Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 4, 2009

A critique of Walter Benn Michaels

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Professor Walter Benn Michaels

Yesterday somebody posted a query on my blog:

I’m wondering if you’ve read Walter Benn Michaels’s recent article on race and class in the LRB? Here it is: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n16/mich02_.html. I’d love to read your take on it, and I’m sure that other loyal readers would as well!

In answering this, I should mention first of all that the always brilliant Richard Seymour of Lenin’s Tomb fame has taken up Michaels’s article

I should also mention that Michaels has written another provocative article on race, gender and class in the New Left Review. Titled “Against Diversity”, the NLR article can best be summarized as an old-fashioned defense of class trumping race and gender. Although this has associations with the kind of dogmatic Marxism that allowed the CPUSA to stigmatize Malcolm X as a Black fascist and attack the Equal Rights Amendment, it is really a widespread tendency and has a long history as we shall see.

For example, shock jock Don Imus could be heard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina explaining the neglect of Black New Orleans residents as a “class” issue rather one of “race”. I don’t believe that NLR invited Don Imus to write something on these questions, however.

Written during the 2008 primaries, Michaels was trying to debunk the notion that the Obama and Clinton bids marked a triumph over racism and sexism. Some points are unexceptionable:

In 1947—seven years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of the money earned in the US. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 per cent. In 1947, the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 per cent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the US today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow.

Unfortunately, Michaels goes overboard and blames the struggle against race and gender discrimination for a growing class divide:

Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.

Capitalism is thus represented as the best hope for those suffering from past injustices:

In fact, one of the great discoveries of neoliberalism is that they are not very efficient sorting devices, economically speaking. If, for example, you are looking to promote someone as Head of Sales in your company and you are choosing between a straight white male and a black lesbian, and the latter is in fact a better salesperson than the former, racism, sexism and homophobia may tell you to choose the straight white male but capitalism tells you to go with the black lesbian. Which is to say that, even though some capitalists may be racist, sexist and homophobic, capitalism itself is not.

The London Review article is a review of a book titled “Who Cares About the White Working Class?” edited by Kjartan Páll Sveinsson that repeats the same kinds of points made in the NLR article and which originated in Michaels’s 2007 book “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality”. The guy is obviously on some kind of crusade.

The article is filled with anxiety about how whites are being treated:

White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

Furthermore, he insists that the “left” must be distinguished from movements against racism and sexism:

My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would think that a contributor to New Left Review would be able to understand that the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member, or even a broader social development that enabled a privileged layer reflected by Barack Obama himself to emerge, is much less important than what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, have been dropping in the past few years. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, paints a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Access the data on the new Web site by clicking http://www2.law.columbia.edu/civilrights.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

But even if enrollments were on the upswing, the real question is whether capitalism is a system that promotes racial equality. The worst thing about Michaels’s pseudo-Marxist theorizing is that it lends credence to the discredited “Black capitalism” promoted by the Nixon administration, as if the workings of the marketplace can reduce inequality between white worker and Black.

This misplaced faith in capitalism as a battering ram against racial inequality (and implicitly gender inequality as well) receives a thorough investigation in David Roediger’s recently published “Are We In a Post-Racial America?”, which I reviewed for Swans a while back.

In a Counterpunch article prompted—like Michaels’s NLR piece—by the Obama candidacy, Roediger draws the opposite conclusion. Instead of obsessing about the likelihood that we are entering a New Age in which a black Lesbian can become Head of Sales, Roediger looks at the men and woman at the bottom, the overwhelming majority:

Indeed in stark contrast to pleasant narratives of progress, white family wealth in the U.S. is nine times that of African American family wealth and black young men are seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. The diseases of the poor in the U.S. are the diseases of poor people of color. 75 percent of all active tuberculosis cases afflict them. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, a majority of HIV-AIDS cases occur among African Americans. Three in ten black and Latino children live in poverty, triple the white child poverty rate.

In trying to understand how Michaels could have come up with such a boneheaded perspective, it is important to recognize that he is simply the latest in a long line of self-described Marxist or leftist thinkers who believe that anti-racist or anti-sexist struggles divide the working class. Indeed, they have been around since the days of the First International when Marx was alive and kicking.

I first discovered the existence of such a workerist dogmatism in a very fine book by Timothy Messer-Kruse titled “The Yankee International: 1848-1876”. My review, written about 10 years ago, appears below. Sadly, it appears that Marxism still has many of the same hang-ups that existed in Marx’s day that were even reflected by the founding father of revolutionary socialism himself:

Marx, Woodhull and Sorge

Dogmatic Marxism’s hostility toward “non-class” demands has been around for a very long time, judging from the evidence of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International: 1848-1876.” (U. of North Carolina, 1998) Furthermore, you are left with the disturbing conclusion that this problem existed at the very highest levels of the first Communist International, and included Marx himself.

The people who launched a section of the Communist International in the USA were veteran radicals, who had fought against slavery and for women’s rights for many years. They saw the emerging anti-capitalist struggles in Europe, most especially the Paris Commune of 1871, as consistent with their own. They saw revolutionary socialism as the best way to guarantee the success of the broader democratic movement. What European Marxism would think of them is an entirely different matter.

The names of some of the early recruits should give you an indication of the political character of the new movement. Included were abolitionists Horace Greely, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner. Feminist Victoria Woodhull joined in and put her magazine “Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly” at its disposal. The weekly not only included communications from Karl Marx, but spiritualist musings from Woodhull. The native radical movement of the 1870s was a mixed bag. Socialism, anti-racism, feminism, pacifism and spiritualism co-existed comfortably. The Europeans were anxious to purify the movement of all these deviations from the very start. Unfortunately they put anti-racism, feminism and spiritualism on an equal footing.

Victoria Woodhull was unquestionably the biggest irritant, since she defended all these deviations while at the same time she spoke out forcefully for free love, the biggest deviation imaginable in the Victorian age:

The sexual relation, must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.

Marx decided to put an end to all this nonsense and threw his weight behind the German-American Frederic Sorge, who was assigned to clean house. Against the Yankee swamp, Sorge would ram through a “scientific socialism” that was true to the tenets of Marx and Engels. Furthermore, the orientation of the American section would not be to women and blacks, but only to the white workers and their embryonic trade unions. It seemed to matter little that Sorge understood next to nothing about American politics. His mastery of Marxist doctrine would produce the desired results: “Fellow-workman,” he proclaimed, “Keep our standard pure & our ranks clean! Never mind the small number! No great work was ever begun by a majority.” With sectarian nonsense like this, it should surprise nobody that Sorge’s group remained small in number. What does surprise us is that Sorge was Marx’s hand-picked leader.

