Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 30, 2013

Abraham Marx article about the North Star website

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

(I plan to write my own commentary today.)

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

-Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

 I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. … I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. …

-William Lloyd Garrison

For millennia, brave navigators of sea and land would reckon their position, distance, and direction by the stars above. One of the most reliable for reckoning was the North Star. It had many names. Polaris was one. Few held as constant a place in the sky; nearly all the other stars and constellations wobbled in parallax. The night sky was a sure map and a calming expanse to untold numbers of humans caught up in strife, enduring the evils of wicked kings, lost at sea or far from home; it was the very presence of the divine, revealing secrets of the harvest, hints of the future.

In human affairs, there are few such constants. One of these is the enduring threat of slavery, one human in undisputed legal and psychological mastery over another. A slave put in the carriage of every Roman Emperor leading a triumph, an incarnated reminder of this threat. Another constant, dialectic-diametric, is opposing slavery for what it is, an unmitigated evil allowing every other possible cruelty and injustice. The lengths to which a master must go to ensure the submission and obedience of the slave, and the lengths to which a slave will go to win his freedom, are competing parallels of will.

Slavery is a wicked darkness, a night sky without starlight; freedom’s glimmer as steady a light in darkness as the North Star. This must have been the basic thinking behind Fredrick Douglass’ creation of an abolitionist newspaper called the North Star. His paper was small and struggled on for a few years. It tried to avoid attacking the reputation or sway of larger abolitionist papers like The Liberator. It later merged with another small abolitionist paper, and continued publication up until the Civil War.

The masthead of its first issue is unequivocal:

“The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen.”

What the North Star can teach the North Star I leave to the proprietors and supporters of the North Star. I infer that this name was chosen to move past sectarianism and scholasticism, and point the way toward a broader movement. The about page of the website says sort of the same thing, though it chooses to lead with Camejo (who?) instead of Douglass…

A paper that takes up the abolitionist mantle is striving to earn and exercise the authority of a distinctly American radicalism. What would that mean?

It might mean cleaning house –purging the American left of the fetish jargons and hobbyhorses of Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Gramsci, Hardt and Negri, et al.  Extinguishing instead of fueling an endless quibble over sects, Camejo and Schachtman, SWP, ISO WSWS, etc etc etc etc.

It might consider narrowing its focus, covering only the United States of America, and its domestic and foreign policies. Striving to do so in a way that is competitive and threatening to mainstream outlets. This narrow focus would incubate constructive and cohesive coverage. And it would invite similarly disciplined outlets to carve into different niches. The earliest waves of articles (February 2012-a little past May Day 2012) the North Star published were reports of local Occupy movements and debates over future strategy. Trying to serve as ‘catch-all’ for grievances and radicalism (similar to Counterpunch or Truthout) is light pollution making navigation by stars more difficult.

It might consider going over to the offensive, engaging hostile blogospheres and news outlets, chronicling the movement and debates of genuine enemies. Enemies like the officer class, like the Republican fringe, like the neoreactionaries. There is just as much diversity and factionalism on the other side of the barricade; only they know how to march in lockstep against anything to their left, which often includes people like Romney. Engaging them, either to provoke further division among them, to fight hand to hand, or merely to understand the enemy, would focus the Marxist mind and bring clear consensus.

It might consider that publishing articles confirming stereotypes of the left can’t help, further embroiling it in a circular logic it needs to escape. For example, the animal question, or revisiting old slogans like democratic centralism, Leninism, anti-imperialism et al. Then there are the oh so clever academic flavored canards like anti-philosophy, and anti-politics. Eschewing high theory, debates over left liturgy, actively ignoring sectarian nonsense, and staying out of problems it can have no influence over, like Syria, would lead to editorial focus, longer-sighted strategy, and practical goals.

I may yet write a devil’s advocate criticism of the Left. It would be withering. Perhaps that is the only way to bring faults to light. But for now it suffices to say that many of the subjects of the merciless criticism of radicals are hobbyhorses – outgrowths of academic interests from college, emotional responses to a social-engineered divisiveness over cultural values, an intellectualized form of venting steam or of transposing personality politics onto ideological hairsplitting. The name-calling the left resorts to among itself exemplifies this: someone is racist or sexist or homophobic or imperialist or conservative or reactionary or –ist as soon as disagreements arise.

