin’s beloved peasants were getting health care for the first time in our lives. If we had instead proposed sending Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper books to Nicaragua, we would have been rolling in dough.

After a few years, Soros ran an audit on Shanin’s project which found serious corruption and the ties between the two men grew tense. Shanin told Kaufman, “We had a row. I do not react calmly when someone implies I am a thief.” I personally would have advised Shanin to call Soros a thief in return. After all, a French court had found him guilty of insider trading as the IHT reported in 2006:

The highest court in France on Wednesday rejected a bid by George Soros, the billionaire investor, to overturn a conviction for insider trading in a case dating back nearly 20 years, leaving the first blemish on his five-decade investing career.

The panel, the Cour de Cassation, upheld the conviction of Soros, 75, an American citizen, for buying and selling Société Générale shares in 1988 after receiving information about a planned corporate raid on the bank.

Ron Soffer, his lawyer, said Soros planned to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, saying that the length of the proceedings had prevented his client from having a fair trial.

“The investigation started in 1989,” he said. “The appeals trial occurred in 2004. How can you call witnesses and ask them about what happened in 1988?” The French stock market regulatory authority investigated the matter separately and concluded that Soros had not violated the law or any ethical rules, Soffer said.

In a March 2005 ruling, a French appeals court confirmed a fine of €2.2 million, or $2.8 billion, set by a lower court for the illegal purchase of 95,000 shares in Société Générale. The Cour de Cassation ruled that the fine would be adjusted to reflect Soros’ profits, and it ordered the case returned to the appeals court to clarify the amount.

Now that’s what I really call homo economicus.


  1. I wasn’t aware of the Christian Parenti connection. I’ve always had a favorable opinion of Parenti, despite some problematic conspiracy theories, until I heard him a few days ago on DemocracyNow discussing the financial collapse. He aimed a passionate attack at the Republicans, but when A. Goodman, to her credit, pressed him on Democratic party complicity, his less-than-scathing judgment of the actions of that other wing of the ruling party: “insufficient.”

    Comment by jp — March 19, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

  2. Lou and readers,

    Regarding Soros, please check:

    – The Circle of Deception: Mapping the Human Rights Crowd in the Balkans


    – Armies of Compassion: The Missionary, the Businessman and the Military


    – The Soros Media “Empire”: The Power of Philanthropy to Engineer Consent


    Cooptation, anyone? (cf. C. Parenti)


    Comment by Gilles d'Aymery — March 19, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

  3. The break up of Yugoslavia is still mostly unexamined from a left perspective. It was necessary to destroy Yugoslavia to expand capitalism fully in Eastern Europe. The ruthlessness of the ruling class knows no bounds, they will literally stop at nothing, and Yugoslavia is an example of that.

    Comment by purple — March 20, 2009 @ 6:52 am

  4. especially since that might have spoiled a perfectly lovely evening at the kind of 5-star restaurants Soros used to take poor schmucks like Shanin to in order to impress them.

    Poor schmuck ? Sounds like he hit the jackpot, no ?

    Comment by Charles — March 20, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

  5. Have you seen the late great Walt Sheasby’s writings on Soros and the capture of the left?

    By the way I think that Soros is an interesting Keynesian thinker but Keynes as we know wanted to keep capitalism on the road rather than transcend it.

    Comment by Derek Wall — March 21, 2009 @ 12:00 am

  6. This is the article that Derek was referring to:


    Comment by louisproyect — March 21, 2009 @ 12:17 am

  7. Apologies for my earlier post – that was Michael Parenti on DemocracyNow, not Christian, who let the D’s off way too easy.

    Comment by jp — March 21, 2009 @ 12:49 am

  8. I’ll never forget the amazement I felt once in the 90’s during Clinton’s barbaric bombings of the Serbs while watching one of McNeil-Lehrer’s News guests, some fairly intellectual fellow they made clear was employed as a bureaucrat in the CIA, who starkly ended the confusion McNeil was having on what exactly were the US interests at stake that motivated the Pentagon’s bombing campaign when he explained that essentially (and I’m paraphrasing here) — Yugoslavia was the last Workers’ State on the European Continent and it had to be crushed. He didn’t say “workers’state” of course but something closer to that than, say, “socialized property.”

    “I see.” McNeil said.