The Yankees and the German-American “orthodox Marxists” split and began to carry out their respective orientations, which are instructive to compare. Although the Sorge group was formally in favor of racial equality, their actions often fell short of the verbal commitment. The simple explanation for this is that they adapted to the prejudices of the white workers whom they curried favor with.

Woodhull’s group made no such concessions, as their political traditions were rooted in the abolitionist movement. Indeed, when they called for a mass demonstration in New York City to commemorate the martyrs of the Paris Commune, the first rank in the parade went to a company of black soldiers known as the Skidmore Guard. The demonstration passed by a quarter million spectators and the sight of armed black men in the vanguard was electrifying. Sorge’s group complained that the demonstration was a distraction from working-class struggles, whose participants would lose a day’s pay by participating. He called for a boycott.

Black militias were an important fixture of northern urban politics in this period. When black men donned uniforms and marched in formation, they were making a statement not only about their full rights as citizens, but their determination to back these rights by any means necessary. The black Eighty-Fifth Regiment in NYC was one of the more radical and internationalist militias in the city. They had marched alongside Irish New Yorkers in honor of Fenian heroes and gave their units names like the “[Crispus] Attucks Guards” and “Free Soil Guards.” This regiment decided to name Tennessee Claflin, Victoria Woodhull’s sister, their commander and supplied her with a uniform. Woodhull had become the presidential candidate of the Equal Rights Party in 1872 and her vice-presidential running mate was none other than Frederick Douglass. This combination symbolized the commitment of the Yankee Marxists to racial equality and woman’s liberation.

While the Sorge faction held the black struggle at arm’s length, they at least gave lip service to it. No such concessions were made to Chinese workers whom they treated as outright enemies of the white worker. Woodhull’s group took a strong stand against immigration bans, but the “orthodox” Marxists caved in completely to white prejudice. Unfortunately Karl Marx was little help in standing up to bigotry, since he regarded Asians as locked in “hereditary stupidity” and the unproductive Asiatic Mode of Production, an economic theory that had no basis in fact. Marx also warned about the importation of Chinese workers as “rabble” who could “depress wages.”

At the NYC branch of Sorge’s section, a San Francisco worker addressed his comrades:

The white working-men see and feel daily the effects of the Chinese labor in that State. We cannot only perceive how it affects us, but know assuredly that it will seriously affect the destiny of the working classes of this country. The Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys…. They are in all branches of the manufacturing business, and it is only a matter of time when they will monopolize all branches of industry; as it is impossible for white men to exist on the same amount and sort of food Chinamen seem to thrive upon.

The Yankees refused to go along with the anti-Chinese xenophobia and viewed the Chinese as brothers and sisters in struggle. Woodhull wrote:

The population of the country is forty millions. If the Chinese should at the rate of five thousand a week, even that figure will nothing near equal the present ratio of the Irish and German immigration, and it would a hundred and fifty years to import forty millions. . . The economical idea of immigration is that every new comer is a producer; he directly contributes to the wealth of the community; he will not consume all that produces. . . As for any immediate influence of John Chinaman on the labor market and rate of wages that is an impossibility. The workingmen of New York protest against two or three hundred foreigners. What injury can accrue to them?

Sorge’s group picked up a new recruit in 1872, an English immigrant and cigarmaker named Samuel Gompers. Gompers was impressed with the “working-class” and trade union tilt of the German-American followers of Marx, while regarding the Woodhull section as “dominated by a brilliant group of faddists, reformers, and sensation-loving spirits.” He was as repelled by them as some old leftists were repelled by the 1960s New Leftists. Gompers was tutored by Ferdinand Laurell, a fellow cigarmaker who he met at the Manhattan Lower East Side factory where both were employed. Laurell initiated him into the profound scientific socialism of the Communist Manifesto and placed special emphasis on the centrality of the trade unions. “Study your union card, Sam, Laurell said, “and if the idea doesn’t square with that, it ain’t true.”

What gradually happened is that Gompers let the revolutionary socialism fall by the wayside while allowing trade union fundamentalism to take charge, including the virulent racism of the time. As Gompers climbed the ladder into officialdom, he found that anti-Chinese racism gave him a foot up. He endorsed the labeling of cigar boxes as made by white men, to be “distinguished from those made by the Chinese.” After Gompers attained the AFL presidency, women, ethnic minorities, African Americans and those who did unskilled work found themselves without a friend in organized labor. The Bolshevik revolution inspired a new Communist movement in the US 50 years later, which began to remedy this injustice. The Cold War reversed this progress.

The Sorge section of the First International began to fall apart because its sectarian, workerist and essentially reactionary politics guaranteed this. The immediate heir of Sorge’s politics was a group called the Socialist Labor Party, founded by Daniel De Leon in 1877. This group also saw itself as the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy, but never even made the attempt to intervene in the trade union movement. It was content to issue racist broadsides from the sidelines like condemning the “importation of Coolies under contract.” It survives today as an embalmed purist sect-cult with zero influence in the labor or social movements, thank goodness.

Marxism as a revolutionary idea transcends the dogmatic mistakes of people such as Sorge and De Leon. What is even more confounding is that it transcends Marx’s own mistakes. Marx was wrong to back the workerist backwardness of Sorge. One of the great things about Marx is that he was capable of change, even when he was in the late stages of his career. After denouncing Russian populism for most of his adult life, he became persuaded that he did not understand the movement adequately and saw great possibilities for it. To maximize his understanding, he began to study the Russian language in his 60s.

The greatest obstacle to the development of Marxist thought has been the tendency of its adherents to not see contradictory aspects of society and politics dialectically. Clearly Sorge’s failure was to see the dialectical connection of the black struggle to the trade union movement. If anything, the naïve Yankee radicals understood the dialectical connection better than the “orthodox” Marxists.

Even though there is a tendency for small sectarian groups of today to search for a “revolutionary continuity” going back to Marx, it is better to understand Marxism as the product of deep internal tensions that can only be resolved through struggle. If the “workerism” of the First (and Second) International had not been confronted and defeated, then the Marxist movement would have not had the impact it has had in the 20th century. Although these very same sectarian groups see Lenin as the Pope who succeeded Pope Marx, in reality Lenin was more like a Protestant Reformation revolutionary who attacked old beliefs at their root. His articles were nailed to the door of institutionalized Marxism.