Make no mistake, the North Star could outdo the North Star. Given a clearer self-concept, functional alliances with other left outlets, and acquiring the taste for drawing blood from real opponents.

It could simply sneak into the powerful arsenal that is American history and arm the slaves with knowledge of their unfreedom. Abolitionism is powerful precisely because of its simplicity.

The basic framing of Abolitionism basically writes its own ticket, its own messaging. It dispenses with the need for Europhilic-Marxical language. Marx makes use of the two key terms ‘emancipate’ and ‘abolish’ in exactly the same sense as abolitionists did. This is no accident, it is how to smuggle Marx into the country by hiding his accent. Abolitionism brings the instincts and aims of political radicalism into the mainstream of American discourse. Furthermore, it outflanks the naïve hagiography of the Civil Rights Era, takes MLK off his pedestal, and leads him and his cohorts into the larger pantheon of heroes who fought for emancipation in the broadest possible sense.

Slavery is evil. Every form of support for slavery, especially the passive or implicit support, must be revealed and destroyed. There is no grey area, no middle ground, when it comes to slavery. Abolitionists are the only force strong enough to tear down every single legalistic, institutional, or patriotic argument that slaveowners or their mouthpieces could offer forth. Bolsheviks were the only force strong enough to dismantle Tsarism, refuse castration by liberal loyalties and apologia, and crush White forces.

Here we hit onto both the problem and its solution. Capitalism has revealed itself to be merely a slightly abstracted form of slavery. Whatever progressive content it had died in World War One, and was only propped up by the postwar Golden Age of welfare statism. We now have the worst of all possible worlds; neo-feudalism for the poor, communist solidarity among the wealthy, and we call it capitalism. Our bondage has become less abstract as it has become more and more concrete as mortgage, student, and medical debt-slavery.  Chains have become heavier and heavier in the form of wage-slavery, a wage slavery without even the illusion of savings, growth, or progress. Ashworth argues that budding capitalism and slave-labor could one coexist in America, but became incompatible as the republic expanded. We are now reaching an era in which capitalism and democracy are becoming increasingly incompatible.

Boiling it down to this, debt slavery or wage slavery, the country a company store or a debtor’s prison, means we don’t need to bring in anything other than a demand for emancipation. We must abolish slavery. (This is of course overlooking the ‘invention of capitalism’ that Perelman chronicles, that Marx called ‘primitive accumulation, that Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession. If we wrap capital, dripping blood from every pore, up in the finery of neoclassical economics, it still has no manners and begins ordering us about as if we were its slaves, because we willingly and freely decided to enter the workforce and get onto its payroll.)

In Freehling’s book on secessionists, he devotes the opening chapters to portraying the day-to-day struggle balancing the status of the slave, tricky, deceitful, or de facto independent, with how masters endlessly refined methods to ensure maximum compliance, and the appearance of consent. Every social and institutional aid was necessary to ensure that the slave-owner’s will was sovereign. “Guns and books must never reach slave hands.” (61) The amount of rules, regulations, protocols, and ‘suggestions’ a slave had to abide by were innumerable. As Tacitus says, “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Who among us is not caught between juggling which (immigration, narcotic, sexual, labor) laws we violate, how often and when? Is that not the status of someone who is legally unfree?

If we are all slaves to pieces of paper called money or debt (or stocks or treasuries) then who are the slaveowners and how do we characterize them? They are the ultra-rich, a ruling class composed of people like Bloomberg and Soros and Murdoch and the Koch brothers. These are the owners of the United States, a plantation-state at best. They gladly suffer a coterie of fools in the media to think that they are free by making sure they have more money than they could reasonably spend (but not enough to build up a power base). Reporters, actors, popstars and the like.

And then of course there are the house slaves, the cops and bureaucrats and officers of the armed forces, the administrators of hospitals and schools. They fiercely uphold their cherished place in the house and vent all their rage and fear on the slaves out in the field. That is, those of us without a state sinecure, excess wealth, or raw power. Malcolm X made much hay with society as a plantation.

