Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 11, 2013

From an interview with Vivek Chibber’s bête noire

Filed under: Academia,india — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

Ranajit Guha

From an interview with Ranajit Guha by Milinda Banerjee in 2010. The full interview is here: http://www.sai.uni-heidelberg.de/history/download/ranajit_guha_interview_2.2.11.pdf

MB: Have you always been so ideologically churned by Tagore and by Bengali literary culture, or is it something which has become important in your mature years?

RG: I had engaged with these in my youth as well, though these issues then were not so apparently visible. Rather, what I felt more explicitly was my passion for social justice for the poor, and Marxism was therefore attractive. Coming from a khas taluqdar [a class of landlords who were technically not zamindars, but who, like zamindars, paid revenue directly to the State in colonial Bengal] family of Barisal in East Bengal, I had witnessed the structure of zamindar-praja [the Permanent Settlement of 1793 bestowed property rights on land in Bengal to a class of people termed the zamindars. Below the zamindars were their ‘prajas’ or‘subjects’ who cultivated their land and paid them rent] relations in rural society, which left a profound impression on me. In my student days at Presidency College, Calcutta, I became a Marxist, and a member of the Communist Party. In the late 1940s, I spent a considerable part of time in Europe involved in Communist Party work. However, I also gradually started getting alienated from doctrinaire Communist Party Marxism. Experiences of the USSR’s handling of the political situation in Eastern Europe, disenchantment with the Communist Party of India’s internal factional squabbles for power, and finally the Soviet invasion of Hungary, made me decide to leave the Communist Party. Later, I became something of a Naxalite intellectual. I still consider myself to have been inspired by Charu Mazumdar’s ideas which, I think, contain a lot of validity. But Charu Mazumdar [the foremost intellectual and political leader of the ‘ultra-left’ Naxalite movement which erupted in West Bengal in the late 1960s, spread to the rest of the India, and continues to be the founding moment of the Maoist peasant insurgency of the present day] and his followers were weak in organizational capability, which resulted in the movement being crushed. I have elsewhere condemned the role of some intellectuals in Indira Gandhi’s period who supported her moves to crush the revolt and praised many of her activities, for instance, the running of trains on time during the Emergency.

The doctrinaire Marxism of the Indian Communist Party was poor in appreciation of real Marxist philosophy. They had a very simplistic understanding of Marxism and most of them had not read the original books. The disenchantment with this doctrinaire Marxism provoked me to explore the philosophical complexities of Marx, which in turn led me to Hegel. Hegel has tremendously inspired me.

[Maybe Guha should be read out of the Marxist movement for hailing Hegel, but then again Lenin studied Hegel at the outbreak of WWI to figure out what went wrong in the social democracy. But we can’t have that, can we?]

May 10, 2013

SWP madness

Filed under: housing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

No, I am not talking about the British group but the Americans who are far nuttier and far more peripheral. I generally don’t pay any attention to them, but in this instance the nuttiness is so transcendental that it demands commentary. In an article in the latest Militant newspaper, something I used to sell avidly and that Malcolm X hailed, there’s a warning that the government is up to no good by seducing workers, particularly African-Americans, into buying houses. It points to the following:

According to recent articles on the WND.com website and in the Investor’s Business Daily, the Justice Department has:

— Threatened banks with lawsuits if they don’t push loans in “minority communities” and demanded lenders open branches in working-class neighborhoods of cities hard-hit by foreclosures like Detroit and St. Louis.

— Forced big mortgage lenders like Wells Fargo and Bank of America to provide 30-year loans to what banks refer to as “high-risk” borrowers under threat of prosecution.

— Issued orders mandating lenders advertise in “minority media” and offer loans to people on public assistance.

— Resurrected a Clinton-era regulation that warns lenders they must be more flexible with minority home buyers with weak credit to make up for “past discrimination.”

To start with, it is of some interest that they cite wnd.com. This, for those who don’t follow the American ultraright, is World News Daily. On their home page, you can find a reader’s poll that asks: “What do you think of U.S. government inviting Muslim cleric who disparaged dead Navy SEALs at their own funeral?” The website was founded by Joseph Farah, a rightwing nut who was deeply involved in the campaign to prove that Obama was not born in Hawaii. Apparently he also believes that soybeans cause homosexuality, although no amount of tofu over the past 11 years of marriage have diminished my desire for my wife.