Lenin was the very first Marxist to synthesize the proletarian and non-proletarian elements of the revolution. Unlike Sorge, Lenin was eager to embrace every form of rebellion against the absolutist state and not question whether it was “orthodox” or not. His most radical departure was to support the demands of the Russian peasantry who had been regarded by orthodox Marxism as an alien and hostile class. Closely related was his support of self-determination for oppressed nationalities, which he understood as having an anti-capitalist dynamic. Even when the oppressed nationality was led by reactionary or clerical fakers, he still backed their demands.

Although all of our latter-day Bolsheviks pay lip-service to Lenin’s example, there is evidence everywhere that they have more in common with Frederic Sorge. When the black nationalist, feminist and gay revolts erupted in the 1960s, the Marxist-Leninists found every excuse they could to repudiate the new mass movements. These movements were petty-bourgeois “diversions” from the real class struggle based in the trade unions.

A true synthesis of class, race and gender won’t be found in books published by the University of Minnesota or Duke. It will be found in struggle. You get some sense of this in a film like “Salt of the Earth,” about Chicano miners and the women who found ways to express feminist demands in the course of a bitter strike, while convincing their husbands that these demands were just. It will be found in AMNLAE, the Sandinista woman’s rights government agency. Or the black caucuses of the UAW in the early 1970s, which eventually inspired white workers to follow their militant lead. Marxists should be looking for every opportunity to promote such class, race and gender alliances. If the early American Marxist movement screwed up, let’s at least study what they did wrong and avoid the same mistakes. A good place to start with is Messer-Kruse’s brilliant scholarly research.


  1. Around halfway into this post, I was afraid you would have to change your name to the Repentant Marxist. Your conclusion reassures me, but I still think you’re badly misreading Walter Benn Michaels. To acknowledge that whites suffer from generational poverty under capitalism does not make anyone a white racist. More importantly, he’s very right that capitalists dream of a non-racist capitalism in order to have a “fair” hierarchy of wealth. If you want to work beside capitalists to create that future, they’ll welcome you. Perhaps you’ve missed the subset of capitalist anti-racists who have made any discussion of class issues a sign of racism. Here’s a “bingo card” that one of them made.

    Opposing racism is a fine goal, but it has nothing to do with promoting any form of Marxism. Racism and capitalism may have developed at the same point in time, and I agree with those who think that racism was a creation of capitalism, but capitalism doesn’t need racism to survive; it only needs an economic pyramid.

    Among the important parts of Michaels’ piece that you may be missing: “My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist. The one serves as an alibi for the other: when you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity.”

    You have noticed that the wealth gap is growing?

    Comment by will shetterly — September 4, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  2. I also think your slightly misreading Benn Michaels. On the other hand your review of “The Yankee International: 1848-1876″ is excellent and very challenging, among the best pieces I’ve read from you.

    Comment by Bhaskar — September 5, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  3. I agree with Proyect: Racism and sexism aren’t dead: just look at the Gates incident and the paranoia about gay marriage. Hell, even the black panthers supported feminists and gays: http://dsadevil.blogspot.com/2007/11/huey-p-newton-on-women-and-gays.html

    There’s also this account to consider:


    Comment by Jenny — September 5, 2009 @ 1:46 am

  4. DeLeon joined the SLP in 1890 and tried to steer it away from the German immigrant ghetto mentality of its existing leadership and towards the struggles of the American working class. Needless to say he made his share of mistakes along the way. However, he spoke out against the Berger-Hillquit SP’s tailing after Gompers’ and the AFLs’ racist anti-immigrant bashing. Check out David Herreshof”s book that the SWP publised in the 1970s for a more objective assessment of DeLeon than the one that appears here.

    Comment by MN Roy — September 5, 2009 @ 3:00 am

  5. Don’t bother with Shetterly, dear friends. He’s an Unrepentant Racist who refuses to educate himself about intersectionality.

    The bingo card that he cites was not at all made for the purposes of derailing discussions of class issues, but the keep trolls like him from derailing discussions about race issues with “Hey Guise, Guise, It’s Actually About Class, Guise.”

    Comment by internet birdie — September 5, 2009 @ 3:15 am

  6. On second thought, I’ve only seen him around critical race theory discussions that were often not explicitly Marxist, so he might benefit from getting knocked around here.

    Comment by internet birdie — September 5, 2009 @ 3:19 am

  7. Ah, a brave birdie has arrived. It’s true, I’ve only been in CRT discussions that were driven by capitalists. Some of them may now consider themselves socialists, since a few of them have finally begun to mention class and talk about intersectionality, but their intersection has more to do with race and gender than class.

    I realize defending myself from an anonymous charge of being an “unrepentent racist” is pathetic, but I was raised to be obsessed with racial issues; when I was a kid, my family couldn’t get fire insurance because the word was out that the Klan would burn us down. I’ve addressed racial issues for most of my career. I’ve had my disagreements with the identity politics of capitalist feminists in my field, but whoever wrote my entry in the feministsf wiki was kind enough or honest enough to say, “His work features strong women characters and people of color.”

    On the other hand, since a fundamental assumption of ideological anti-racism is that everyone is racist, sure, from their pov, I’m as racist as they are. It’s like having a Scientologist accuse you of being subject to the machinations of Xenu; all you can do is grin and accept it.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 5, 2009 @ 4:55 am

  8. Will, the only reason you’re roaming around various leftist blogs is because you’re angry someone dared to criticize your wife’s approach to race issues. If they want to do that, let them do it. Did you even read their critiques at all?

    Here is what I am talkin about: http://seeking-avalon.blogspot.com/2009/01/timeline.html

    Comment by Jenny — September 5, 2009 @ 6:30 am

  9. A very interesting and informative post. My only previous knowledge of Victoria Woodhull came from the dismissive comments that Francis Wheen made about her in his over-rated biography of Marx.

    I think you are on to something when you suggest that sectarianism is due to an inability (or unwillingness) to view struggle dialectally. Do you think you might be able to expand on this idea in future posts?