    I still recall looking over at whomever I was watching the newscast with and saying: “Did you hear what he just said the reason for Pentagon intervention is the Balkans was!?”

    Amazing honesty for a bourgeois newscast to be sure.

    It’s refreshing to see how correctly everybody on this site has interpreted the viciousness of Clinton’s Pentagon crimes in the Balkans.

    As an aside, interpreting the breakup of Yugoslavia was one of those straws that cracked the back of Christopher Hitchens’ facade of being a Leftist.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 21, 2009 @ 2:33 am

  9. The concepts and ideas that Soros uses and advocates are quite similar to that of Paul Davidson, a Post Keynesian economist. However, Soros never quite acknowledges (to my knowledge) the works of Paul Davidson and/or other Post Keynesian economists.

    Comment by Abu Spinoza — March 21, 2009 @ 3:27 am

  10. Here’s what I don’t quite understand. Why is there so much right wing reactionary vitriol against Soros when their goals, say for example in the former Yugoslavia, are the same: to overturn what remained of socialized property relations established under Tito?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 21, 2009 @ 3:58 am

  11. I suppose my last question answers itself insofar as it’s essentially the same as asking: Why is there so much vitriol amongst reactionary Republicans toward the Democatic Party when their goals, to maintain class domination in an era of economic decline, are both the same.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 21, 2009 @ 4:07 am

  12. One prominent leftist who has gotten Yugoslavia right is Naomi Klein, who in a reply to Shock Doctrine critics cites a former Clinton official on why Slobo had to go:

    “For instance, Chait dismisses out of hand my suggestion that there were economic interests behind the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo (though he grudgingly admits I never claim that economics was the sole motivator). I do write that there were other factors motivating the war besides Slobodan Milosevic’s egregious human rights violations. I base this claim on the post-war analysis provided by Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State under U.S. President Bill Clinton and the lead U.S. negotiator during the Kosovo war. In a 2005 essay (quoted on page 415), Talbott wrote:

    ‘As nations throughout the region sought to reform their economies, mitigate ethnic tensions, and broaden civil society, Belgrade seemed to delight in continually moving in the opposite direction. It is small wonder NATO and Yugoslavia ended up on a collision course. It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform—not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians—that best explains NATO’s war.'”

    Klein has moved considerably to the left since her No Logo days, supporting the BDS campaign, writing stuff on Canada’s imperial adventure in Haiti etc. Henwood and other Marxists who criticize her theoritical weaknesses shouldn’t lose sight of the encouraging drift of her politics.

    Also, the Open Society Institute has been “freeing” the fuck out of societies not just in Eastern Europe, but places like Haiti as well, whose new Prime Minister is a Soros protege:

    “Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Pierre-Louis headed FOKAL, the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète in Creole, the Fondation Connaissance & Liberté in French, a foundation created in 1995 by billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI). In a report on FOKAL, OSI President Aryeh Neier points out: ‘The Open Society Institute founded FOKAL that year to take advantage of the transition to strengthen democracy and open society values and practices.’ With an annual budget of over $4 million (US), FOKAL was widely know as one of the most influential NGOs in Haiti.

    “All would not go according to OSI’s plan; ‘[T]he second coming of Aristide proved a disaster. He was more concerned with retaining power than enacting reforms.’ That is to say that Aristide was concerned with recovering the 3 years of his mandate lost to the 1991-1994 Cedras dictatorship and resisting the neoliberal demands made by the Americans and the rest of the ‘donor’ countries. In the following years, foreign funded NGOs such as FOKAL would be mobilized against such outrageous violations of democratic norms.”

    Haiti’s New PM and the Power of NGOs

    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — March 24, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

  13. JIC,

    Living in an industrial town of what is known as ex-USSR, I just want to note that the Soros’ kind of education is in the very heart of our educational system for about two decades now. In fact, the Economy department of our state university uses well-known books and manuals by Soros societies, and of course his grants are omnipresent. A large banner hanging up at the main university’s building states: “From the classroom to the upper class”. what more can I say.. It’s unlikely that even a percent of our graduated economists have even heard about any viable alternative, namely Marxism. It’s just like a neurosis – it’s banned in education completely, much like fascism in contemporary Germany. That’s the way it goes now.

    Just no alternative for the upcoming upper class, you know.

    Comment by Yuriy — April 16, 2010 @ 8:09 am

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