Now 9 years ago, when the SWP was still clinging to sanity, it featured an article on housing that stated:  “In the 1970s numerous cases of redlining—where banks would not grant mortgages to renovate or build new apartments, especially in Black or Puerto Rican neighborhoods—were challenged and some lending terms were improved. While many of the most blatant practices were ended, banks and insurance companies continue to use discriminatory methods.”

As is so often the case, this nutty cult reverses positions without bothering to provide readers with an explanation.

They do invoke Engels, as they have in the past:  “In his booklet The Housing Question, written in 1872-73, communist leader Frederick Engels described how the bosses use home ownership to tie workers to the capitalist system, entangling us in debt that conservatizes us and makes us less mobile.”

Unless of course you are the leader of the SWP who lives in a snazzy West Village loft:

If bow-tied, cigar-mouthed Republicans can have nice seven-digit, six-room co-ops, don’t a few old Manhattan communists deserve multi-million-dollar real estate, too?

A two-bedroom loft at 380 West 12th Street, a 109-year-old building on a cobblestone block by the Hudson River, was sold by American socialist leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. Their buyers, Sony BMG Music Entertainment vice president Ole Obermann and his fiancée, Stephanie Jakubiak, paid $1,872,500.

“I don’t want to hurt the sellers’ feelings at all, but they definitely had a funky style in terms of how they did the apartment,” said Mr. Obermann. That means there are sliding stained-glass doors, plus a wall of bookshelves. (Ms. Waters is the president of publishing house Pathfinder Press, which publishes Marx and Trotsky, and Mr. Barnes, too.)

“Personally, our tastes are different and we’ll probably do something different,” the buyer said. “It will be open, airy, simple, whereas when it was done 15 years ago there was a lot of light-colored wood shelving.” He’s adding six or so wireless speakers, “a nice music system.”

full: http://observer.com/2007/07/communists-capitalize-on-village-saleget-187-m-for-loft/

Wang Bing: cinematic bard of the Chinese working-class and peasantry

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

In trying to explain to my wife the importance of Wang Bing’s tripartite, 9 hour documentary “West of the Tracks”, I described it as the equivalent of a time machine transporting a video camera back to 18th century Britain and into the hands of someone like Thomas Gray or William Blake—poets appalled by the rise of capitalism. In 1999 the 32-year-old film school graduate, went to Shenyang, a heavily industrialized city, with a small rented DV camera in order to capture a moment in time when the “iron rice bowl” would become a thing of the past. While the film itself is about as unadorned as the videos that I tend to make, their impact is overwhelming as Chinese workers confront their imminent demise as benefactors of one of the 20th century’s most powerful revolutions. Now they were becoming the equivalent of British self-sustaining small farmers dispossessed by the enclosure acts.

“West of the Tracks” is not easy to come by. I was able to borrow a copy from Columbia University’s well-stocked film library, but it is worth tracking down. But for those fortunate enough to be in close proximity to Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives, I strongly recommend Wang Bing’s latest—“Three Sisters”—that opens today. It follows his long-form, cinema vérité approach but it is much more polished, even to the point of being described as an object of beauty, even as it depicts an ugly scenario, namely the bitter fortunes of impoverished peasants left out of China’s “economic miracle”.

The first part of “West of the Tracks” is aptly titled “Rust” and takes place almost entirely in the massive zinc and copper smelting plants in Shenyang as workers go about their jobs. Much of the action takes place in break rooms where they play cards or Mahjong and speculate about the pending bankruptcy of the state-owned factories that have provided them with health care, lunch, free housing, pensions and other benefits. Like their counterparts in places like Detroit or Cleveland, these are workers who are rapidly becoming redundant. The strain on their psyches is palpable as the opening scene depicts. A pointless argument in the break room leads a drunken worker to fisticuffs with those he has been annoying. As the fight winds down, he confesses that it is entirely his fault. He should not have gotten drunk.

