Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 4, 2013

The ISO, the British SWP, and threatening violence

Filed under: Academia,British SWP — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

heidemenPaul Heideman, ISO’er

petersonCharles T. Peterson, ISO’er

Paul Blackledge, SWP’er

Sebastian Budgen, Studio 54 bouncer

Over the past few days I have been castigated on Facebook by a couple of members of the International Socialist Organization pictured above for warning Vivek Chibber that he would “regret it” if he ever interrupted me at an academic conference again. Paul Heideman added that I was brimming with ressentiment because of my failure to be admitted to the exclusive club made up of posh journals like Historical Materialism, the organizer of the conference where the incident occurred. This term Heideman obviously picked up from one Sebastian Budgen, an HM and NLR/Verso editor. Budgen got it into his head for some strange reason that my main goal in life was to get past some velvet rope into the Marxist version of Studio 54.

I don’t think that it is a stretch to assume that the ISO played a major role in organizing the conference. Generally you can tell by the composition of the chairpeople and the speakers the relative weight that some group on the left wields in such gatherings.

Of the three workshops I attended on Saturday, all three had the ISO stamp in one way or another. Jonah Birch, who I subsequently learned was Vivek Chibber’s dissertation student, chaired the workshop on Neil Davidson’s new book on the bourgeois revolution. Birch took the tack that probably most ISO’ers take, namely that Chibber was wrong to interrupt me but that I was much more to blame for saying that I would make him “regret it” if it happened again. (This is the talking point that Charles T. Peterson took but not Heideman.) Aaron Amaral, another ISO member, chaired the SYRIZA workshop. I seem to remember Birch and Amaral from Columbia University years ago but I could be wrong. The panel on Lenin featured two top leaders of the ISO, Paul Le Blanc and Joel Geier. I could probably find more ISO footprints but you get the idea.

I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time but I noticed that Paul Blackledge was invited to speak at a panel on “PATHS OUT OF CRISIS: SELF-ORGANIZATION and the STATE”. Blackledge is a professor at Leeds Metropolitan and obviously well-suited to speak at such a confab. But one wonders if the ISO’ers involved in the planning of this conference did not pause to consider the appropriateness of including a leader of the British SWP in such an event. Did they stop and think about what this says to women in the movement? After all, the British SWP’s former national secretary Martin Smith was charged with raping a young female member. When she tried to substantiate the charges against him, the kangaroo court asked her about her drinking habits.

When a faction was formed to take on the sexism and lack of democracy that made such a scandal possible, what was the reaction of party leaders? A group of dissidents, including Richard Seymour, wrote:

Comrades across the party have been heckled, shouted down and intimidated at aggregates and branch meetings. When they have complained about this they have been heckled, shouted down and intimidated. Young comrades have received nasty messages from those much older than them. They have been threatened with violence.

And what was the role of Paul Blackledge in all this? Apparently the Communist Party of Great Britain, a small group with no connection to Stalinism, has a mole in the SWP. This is what they reported:

The discussion kicked off with some comrades expressing their intense anger.

Sheila Macgregor, for example. Paul Blackledge later on.

But they were not angry either that the SWP has dealt with something as important as sexual harassment with appalling ineptness (not to say a cover up) or with the way the CC attempted to shut down the resulting debate. Rather, they were furious at those of us who’ve been “making a fuss” about such matters.

But you see, it really doesn’t matter very much if Paul Blackledge is okay with covering up for rape and for throwing his weight behind Alex Callinicos who warned that “lynch mobs” would be formed if the faction refused to abide by party rulings.

As long as there’s someone you know who can vouch for you, it is a cinch to get past the velvet ropes and into the Marxist version of Studio 54.


  1. This is one of the silliest left-wing disputes I’ve ever heard of.

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.

    Comment by David Altman — May 5, 2013 @ 1:37 am

  2. Yes, you’re right but I have a motive in writing about it. It tends to generate a huge amount of hits. My hope is that the curiosity-seekers will pick up on some more of the important pieces.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2013 @ 1:53 am

  3. Oh, I see. You’re sort of the Arianna Huffington of the left, then :-).

    Comment by David Altman — May 5, 2013 @ 1:58 am

  4. Not a bad idea. I might throw in a grocery check-out tabloid type item from time to time, like a photo of Jack Nicholson in a bathing suit.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2013 @ 2:05 am

  5. I can’t blame these guys, every-time I come to your site it’s just whining, nagging, and temper tantrums. Followed by deletions of my post.

