Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 15, 2014

In response to Timothy Shenk

Filed under: economics,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

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On The Nation magazine website there’s a 9500 word article by Timothy Shenk titled Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality  that will require far fewer words to dismantle. As Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit and all the more so when it comes to Marxist polemics.

Shenk’s article is a survey of Jacobin Magazine and three books. One is Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”, ordered from Amazon two weeks ago. Apparently it is back-ordered, a propitious sign given its sweeping indictment of the capitalist system. I know vanishingly little about Piketty’s analysis except that he does not care much for Marx, according to Doug Henwood whose word on such matters I trust implicitly. The other two books are written by N+1 editors, Nikil Saval’s “A Secret History of the Workplace”, a work that examines cubicles and the like, and Benjamin Kunkel’s “Utopia or Bust”.

Shenk is a doctoral student at Columbia University who somehow managed to write a biography of Maurice Dobb in his spare time, no mean feat. For those of you unfamiliar with Dobb, a word or two should suffice. He was a British CP’er who wrote a book on the history of capitalism titled “Studies in the Development of Capitalism” that I highly recommend. Dobb took part in a debate with Paul Sweezy in the 1950s defending a somewhat Anglocentric analysis that put the emphasis on primitive accumulation in the countryside as opposed to the expansion of global trade—Sweezy’s perspective. But unlike Robert Brenner, who took up the cudgel against Sweezy later on, Dobb stated that colonization and slavery was also essential.

It is rather unusual for The Nation to publish such a long article so focused on Marxist theory. The standard fare there is something about the nefarious Koch brothers or the need to hold Obama to his promises, etc. In the back of my mind I wondered if The Nation ever got over Jacobin editor’s Bhaskar Sunkara’s Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical, a piece that can best be described as biting the hand that feeds it.

Shenk starts off with an observation that probably looms more importantly in his own mind than in the general left public, namely that Karl Marx preferred to use the term “capitalist mode of production” rather than capitalism. This distinction strikes me as more semantic than theoretical but if it is important to the author, why quibble?

Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.

After another thousand words or so on the history of the use of the term capitalism, a word that had lost its sting in the prosperous 50s and 60s except among the hard-core Marxist left, Shenk zeroes in on the ostensible purpose of his review, which is to evaluate the magazines and books under consideration.

For Shenk, the new generation of Marxists such as the Jacobin and N+1 editors made the transition from college to the revolutionary cause rather seamlessly, aided by social media:

Many had just left college, carrying with them fresh memories of an academic world that doubles as Marxism’s heartiest stronghold…The commitment was lighter, but easier to share, maybe with a post on Facebook.

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Yes, I quite understand. Most of my Marxist FB friends will regale me with a singing dog Youtube clip one day and a status post the next about a David Harvey lecture the next. This is not exactly the sort of thing that will get you an FBI file but neither will this, I suppose.

After some more excursions (was The Nation paying him by the word?), Shenk finally gets down to brass tacks:

Cloaked in the moral authority of Occupy and connected by networks stitched together during those hectic days in 2011, a contingent of young journalists speaking through venues both new and old, all of them based in New York City—Jacobin, n+1, Dissent and occasionally this magazine, among others—have begun to make careers as Marxist intellectuals.

When Shenk had earlier referred to Marx as a descendant of rabbis who never fancied himself the leader of a religion, the subtle implication was that this was exactly had transpired—socialism as a secular religion. Given that line of thought, it of course logically leads to the conclusion that “cloaked in moral authority” is a jab at the people under consideration who Shenk wants to cut down to size as bible-thumpers–the holy book being Capital:

Combine all this with some fondness for navel gazing and with the fortunes of geography—politics aside, New York writers are New York writers, and they like to talk about each other—and the pieces are in place for the articles declaring the rebirth of Marxism that have become a minor genre in the last year. Like a puffer fish temporarily ballooning to vastly larger sizes, the Marxist revival can seem more imposing than it is. For a certain type of reader, however, it’s easy to forget the illusion when there are so many withering tweets to skim.