Wang Bing’s use of cinema vérité functions both as a way of capturing lives in their messy, quotidian essence as well as a way of avoiding censorship. Just about every Chinese documentary filmmaker avoids making Michael Moore type agitprop since that would risk leading to the same fate as artist Ai Weiwei. As a gimmick that reminds me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in most of his films, Wang Bing tips off his audience that it is still a movie and not reality. In part three of “West of the Tracks”, he shows a junk collector at his home near the rail yards picking up his pet dog Maomao, holding him up to the camera, and announcing: “Look at the camera, Maomao. Let them take your picture.” In “Three Sisters”, we see the father of the three young girls, who are the subjects of the documentary, get on a bus that will take him to a nearby city in search of a factory job. The bus driver then asks him for a ticket. He replies that he has already given him one. “Not yours”, the bus driver says, “one for the guy with the camera.”

Part two is titled “Remnants” and depicts the forced relocation of Shenyang’s workers who are losing their company housing to demolition. In every case, they are not only getting smaller flats that will force at least one family member to be left out; they are also required to pay a hefty price for being given that privilege. With most of the workers already a victim of layoffs, much of the film shows them passing time in their old neighborhood as they reflect on the raw deal they have gotten. There is no organized resistance shown in Wang Bing’s film since that would risk censorship or worse but the film gives you a good idea why 180,000 reported incidents of organized protests took place in 2010.

“Rails”, the final part, is about railroad workers whose trains operate in and about Shenyang’s industrial yards. As is the case in part one, most of the action takes place on the job and in break rooms but unlike part one the workers are less stressed out since they will likely not be impacted by plant closings. Although they refer to each other as “comrade”, there is little evidence of the workers thinking in broad political terms. As long as they have a job and the money to spend on prostitutes or Karaoke bars, they will accept the new system that is unfolding. The most moving part of “Rails” involves the aforementioned junk dealer who makes his rounds in the rail yards looking for discarded metal to sell in local marketplaces. One night some cops arrest him for an unauthorized collection, leaving his young son to suffer what amounts to a nervous breakdown. It is a graphic reminder of the cruelty of those with the power to enforce capitalist law and order in the new China.

As my regular readers probably know by now, my emphasis is on politics rather than style. That being said, it is worth noting what “Jump Cut”, a magazine geared to the byways of America’s film schools, had to say:

The four shots are taken from a camera mounted on the front of a small goods train as it traverses and penetrates Tiexi District’s factories and residential areas.  Snowflakes stick to the lens as if to one’s eyelashes, and this snow sticking, along with the occasional small jerk given to the camera by the old railroad tracks, serves to make the cinematography tangible, vulnerable, almost human.  Thus the camera does not just observe or record; it stares, it braves, it searches, and it salvages.

If much of the film’s stylistic power is arguably unintentional, there is little doubt that Wang Bing’s latest is a finely wrought work of art.

“Three Sisters” is shot in a remote and mountainous farming village where three young girls are fending for themselves in what amounts to a hut. Their mother abandoned the family long ago and the father has been forced to look for work in the nearest city.

Yingying is 10 and amounts to the head of the household that consists of her, her 6-year-old sister Zhenzhen, and Fenfen, the youngest who is 4. Like “West of the Tracks”, the 153-minute film is made up of the quotidian existence of humble people, in this instance not only humble but also highly vulnerable. Yingying is always picking lice out of her sibling’s hair while all three have coughs that alarmingly never go away.

Their grandfather lives nearby and tries to look after them as best he can but he has his own meager existence to look after. The children have little to look forward to outside of a visit from their father who brings them new clothes from the city or to festivals in the village that provide a good meal for the hungry.

Notwithstanding the obvious suffering, there is also much inspiration in watching three children trying to shore up each other against all odds. Yingying has almost unbelievable fortitude for a 10-year-old.

The village is perpetually cloaked in a fog that lends it the aura of a Bronte novel. When Yingying goes to a nearby mountaintop to look after her grandfather’s flock of sheep, you hear a constant rumbling as if in an approaching storm. It takes a while to figure out that the sound is that of the unrelenting wind rather than thunder. Wang Bing had the bright idea to remove the windscreen from his microphone to achieve this dramatic effect.

