Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 3, 2014

Left Forum 2014 — panel on Registering Class in 21st Century Socialist Strategy

Filed under: Left Forum — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

This is the fifth in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

Bryan Palmer, a Canadian historian and James P. Cannon biographer, gave a presentation that was designed to refute the “precariat” theory of Guy Standing. This term combines precarious and proletariat as a way of accounting for the growing percentage of temporary workers such as adjunct professors, blue-collar part-timers, etc. I am not sure how much traction the theory has on the left but Socialist Register, the organizer of the panel, thought it sufficiently anti-Marxist, to recruit Palmer to refute it. Basically he argues that for most of its history, capitalism has created a working-class that is “precarious”. You can listen to his presentation or read a version of it that appears with the two other panelists here: http://www.leftforum.org/content/registering-class-21st-century-socialist-strategy.

Palmer makes the argument in his paper (and very possibly in his talk) that the lumpenproletariat should not be viewed as distinct from the proletariat:

For all that Marx and Engels could write in the pejorative language of their times about what would later be called ‘the underclass’,44 they were also not unaware of how the ‘residuum’ was reciprocally related to the stalwart proletarians on whom they based their hope for socialism. Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 had much of moralistic condemnation in it, especially with respect to immigrant Irish labour, but this did not mean that he saw the most downtrodden sectors of the proletariat as irredeemably separated out from the working class. Indeed, in an 1892 preface to his Manchester study, Engels recorded with considerable optimism the extent to which socialism’s advance in England had registered even in a former bastion of lumpenproletarianization, London’s East End. ‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool that it was six years ago’, Engels wrote. ‘It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism”’, he continued, adding, ‘that is to say the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers’.45

I think that Palmer makes some very interesting points but I would disagree with the notion that the Irish or the denizens of the East End were “lumpen”. Instead they were unskilled workers who were burdened with alcoholism, petty crime, and other “anti-social” behavior. Indeed, this is exactly the same profile of the earliest autoworkers that Henry Ford sought to “uplift”:

Wall Street Journal, May 9 2013
Henry Ford’s Experiment to Build a Better Worker

A review of “I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford” by Richard Snow.

Early in 1914 Henry Ford, spurred by a combination of wanting to cut down the high turnover in his workforce and what seems to have been genuine altruism, announced that henceforth the base wage in his factory would be five dollars a day. This at a stroke doubled the prevailing salary for industrial work, and it caused a sensation.

But Ford company workers discovered that achieving their five-dollar day came with some rigid stipulations. To qualify for his doubled salary, the worker had to be thrifty and continent. He had to keep his home neat and his children healthy, and, if he were below the age of twenty-two, to be married.

Joe landed a job at Ford, and that is when Mr. Andrews entered his life, to find him living in “an old, tumbled down, one and a half story frame house.” Joe and his family were in “one half of the attic consisting of three rooms, which were so low that a person of medium height could not stand erect—a filthy, foul-smelling home.” It contained “two dirty beds…a ragged filthy rug, a rickety table, and two bottomless chairs (the children standing up at the table to eat).” The family owed money to their landlord, to the butcher, to the grocer. The eldest daughter had gone to a charity hospital the week before. Mr. Andrews said the remainder of the family “were half clad, pale, and hungry looking.”

Mr. Andrews at once got the pay office to issue Joe’s wages daily instead of every two weeks. He secured a $50 loan, and such was the Sociological Department’s seriousness of purpose then that Mr. Andrews, not Joe, borrowed the money. Mr. Andrews paid the butcher and the landlord, rented a cottage, and filled it with cheap but sound new furniture, new clothes, and, he said, “a liberal supply of soap.”

Chibber’s talk was a variation on the one he has been giving at conferences ever since the publication of his book attacking subaltern studies (it is mistitled as a critique of postcolonialism, a field that includes subaltern studies.)

His emphasis is on the need for “universalism”, a principle or whatever you want to call it that it is under attack from postmodernists in the academy, including subaltern studies specialists.

At some point I am going to give all this the attention it deserves but do want to make a couple of points now. Chibber has a curious argument (I am drawing from his article rather than the talk) that capitalism does not necessarily destroy all precapitalist cultural institutions even as it becomes the “universal” economic system. This would seem to contradict what Marx wrote in “The Communist Manifesto”:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

Since one of subaltern studies’ main complaints is that a mechanical Marxism failed to account for the persistence of “religious fervor” in societies like India’s, Chibber is quick to assure his readers that capitalism can easily put up with “precapitalist” customs, culture, superstitions, etc. as long as they don’t get in the way of profit-making:

This whole argument rests on the assumption that if a practice does not directly advance capitalism’s reproduction, by being part of what Chakrabarty calls its ‘life-process’, it must elicit a hostile response from capital. But we might ask, why on earth would this be so? Returning to the question I posed in the preceding paragraph, if a practice is simply neutral with respect to accumulation, wouldn’t the natural response from capital be one of indifference? Chakrabarty makes it seem as though capitalist managers walk around with their own political Geiger counters, measuring the compatibility of every social practice with their own priorities. But surely the more reasonable picture is this: capitalists seek to expand their operations, make the best possible returns on their investments, and as long as their operations are running smoothly, they simply do not care about the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment.