    Comment by The Spanish Prisoner — September 5, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  10. in general i’d agree that relevant analyses of class/race issues will not arrive from duke university press, etc. (or oxford, the new school, jhu, etc. for other places where analyses is crafted). that stuff is really a business even if it is often somewhat thought out (compared to people screaming on a street corner). (on a related note, i read some Tilly, and thought it was ok, if not particularily profound, but then heard he was into conducting purges in his own anti-authoritarian environment to keep it clean.)

    michaels as far as i am concerned is really deflecting the issue so nobody notices he is occupying the typical place for people of his demographic. some people would call him out. its interesting that he gets to publish and is reviewed in ‘leftist’ or ‘progressive’ publications, though in general these are actually staffed by the same people—its a guild. his books deflect the race issue, but he doesn’t adress the class issue (except repearting (plagiarizing) other people’s research (often the census) about inequality, all for personal profit). In other words, this is the ‘new class’ in action. (Making money and gaining power by pimping the oppressed.)

    Its also really interesting that his stale argument even gets discussed—its like fighting about whether the bible is true. But, since its predigested, it goes down easy, as compared with trying to deal with more difficult issues than repeating old arguments.

    also, like it or not, the michael jordan’s of the world and middle class have provided some inspiration for people in pretty bad circumstances, even if it just meant joining the bourgeoise. michaels himself is no real role
    model for an alternative. (its also funny he can’t even do the basic math—that almost 2/3 of white people are in the lower fifth. English professors definately are in the guaranteed income bracket michaels proposes as a solution. )

    the world is a ghetto.

    Comment by media — September 5, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  11. “The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority.”

    This isn’t at all his thesis and only one of many false claims about the article. When something produces these types of strawpeople arguements, ad hominem attacks, and gernerally visceral responses it usually means that those responses are based on dogmatic beliefs and not actual social analysis.

    Comment by brad — September 5, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  12. so is the gini coefficient flawed?

    Comment by Razor — September 5, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

  13. A diversified elite is still an elite—I learned that when I watched The Jeffersons back in the 1970s.

    Comment by Razor — September 5, 2009 @ 2:27 pm

  14. Louis, my apologies for responding to Birdie’s bit of ad hominem. She and Jenny are apparently part of the racefail 09 flamewar conducted primarily by anti-racists who refuse to talk about class. It was a tempest in a very small teapot. They’ve done a few histories like the one that Jenny linked to, in which they misrepresent their opponents’ positions. No one in that flamewar was denying the pernicious influence of sexism or racism, but many people were refusing to talk about how racism and sexism are affected by classism. Which isn’t surprising; a number of the folks on their side are capitalist Ivy Leaguers who share my distaste for sexism and racism, but like having their class privilege. This isn’t to blame them for being part of a system. Systems work because few people are able to see beyond their roles.

    Michaels addressed that, too: “The neoliberal heart leaps up at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class. Whence the many corporations which pursue diversity almost as enthusiastically as they pursue profits, and proclaim over and over again not only that the two are compatible but that they have a causal connection – that diversity is good for business. But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.”

    Well, I suppose I’m feeding the trolls, so I’ll stop now. I’d much rather focus on Michaels’ thesis, which remains valid: while the U.S. bourgeoisie grew more and more diverse under Clinton, Bush and Obama, the gap between the owning class and the working class grew wider, not narrower, for working class people of all hues.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 5, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  15. The racefail bit had nothing to do with class. I’ll bow out however.

    Comment by Jenny — September 5, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  16. “If the “workerism” of the First (and Second) International had not been confronted and defeated, then the Marxist movement would have not had the impact it has had in the 20th century.”

    What impact do you mean, Stalinism, Gulags, cultural revolutions, Pol Pot..? I am not saying that the racism should not have been confronted but that the synthisis you attribute to Lenin also had its own contradictions which we have lived through the terror of.

    Comment by brad — September 5, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  17. In #9, I meant to say “dialectically”.

    Comment by The Spanish Prisoner — September 5, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

  18. I completely agree with Brad.

    Comment by Bhaskar — September 6, 2009 @ 12:23 am

  19. Glad to see this. There needs to be a forceful rejection from the radical Left of the sort of garbage WBM is pedaling. Back when he penned ‘Against Diversity’ I wrote the following critique:


    A lot of the same stuff is regurgitated for his most recent piece. I like the comparison to Don Imus (my favorite, though, is Pat Buchanan), neither of whom we’d expect to ever read in NLR.

    My question is how exactly WBM gets to publish this stuff in such reputable, and left-wing, journals and magazines? Although I subscribe to both LRB and NLR, I think this phenomenon does not speak well them, or some segments of the socialist Left’s old guard.

    But another crappy part of WBM’s schtick is his light-weight attack on ‘income inequality’ as though that were the primary locus of what’s wrong with contemporary capitalist societies. Given his gripes, you’d think that a little New Deal revivalism here and there to ameliorate the worst inequalities borne out of capitalism would fix everything. When you add this problem in with his others, its hard to see what’s really very left-wing about anything WBM has to say at all, in fact, it seems like a narrative ripe for appropriation by the far Right…

    Comment by T — September 6, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

  20. “More importantly, he’s very right that capitalists dream of a non-racist capitalism in order to have a “fair” hierarchy of wealth. If you want to work beside capitalists to create that future, they’ll welcome you.” – will

    This is preposterous and false. While I might agree that there is no intrinsic link between neoliberalism and the traditionalist racism of earlier eras, there is first of all still much contingent overlap. Also- while a lightweight faux-anti-racism that merely points to ‘diversity’ might be a pet issue of some neoliberals, its ridiculous to say that a more robust anti-racism is either compatible wtih neoliberalism or pedaled by powerful capitalists. I don’t think that schmuck from Whole Foods who was recently labasting health care reform will be having Dead Prez over anytime soon to help ‘diversify’ his capitalist enterprise. I’m not convinced they would have had Huey Newton or Malcolm X over either. That some of the radicalism of the 60/70s has been appropriated by neoliberalism and manipulated for its purposes today is banal. Is this news to you? It happened to segments of feminism, black liberation movements, hippie culture, sexual liberation and so on. Where this gets ugly, is when people start to stop blaming neoliberalism, and turning their back on radical movements from the 60s and blame them for neoliberalism’s class project.

    WBM’s kind of narrative is proto Right wing at best, and I think Proyect is correct to suggest that its the kind of thing we’d expect form Don Imus or Pat Buchanan, but not from the Left.

    Comment by T — September 6, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  21. T, since you mention Whole Foods, let’s see what they say: “Our stores are “inclusive.” Everyone is welcome, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, beliefs, or personal appearance. We value diversity — whole foods are for everyone.”

    They’re not going to have Abbie Hoffman or Noam Chomsky or anyone like me over, either. But they’ll happily have Michelle Malkin, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Michael Steele….

