Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 21, 2009

Left Forum 2009 journal (Sunday)

Filed under: Academia,revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

10-12am: Political Economy of Contemporary India

Unfortunately, I am going to have to be a bit sketchy here since I was relying on my Flip video camera recording for my report. At the outset I should state that the panel members are involved with a website called www.sanhati.com that is devoted to a critique of neoliberalism in Bengal.

The first two speakers used statistics-heavy Powerpoint presentations to demonstrate:

–India had not succeeded in developing large-scale industry based on heavy concentrations of workers.

–The peasantry was being forced into smaller and smaller plots, while the ranks of the landless were growing. Additionally, feudal social relations in the countryside were on the decline, including money-lending and sharecropping.

Neither speaker spent much time drawing political conclusions from the statistics except to say that capitalism was not developing in the manner orthodox Marxism would have predicted.

The next two speakers focused on class struggles in West Bengal which pit the poor peasants and their Maoist leaders against the CPI-M. I was shocked to hear some quotations from the party’s leader, which sounded more like Thomas Friedman than Karl Marx.

Amit Basole, who introduced himself to me before the talks began as a reader of my blog (his talk concentrated on class relations in the manufacturing sphere), has an impressive background. He received a PhD in neurobiology but then decided to study economics at the U. of Massachusetts to help him understand society and politics in his homeland. I urge you to check out his website, which includes the following biographical information:

There is an Indian aphorism, “he who has seen only India, has not India seen”. At the age of 23 when I first left India, I had seen nothing but India. Like many middle-class, city bred Indians, as I grew up I had become inured and insensitive to its problems. I came to America to become a scientist, to pursue a childhood dream. Being here for the past six years I have learnt much about India and about myself. While I started my PhD thinking that I would do research in Neuroscience as a career, most likely in the US, I am now certain that I would eventually like to work in India in a more socially conscious capacity.

Despite being involved in basic research for nearly eight years (see ‘academic background’ below), I have been increasingly interested in social causes. About three years ago I began volunteering in my spare time with the Association for India’s Development, a US-based non-profit that supports developmental projects carried out by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India. My volunteer experience with AID included coordinating two projects, one supporting an education program for underprivileged children in government-run remand homes in Maharashtra and the other project supporting the activities of a union of landless agricultural laborers in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India. Through this experience I have understood better (but only slightly) the inextricably intertwined processes of “modernization” and “development”. My decision to quit Neuroscience and start afresh in Economics stems from a desire to acquire a more systematic knowledge of the economics, the history and philosophy behind such massive changes that affect millions of people the world over. A fortuitous combination of events landed me in the Economics department at the University of Massachusetts, where I am currently in the middle of yet another PhD.

During the discussion period, I asked for some clarification on what the Maoist movement consists of in India today. I was especially interested in their views on the CPI-ML Liberation, a group that favors Marxmail with their very interesting newsletter on a fairly regular basis and which does not come across as standard Maoist fare in the Bob Avakian mold. I was told that they are not narrowly Maoist and have often paid tribute to Gramsci in their writings. They are also a sizable group, credited by some to have a membership of over 75,000. As one other audience member put it, they could swallow up a European left group at one sitting and still have room for another meal.


12-2pm Universities in (the) Crisis: Class Contradictions in Higher Education

As you might expect from the cutie pie title of this panel discussion, it was organized by Rethinking Marxism, the neo-Althusserian journal that is sponsoring its own conference later this year.  Despite my aversion to the often high-falutin’ approach of Rethinking Marxism, I found this session one of the best I attended all weekend.

As a graduate of Bard College and the New School, schools run by egomaniacal empire-builders; an employee of Columbia University for more than 18 years; and finally as a friend to a number of young struggling adjunct professors in New York, the question of class contradictions in higher education is of great interest to me.

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein and Rona Jaleel reported on the struggles they participated in at NYU as members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC-UAW). The villain in this story is the university’s president John Sexton, who appears to be an even bigger rogue than Leon Botstein and Bob Kerrey.

Sexton’s latest ploy to undermine the teaching assistants is to recategorize them as adjunct professors, which would provide marginally better wages and working conditions at the cost of undercutting the momentum they had built in struggling for recognition as TA’s. Sexton has a most peculiar idea about who adjuncts are, naming Spike Lee as a typical adjunct.

Sexton is also something of an amateur futurologist, positing New York City’s emergence as a focal point for ICE (Information, Culture, and Education) development rather than the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) that it is today. Of course, given the events of the past 6 months, the city might not have an alternative to get out of FIRE since it is going up in smoke all on its own.

