Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 28, 2013

Historical Materialism Conference 2013

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

The origins of capitalism according to the “political Marxists”

Historical Materialism is a quarterly journal that costs $78 for a yearly sub.  Like New Left Review, with which it shares editorial perspectives and an editor (the ubiquitous Sebastian Bludgeon), it is a mix of the substantive and the trivial. As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the journal but only for issues at least a year old, like issue number one of 2012. You can find both a useful article on the trade union movement by Kim Moody and something titled “Manfredo Tafuri, Fredric Jameson and the Contestations of Political Memory” that I found relatively easy to ignore.

It also publishes scholarly Marxist hardcover books at the same price point. For example, a hardcover version of Jairus Banaji’s Deutscher Prize-winning “Theory as History” costs $135. Fortunately Haymarket Press publishes paperback versions of HM books, one of the ISO’s major contributions to the movement.

I am not sure when HM began organizing conferences but I attended my first yesterday at NYU. I wondered beforehand why there was a need for HM Conferences when we have a Left Forum in NY as well. But it became clear throughout the day that HM addresses a need that Left Forum does not. Generally, you will find a sharper Marxist focus at HM while the Left Forum is far broader with many panels featuring movement activists. The HM conference, by contrast, is much more of an academic conference with just about every speaker holding an academic post.

10am-12pm: Neil Davidson’s “How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”

This featured Neil presenting the main ideas of his new book, followed by “discussants” Jeff Goodwin and Charles Post.

Some background is in order. Post is a Brennerite, in other words an acolyte of the prize-winning UCLA professor Robert Brenner who developed a theory in the 1970s that capitalism originated in the British countryside in the 1500s quite by accident due to demographic changes brought on by the bubonic plague. Without going into any boring and unnecessary detail, the loss of population led to a series of social-economic transformations that fostered the creation of tenant farming out of but against feudal institutions. With the widespread adoption of tenant farming, Britain enjoyed a “take off” that was not possible anywhere else. That “take off” explains the rise of the British Empire and the diffusion of capitalism to the rest of Europe and everywhere else in the world. Without those diseased rats, Britain might have followed an evolution like Kenya or Uganda. For all we know, the Kenyans might have enslaved Britons and put them to work in the cotton fields of Africa if contingency had blessed them with dukes, duchesses, and diseased rats.

As an ancillary of the Brenner thesis, a school known as “political Marxism” has taken root in the academy that denies that there is such a thing as a bourgeois revolution. This has led to some intriguing hypotheses, including the claim that France was not only devoid of capitalist property relations before 1789 but even afterwards. The Brennerites have categorized the social system that existed in the early 1800s in France as precapitalist. That term, of course, could also be applied to the Britain of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe, as well as the igloo-dwelling Inuit people that Admiral Peary took advantage of. The category precapitalism serves their theoretical needs even if it is rather imprecise. It is like calling animals nonhuman. It does not help us to distinguish between a jackal and a butterfly.

I have no idea whether Jeff Goodwin is a member in good standing of the “political Marxism” school but he agrees with them that there is no such thing as a bourgeois revolution. In his remarks, he made the point that capitalism can evolve through different paths—something that sounds a bit like the point made by Karl Marx in his late letters to the Russian populists.

Although I have not had the chance yet to read Davidson’s book, I have commented on his ideas when he began to raise them in the journal of the British SWP in 2006, a group that he has belonged to for a number of years.

Davidson’s summary of his book repeated points made in his 2006 article that were similar to those made by Isaac Deutscher in his Stalin biography and his last book “Unfinished Revolution”. Here’s Davidson quoting Deutscher from the latter:

The traditional view [of the bourgeois revolution], widely accepted by Marxists and non-Marxists alike, is that in such revolutions, in Western Europe, the bourgeois played the leading part, stood at the head of the insurgent people, and seized power. This view underlies many controversies among historians; the recent exchanges, for example, between Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper and Mr Christopher Hill on whether the Cromwellian revolution was or was not bourgeois in character. It seems to me that this conception, to whatever authorities it may be attributed, is schematic and unreal. From it one may well arrive at the conclusion that bourgeois revolution is almost a myth, and that it has hardly ever occurred, even in the West. Capitalist entrepreneurs, merchants, and bankers were not conspicuous among the leaders of the Puritans or the commanders of the Ironsides, in the Jacobin Club or at the head of the crowds that stormed the Bastille or invaded the Tuileries.