    Remember that George W. Bush’s cabinet was the most “diverse” the US had ever seen. Didn’t help poor folks of any color, but, oh, it was diverse.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 6, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

  22. Will wrote “Everyone is welcome, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, beliefs, or personal appearance.”

    Fundamentally, the Benn Michaels argument is one that fails to understand the problem of co-option as rooted in the capitalist system in general. Prioritizing class is no guarantee that you will not be co-opted as the sorry decline of the AFL-CIO should indicate. For every Condoleezza Rice, there is a trade union official who serves as a labor lieutenant of capital. The fixation on Black or female sell-outs is one-sided. It reflects hostility toward these social groups as a whole using the top of the pyramid to represent the whole. I did not refer to this in my original post, but this current has been around since the late 70s at least and Benn Michaels is only just one of a legion of anxious White Men. Here are some others:

    1) Jim Sleeper: I stuck to my claims, including an insistence that more than a few whites are readier to let go of the old racist coordinates than are some blacks, who have sought a perverse kind of comfort in guilt-tripping whites by finding racism in every leaf that falls. (http://www.jimsleeper.com/?p=13)

    2) Todd Gitlin:

    MR. WATTENBERG: And you think the left now has taken their eye off the ball. Is that more or less the idea?

    MR. GITLIN: I think that many people, perhaps most on the left, or at least most who are visible, have gone down a path in which theyare obsessed with what differs between them and one — one crowd and another. They are more obsessed with what divides them than what they have in common with the rest of humanity.

    MR. WATTENBERG: Who would these groups that engage in identity politics be, for specifics?

    MR. GITLIN: Many of them are so-called racial or ethnic minorities, or groups who are organized around their narrow group interest. They’re not all on the left, by the way. I mean, there’s also a right-wing version of identity politics, which is —

    full: http://www.pbs.org/thinktank/transcript235.html

    3) Michael Tomasky:

    Imagine! The principle of diversity supported by a mostly Republican group to such an extent that Congress was taken aback. The revolutionaries dropped it, left it to the courts. These corporations were in fact making a common-good argument to the revolutionaries: Diversity has served us well as a whole, enriched us. And it’s not just corporate America: All over the country, white attitudes on race, straight peoples’ attitudes toward gay people, have changed dramatically for the better. These attitudes have changed because liberals and (most) Democrats decided that diversity was a principle worth defending on its own terms. Put another way, they decided to demand of citizens that they come to terms with diversity. So it can work, this demanding.

    full: http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=11400

    Comment by louisproyect — September 6, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

  23. Louis, to be clear: I didn’t create that sentence as an example of the corporate attitude to diversity; I quoted what’s on the Whole Foods web site. Finding the quote was easy: I googled “Whole Foods diversity.” I doubt there’s a major corporation anywhere that doesn’t use “diversity” or a variant in a prominent place in their literature.

    I don’t read Michaels as denying co-opting. I’m sure not denying it. But, speaking purely for myself, often it’s easier to understand people if you see them as loyal to their class (or the class they hope to join) rather than traitors to their race. Capitalism has never prevented people of any race from being capitalists; look at the history of black slaveowners in North America beginning with, I think, Anthony Johnson in the 1600s, when slavery was just beginning to be limited by race.

    I think your mistake is here: “The fixation on Black or female sell-outs is one-sided. It reflects hostility toward these social groups as a whole using the top of the pyramid to represent the whole.” By that logic, opposing capitalism back when almost all major capitalists were white males would’ve reflected a hostility to white working men. It didn’t. It simply represented a hostility to capitalism.

    Benn Michaels heard your objection, but I don’t think you heard him acknowledge it. From early in his essay: “No one … would deny that the fight for gay rights has made extraordinary strides in the 40 years since Stonewall. And progress in combating homophobia has been accompanied by comparable progress in combating racism and sexism. Although the occasional claim that the election of President Obama has ushered us into a post-racial society is obviously wrong, it’s fairly clear that the country that’s just elected a black president (and that produced so many votes for the presidential candidacy of a woman) is a lot less racist and sexist than it used to be.”

    Liberals have opposed racism, sexism, and socialism for decades. Is Benn Michaels wrong when he says, “the areas in which we’ve made progress have been those which are in fundamental accord with the deepest values of neoliberalism, and the one where we haven’t isn’t”?

    Apologies if I’m sounding like a WBM sycophant, and an even stronger apology if I sound like I don’t admire you. I admire the work that both of you do, and I’m sorry you’re at odds here.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 6, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

  24. Will: Benn Michaels heard your objection, but I don’t think you heard him acknowledge it.

    But this is the problem. His articles are filled with qualifications and hedging that make them resistant to critique. This is intentional on his part. He wants to be published in NLR, where a Jim Sleeper article will never be found. But no matter the hedging, I find the statement that anti-racist activists are not part of “the left” utterly intolerable. I heard Malcolm X speak in 1964, several months before his assassination and if he was not part of the left, then the left does not exist. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were fighting class and racial oppression at the *same time*. To try to separate them is tantamount to Solomon offering to cut a baby in half in order to satisfy the claims of rival mothers who claimed authenticity. My guess is that WBM appeals to some young people on campus who have grown cynical about the pretensions of department chairs in Black or gender studies. I for one have no problems with a Manning Marable at Columbia University and only wish that there more like him.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 6, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

  25. Hmm. I haven’t seen WBM claim that opposing racism was never part of socialism, and I’d love to hear his response to that charge. Because you’re entirely right that the left, from liberals to communists and anarchists, has a proud history of opposing racism. (Which isn’t to deny the glaring failures in the mix.)

    I also agree that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were anti-racists and anti-capitalists, but I think they might have some sympathy for WBM’s argument. Malcolm X was frequently scathing about “House Negroes”, and in King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, he mentioned, “…middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security…have become insensitive to the problems of the masses.” They both anticipated this development, which fascinates me: Asked whether blacks can still be thought of as a single race, given the increasing diversity within the black community, 53% of blacks say they can, but 37% of blacks say they cannot.