If it isn’t clear enough to anyone. Liberals have lost their way. They are very lame. They are stuck in a weird obsessive relationship with their masters – conservatives. As such they are by turns seeking the approval of these slaveowners, who will never give their approval, will never admit slavery is ‘wrong,’ and so liberals will never win its everlasting ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ with the slaveowning elite (who see this ‘argument’/’debate’ for what it really is – a ‘fight’ for their survival – and so have no limit to their ruthlessness). Perhaps more could be said about this in a different article, reminding us how liberals behaved in 1848, 1917, 1933.

The antebellum era has other useful insights. A government held in perpetual crisis, in large part because an elite class uses all its clout to muddle every other issue, as thin edge of the wedge or as bargaining chip to entrench and perpetuate its dominance.

The basic principle behind the Homestead Act, cheap housing which encourages social and geographical mobility AND individual initiative, is antithetical to what housing policy has been since at least Herbert Hoover, a debt-chain of obligation discouraging socialistic politics. The basic purpose of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and its remarkable effectiveness in the face of Congressional hostility and miniscule funding, could point the way to what a 21st century Reconstruction would be like. There is more too, if you care to look for it: protectionism, state funding for infrastructure projects, strong Federal intervention in critical spheres.

Abolitionism also has the benefit of revealing what lies behind the arguments for ‘State’s Rights,’ continued Southern dominance over American politics. Volume 3 of Robert Caro’s LBJ should make this point clear enough. The Senate is “‘the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg’ not just revenge, unending revenge.” (xxiii) The South rules through state-houses, the Senate, and through party unity. (HEY! Abolitionists were some of the founding fathers of the GOP, and some of its strongest supporters and backers in the run-up to the Civil War; this threads the needle of what I said in my first article.)

To stand against a slaveowning elite requires a hard and uncompromising strength. It requires unbending principles that cannot be diluted, bought off, or misdirected. The Bolshevik stands against the Tsar because he cannot bend the knee. The Abolitionist stands against the Slaveowner because he will not become a slave.

The last and greatest benefit to the abolitionist frame is that emancipation is the goal. Every single individual who begins the process of self-emancipation is a victory. Self-expression is not the goal. Self-discipline and willpower grow, and become means to still greater ends. The slave who flees captivity, across the field or in his mind, becomes an example to other slaves, and a greater threat to the slaveowners. Enough of them go free, and a revolution occurs.

The North Star has given itself big shoes to fill simply by virtue of aligning itself with a name from the past. Can it live up to its name? Or will it meet Marx’s dictum about things that happen twice in history?


  1. Marx is apparently an old school leftist who creates false oppositions between workers and the rights of people he considers deviant:


    “Which obscures the whole problem of empire, the whole issue of universal healthcare, the whole issue of prisons, and the whole issue of gender and sexuality, into a misrepresented ‘case’ that is all too easy for the right to characterize, and convince the undecided middle, as just another case of leftwing hysterics.

    Which means that Assange is a rapist, Manning is a drag queen, and dissidence turns to deviance.”

    Pham Binh championed transgendered people who were being subjected to violence in NYC, as just happened again recently, with at least one and perhaps other posts on the subject at the North Star. Marx considers that some kind of “leftwing hysterics”.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 30, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  2. […] (Editors Note: A version of this post was submitted to North Star for publication during the announcement of the hiatus. Despite wanting to run this in the spirit of discourse, we are sticking to our no original content for first three weeks of the month of September, but we are reposting it now that it has been released here. ) […]

    Pingback by Thoughts on the New North Star — August 30, 2013 @ 4:46 pm

  3. This fellow ought to work on economy of language. What a longwinded post, without much significance. If you can’t write about these matters in a straightforward and efficient manner, you shouldn’t write at all.

    Comment by michael yates — August 30, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

  4. I apologize for my previous post. Much too harsh. He made some good points.

    Comment by michael yates — August 30, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

  5. Mr. Yates, I started reading your stuff around the same time I fell down the rabbit hole, reading K1 for the first time and discovering marxmail, during the BP oil spill. Some of your posts can be rather long too…. But I really enjoyed your series on the nation in decline, and passive/aggressive affects. I’ve lurked around these circles for about a year or two trying to learn. And now I suppose I’m trying to unlearn and bend the stick the other way.

    That said, care to build on the constructive criticism?

    Comment by Abraham Marx — August 31, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

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