At any rate, I am anxious to read Neil’s book the first chance I get since I am impressed with what he has written in the past.

In the Q&A, I raised the question of the East India Company, an entity that belongs to the “precapitalism” of the Brennerite tendency. I proposed that it exemplified merchant capital, a precursor to industrial capitalism. To which Charles Post responded that “merchant” and “capital” are contradictions in terms. Someone involved in merchant capital takes advantage of different levels of economic development in order to “buy cheap” and “sell dear”, the classic instance of British trading monopolies in India and China.

I always wonder how much familiarity the Brennerites have with Marx’s writings but in his discussion of primitive accumulation in V. 1 of Capital, he refers to the East India Company as being an example of “primitive accumulation . . .without the advance of a shilling.” For them, primitive accumulation means one thing and one thing only, the changes in the British countryside that led to the transformation of peasants into wage laborers even if Karl Marx thinks otherwise. Well, I don’ t know. Maybe they have a point. Just like the advice that Mr. McGuire gave to Benjamin in “The Graduate” about plastic, the Brennerites would seem inclined to breathlessly invoke the magic words that explain the origins of capitalism: diseased rats.

1:30-3:30pm: Leninist Lineages

There were four presenters, including two of my favorite Marxist thinkers. One was Lars Lih speaking on “Two Cheers for Lev Kamenev” that made the case that the standard narrative on Kamenev opposing the April Theses as a kind of semi-Menshevik was unfair. Lih’s analysis was based on a close reading of the Russian texts that supported the idea that Kamenev’s opposition had more to do with the April Theses being a projection of a communism in the hazy future rather than a call for taking power. I won’t try to recapitulate Lih’s arguments since I expect an article from him before long. When I spot it, I will post a link.

Now to Paul Kellogg. Paul and I had a long talk a week earlier, a day before the ecosocialism conference. He had dropped out of the Canadian I.S. after 30 years or so and largely because of the British SWP rape scandal. I discovered that he has the same exact analysis of the “Leninist” problem that is developing among the comrades Richard Seymour is working with whose conclusions I largely agree with. Now working on a modest regroupment project with John Ridell in Canada, Paul’s efforts are key to helping us get out of the mess we are currently in. I urge comrades in Canada to keep an eye on what John and Paul are up to since they are two wise and seasoned veteran revolutionaries.

Paul’s talk covered two major errors that Lenin had some responsibility for, either directly or indirectly. The first is the March 1921 Action in Germany that was an insurrectionary bid led by the German CP and opposed by the other left parties. This is covered in Pierre Broue’s book on the German Revolution and something I have written about in the past.

But the other error has not received the attention it deserved and that will be the subject of an HM article by Paul down the road. It involves the Russian invasion of Poland in 1919 that Lenin favored and Trotsky opposed. Trotsky warned that it would lead to the Polish peasantry rallying around their nationalist rulers, which is exactly what happened.

I am in the process of reading Werner Angress’s book on the German Revolution that provided most of the background for my article referred to above and came across a reference to the Poland question:

The war against Poland went exceedingly well in late July and early August as the Red Army moved closer to Warsaw, and the military successes created an atmosphere of hopeful anticipation at the congress. Was it not possible, after all, that the victories of the Red Army might spark the eagerly anticipated revolutions in central and western Europe? To what extent even Lenin was affected by the buoyant optimism of the moment may be illustrated by an incident which occurred at the congress and involved Levi and two other German delegates. Standing before a large strategic wall map of which Zinoviev has left us a vivid description, Lenin invited the three Germans to join him and began to explain the military situation. He said that according to Trotsky’s estimates the Red Army would reach the eastern frontier of Germany within the next few days, and, turning to his listeners, he asked: “In your opinion, Comrades, what forms will the uprising in East Prussia take?” The three Germans stared at him in amazement. East Prussia was known as one of the most conservative German regions, and an uprising of the East Prussian peasants in support of the Red Army sounded like a poor joke to Levi and his colleagues. One of them, Ernst Meyer, gave a sceptical reply. This irritated Lenin, who now turned to Levi and asked: “And you, Comrade Levi, do you also agree that there will be no uprising?” Levi remained silent, and Lenin terminated the conversation by remarking acidly: “In any case, you ought to know that we of the Central Committee [of the Russian C.P.] hold quite a different opinion.”