    Comment by CB — May 5, 2013 @ 2:24 am

  6. CB, I don’t remember deleting any of your posts. Did you write the one about how the dirty Jews were funding the Nusra Front? Sorry, it wasn’t up to our usual standards.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2013 @ 2:37 am

  7. Who needs Facebook posts about your open letter to Chibber when you have public comments like these: http://thewolfatthedoor.blogspot.com/2013/04/what-you-cant-make-up.html

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 5, 2013 @ 6:07 am

  8. The threat of “lynch mobs” should never be used by anyone on the left who is anti-racist.
    It is rooted in racist lynchings, and to be uttered by a white person of power… is sickening.

    Comment by Mark — May 5, 2013 @ 6:37 am

  9. Professor Paul Blackledge likes to publish on ethics and Aristotelian virtues.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — May 5, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  10. I was at the conference where this all kicked off and Paul Blackledge spoke one the side of the factions opposing the leadership. Unless his position has changed since then this seems like incorrect information

    Comment by TM — May 5, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

  11. Unless his position has changed since then this seems like incorrect information

    Frankly, it doesn’t matter very much what Blackledge says inside the SWP since we are not privy to this. What matters is the SWP brand name, which is very tainted at this point. It is a little bit like pointing to a dissident Catholic priest when you are dealing with institutional issues of sexual abuse.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

  12. Right, but in this instance we only know of ONE cover up in the SWP, whereas we know of thousands in the catholic church. Ergo, you cannot say the SWP is dealing with institutional issues (yet).

    Comment by CB — May 5, 2013 @ 6:28 pm

  13. Sorry. I didn’t mean to state that the SWP is filled with rapists but it certainly can be characterized as rotten to the core with sexism. Any group that asks a young female comrade about her drinking habits when she is trying to bring charges against her rapist is on the same plane as a typical corporation. In fact, most corporations would have been better prepared to deal with such a crisis.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 5, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

  14. Yes, these lecturers and academics represent the ultimate failure of Marxism in the western hemisphere. We call them ‘Marxists’, but we all know, whether we like it or not, that these overwhelmingly white, privileged males have imposed upon ‘Marxism’ (and its praxis) the culture and formalities of bourgeois politics and education (it’s actually a lot worse in terms of elitism and cliques) . I blame much of this on the prominence of ‘Leninism’, while I would also say that it makes sense for ‘Marxism’ to be confined and formed in apparatuses such as the obscure magazine Historical Materialism (and its conferences), which is written only for the people who write in it, allowing for a small generation turnover in elite academics and having absolutely zero impact on anything of any substance. The Marxism of HM is a thoroughly bourgeois endeavor, and the revolutionary content of it has become little more than a pathetic fetish for flabby, western academics or, in some cases, a specialised hobby – like philately or trainspotting. But then again, I’m sure the bourgeois are quaking in their boots every time there is a HM conference or a ‘Marxism conference’. Those who cannot see this, or don’t admit to it, are either profiting from it or are attempting to profit from it and ‘fit in’, so to speak. It’s really pathetic.

    Comment by Peter James Rose — May 5, 2013 @ 8:41 pm

  15. All true Peter, but we can at least be secure in the knowledge that this “Marxism” of the academic journals and universities has literally NOTHING to do with real life proletarian struggles anywhere in the world, and thus cannot effect them. Just think of it as something akin to sports radio: a closed community for nerds that has no effect on the things they obsess over and making a living commenting on.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 6, 2013 @ 7:05 am

  16. Yeah, all they so is publish stuff like “The Ellen Meiksens Wood Reader,” Pierre Broue’s history of the German revolution, Lars Lih’s “Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What is to be Done?’ in Context,” and John Riddell’s totally unimpressive and worthless “Toward the United Front.”

    There’s also some other hoity-toity thing Riddell translated full of stuff from the Comintern’s third congress that they’re going to publish, if you can believe that shit.

    And damn straight about the bourgeoisie not trembling at Marxist scholarship. Just because millionaires pump all that money into right-wing foundations and think-tanks that devote so much effort to attacking left-wing professors and whatnot doesn’t mean a thing. The real problem goes all the way back to Marx, who wasted his time writing obscure technical garbage and doing research in the British Museum. He should have burnt it down instead.