Sexton is even more expansionist than the state of Israel, attempting to gobble up real estate near NYU and setting up satellite colleges across the globe, including one in Abu Dhabi that relies heavily on non-union labor. Go to http://fairlabornyu.wordpress.com/ for information about efforts on their behalf organized by the Coalition for Fair Labor.

Next to speak was Sarah Stookey, a most unlikely business administration professor at Central Connecticut State University who started out as a solidarity activist working in Nicaragua. Her website explains:

Sarah’s interest in studying business and management arose from almost a decade of helping to promote community-based economic development in Nicaragua. She also spent several years helping to create grassroots-managed lending programs in the Philippines and Zambia. Her current research is motivated by a desire to create organizations that respond to the needs of society broadly defined. This involves articulating and evaluating the economic and philosophical assumptions underlying the treatment of money in management theory and practice. She is also very interested in promoting community-based financial institutions such as credit unions.

Her talk was a fascination class analysis of who majors in business and why. It turns out that 22 percent of all college students are business majors since their goal is to get a job right out of the gate upon graduation that has health insurance. Most of them come from culturally impoverished working class or small shopkeeper families and have never read a newspaper, Karl Marx, or the world’s great literature. On the other hand, they have a better grasp of how the capitalist economy works than the average undergraduate since they are forced to cope with budgets, quarterly statements, etc. as part of their day job.

By contrast, the people in business school at places like Columbia University have plenty of culture but no understanding of how the real world works. That in Sarah’s opinion has a lot to do with the exotic hedge fund strategies that come out of such schools. These future MBA’s are also there to develop leadership skills that will enable them to lord it over the working class kids who are in the lower tier business schools.

The last speaker was David Kristjanson-Gural, an economics professor at Bucknell who organized the panel and who presented an analysis of the university system based on Marx’s value theory. He believes that the board of trustees extracts surplus value from the professors. The value they produce is supplemented by endowments and government grants for research, etc. During a financial crisis, this funding tends to dry up and forces the board to put pressure on the faculty to produce more value through larger class sizes, pay cuts, etc. All of this makes perfect sense, of course.

In the Q&A, I raised a question with David about the difference between a college like Bard that has quadrupled in size since I graduated and the average for-profit corporation. What were the laws of accumulation that dictated that a Bard College or a Columbia University or an NYU must expand? Since they are non-profits, they would not seem to be governed by the same economic laws. In responding to me, he mentioned the “mindset” of the board but that did not satisfy me. Surely there must be something else going on besides mindsets. This is something I want to explore more on my own.


3-5pm: The De-Stalinization of Chinese Marxism

This was a case of false labeling since the speakers, all Chinese, did not address “de-Stalinization” at all.

Wei Xiaoping gave a presentation blaming Engels for everything that has gone wrong in Marxism, using a manuscript of German Ideology with side-by-side entries by Marx and Engels. According to her, Engels introduced the whole notion of “historical materialism” that Marx never endorsed. It is a theory that starts with the existence of material relationships, out of which ideas and consciousness proceeds. I suppose this analysis implicitly blames Engels for Stalinism since he was past master at crude base-superstructure Marxism, except that it usually blames Engels for “dialectical materialism”, an even worse offense than “historical materialism”. While there is not much point in defending Engels here (he needs no defense), I only would have pointed out to the speaker that blaming Marxism’s failures on Engels’s intellectual misconceptions ends up putting us back into the idealist traditions that both Marx and Engels were trying to refute in German Ideology.

Wang Dong spoke about Chinese efforts to put together MEGA2, a volume of Marx and Engels’s writings that was supposedly more reliable than MEGA1. I’ll take her word for it, I guess.

Li Zizi was the most interesting speaker of the three, if only for demonstrating what official Marxism looks like in China today. Her talk was on Lenin and how he is viewed by scholars in China today. She said that the scholarly consensus held that the CCP was following in the path set down by Lenin with the N.E.P. I asked her what historical works scholars relied upon in order to make such a comparison since my readings convinced me that no two periods could be more unalike than the USSR in the 1920s and China today. She gave me a blank expression for a moment or two and said that they only went by what Lenin wrote.

As unimpressed as I was with these three presenters, I did take heart in the fact that they and so many other Chinese scholars remain committed to Marxism today as evidenced by the sheer numbers attending the Left Forum in New York City in 2009.


  1. Thanks for the reports but regarding Chinese “marxism”, if the session you attended was any indication of the quality, then I’m not sure I’d take heart in that. It seems a completely scholastic/academic approach content to regurgitate sacred scripture to justify any policies the ruling class deems appropriate. I’d love to hear about original marxist research into contemporary Chinese reality.