When Lenin told Levi that “we of the Central Committee hold quite a different opinion,” you really get a sense of the problems that “Leninist” parties faced early on. The almost nonstop abuse of power in such parties from a Jack Barnes to an Alex Callinicos can be tied to mistakes made early on in Soviet Russia. Now Lenin died too early to get a handle on them and go in another direction (something he sensed was necessary when he considered moving the Comintern to another country) but until our movements root out this kind of “verticalism” and adopt a more transparent and democratic model, we will continue to face crises of our own making.

Paul Le Blanc’s talk was an attempt to rescue the legend of the “heroic Comintern” against evidence that is becoming impossible to ignore. He even tried to put a positive spin on the 21 Conditions that despite its ultraleft errors were a sincere effort to build a Bolshevik International. I am actually planning on writing a long piece on Lenin’s post-1917 organizational initiatives that challenge Paul’s interpretation but at this stage will only say that the 21 Conditions were about as meat-headed a manifesto that can be imagined, like something out of Bob Avakian. Here’s condition number two:

Every organisation that wishes to affiliate to the Communist International must regularly and methodically remove reformists and centrists from every responsible post in the labour movement (party organisations, editorial boards, trades unions, parliamentary factions, co-operatives, local government) and replace them with tested communists, without worrying unduly about the fact that, particularly at first, ordinary workers from the masses will be replacing ‘experienced’ opportunists.


The last five minutes of Paul’s talk were devoted to a defense of Zinoviev, another unwise decision given the preponderance of evidence that he was a total screw-up. After Paul was finished, Joel Geier, a long-time member of the ISO and the IS before it, gave a talk on Zinovievism that sounded almost as if it could have been plagiarized from my own. He diverged, however, by portraying the Zinoviev of the pre-“Bolshevization” Comintern as an exemplary leader. In my comments, I tried to explain that the “Bolshevization” of the Comintern was a response to a crisis brought on by the March 1921 fiasco in Germany. A circling of the wagons took place that led to a further verticalization of the “Leninist” organizational model, not that much different than what is taking place in Callinicos’s movement.

4-6pm: SYRIZA and the Strategic Challenges of the Greek Left

This was a really excellent panel that included two critical supporters of SYRIZA (Costas Panayotakis and Despina Lalaki), an ANTARSYA supporter (Iannis Delatolas), and Peter Bratsis, a sort of anti-political academic who views fighting for pensions, etc. as buying into the capitalist system about whom the less said the better.

Costas and Despina agreed with many of the points being made by Iannis but continue to support SYRIZA. The problem with groups like ANTARSYA, as is the case with the small “vanguard” formations that make up its coalition, is that while being formally correct have no prospects of reaching a majority. While deeply involved in mass actions, their proposals for changing Greek society are out of sync with the current level of consciousness. In some ways, it probably does not matter to them since they share a widely shared belief among “cadre” organizations that it is necessary to uphold a “revolutionary” program that will be embraced by the masses once they have achieved a revolutionary consciousness. It is a sectarian formula, needless to say.

In the remarks period, I stated support for SYRIZA is necessary not so much on the basis that the current leadership is going to lead a revolution but that it provides a vehicle for the revolutionary left to advance its ideas among the broader population, a view that Peter Camejo advanced with respect to the Green Party when it was solidly behind Ralph Nader. We should only be lucky to have a party like SYRIZA in the U.S. that enjoys the support of “only” 30 percent of the population.