According to a 2008 World Bank report, 948 million people live on less than $5 per day in China. One imagines that if the three children had $4.99 per day to survive on, they would feel as if they won the lottery.

Recently it was reported that Mao Zedong’s granddaughter Kong Dongmei is worth about $815 million, placing her 242nd on Chinese magazine New Fortune’s 500 Rich List for 2013. Those in China, who share director Wang Bing’s values, call these Forbes type lists “sha zhu bang” or “kill pig list.

In March 1927 Mao Zedong wrote a “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” that stated:

In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly.

Surely as the conditions described in Wang Bing’s documentaries continue, there will be another “mighty storm” that will eventually sweep away the likes of Mao’s granddaughter. Ironically, despite the lack of a revolutionary party, it is a good sign that documentary filmmakers are serving as a kind of cultural vanguard exposing the rot at the heart of this vicious system. Sooner or later, the workers and peasants will mobilize as well to make another revolution to sweep “corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves” once again.

May 9, 2013

Uday Chandra on Vivek Chibber

Filed under: india,postcolonialism — louisproyect @ 7:01 am

(I don’t know who Chandra is, but he is a FB friend of John Game, a scholar of Indian history and politics.)

Uday Chandra: My view is that left critics of poco [postcolonial] theory do not need their own AV. Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner, Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial studies. It is even more unfortunate that “enlightenment values” and “human rights” are being bandied about in this way. And even more so that Chibber has acted in a way that has pissed many off even as Partha and others make clever and evasive arguments that avoid the very real problems with SS [Subaltern Studies].

But coming to the substance of the book, I would like to draw everyone’s attention to pp. 24-25. Here, Chibber highlights the “explanatory failure” and then the “critical failure” of SS [Subaltern Studies]. Chibber argues that SS “systematically misrepresents the relationship between capitalism and modernity” by 1) “obscuring the former” and 2) “denying it altogether.” But, to the best of my knowledge, the grand task of explaining the relationship between capitalism and modernity is not SS’s aim at all. That is Chibber’s problem, not theirs or even mine. SS’s aim, as the recollections of Guha and Chakrabarty rightly point out, was to bring the Thompsonian sensibilities of “history from below” into conversation with a radical critique of postcolonial Indian state formation under the Congress-led bourgeoisie. There was a historiographic context and a political context, not the imaginary aims that Chibber imputes to it.

Several scholars more capable than Chibber have pointed out that Guha, Chatterjee, etc, misread Gramsci in multiple ways in order to make their arguments about subalternity. It is also true that the “moral economy” framework in peasant studies appealed to these scholars as a nice critique of the then-dominant modernization theory. And, unlike their Cambridge and Indian counterparts, SS historians largely ignored the turn away from moral economy in peasant studies. A parallel reading of the evolution of SS and peasant studies over the 1980s and 1990s will be instructive in this regard. But Chibber isn’t interested in anything so empirical. He is after Theory, grand, universal, totalizing and macho (so yes, the gendering is important too). And on p. 10, Chibber explicitly makes the case for his more masculinist Marxism: “[Their] Marxism, therefore, is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be recognized as such by many contemporary Marxists.” And so, the battle of the swinging dicks began: whose dick, er Marxism, is bigger and better? By making it into a high-stakes ideological encounter, Chibber set the ball rolling for his eventual humiliation at the hands of the cunning Chatterjee.

On the question of Capital’s progress in the colonial versus the European world, I think Chibber and all of us would be better served reading some of Dave Washbrook’s seminal papers from the 1980s. He engaged extensively with Wallerstein’s world systems theory, peasant studies scholarship, early modern historiography, and SS to come up with certain excellent points about colonial political economy in South Asia and beyond. The thesis that the colonial state, represented by a bunch of white men and their Indian collaborators, “traditionalized” and sedentarized Indian society in the domains of kinship, land, labor, and capital remains as important as ever. Parallel to the work of Mahmood Mamdani, Fred Cooper, Sally Falk Moore, the Comaroffs and others, we now understand that capitalism in the colonial world was married to cultural forms and social relations of production (customary laws over land and religion, for example) that are structurally different from their analogues in North America or Western Europe. These are not “cultural” differences, but differences in the way modes of production and social relations of production interact with each other. The colonial world can still be profitably compared to Eastern Europe and Russia, of course, but the contrast with the North Atlantic world remains intact.