    And I agree with, but will quibble with, “To try to separate them is tantamount to Solomon offering to cut a baby in half in order to satisfy the claims of rival mothers who claimed authenticity.” Capitalist anti-racists often cite Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but when they do, they only mention the opposition to racism.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 6, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

  26. Will: I haven’t seen WBM claim that opposing racism was never part of socialism

    WBM: My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics

    Comment by louisproyect — September 6, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

  27. Man, I wish we could get WBM into this discussion. I don’t read that as an opposition to anti-racism or anti-sexism. I read him as saying that anti-racism and anti-sexism have been embraced by capitalists, which seems to me to be true–I’ve argued with too many capitalist anti-racists in the last couple of years. I think WBM is saying that the left should accept that anti-racism and anti-sexism are mainstream values now and focus on the hard work of anti-classism.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 6, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  28. Louis what exactly does anti-racism and anti-sexism that is not tied to class have to do with left politics? And doesn’t the obfuscation of class by strictly anti-racist and anti-sexist politics help capitalism? Isn’t the Obama president the very epitome of what is wrong with a progressive multicultural politics that long ago forgot about class?

    Will- we don’t want anti-classism. We want an end to class. This is the very point of the article, which I am unsure if Louis actually read: that the anti-classism politics of some progressives is no better. We don’t want the ruling class to treat workers better, we want an end to class based exploitation.

    Comment by brad — September 6, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

  29. Brad: Louis what exactly does anti-racism and anti-sexism that is not tied to class have to do with left politics?

    Well, this is a different formulation than WBM’s. He says that anti-racism and anti-sexism currently have nothing to do with the left. Since WBM is a cultural theorist who has never actually been part of the left, I have no idea what he is talking about. Perhaps he meant to say that bourgeois feminism is not part of the left or that Henry Louis Gates is not part of the left but that is the frustrating part of trying to respond to him. He is open to multiple interpretations. I guess that is in keeping with Empson’s “7 Types of Ambiguity”, a key text for literature professors.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 6, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

  30. Brad, oops, my bad! You are quite right. I was writing fast and sloppy. I’ll avoid “anti-classism” henceforth. Which will be easy, because one of my objections to “anti-racism” is that it defines itself by what it opposes, rather than by what it promotes, which may be why it’s so easy for capitalists to claim to be anti-racist.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 6, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

  31. As the author of the query which inspired Louis’ original post, I want to thank you, Louis, for taking the time and effort to respond, and to thank Will and others for the very lively, (mostly) respectful and extremely important discussion that followed. I’d like to attempt my own contribution, in hopes of receiving as much of a critical response as possible!

    Walter Benn Michaels targets capitalist anti-racists who obscure class relations in a myopic battle against discrimination. Though we may disagree on whether or not to fight alongside such people (I am personally sympathetic to such critical cooperation), I think we all agree that their social analysis is seriously lacking.

    The most important question might be: is a critique of racism a part of leftist politics? I think it can be and in fact needs to be. Here I disagree with WBM (at his most provocative, at least…as Louis notes, it is difficult to assess his exact position) and appreciate everything Louis and Lenin (of Lenin’s Tomb) have said. We need think only of Marx’s discussion of the production of racial conflict between working-class English and Irish and between working-class blacks and whites in the US– how the upper classes and elites in both situations (correctly) saw such divisions as necessary to sustain their control and prevent the kind of working class solidarity that would surely lead to revolution. WBM seems to recognize this: “Race… has been a more successful technology of mystification. In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people”. Think also of the crucial function of racism in sustaining colonial and imperial rule (even today in Iraq!): to “divide and conquer” populations by creating/perpetuating racial divisions is the surest way of curbing liberation movements. It is one of the oldest tricks in the imperial book.

    It would seem, then, that just as feudalism required widespread religious ideology to legitimate its exploitative hierarchy in the eyes of the oppressed, capitalism requires widespread racist ideology to legitimate its own exploitative hierarchy in the eyes of the oppressed. The forest of class conflict gets lost in the trees of racial discrimination. Despite my own shaky foundations when it comes to proper Marxist terminology, I want to suggest that perhaps we are witnessing a “dialectical contradiction” within contemporary capitalist social relations. Capitalism needs racism to divide the lower classes and avoid revolutionary cooperation among them, but it also needs anti-racism to maximize productive and consumptive efficiency in an era of diminishing returns. Thus we find WBM in the paradoxical position of being both wary of capitalist anti-racists and grateful to them: because of their success in stripping the garments of racism and sexism from the capitalist emperor, class exploitation is being revealed more naked than ever before. While “workerist” leftists spent over a century preaching “class trumps race,” liberal anti-racists were busy making this a social reality.

    It’s unfortunate that while WBM’s analysis does so much to articulate this contradiction and its innermost workings, his apparent (perhaps “literary”) refusal to welcome anti-racism of any kind into the fold of leftist politics misleads those of us seeking to harness this contradiction against both class and race exploitation.

    Comment by Ed — September 6, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

  32. I agree with T’s interpretation: fighting racism and sexism within society is important and it’s crazy for WBM to dismiss such concerns out of fear of associating with evil neo liberals! And really, if you’ve looked at political criticism within the last few years, you’ll see that people asess the actions of politicians who are black, white, straight, gay,etc. and (Gasp!) point out racist and sexist when needed! Benn Michaels seems to think it’s an either/or situation

    Comment by Jenny — September 6, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  33. Jenny, I’m glad you bowed back in. I wanted to thank you for the Huey Newton link–he was one of my heroes, back in the day. And I wanted to clear up a misconception: Who here has said that racism or sexism are dead? Benn Michaels explicitly said it wasn’t: “Although the occasional claim that the election of President Obama has ushered us into a post-racial society is obviously wrong…” I sure as hell never said either was “dead” or “over”–I’ve only argued with people who ignore class issues when they look at oppression.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 6, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

  34. Well, I think the important thing to note that Racism and sexism go hand in hand with classism really.

    Comment by Jenny — September 7, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  35. What’s interesting is that racism has declined in the last 50 years (especially noticeable with young people), while income inequality has skyrocketed – particularly since 1980.

    I don’t think this type of trend can last. Inequality leads to a very racist society by its nature. It provides an ‘explanation’ for inequality.

    Alternatively, people thinking in a egalitarian way about race are likely to do so about economics and income. It comes from the same part of our social consciousness.

    I tend to think the latter sentiment is building in the general population – and to explosive levels. There is a reason the ruling class pushed Obama, and that’s because they sense the instability right below the surface.

    Comment by purple — September 7, 2009 @ 1:59 am

  36. Jenny, agreed. As Engels noted in The Origin of the Family:

    In an old unpublished manuscript, written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words: “The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.” And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.