As an example of the puffer fish inflating itself, Shenk refers to a Jacobin editorial in 2011 that blasted the Obama administration for seeking to roll back the New Deal and Great Society, a claim he felt was “clear to almost nobody anywhere.” Hmm. Now I am beginning to understand why The Nation would put down the red carpet for him. Melissa Harris-Perry could not have been more scornful of such puffer fish impudence.

Turning to the books under review, Shenk dismisses Saval’s work as breaking little new intellectual ground. Since I only know Saval’s analysis from an excerpt in “Harpers”, I will defer commenting on whether it does or doesn’t.

Shenk is more generous to Kunkel’s “Utopia or Bust”, a book that he describes as “playful and unfailingly lucid”. When one hand giveth, the other taketh away, however:

Precisely because of its clarity, however, Utopia or Bust reveals some of the more peculiar aspects of a group that can seem more inclined to recite Marx than to rethink Marxism, or move beyond it.

Shenk regards Kunkel’s reference to a “near unchallenged global capitalism” as a “fixation”, something I suppose that’s akin to a neurotic obsession. Since Shenk regards “investments gushing in from China today” as an exception to global capitalism, I suppose I’ll have to count myself among the neurotically obsessed.

As I stated earlier, I have not yet read Piketty’s book so I am no position to weigh his Shenk’s critique. That being said, I do have to wonder about his characterization:

Though not a Marxist, Piketty is firmly of the left. A supporter of France’s Socialist Party, he has said that he “dream[s] of a rational and peaceful overcoming of capitalism.”

I am not sure what I am going to make of Piketty’s book but the notion that France’s SP will play any role in the “peaceful overcoming of capitalism” strikes me as absurd, and almost equally absurd is Shenk’s taking this claim seriously. Hadn’t he read the NY Times article dated April 11th on the party’s new leader?

On Tuesday, Mr. Valls offered the most detailed summary yet of how the government intends to meet its promise to enact $69 billion in spending cuts by 2017. He called for $26 billion in cuts to the central government bureaucracy, $13.8 billion to the national health care system and $13.8 billion to local governments — an element at which many legislators on the right booed loudly, having just won control of a number of local governments. He did not specify how the remaining $15.4 billion in cuts would be made.

One hopes that there was an equivalent of Jacobin in France raising hell about the country’s version of Obama no matter Shenk’s credulous take on the Socialist Party.

Finally, after a tsunami of words, Shenk gets to his real point in the concluding sentences:

Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with some grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.

Call me grasping reflexively at the language of the past, but history does not suggest a much richer set of possibilities to me. Instead I see a deepening of class conflict with the eventual renaissance of Marxism and the revolutionary socialist movement. I have been committed to that project for 47 years now and see nothing to change my mind at this point. With a nod to Piketty’s book, one that rejects socialism in favor of neo-Keynesian half-measures (I don’t have to read it to know that this is his outlook), Shenk makes clear why he is so fed up with those who live in the past. In my view, you have to live in the past to some degree if you want to live in the future. Capitalism, or whatever word you want to use, is destroying the planet no matter what The Nation and its hired guns would have you believe.


  1. Reblogged this on kvijaya40.

    Comment by K Vijayachandran — April 16, 2014 @ 1:50 am

  2. “what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects?”

    No need to wonder since he wrote about such things repeatedly (and accurately), explaining that communism could only be built on the foundations of a capitalist mode of production that had exhausted itself, that any communist revolution would have to be international in scope, that any successfully communist revolution would necessitate revolution in the advanced countries of Europe, that any attempt at revolution in underdeveloped countries could only to lead to a “socialization of poverty” an “equality of scarcity” and “a return to all the old shit,” and that any attempt by an ‘enlightened’ minority to rule in the name of a working class not yet ready to act for itself could only result in the dictatorship of that minority.