When capital is tied to the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) by colonial law or when certain social relations known as “tribal” are deemed to prevail in land matters, the colonial state was knowingly ruling through exceptions to the universal liberal narrative it knew from Whig history-writing in England/Europe. SS merely repeats this, as do Washbrook & Co. Now, as you say Nate, HUF property laws may well facilitate the workings of capital in some respects by channeling it along pre-existing kinship networks. But the stagnation of the Indian economy in the later nineteenth century is a very real phenomenon, and the decline of indigenous capital that thrived until mid-century is analyzed far better in Cambridge histories than in SS. The failure of the Whig project of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal is another real failure for the early colonial project of creating an improving landlord class. Indeed, this is the historiographic consensus on law, state, and agrarian society in colonial India. Capital IS interrupted in more ways than one imagines, and if you see what’s happening today with chiefs in Ghana or South Africa, you’ll see how forms of political authority shored up by the colonial state and reinvented traditions are placing clear limits to the social logic of the market economy. This is not to say that social relations established under the colonial regime cannot facilitate capitalism under certain contexts. For example, the biggest beneficiaries of the Bengal famine of 1943 were, ironically, Marwari merchants, including the likes of GD Birla who financed the Gandhian Congress then during the Quit India movement. As Partha noted at the end, it is not only (as in his earlier work) a matter of showing that subalterns resisted capital in the margins of the capitalist world economy, but also that contemporary Indian and Chinese capitalisms, for example, continue to be shaped by cultural-economic forms that are different from European trajectories. I see the Comaroffs making much the same claims with respect to zombies and millennial capitalism in southern Africa. Chibber doesn’t read people like the Comaroffs or Washbrook, but if he did, he’d realize how bad his strawmanning tactics are.

In sun, these are complex matters that cannot be approached in the crude sledgehammer style that Chibber uses throughout the book. I am with Jean Comaroff, who, in a recent interview, speaks of the dialectic between the cultural and the material as the most salient theme in her own work. The Comaroffs have never shied away from bold claims, and they’ve never bought into the post-Writing Culture turn in US anthro. Capitalism is central to their narratives and theorizing, but never at the expense of a deep understanding of what colonialism, Christianity, neoliberalism, etc meant to ordinary Africans in existential terms. Alas, neither SS nor Chibber are capable of doing the same in the South Asian context. This is why we need different post-subalternist narratives, Marxist or not, that will avoid the mindless warfare we are witnessing now between two left factions in the Western academy. I am not saying we shouldn’t fight the SS orthodoxy that reigns today – frankly, Partha himself is all too keen to move beyond SS, especially its (and his) earlier claims. But we must do it in ways that understand clearly what SS tried to do and failed. Whether that resuscitates Marxism or not globally is a different question that I’ll let the fighting vanguards decide.

May 8, 2013

Response to Gilbert Achcar statement

Filed under: Academia,British SWP — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

(My comments are in italics.)

On 5/8/13 2:42 AM, Gilbert Achcar wrote:

WHY I DECIDED TO MAINTAIN MY PARTICIPATION IN THE SWP’S *MARXISM 2013*

Gilbert Achcar

The campaign against the SWP is taking a regrettable turn. It now includes attempts at intimidating those participating in Marxism 2013, including myself, into withdrawing from the conference. The SWP is being described as a “socialist rapist party” and taking part in the conference as an “apology of rapism”.

You can call the SWP whatever you want but the fact is that a key leader of the party was protected from the consequences of the most brutal act of violence against women.

Whatever one thinks of the crisis in the SWP and the behaviour of its leadership, such terms applied to a whole party ­– the largest on the British radical left – and to the open forum that the party organizes each year are outrageous. They reveal the regrettable persistence of a certain mindset on the left, a mindset the origin of which is known all too well and for which anathemas and excommunication are substitutes for political fight.