I am not exactly sure what Chibber is driving at here. If all that subaltern studies was about was nagging Western Marxists for their underestimation of “the conventions and mores of the surrounding environment”, I doubt that such a tsunami of books and articles would have been produced over the past several decades in the name of subaltern studies. For example, it would seem fairly obvious that despite what Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “backward” institutions have never seriously threatened capitalism. Just look at Saudi Arabia.

I have not read Chakabarty so I cannot comment much more on this but I did have a look at an article cited by Chibber that supposedly makes the same sorts of mistakes, namely Gyan Prakash’s “Postcolonialism and Indian Historiography” that appeared in the dreaded Social Text in 1992, the same journal that was hoodwinked by Alan Sokal. Although Prakash’s article is burdened with the usual jargon (inscribed, palimpsest, catachrestic, etc.), he makes some essential points about the problem of Indian historiography that supersede narrower questions of cultural exceptions to a universalizing capitalism:

In fact, like many other nineteenth-century European ideas, the staging of the Eurocentric mode-of-production narrative as History should be seen as an analogue of nineteenth-century territorial imperialism. From this point of view, Marx’s ideas on changeless India – theorized, for example, in his concept of the “Asiatic mode of production” – appear not so much mistaken as the discursive form produced by the universalization of Europe, by its appropriation of the absolute other into a domesticated other. Such a historicization of the Eurocentrism in nineteenth-century marxism enables us to understand the collusion of capitalism and colonialism, and to undo the effect of that collusion’s imperative to interpret third-world histories in terms of capital’s logic.

Thanks to recent Marxist scholarship, Wittfogel’s work on the Asiatic Mode of Production has been pretty much debunked but when subaltern studies was taking off, it was still taken seriously—including on the Marxism list. You might even say that when Marxism discarded this theory it was possible to arrive at a more “universalist” understanding of Indian history, one that would make it more amenable to Chibber’s vision of things.

However, that’s not exactly the way that Irfan Habib sees it. Habib is the dean of Marxist history in India and, for that matter, a sharp critic of postcolonialism and Edward Said’s notion of “orientalism” in particular. But that does not prevent him from implicitly dissenting from Chibber as he writes in “Problems of Marxist Historiography” (Social Scientist, Dec. 1988):

Social formations constitute successive organisations of society, so that the classic order of succession has been primitive communism-slavery-feudalism- capitalism. Whether the classic order is also universal is a question on which there has been much controversy. Marx did not think that pre-colonial India was ‘feudal’: it lacked serfdom, and there was identity between tax and rent. The ‘Asiatic Mode’, which Marx speculated on in the 1850s, has been resurrected as the Tributary Mode by Samir Amin; and sub-classified into ‘feudal’ (based on rent) and ‘despotic’ (based on tax) by Chris Wickham; Kosambi and R.S. Sharma have argued that India did not see the stage of slavery, but had forms of feudalism from the middle of the first millennium or thereabouts to the colonial conquest.

While the controversy is not likely to cease, I do not wish to discuss it here at length. My own views are against a universalization of ‘feudalism’ as an umbrella to cover all pre-capitalist systems whatever their actual modes of surplus-extraction (class-exploitation). I agree that failure to universalize feudalism would lead us to accept a multiplicity of social formations over different territories; but I see no scandal in this. I would reassert that this is also implicit in the Communist Manifesto, when it treats capitalism as the first universal mode of production, and speaks of complex class structures preceding it.

Suffice it to say that the ideological foundations of Chibber’s attack on subaltern studies rest on exactly the kind of “universalization” that troubles Habib. Despite their jargon and despite their fixation on the “superstructure”, the subaltern studies people were grappling with a real problem and that was seeing India through the prism of European history and British history more particularly. The underlying assumption of political Marxism is that capitalism originated in the British countryside as a result of the introduction of lease farming mostly as a contingent event and then diffused to the rest of the world. This is a topic of great interest to me and that will provide the primary entry point when I get around to reading both Ranajit Guha and Vivek Chibber.

I won’t say anything more about Arun Gupta’s talk except that it dealt with Walmart workers and was extremely powerful.

1 Comment »

  1. i stopped watching the video when i got impatient about the philosophically wrong-headed “problematic” of whether the precarious and proletariat are a new class or part of the working class or whatever.

    the working class, or the proletariat, is not about an individual person (or a group of individuals) or a particular “employment condition”. it concerns each and every economic activity. a person is engaged in a proletariat activity while working in a factory either 9 to 5, or for an hour in exchange of wage. at the same time, the same person is — can easily be – engaged in a capitalist-bourgeois activities by being a landlord and / or being an investor in the capitalist market / financial system.

    one is not a workling class or bourgeois member at any given time: one’s each and every economic activity can be categorized as a proletariat or bourgeois activity.

    one moves across the line in time, and / or lives in both categories at once at various times.

    one often engages in economic (and therefore political) activities that one philosophically opposes, which doesn’t prove that one’s philosophy (and thus one’s politics) is wrong: it may be that one has no practical choice or one has a weak character, maybe.

    etc etc.

    Comment by junghilee — July 4, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

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