    History has of course proven him to be totally correct on all of this. If only our “Marxists” would actually read Marx….

    This is all moot anyhow as Marx would not recognize a military takeover by a small group of urban petty-bourgeoisie with lofty ideas as a proletarian revolution to begin with.

    Comment by Steve D — April 16, 2014 @ 3:49 am

  3. What is the audience for The Nation? I ask this in all seriousness, as I only read articles when they have been sent to me in a tweet, or linked in a post such as this. My guess is that it is a self-referential one, if this article is any indication. Shenk’s article reminds me of one several years ago when Eric Alterman wrote a magnum opus as to why liberals needed to be satisfied with the fact that it was impossible for Obama and the Democrats to be anything other than neoliberals.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 16, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

  4. The subscription base for The Nation is almost exactly 49% ancient CPUSAers who used to sell the Daily Worker on street corners as a youth and 49% Liberals of the MSNBC genre (who never sold anything but stocks & houses) and 2% unrepentant Marxists of the Proyect variety who, like myself, reluctantly renew subscriptions only out of nostagia for the days when truly progressive columnists like Alexander Cockburn & Christopher Hitchens used to hit the nail on the head.

    That nostalgia began to seriously wane in the mid to late 90’s when Hitchen’s joined the Pentagon’s bandwagon in bombing the Serb’s and toward the end of the decade even Cockburn inexplicably conceded in one brief column that just maybe Hitchen’s was right — which he wasn’t.

    Their subscription base generally hates the candidates the Democratic Party foists up to the front but nevertheless always (and I mean ALWAYS) votes for them as the “lesser of two evils”.

    So it’s no wonder in these historically twisted post OWS days when “finance capital” is almighty (just consider the full title of Lenin’s opus on “Imperialism – the Highest Stage of Capitalism”) yet verging precariously on the brinks of collapse, that Marx would be in fashion again — for just look at the intro headline of the current CounterPunch website which reads:


    “MARX: A HERO FOR OUR TIME? — Suddenly, everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone seems to be talking about Karl Marx. Louis Proyect delves into this mysterious resurgence, giving a vivid assessment of Marx’s relevance in the era of globalized capitalism.”

    My only disagreement with Proyect’s article above is slight, and that is, his curiosity on why The Nation would devote so many words to a youth’s Marxist diatribe, which to me is unsurprising given the facts above, particularly since The Nations editors are truly socialists in their hearts, albeit only somewhat to the Left of the Fabians, that is, they’re really members of the DSA who thoroughly embrace the philosophy of the late Michael Harrington.

    The problem with Harrington is that he devoted his life to the DSAer Norman Thomas who in 1968 was caught funding at least $50 grand to the CIA to set up back alley murders of communist trade union leaders in South America, per the NY Times.

    Like I learned around the New School of Social Research in NYC in the early 90’s at the outset of the 1st Gulf War when I moved from OH to NJ to organize against the War — “Everybody is allowed to join the DSA — except Leninists — who need to be eliminated.”

    As far as Steve D’s comments defending the Tim S. History Grad student who doesn’t need Marx but seems to rely on his analysis at every turn — that’s a future post that will incorporate Trotsky’s “Their Morals and Ours” which apparently his PhD program has unsurprisingly not yet suggested as a course of reading — for if it had then surely his Orwellian sermons would have been more appropriate for an appraisal of where Uncle Sam’s NSA was bound to go than the dialectics of Cuba or the USSR — which had a lot more socio-political variables shaping their outcomes — not the least of which was total economic & military blockade coordinated by the most powerful militaries on the planet, nevermind the enrichment extracted from occupying the economies of most of the world’s poor.

    The other weak link of all the philosophies of history, economics & sociolgy since Lenin & Trotsky that have been published in organs like the The Nation is that they never concede the conclusion that a country like the USA is organically at it’s BASE a fundamentally predatory society, that is, that the Generals in the Pentagon ultimately hold sway over the White House.

