Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 25, 2010

Responding to Duncan Foley

Filed under: economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Duncan K. Foley

In January 2010, there was a Historical Materialism conference in NYC that I unfortunately was unable to attend since the CUNY Graduate Center was not large enough to accommodate all the people who tried to register, including me. I guess that’s an auspicious sign of what’s happening politically even though I didn’t luck out personally.

New School economist Duncan K. Foley’s talk Notes on Crisis and Social Change can now be read online. The abstract contains these intriguing words:

Capitalist crisis is neither more nor less favorable than other periods of capital accumulation for the promotion of fundamental social change. Left-wing critics of capitalism owe their readers an account of what alternatives to capitalism they advocate.

Foley believes that “moments of capitalist crisis greatly excite left critics of capitalism”. I am not sure that this is the case, even though I have made a point of regularly sending news of the current crisis to the Marxism list on an almost daily basis. I don’t think that the crisis in and of itself will lead to action surely it will lead to a change in consciousness. That is already taking place as dissatisfaction with all branches of government reaches new depths. Whether that change in consciousness will lead to action is, of course, another story altogether. Considering the self-destruction of the revolutionary left in the 1970s and 80s and the sabotage of the Green Party in the more recent period, we are certainly coping with an unfavorable “subjective factor” to put it in Leninist jargon.

Part of the problem with Foley’s analysis is that it is simply uninformed about the “subjective factor”, a lack that can be explained by his deep immersion in academia I suppose. He writes:

For example, we now generally agree that the period of the nineteen-seventies was a major crisis of capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries, in which declining profitability of the type Marx analyzed played a major role. The outcome was a great strengthening and extension of capitalist social relations on a world scale in the form of neo-liberal trade and investment policies, the reversal of import-substitution development policy in large parts of the world, the financialization of global capitalism, and a predictable consequent sharp increase in income inequality in favor of the ruling classes all over the world. Conversely, some periods of advance for left-wing critical ideas are periods of capitalist economic boom, such as the 1960s in the U.S., where conditions of extreme prosperity triggered a crisis in the ideological reproduction of the U.S. ruling classes which had profound and at least in part progressive consequences for U.S. imperialism, race relations, environmental policy, and intellectual discourse.

I am afraid that this is topsy-turvy. The 1960s was a product of capitalist crisis, even if Foley is not up to the task of integrating it into his Marxist economics framework. I am nearly finished with Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North and can assure you that his book and my own experience working as a welfare worker in Harlem do support the idea of economic crisis in the Black community. If Black workers had the same social and economic status as whites, there would not have been ghetto rebellions. These rebellions were fundamentally a reaction to an economic contraction in basic industry which combined with racism robbed young Blacks of the opportunity to get their share of the pie.

Furthermore, it is a mistake to reduce everything to the Dow-Jones Industrial Average or the level of unemployment, unless of course your preference is for economic determinism rather than historical materialism. The war in Vietnam was a product of the ongoing economic crisis in the Third World. If Vietnamese peasants were as prosperous as their counterparts in California (obviously an impossibility given the divergent agrarian social relations of the two countries), there never would have been a war of liberation nor an antiwar movement that shook the country to its foundations.

Also, it is a mistake to make some connection to the economic crisis of the 1970s and the ability of the ruling class to restabilize the system around the Reagan-Thatcher economic program. The simple fact is that the organized left in the USA and Western Europe simply lacked the knowhow to lead working people in action. Burdened by sectarian conceptions or by urban guerrilla madness, the left imploded over a 10 year period thus allowing politicians like Carter, Bush and Clinton to get the upper hand. Indeed, the fundamental task of the left today is to get its act together so that when the masses begin to move another opportunity will not be lost.

Even worse is Foley’s version of what happened in the 1930s:

The U.S. left tends to have a somewhat sentimental view of the crisis of the Great Depression as a period of considerable advance for some left-wing goals. It is important to remember that the New Deal (and its aftermath after the Second World War) was understood by its political architects to be a way of saving capitalism from itself, not an attempt (whatever panic it may have caused in the breast of Frederick Hayek) to collectivize or socialize U.S. or European society. The coalition of progressive capitalists and radical labor union leadership that pushed through the major New Deal reforms had been building its political strength and program for many years before the Depression (at least beginning in the Progressive era).