    And as Marx wrote, “In the United States of North America every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

    But as Brad notes, we’re not striving to end classism in the sense of getting the upper class to “respect” the lower class: we’re striving to end the exploitation of the working class by the owning class. Some socialists think the only way to do that is to work with capitalists to create a racially-proportionate economic hierarchy. They may be right, but I think that’s short-sighted. Given power, the oppressed become oppressors–look at Margaret Thatcher, Condi Rice, Barney Frank, or Barack Obama. In Louis’s terms, they’re co-opted by capitalism. Why? Because what they overcame was sexism, homophobia, and racism–but all of them happily support capitalism.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 7, 2009 @ 2:00 am

  37. “we shall overcome” was not a song about how to get more black members on the boards of huge corporations.

    The importnat social movements resisting racist oppression on the USA have never been motivated by a commitment to make capitalism more ‘diverse’. Neither was the nascent women’s movement of the early 70s inclined to merely ameliorate some bad effects of ‘discrimination’ and push for more ‘diversity’.

    To say otherwise is to belie a complete ignorance of all of the major social movements in the US resisting sexism or racism in the 60s and later. It is to completely ignore all of the concrete details of these social movements and their demands. frankly, its pretty offensive to read his bullshit about the freedom movement from the 60s and pretend that it was all some game to have a more ‘diverse’ form of capitalism. This was never part of the project.

    I agree, that the question of cooptation is one thing. But that’s not a question that interests WBM and his right-wing progengy. WBM is interested to discredit any radical anti-sexism or anti-racism at the roots. His crusade is to nip these movements at the bud.

    Comment by T — September 7, 2009 @ 5:07 am

  38. T- I really think you are puting (false) words into WBM’s mouth. He doesn’t ever blame these movements but does blame the cooptation that you also see. He never says that these movements sought to make capitalism more diverse but that this has been the outcome. He also stresses the ways in which some (he does need to stress the some part more IMO) anti-sexist and anti-racist movements that have abandonded class obfuscate class behind a faux leftism.

    Jenny- Yes, racism, sexism and class issues go hand in hand and they aid each other at some moments and in some circumstances but it is reductionist to claim that they always aid each other. Ed’s disscussion of the dialectical relationship between class and other social ills I think captures the complex nature of this. Everything that aids capitalism is also a fetter to its further advance. Racism and sexism help capitalism divide the working class but they also are barriers to increased productivity and the reduction of all people to the ‘cash nexus’ as Marx puts it. So we need to parcel out different types of anti-racist and anti-sexist activism to reveal the contradictory way that some of it is very left and how some of it is mearly a tool for further capitalist exploitation. WBM may not do this, I don’t think he does, but I think it is important to do this not because I want to discourage anti-racist and anti-sexist activism but because I want to communicate to these movements the necessity of bringing class into their analysis so as to remove the cooption possibility. Thereby, we can work to futher both anti-racist/anti-sexist and class based movements without working at cross-purposes.

    Comment by brad — September 7, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  39. Brad, your explanation makes sense, but WBM is rather convoluted. How could the civil rights movement be denounced as introducing more class inequality? I mean, seriously? Did you not see:

    Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.

    Comment by Jenny — September 7, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

  40. Jenny, I think he got carried away with his rhetoric there–I don’t read that as denouncing the civil rights movement. He’s pointing out the struggle against racism and the struggle against capitalism are independent today. Liberals and the far left worked together against racism, but capitalism has co-opted the anti-racism movement. If you want an idea of how successful capitalism has been, here’s a statistic that croggles me: Asked who has a better chance to get ahead in U.S. society, fifty-one percent of blacks said white people do. Forty-four percent said both races had equal opportunity, while just one percent said blacks had an advantage.

    Given that only 7% or so of US blacks identify as Republican, that 44% says a lot.

    T, I googled “martin luther king holiday sponsors” and got a long list of corporations who don’t think diversity is any threat to capitalism, including the one all leftists love to hate, Wal-Mart. WBM is about a century too late if he hopes to “nip those movements at the bud.” The anti-racism and anti-sexism movements are flowering–look at the growing number of Conservatives of Color and Log Cabin Republicans. It’s socialism that may still be nipped in the US.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 7, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  41. So? the cbs poll thing just means white prievlege,etc is still abundant, thus disproving your theory that race prejudice no longer exists. No one’s denying capitalism has “Co-opted”(could we just say that’s a part of the changing times?) diversity, but that doesn’t mean racism is officially over and one with just because corporate big wigs got the message of inclusion. Classism does not trump calling out racism or sexism wherever they may be(ie. scfi, hint hint)

    Comment by Jenny — September 7, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

  42. Jenny, let me make this very simple for you: I have never said race privilege no longer exists. I’ve only said that sometimes people see racism where class prejudice is the important factor. A fine example of that is at the link I provided at #27: Because Americans are so reluctant to talk about class, 37% of blacks think there are two black “races”, one rich and one poor. They’re using “race” to describe class because our culture refuses to admit that class prejudice exists.

    I find it astonishing that the capitalist anti-racists of the science fiction field ignore this development. We’re witnessing the birth of eloi and morlocks.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 8, 2009 @ 12:20 am

  43. Class had nothing to do with the fucking scifi incident, your wife was just being condescending to an african american woman who saw racist images in an author’s work.

    Comment by Jenny — September 8, 2009 @ 4:38 am

  44. Jenny, protesting that there are racist images in Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron is like protesting that there are racist images in To Kill A Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, Invisible Man…. To be fair to the reader in question, some readers are too sensitized to be able to engage with challenging texts. I understand the desire to have all art wear its heart on its sleeve, but some of us like stories that ask us to look deeper than the characters or the narrator may be willing to go.

    If you wish to discuss the “scifi incident” further, leave a comment here. Unlike the people at the link you provided, I don’t ban anyone to control the narrative.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 8, 2009 @ 6:03 am

  45. No. I’m done with you.

    Comment by Jenny — September 8, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

  46. Okay, one more thing, for fuck’s sake, please read this: http://seeking-avalon.blogspot.com/2009/01/open-letter-to-elizabeth-bear.html

    Comment by Jenny — September 8, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

  47. Jenny, the trope that Avalon’s Willow was complaining about was the very trope that Bear was examining and ultimately exposing in that work. However, Avalon’s Willow did not bother to read the book; she assumed her opinion based on the first pages was correct.

    Really, if you want to discuss this, let’s move it out of Louis’s thread.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 8, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  48. Jenny, in case I’m talking about something you’re not familiar with in art: what happens in a novel does not necessarily represent a writer’s belief. For example, some anti-racists misread Huckleberry Finn because it uses “nigger” and it has this scathing bit of dialogue that demonstrates the thorough racism of the South in that time:

    “We blowed out a cylinder-head.”