    Comment by belgish — April 22, 2009 @ 12:36 am

  2. Neo-maoism gaining strength in China


    For China’s New Left, Old Values
    Emerging Movement Views State Power as a Remedy for Free-Market Inequalities

    By Ariana Eunjung Cha
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, April 19, 2009

    BEIJING — […]

    For a growing number of Chinese, the solutions to the problems of the
    country’s present — including the income gap between rich and poor and
    the manipulation of the court system by state officials and company
    executives — lie in its past, with the teachings of Mao Zedong.


    Not everyone has been supportive of this shift, and a nostalgia for the
    old days has increased amid the global financial crisis. The most
    influential critics, known collectively as the New Left, are not like
    the dissidents or political exiles of a previous generation. They are
    not calling for an overthrow of the Communist regime. Their
    recommendations and criticisms are, instead, based on a belief that
    state power can redress the injustices created by free markets,
    privatization and globalization. Their views are also characterized by a
    fierce nationalism and criticism of the West. […]


    Comment by Ruthless Critic of All that Exists — April 22, 2009 @ 1:37 am

  3. Regarding state universities — what I’d really like to know is what Louis asks: “What were the laws of accumulation that dictated that a Bard College or a Columbia University or an NYU must expand? Since they are non-profits, they would not seem to be governed by the same economic laws. In responding to me, he mentioned the “mindset” of the board but that did not satisfy me. Surely there must be something else going on besides mindsets. This is something I want to explore more on my own.”

    I eagerly await Lou’s post-exploration view on this subject because something that I could never figure out in the late 80s when I attended UofA in Tucson in my late 20s was why the university system seemed so much more like a typically greedy corporate business than the idealized version of an institution of higher learning?

    I mean it was nothing but Emminent Domain construction everywhere, an overwhelming sense of frenzied expansion, and like the US Army is for GI’s, nothing but company-store styled ripoffs at every turn, particular when it came to the monstrous sums charged for tuition & the exhorbitant markups on textbooks contrasted by the pitiful prices they’d pay to buy back these worthless texts once the semester was through, nevermind 1/2 the classes were taught by lone TAs.

    I still can’t figure out an obtensibly non-profit org manages to behave so blatantly Corporate? This frenzied expansionist pace has culminated into something like a cruel joke’s being played on students today and it’s ponderous to wrap the brain around this odious phonomena.

    This leads me to another similar question that perhaps Lou (or anybody) can shed some Marxist light on. When my Father taught public school in Chicago during the 3 decades of the 70s, 80s & 90s there’d be, like most big cities, periodic strikes pitting the Teachers’ Union again the Board of Ed, usually over issues like pay and class size.

    What I never could figure out is why the Board of Ed was ALWAYS so vicious and stubborn? I mean it’s not like the average big city BofE is anything like a cabal of corporate executives beholden to shareholders and profit motive so why then were they often more vicious in contract negotiations than private corporations?

    It’s just hard for me to comprehend the BofE’s class motivations in such a struggle? Somebody please enlighten me as the suggestion of some particular BofE “mindset” being decisive simply won’t cut it.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 22, 2009 @ 4:34 am

  4. China seems to have the most militant working class population in the world. It is just somewhat invisible to the West. They certainly aren’t going to Ivy League schools. But there are plenty of very militant, industrial, working class protests going on in China all the time.

    Comment by purple — April 22, 2009 @ 5:17 am

  5. No mention of Ch’en Tu-hsiu?

    Comment by Renegade Eye — April 22, 2009 @ 6:28 am

  6. “China seems to have the most militant working class population in the world.”

    I was in the waiting room of a dentist’s office a while back and strangely there was this almost 20 year old copy of a National Geographic mag laying there featuring an article on a locomotive factory somewhere in mainland China, so naturally I grabbed it and dug in.

    The most memorable line was where the author, an American journalist, was flabergasted at the fact that despite the din, smoke & sparks flying everywhere most of the workers appeared to be contently sitting on boxes “reading newspapers.”

    While much has changed in China over the last 20 years, that kind of class consciousness in the workplace should prove tough to eradicate.

    Of course much has changed here too, not the least of which is the fact that there may soon be no more newspapers.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 22, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  7. Nowadays, I am of the view that the CPI(M) is the most rabidly pro-capitalist party in India.

    Comment by epoliticus — April 22, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

  8. In light of the collapse of the USSR & the paths that the CPs in both China & Vietnam have since chosen this would not be a surprise.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 22, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  9. Regarding John Sexton’s shift from FIRE to ICE, it may be worth recalling Robert Frost, poem titled “Fire and Ice,” thus: <>

    Robert Frost

    Comment by Abu Spinoza — April 23, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

  10. Fire and Ice

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

    Robert Frost

    Comment by Abu Spinoza — April 23, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

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