Nobody advocates “anathema and excommunication”, as if that term applied. Instead, it is a reaction by some leading figures on the left to refrain from accepting invitations to speak at their Summer Carnival of Marxism because of the failure of the SWP leadership to clean up its act. “Anathema and excommunication” would instead describe what happened to the Trotskyist movement for most of the 30s through the 50s when it was routinely blocked from joining social movements, trade unions, etc. by a hegemonic Communist Party.

I do not recall any such attitude towards innumerable left parties the leaderships of which are guilty of much worse than what the SWP is accused of. To give but one example, I have accepted in the past invitations by the French Communist Party to their annual Fête de l’Humanité, as do regularly countless intellectual and activists who are deeply critical of that party. Had I regarded participating in such open forums as an endorsement of the party’s political, organisational or ethical record, which I deem to be incomparably worse than that of the SWP in all respects, I would have never accepted. Instead, I regarded my participation as an opportunity to engage with the public who attend such events, be they party members or non-members, and defend my own views, which differ from those of the party. No one ever blamed me for that.

This is a bogus analogy. The CP in France was not responsible for repression in the USSR. By the 1960s the CP’s in capitalist countries had evolved into social democratic type formations whose connection to the Moscow Trials, etc. mostly consisted of a refusal to disavow their own history. If the French CP, on the other hand, was as tiny as the SWP and had 9 rape investigations on its record, that might be another story.

I do firmly believe that the crisis in the SWP is a worrying symptom of a deeply-rooted problem pertaining to a vitiated conception and form of organisation. Regrettably, a few of the SWP’s opponents worldwide are taking this same vitiated tradition to extremes in the way they practice SWP-bashing. It is high time for the radical left to get rid entirely of that tradition if it is ever to regenerate.

8 May 2013

Sorry, Gilbert, the “tradition” we need to get rid of is thuggery on the left. When a minority faction in the SWP was formed to clean house, its members were shouted down and threatened with violence. Meanwhile, Alex Callinicos–author of 27 books–speculated that “lynch mobs” might arise if the minority refused to abide by the rules shoved down its throat by an anti-democratic majority. If that is the kind of gathering you want to attend, be my guest.

 

May 7, 2013

Guest speakers at the 2013 Socialist Rapist Conference

Filed under: Academia,British SWP,sexism — louisproyect @ 6:35 am

http://www.marxismfestival.org.uk/speakers.htm

Paul Le Blanc
Paul Le Blanc is an author and activist flying in from the United States for Marxism 2013. His many books include “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party”, and “Black Liberation and the American Dream”. He will speak on “The history and future of Lenininism” [Is that anything like Troskyismism?]

Gilbert Achcar
His many publications include “The Arabs and the Holocaust”.  His new book “The People Want: a Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising” is out this year.

Plus Alan Freeman and Radhika Desai who seem to live for these things.

May 5, 2013

Take an indefinite vacation

Filed under: Obama,prison,repression — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

Brian McFadden in today’s NY Times.

Letter to a Harvard professor on Karl Marx

Filed under: india,Russia — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

Dear Professor Peter E. Gordon,

In your New Republic review of Sperber’s new bio of Marx, you write:

“The outbreak of Bolshevik revolution a little more than three decades after his death would have struck him as a startling violation of his own historical principle that bourgeois society and industrialization must reach their fullest expression before the proletariat gains the class-consciousness that it requires to seize political control.”

Despite your Harvard credentials (or perhaps in light of them, given Niall Ferguson’s foot-in-mouth disease), you show a shocking unawareness of Marx’s late writings on Russia. In letters to Danielson and Zasulich, he warned exactly against the interpretation you proffer to New Republic’s readers.

In an 1881 letter to Zasulich, he stated:

“Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian ‘rural commune’ can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, WITHOUT PASSING THROUGH THE CAPITALIST REGIME, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.”

You can find out more about this in Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marxism”, a book you would find most edifying, I’m sure.

You also state: “In one of his many columns for  The New York Tribune, he reasoned that British imperialism, however regrettable, was a historical necessity: only via modernization could India overcome its heritage of ‘Oriental despotism’.”