Paul Blackledge, a British SWP leader, spoke in support of ANTARSYA from the floor after me. It was interesting to hear such an articulate defense of ultraleftism. Even when they are totally wrong, they can be very impressive.


At the SYRIZA panel discussion on Saturday at the HM conference, Peter Bratsis bemoaned the fact that 20 general strikes have done nothing to stop austerity. It was pointed out to him, by Costas I believe, that these are not really general strikes since workers in private industry do not take part because of a fear of reprisal. Public workers, who have a relative degree of job protection, make up the bulk of the actions. But he warned that this is about to change, referring to proposed legislation that just passed:

NY Times April 28, 2013
Greek Parliament Passes Plan for Layoffs

ATHENS — Greece’s Parliament late Sunday approved a contentious plan to dismiss 15,000 civil servants by the end of next year as part of a new package of economic measures that the country must enforce to clinch crucial financing from foreign creditors.

Euro zone officials meeting in Brussels on Monday are expected to approve the release of about 2.8 billion euros, or about $3.65 billion, in loans. The money had been due in March but was delayed after negotiations between Greece and the so-called troika of its foreign lenders stalled over the lenders’ demands for civil service cuts.

The troika, which comprises the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has been meting out aid in exchange for belt-tightening measures. They are to decide on another six-billion-euro installment in May, assuming Greece adopts further reforms, including an overhaul of a tax collection system.

The latest measures passed into law in a vote held shortly before midnight on Sunday with 168 votes in the 300-seat House.

A last-minute amendment allowing local authorities to hire young Greeks for less than the minimum wage of 586 euros per month fueled protests during the debate. But the inclusion of measures aimed at easing the burden on Greeks, including a 15 percent reduction to a contentious property tax, clinched the support of lawmakers in the three-party ruling coalition.

Defending the bill during a heated debate, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras insisted that Greece had no choice but to implement the economic reforms. “Greece is still cut off from the markets,” he said, noting that the government’s chief aim was to achieve a primary surplus before seeking a further “drastic haircut” to its debt, which stood at 160 percent of gross domestic product at the end of last year.

His claims were derided by political rivals who denounced the lawmakers as beholden to the nation’s lenders. “With blood, tears and looting, they will achieve surpluses like those achieved by Ceausescu in Romania and Pinochet in Chile,” said Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the main leftist opposition party Syriza. “Claim back your lives and your country that they are stealing,” he said as a few hundred Greeks, mostly civil servants, staged a rather low-key protest outside Parliament.

Mr. Tsipras, whose party wants to revoke Greece’s loan agreement, has insisted that Greeks have an alternative to constant belt-tightening, pointing to a strong reaction against austerity across Europe.

The ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, faces a difficult balancing act to reassure its foreign creditors and its long-suffering citizens, who have seen their incomes dwindle by a third and Greek unemployment skyrocket to 27 percent in the past three years.

Eager to bolster the prospects for investment, the prime minister is also said to be planning a series of international trips, starting with a visit to China next month.

He is expected to meet with entrepreneurs and promote Greece as a destination for tourism, virtually the only robust pillar of Greece’s shaky economy.


  1. No bourgeois revolutions? Davidson et. al. have got hung up on an anachronistic linguistic confusion. The words “bourgeois” and “capitalist” have come to be used interchangeably, but that usage didn’t exist before the 19th century. Until then “bourgeois” simply referred to the urban population, as distinct from the huge rural majority (and the Lords and Prelates living off their labor). There were rich (“grand”) and poor (“petit”) bourgeois. The “noblesse de la robe” was bourgeois, as was the junior branch of the monarchy itself (the assault on the Bastille was organized at the Palais Royale). The rise of the capitalist mode of production, in the cities of the low countries, northern Italy, and the Baltic coast, predated the “great” revolutions by centuries. After the revolutions the centers of political and economic power became urban and society quickly found itself dominated by the cash nexus. The formation of the modern capitalist class followed on the bourgeois revolutions, whose programmatic demands (like the physiocratic slogan “laissez-faire–laissez passer”) laid the basis for the capitalist era to come.