    Comment by Scott McLemee — May 6, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

  17. Louis, whatever your arguments with the Historical Materialism organisers, I don’t think it quite makes sense to link them with the British SWP, since the two groups have just gone through a rather painful divorce

    Comment by James Heartfield — May 6, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

  18. I don’t know how painful it was considering the fact that Paul Blackledge was a panelist at the conference. I am willing to bet, btw, that within a year the British SWP will be considered kosher once again in such circles. Quite frankly, I was shocked to see an article by Edward Rooksby in the latest Socialist Review defending SYRIZA. I sent him a FB message asking if he was still in the SWP even though he had come out with a critique of the group in line with Richard Seymour et al. He told me that he was no longer a member but they had invited him to submit something as part of a public discussion of groups like SYRIZA. You can not underestimate the importance that the SWP attaches to this kind of networking. With Blackledge’s foot in the door, there will be growing acceptance of the SWP as “part of the movement”, at least that part with PhD’s attached to their name.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 6, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  19. The capitalist class can survive into the future with only training manuals and technical charts. The working-class, to triumph, needs books. Books that contain prospects for the future and lessons of the past.

    Comment by Dave R. — May 6, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

  20. Maybe from afar it makes sense to you to say that the SWP is ‘excluded from the movement’, but on the ground, the SWP still make up a larger part of ‘the movement’ in Britain than any other group – if by ‘movement’ you mean the protests against hospital closures or the ‘Bedroom Tax’ etc. The one place that they have been successfully, excluded, is the Historical Materialism conference (witness Alex Callinicos ignominious dis-invitation from the Delhi leg of the HM world tour). The man of whom you complain so bitterly is one of those who has been firming up the anti-SWP ‘shunning’.

    I tend to agree with you that there is a bit of pseudo-intellectual snobbery around these events, and also that Chibber’s comments sound untoward, and even that your posting was more posture than specific threat, but associating the ISO with the SWP does not make a lot of sense when it seems from here that the ISO have been quietly supportive of the ISN break away.

    Comment by James Heartfield — May 6, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

  21. Well, I’ll take you at your word, James. I guess my main point is that compared to anything I said or did vis-a-vis Chibber, it did not begin to compare with the real violence that Martin Smith perpetrated against a young woman as well as the threats mounted against Mieville, Seymour and company. That being said, I doubt that anybody would have actually beaten them up. The business about “lynch mobs” was nothing but verbal abuse. At any rate, with my eyes being in as bad a shape as they are, I could barely make out a nose to punch.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 6, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

  22. Scott McLemee is comparing the output of HM to the works of Marx. I just want everybody to take that in for a few moments. Okay, back to reality: Scott, yes, because if it wasn’t for the right-wing think tanks and their millionaire backers, we would currently be living under The Communism, with a society controlled by the obvious vanguards of HM (if this was the case, may God save us from The Communism – can anybody imagine these guys actually gaving power?). Whenever anybody criticizes cliques such as HM, they are immediately charged with this thing called ‘anti-intellectualism’, which belies their understanding of themselves as some sort of intellectual avant-garde, the natural leaders of the bovine masses … if only those bloody right-wing think tanks … attacking left-wing professors … we don’t need a revolution or a revolutionary party, we need a very large book club. Of course I’m not criticising intellectuals whatever, but rather the fact that alleged revolutionaries are engaging in academic practices that are innately elitist and thus terminally obscure. It truly is a Marxism of despair – one that not only has no wish to expand, but one that is active in ensuring that it does not do so. This is the fundamental problem with ‘vanguardism’: it necessetizes an eltie priest class, which is obviously always constituted by those most able to learn the entire ‘theology’ of Marxism required to be included in the ‘priest class’. In our case, it is mainly white, privileged, middle class intellectuals. It’s really not about individuals, but rather why this form of organization (of which HM is only a mere symptom of) has been a complete failure. Marx famously said that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, and it is apparent that many modern Marxists don’t even understand the extent to which this statement is true (including Lenin, Trosky and the Bolsheviks) – it applies most strikingly and most ironically to their own damn ‘Marxism’!

    Comment by Peter James Rose — May 6, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

  23. The capitalist class can survive into the future with only training manuals and technical charts. The working-class, to triumph, needs books. Books that contain prospects for the future and lessons of the past.


    Did the workers who made the Paris Commune read about how to do so before hand? Not a chance. Maybe the ones who did the October Revolution? Couldn’t be them since they were almost all illiterate. The Hungarian Revolution maybe? Don’t think so. The only books they could get their hands on justified the regime they rose up against.