    “Good gracious! anybody hurt?”

    “No’m. Killed a nigger.”

    “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

    Huckleberry Finn is the story of a boy learning that “niggers” are people. There have been cases of black anti-racists demanding that it not be taught in school and calling for its removal from libraries because it is “racist.” It is not racist. It is challenging.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 8, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

  49. In post # 16 Brad imagines the only impact Marxism had on the 20th Century was Stalin’s gulags, the cultural revolutions’s excesses, & Pol Pot.

    Brad unfortunately sees no progressive significance to socialist revolutions.

    Nevermind how poor humans for the first time in their oppressed history tried to implement atheist education, full employment, women’s rights, free childcare, free health care, free education, racial sensitivity, etc.

    Nevermind how US policies helped shape all those events much to their detriment. (Even the late liberal playwright Spalding Grey accurately described the saturation bombings that shaped characters like Pol Pot in “Swimming to Cambodia.”)

    Nevermind that for all it’s excesses the cultural revolution gave for the 1st time in Chinese history priority to peasant women in the universities.

    Nevermind the USSR endured imperialist encirclement & Cold War enmity for 70 years precisely because it represented the potential of an antagonistic class in the global class struggle.

    But does Brad really imagine that the all the American workers’ gains in the New Deal would have been possible without without the Russian Revolution?

    Did Debs get almost a million votes while in prison while only white men could vote because Marxism had no impact during his heydays? What about during the Depression when the CPUSA candidate got millions of votes?

    Even the 4th International, insofar as it was aligned with the SWP, was decisive in organizing the Vietnam War protests which shook up the ruling class to a degree, particularly the spectre of demoralized conscripts lobbing grenades into their officers’ tents.

    Then there’s the Cuban Revolution which also inspired billions of the world’s poorest toilers. Before the Soviets collapsed the UN’s World Health Org calculated that 32,000 kids a day died around the world from malnutrition & perfectly preventable diseases yet almost none of those kids were in the countries that had socialist revolutions.

    One could argue that Marxism in the 20th century, distorted as it was coming from historically oppressed nations, actually saved & bettered way more poor peoples lives than it ever ruined in gulags & purges. Genocide isn’t even the right word for Pol Pot insofar as that Cambodian only killed Cambodians.

    India, which borders China, had it’s revolution a la Ghandi and tens of millions then and now are still starving whereas China, notwithstanding it growing inequalities over the last 20 years, at least for most of its modern history implemented a viable solution to that, one the Indian bougeoisie were organically incapable or implementing. For crissakes, China’s 1 child policy alone does more to save the planet every year then all the yuppie Green recycling mumbojumbo in the combined West.

    Of all people that lived in the 20th Century VI Lenin had the greatest positive impact on the trajectory of that century and the billions of toilers in it.

    Now Brad may debate that assertion but he’ll be hard pressed to make any headway on a forum like this agruing that Marxism had no progressive impact on the 20th century.

    That’s just asserting what any knee jerk reactionary asserts about Marxism and usually flows from people ideologically hostile to socialism in the first place.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 9, 2009 @ 2:44 am

  50. “Brad may debate that assertion but he’ll be hard pressed to make any headway on a forum like this agruing that Marxism had no progressive impact on the 20th century.”

    I never argued anything remotely simular to what you claim I did. I know many Marxists and Socialists who don’t hide from the failures and horror’s commited in Marx’s name. To do so is not to deny the progressive impact of Marxism on the 20th Century, it simply to say that we must do better.

    Comment by brad — September 9, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  51. […] to this first, then read Louis Proyect critique of Benn Michaels’ […]

    Pingback by Irish Left Review · Walter Benn Michaels | Diversity is Insufficient — September 15, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  52. So Lou, Chuck Grimes pointed me at your blog piece on Walter Benn Michaels. I’ve just been arguing about The Trouble with Diversity at LBO, and followed up on my blog. Whereas you and agree that he’s just another Liberal, and he even says that he is in this video of a talk he gave at Harvard (@40:40), has he had some change of heart?

    I’m curious. I could possibly see a change of heart but haven’t seen what has prompted it. And, frankly, after a close reading of his book, I find it really hard to imagine that he’s really changed his mind. What benefit is he getting out of writing for two ostensibly leftist publications?

    It surely can’t be money. 🙂

    Comment by shag carpet bomb — October 10, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  53. Bizarre. In a country where ‘left wing’ often means moderate Republican, you would think blogs such as this one, and its commenters, would have more to offer than defensiveness, misreadings and theological disputes.

    Comment by scott — November 18, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

  54. Scott – but that’s precisely the unfortunate state of American Marxism today: “defensiveness, misreadings and theological disputes.”

    Europe’s not far behind, although class consciousness there is at least significantly higher.

    Comment by iskraagent — November 18, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  55. > Furthermore, he insists that the “left” must be distinguished from movements against racism and sexism:

    In what way is that an astounding point? One could add that the Left must be distinguished from movements against monarchical feudalism. Even the very names of the Republican and Democratic parties are part of the heritage of the French Revolution. Some Arab liberals have even welcomed the occupation of Iraq as a necessary stage in bringing the bourgeois revolutions to a region which still sees many feudalistic remains. Shouldn’t the Left distinguish itself from this?

    The reality is that anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia and the like have all been absorbed into the bourgeois mainstream. That doesn’t mean that they are automatically bad. If everything that was a part of the bourgeois mainstream was automatically bad then there would have been no reason for Marx & Engels to express their approval of the bourgeois revolutions. But some things which used to define the Left simply can no longer act as such, and there’s nothing very original about that fact.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — July 2, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

  56. WBM strikes again:


    Comment by T — September 30, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

  57. T., there’s something intellectually dishonest about pimping your response and not pimping the original article, especially when you suggest people avoid reading the article.

    Here’s the article: Let Them Eat Diversity. I think he nails it, but then, I would, because I’m a class-first kind of red.

    Comment by will shetterly — September 30, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

  58. Since T brought me back to this essay, I’ll share here something I shared at T’s blog:

    Oh, and since you pull the usual anti-racist trick of dissing Michaels because of his race, here are couple of black writers you might try:

    Why Anti-Racism Will Fail by Thandeka: http://archive.uua.org/ga/ga99/238thandeka.html

    The limits of anti-racism by Adolph Reed Jr.: http://www.leftbusinessobserver.com/Antiracism.html

    Comment by will shetterly — September 30, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

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