    Comment by fosforos17 — April 28, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

  2. Thanks for your informative article. I think that it is ANTARSYA not ANTASYRA

    Comment by Dayne Goodwin — April 29, 2013 @ 5:36 am

  3. I’m no disciple of Lenin but I fail to see the problem in the condition quoted. It was a revolutionary period. Are you decrying communists for wanting to put comrades in positions of influence rather than leave them in the hands of entrenched reformists?

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — April 29, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

  4. It depends how you define “remove”. In actuality, this was done bureaucratically–especially in Germany.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 29, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  5. Re: comment No. 3: I was wondering too. Trying to project backward to an extremely narrow period of revolutionary history that the 21 Conditions were…inappropriate….doesn’t deal what the Comintern was dealing with, in Germany, but more so in Italy. When setting up a new international to combat what was clearly, at least in Germany, a counter-revolutionary one, it seems those Condition were a mechanical device trying to solve the problem of distinguishing between reformist social democrats and revolutionary workers organizations. Was it appropriate, say, by 1922? No, I doubt it. But then if you look at the development AFTER that period, few groups that I’m aware of used even the 21 condition to justify purges or expulsions but did so over more mundane matters or, through the later ideological fight with the various oppositions.

    If you look through original source material in the 1920s, the 21 Conditions are hardly mentioned and, I say “hardly” because I assume they are but I’ve never found it.

    Lastly the 21 Conditions were about groups affiliating to the new Comintern. The US Communist Party quickly changed it’s legal name to “Workers Party” in direct “violation” of Condition No. 17.

    Comment by David Walters — April 29, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

  6. If you look through original source material in the 1920s, the 21 Conditions are hardly mentioned and, I say “hardly” because I assume they are but I’ve never found it.

    You are dealing with a mindset that the 21 Conditions are merely one expression of. I plan to write much more about this but another manifestation is Leon Trotsky telling the French Communists what should go on the front page of L’Humanite. The movement would have been better without a Comintern, to be perfectly blunt about it.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 29, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

  7. I had the opportunity to interview Lalaki on KDVS in February. As you mention, she is a critical, candid political activist who makes a strong, unapologetic case for SYRIZA.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 29, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

  8. The movement would have been better without a Comintern, to be perfectly blunt about it.

    I don’t think the failure of the revolutionary wave was due to bad leadership as much as material conditions. But in any case, an international of some type was seen as a given after the IWMA and the Second International (even if Marx did oppose the creation of the latter). I don’t think there’s any need (or the grounds) for a new international in the present, with people increasingly interconnected in ways never before seen, but if/when the next revolutionary wave breaks out, there will be a need for some degree of contact, meeting and coordination on an international scale.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — April 29, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

  9. Agree with the assessment of Bremmer et al. I don’t know where these folks get their ‘Marxism’ from. Marx is perfectly clear in vol 1 of ‘Capital’ that two processes were at work – one in Europe itself and one that was more global. The removal of the peasantry from the soil and their dispossession of any means of production, converting them into a mass with no way of surviving without selling their ability to work on the one side and the plunder of the Americas and the slave trade which provided crucial investment funds for the industrial revolution on the other side. If Marx was wrong, these folks sure haven’t proved it.

    On the 21 Conditions of the Third International, I am more agnostic. The reason for this is that the conditions have to be understood in the context of their time. The social democracy, pledged to turn imperialist war into class war and revolution, had largely lined up behind their own bourgeoisies and helped send their own working classes to the slaughter fields. Moreover, much of the social democracy had for years supported, and/or colluded in, colonial exploitation and oppression. I quite like condition 8 (I think it’s condition 8), which obliged parties in the First World to provide material aid to people who were fighting their (these parties’) rulers. So, for instance, a CP in Britain would have to provide material aid to the Irish liberation movement which was fighting the British ruling class and state. I think that should still be a condition for membership of any serious International (and I’m talking about a real international, not the Potemkin Village ones that exist today).


    Comment by Phil — April 30, 2013 @ 3:22 am

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