    Revolutions don’t come from books or ideology, they come from material conditions and contradictions.

    And thankfully so since the vast majority of working people in a country like the US haven’t read a book in years if in fact they have ever read them at all.

    Books (and more so now the internet, with things like discussion boards that are more democratic and open to regular people) are avenues for the ideas within society to get out, influencing and aiding proletarian militants in these non-revolutionary period so they can later influence a working class “for itself” in motion.

    Plus there’s a big difference between tackling practical issues and dwelling purely in the realm of ideas, which really obscure shit that has no relevance to anything other than its own closed ecosystem. Remember what Marx said about philosophy and masturbation. It applies well to things like lectures to graduate students at the New School and conferences at NYU.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 6, 2013 @ 6:35 pm

  24. The philosophy of the capitalist class is pragmatism – the science of what is needed to make profits and live to see another day. But that is not the philosophy of the worker’s movement. We need to study the lessons of the past to be successful in the future. And by books I had in mind things like Capital, the Communist Manifesto, The Origin of the Family, State and Private Property, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, State and Revolution, the History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed, all of which have been devoured by successive generations of fighters, often times in the heat of the battle. More recent examples might include The Teamster Series by Farrell Dobbs and the works of Malcolm X.

    Comment by Dave R. — May 6, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

  25. @A Book by Dostoyevsky

    All Russia was learning to read, and reading—politics, economics, history—because the people wanted to know. . . . In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper—sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts—but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky.—John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World

    Comment by Jeremiah — May 6, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

  26. That wasn’t before the revolution, i.e. that’s not what led to the revolution.

    “Marx believed that the conditions of life and work of the proletariat would force the working class to behave in ways that would ultimately transform society. In other words, what Marx said was: We’re not talking about going door-to-door and making workers into ideal socialists. You’ve got to take workers as they are, with all their contradictions, with all their nonsense. But the fact that society forces them to struggle begins to transform the working class. If white workers realize they can’t organize steel unless they organize black workers, that doesn’t mean they’re not racist. It means that they have to deal with their own reality, and that transforms them. Who were the workers who made the Russian Revolution? Sexists, nationalists, half of them illiterate. Who were the workers in Polish Solidarity? Anti-Semitic, whatever. That kind of struggle begins to transform people.” – Marty Glaberman

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 7, 2013 @ 6:37 am

  27. re comment 26- from A Book by Dostoyevsky– You are kind of missing the point, Fyodor. Academics, intellectuals do what academics and intellectuals do. You think that’s worthless? Then don’t go to their conferences, unless of course your narcissism and self-aggrandizing personality compel you to go to such worthless conferences, as is the case with our unrepentant Marxist. Some people study history, some people write film reviews. So what? If you want to engage with either, then engage with the content of what is being passed around, not the fact that some people are academics who have academic conferences, or might be connected to this or that organization.

    Glaberman says some or half the workers are illiterate? No shit– but guess what, that’s a condition to be overcome, not glorified, not regarded as a credential of authenticity.

    Re our unrepentant Marxist– he was doing a bit of self-advertising– getting in touch with his inner Norman Mailer which resides next to his inner Howard Stern I guess. But that’s the problem, because when you start advertising, when you start raffling off woof tickets, you never know who’s going to buy one or more, and make a point of redeeming it, or them.

    And thank you for the plug, although Proyect will probably delete this comment.

    Comment by S. Artesian — May 8, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  28. It’s not glorified. It’s a point made. You help illustrate it without even knowing it.

    While what Louis writes (and the way he writes it) makes it accessible to the majority of the population in a place like the US, your stuff is frankly not only nearly unintelligible but completely uninteresting to all but a miniscule sliver of people anywhere on this earth. So even if I disagree with Louis on the majority of the political questions discussed here, I can appreciate this blog and understand why it gets so many hits and comments, while a blog like yours gets a comment about as often as Disney puts out a watchable film (which is to say next to never).

    But you’ve said before that you don’t have a problem with that. So what’s the diff? Like it or not, you belong to the same rarefied group as the professional Marxists based mainly in academia, even if you try to throw up some street cred to differentiate yourself. Didn’t you say somewhere you made your living in management, fighting to wrench concessions out of union workers?

    Why not just accept your fate and show up at the next NYU Presents ‘Socialism and the Struggle of Overweight Adjuncts in the American Midwest in March of 1963’ conference singing that Janettes song “We Belong To Each Other”?