I have no idea which part of the “U.S. Left” Foley is talking about, but it does not include me. I see the 30s as another version of the squandered opportunity of the 1970s but written on a much larger canvas. If the radical movement of the 1970s wasted its time in ultraleftist schematic attempts to recreate Russia 1917 or some fantasy of a 3rd world urban guerrilla war, the 1930s was a time in which Stalinist hegemony made it possible for a 2-party system to remain intact. Attempts to form a labor party were scuttled by a CPUSA that was determined to keep the trade unions wedded to the Democratic Party.

To reiterate, these sorts of problems can be characterized as revolving around the “subjective factor”, which I am afraid are largely out of the purview of a too narrowly focused Marxist academician–an occupational hazard I suppose.

The rest of the paper is a plea for developing “alternatives to capitalism” of the sort that I consider a waste of time. Foley writes:

Thus a major crisis for the left is its current lack of a compelling vision of alternative institutions to organize economic production and distribution. The left has some excellent values, which do have broad political appeal. But without a more developed, even if tentative and not completely consistent, vision of an economic alternative, leftwing energy tends to slide into reformism.

I am afraid that even though he does not offer even a hint of what such a compelling vision might be, it would end up as another exercise in neo-Utopianism that I have written about in the past. From Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s Parecon to the latest spate of proposals from Michael Moore et al about the need for cooperatives, you end up with a 21st century version of the utopian experiments of the 1800s. Not that there is anything wrong with this, it is just that will have nothing to do with a revolution in the U.S. Such a revolution will not be fuelled by chatter about “how we socialists can do it better” but because the working class will be sick and tired of the bourgeois fangs in its neck. Once it takes power, it will convene a panel of top-notch economists to figure out how to move forward. The concrete steps that will be taken next will be a function of the level of consciousness in the population, the relationship of class forces and a million things that cannot be predicted at this point. I doubt if I will be alive to have a role in this, but I surely can advise young people today to not waste their time dreaming up solutions detached from material class relations.


  1. Your take on the dynamics of the 30s and 70s-today is on point. Why don’t they let you talk on these things? Sometimes I wonder if they fear people who have gotten their hands “dirt” by actually trying to organize people instead of staying safe in the ivory tower?

    Comment by BInh — March 25, 2010 @ 7:43 pm

  2. Liberation movements from WW2 onwards were also about the collapse of Western Europe as an omnipotent imperial power. Europe was broke and depopulated, and couldn’t afford to hold onto their colonies. Fiscally, this could eventually happen to the U.S. as well. Military spending as a percentage of the GDP or the federal budget is much less now than 30 years ago, as social programs have crowded it out. And assaults on these social programs have only been successful at the margins – hence the grooming of Obama to present a ‘new face, for such an assault.

    Comment by purple — March 25, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  3. IF what Foley is saying is that (a) there is no deterministic relation between economic conditions and socialist advances, that (b) you need to build a socialist movement under good or bad capitalist fortunes (but especially the latter) and (c) that a condition for (b) is development of a vision which can appeal to workers (which means it must, eg, clearly separate itself from popular conceptions of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’), with what part of this would you disagree?
    ps. the scariest part of your comment is that ‘panel of top-notch economists’.

    Comment by michael — March 25, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

  4. Michael, you should read the article for yourself. My problem is not so much with your attempt to interpret what Foley was saying, but his actual grasp of the 30s, 60s, and 70s. They are simply inadequate understandings of the *politics*. I don’t question his understanding of Marxist economics, but his version of American radical history is deeply flawed.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 25, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

  5. > If Black workers had the same social and economic status as whites, there would not have been ghetto rebellions.

    I’d say that you’re overplaying your hand here. The more enduring aspects of the Civil Rights Movement are associated not with ghetto rebellions but with a movement started by middle-class black activists such as Martin Luther King. King’s movement, which was begun in the 1950s, was clearly the result not of economic deprivation but quite the opposite. At a time when middle-class prosperity seemed to be mushrooming across the whole USA, the black middle-class began asserting its right to a fuller share of this. The ghetto rebellions of the late 1960s were rather a portent of the end of the postwar economic boom and they did not play any notable role in accomplishing anything for blacks. Foley is correct that events like the abolition of Jim Crow were a byproduct of capitalist prosperity.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — July 8, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

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