    The day that some Nation contributor from Columbia U. admits that Uncle Sam is a congenital predator utterly beholden to the jack boots of militarism is the day I will jump on the Hari Kari sword of ideological defeat.

    Meanwhile unbridled militarism is the norm. What Peace Dividend from the end of the Cold War was there? Back in 1990 the UN’s World Health Organization concluded that 33,000 children per day died from malnutrition & perfectly preventable diseases. Turns out none of those kids were from the so called Soviet Bloc. So Fidel Castro wrote an article depicting every week during Imperialist reign as equivalent to a Hiroshima bomb on the World’s poor. Meanwhile Enavgelists in the USA were screaming about Abortion & Family Values!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 17, 2014 @ 3:34 am

  5. Does anyone believe that there is a single Nation editor, associate editor, assistant editor, or regular/irregular columnist who did not vote for Obama twice? I don’t and won’t until I hear one of them deny it.

    Comment by Michael D. Yates — April 17, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

  6. There is absolutely no question that the entire Nation staff and all of their regular contributors voted for Obama twice. Vote for Obama as the “lesser of two evils” was their editorial plea in both elections after all.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — April 17, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

  7. Excellent article, Louis. If there’s one thing I hate more than reading The New York Times, it’s reading The Nation. The sanctimonious, mealy-mouthed hypocrisy is absolutely maddening. But read it we must, just as we must read The Wall Street Journal, among other periodicals. As the saying goes:”If you know yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without jeopardy” (Sun Tzu). The Left needs to constantly analyze itself and refine its positions on important issues and The Nation provides good negative examples of people and positions in every issue, if not every article.

    Comment by Red Arnie — April 17, 2014 @ 9:05 pm

  8. “Does anyone believe that there is a single Nation editor, associate editor, assistant editor, or regular/irregular columnist who did not vote for Obama twice? I don’t and won’t until I hear one of them deny it.”

    In terms of columnist, Scahill perhaps didn’t vote for him, and he certainly didn’t buy the diatribe that Obama was the lesser of two evils before the second election. He spoke at my university and I spoke with him after. I didn’t ask how he voted, but his speech and private chat made it painfully clear where he stands on Obama: as Bush 2.0.

    Of course he recently left the nation for The Intercept.

    What’s funny about Shenk’s article is it that indicates he never actually read his Marx. Since Marx in fact uses the term CAPITALISM, and not capitalist mode of production, throughout Volume II. So it’s both a jejune semantic quibble, and a factually false position.

    Comment by CB — April 19, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

  9. Apparently, the Angry Arab agrees with Doug Henwood about Piketty:


    Please don’t be deceived by the American media treatment of the Piketty book. Read the book for yourself. He is no Marxist. In fact, he is a typical liberal (social democrat as they call them in Europe) anti-Marxist. He wants a reform of capitalism and he fiercely opposes anti-capitalist ideologies. He said in his book: “I was vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism, some of which simply ignored the historic failure of Communism and much of which turned its back on the intellectual means necessary to push beyond it. I have no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se–especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified.” Piketty said that he met the “American dream” because he landed a job in Boston after earning his PhD–kid you not. Also, remember that he served as an adviser to the lousy Socialist Party of France, which is indistinguishable now in its economic policies (and foreign policies) from the Democratic Party of the US. And remember that Hillary Clinton was commonly referred to as a socialist in the US, as Obama was referred to as a Marxist. Don’t let the hype influence you.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 20, 2014 @ 10:59 pm

  10. […] This is not the first time that Shenk has used the magazine as a bully pulpit. Earlier this year our Ivy League prodigy had a 9,500-word article there titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that was notable for its ambition both in terms of word count and confusion over what Marx stood for. After it came out, I wrote: […]

    Pingback by Slavery, capitalism and economic growth: a response to Timothy Shenk | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 9, 2014 @ 7:34 pm

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