Once again you demonstrate a shocking unfamiliarity with Marx’s later thinking. I would refer you to the chapter in Aijaz Ahmad’s “In Theory: Classes, Nations and Literatures” titled “Marx on India: a Clarification.”

Even in Marx’s earlier writings, he qualified the benefits of capitalist modernization by saying in 1853: “The Indian will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the new ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether.”

And, more to the point, in an 1881 letter to Danielson that reflects his total break with the “stagism” you attribute to him, he noted:

“In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, are in store for the British government. What the British take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless for the Hindoos, pensions for the military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc. etc., — what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, — speaking only of the commodities that Indians have to gratuitously and annually send over to England — it amounts to more than the total sum of the income of the 60 million of agricultural and industrial laborers of India. This is a bleeding process with a vengeance.”

A bleeding process with a vengeance.

This, Professor Gordon, notwithstanding your and Sperber’s insistence that Marx belongs to the 19th century, is what makes him very much a 21st century figure since “A bleeding process with a vengeance” is a perfect description of the garment factory disaster in Bangladesh and the suicide epidemic in India of small farmers who have no future. I understand, of course, that a magazine owned by a Facebook billionaire rests on the assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, but in the interests of serious Marx scholarship I would urge you to do your homework.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxism mailing list

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.

May 3, 2013

Desperate Acts of Magic

Filed under: Film,magic — louisproyect @ 9:37 pm

“Desperate Acts of Magic” can be described as a film that does for the world of professional magicians what “The Wrestler” did for another spectator pastime based on illusion. Despite its lighter tone, it probes the depths of a subculture that clearly rests on the foundations of insecure egos just as wrestling depends on beefed up bodies.

We meet the main character Jason Kant at a meeting of coworkers at the I.T. company where he works as a database administrator, a position I held for over a decade while I pursued my own kinds of illusions after working hours. Jason’s head and heart is not really in databases. It is in magic. While the meeting is going over technical matters, Jason minds start to drift toward the coin trick he has been perfecting. While manipulating it between two fingers, he accidentally propels it across the conference table and into the blouse of a co-worker and between her breasts.

The next day he is fired and forced to follow his true passion. Watching this scene made me wonder if I had been better off being fired myself long ago. While leaving the office with his belongings, he runs into a beautiful woman working as a shill for a three-card monte dealer who picks his wallet.

That night she calls him up to let him know that she went to magic camp with him long ago and would like to have dinner with him to get a handle on the magic scene in L.A. He only figures out later in the restaurant that she is the person who picked his wallet. When the bill comes for the meal, she picks the wallet of the guy at the next table to pay for it.

While wary of her criminal side, Jason finds her irresistibly beautiful. He explains to her that he is turning pro and needs someone to work as his assistant. She bristles at the suggestion, telling him that there is nothing more sexist than women serving as a male magician’s assistant in a Playboy Bunny outfit. A day later he meets up with her and says that he wants her to be his partner and not just his assistant. Furthermore, the magic act will be a satire on sexism in the business that features a climactic trick that drives the point home. Despite her initial interest in working with him, tensions mar the professional relationship—not to speak of his jealousy over what he perceives as her preference for a more successful magician who is his best friend.

Jason is played and directed by Joe Gold who knows this world inside out from his experience as a professional magician performing at over 500 kids’ birthday parties, and entering numerous magic competitions. He bears a striking resemblance to Steve Carell who is cast (overcast actually) as nerdy losers. I can’t imagine Carell doing a better job of playing Jason Kant, a nerdy loser in just about all aspects of life besides magic.

While not as ambitious as “The Prestige”, “Desperate Acts of Magic” is much more realistic about the lives of professional magicians. I can’t say that I am an expert on this world but I probably know a bit more about it since my wife’s nephew, who is now studying film in the U.S., was one of Turkey’s most successful teen magicians. Mostly out of my connections to him, I have tried to see any film that comes my way about magicians, just to send him the screener when I am done. If you have ever dabbled in magic yourself or if you simply want to see a well-written and well-directed character-driven romantic comedy, check out “Desperate Acts of Magic” that opens today at the Quad Cinema in N.Y. and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on May 10th.

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