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 8, 2013 @ 6:23 pm

  29. I don’t believe in fate. Never show up at any academic functions because they’re boring. Sorry you can’t understand what I wrote on Cyprus or the origins of the Great Recession, but that’s your personal problem.

    I tell what I did to make a living: I made my living running railroads. Making them function efficiently, and most importantly safety. You might want to look at the trend in accident rates on railroads over the past 40 years and the steps that had to be taken to make that a reality. Wrenching concessions from workers? Right– making sure they performed their jobs properly, so they didn’t kill people. That was the concession I demanded from workers, I proud to say. You truly don’t know what you’re talking about.

    And..I’m not overweight.

    Comment by S. Artesian — May 9, 2013 @ 2:01 am

  30. Management for Socialism ©, Jews for Jesus, neo-nazis for racial equality, and other oxy-morons: on the next Maury.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 9, 2013 @ 6:41 am

  31. Never said I “managed for socialism.” I managed for money. But please, tell us what “concessions” I “wrenched”? Compensation? Average compensation of the unionized employee was over $100,000/per year when I left. This included full medical, at no cost to unionized employees, which was maintained post retirement; and 2, yes 2, defined-benefit pension plans. Givebacks? There were none. None in work rules, none in wages, none in benefits.

    Anybody interested, and I doubt that anyone is, can contact me privately. You… you can just keep on making stuff up because it suits you.

    Comment by S. Artesian — May 9, 2013 @ 10:39 am

  32. living in the usa, the first rule in securing employment has to be ‘do no harm’

    Comment by jp — May 9, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

  33. Reading problem? That would explain why what you write is so muddled. You are management. Someone from management being for socialism is like a cop upping the Black Panthers.

    Comment by A Book by Dostoyevsky — May 9, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

  34. Any evidence of “concessions” you claim were wrenched? You made an assertion. Can you provide any evidence. I have no qualms about what I did to make a living. Now if you have any evidence to back your claim that I “wrenched” or attempt to “wrench concessions”– then present it. You don’t like the fact that I worked as a manager? Good for you, and who cares?

    I don’t pretend to be a great proletarian revolutionist, organizing a little bitty vanguard party to lead workers, or to sell woof tickets at HM conferences. I like reading Marx and I like trying to apply his critique to current and historical conditions.

    Comment by S. Artesian — May 10, 2013 @ 3:10 am

  35. Why would Blackledge be bothered about Martin Smith’s behaviour ? Paul was and still may be a destructive sex addict when I knew him in the SWP in Newcastle (where he studied). Now he’s carved out a nice little career as an academic marxist. History Man ring a bell ? It’s a long way from his Wigan working class roots but so what ?

    Comment by Neil Proud — May 11, 2013 @ 12:11 am

  36. S. Artesian: “Glaberman says some or half the workers are illiterate? No shit– but guess what, that’s a condition to be overcome, not glorified, not regarded as a credential of authenticity.”

    Yes it is a condition to be ‘overcome’, but in this age of almost total literacy in western countries, one can’t help but feel that it is the ‘Marxists’ who are truly ‘illiterate’: They speak and write in an obscure, wholly self-referential language understood to only the initiated few (the kind of people who frequent Marxist conferences). The vast majority of people remain utterly alienated from Marxism, not because of the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie, but because Marxism itself has, in many ways, taken on the dimensions of the bourgeois academy. Nobody here is arguing that Marxism does not require, as part of its relation to, and rejection of, the ‘real’ world, serious intellectual and academic discourses, but rather that Marxism is becoming ever more a *purely* academic project – the pedantic playground of Marxian anoraks and fanatical, fetishistic archivists. That’s only one ‘wing’ of the Marxian academy; the other wing is, if anything, worse – I’m referring to those who have more than just a taste for the esoteric and the mystical, those Neo-Hegelian high priests of inanity and polysemy-to-the-point-of-obscurity.

    The academic Marxism we encounter today perfectly, and devastatingly, reflects the imbalances and contradictions of neoliberalism – it is a ‘neoliberal Marxism’, not by the quality of its thought (which obviously, and strikingly, isn’t at all homogeneous), but by its form and function. It is an elite field, filled to the brim with elite specialists, who are, for the most part, only inwardly engaged. It is a Marxism of despair.

    Comment by Peter James Rose — May 11, 2013 @ 11:46 am

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