Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 4, 2017

What in the world ever happened to Richard Seymour?

Filed under: anti-fascism — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

At one time Richard Seymour was someone who had a penetrating class analysis. However, in recent years he writes less and less on his blog based on historical materialism and much more in the Lacanian psychoanalytic vein. I don’t know how much interest there is in the Lacanian stuff given his Alexa rating of 850,507 worldwide. He has set himself up on Patreon where for $3 per month and up you can get the a-list Seymour. With articles like “Make cry-bullying kill itself”, I am not sure if $3 per month is worth it.

Over on Lenin’s Tomb, you can also find the same kind of article. For example, there is one titled “On Fetish”, which sounds like the kind of paper delivered at the yearly American Language Association conference:

This estrangement of the visual order, this conversion of attention into alienated labour, is what Beller calls the ‘cinematic mode of production’. True to the paranoid, psychotic structure of the theory, he can do no other than offer us a cinematic image by way of explanation. We are in The Matrix, the life-energy we put into the world converted into energy to run the image-world, “imprisoned in a malevolent bathosphere, intuiting our situation only through glitches in the programme.”

Good grief.

Most of this stuff has little interest for me but recently Seymour posted a link on Facebook to a May 19th article titled “Is Fascism on the Rise”  that shows how much damage this kind of psychoanalytic Social Text malarkey can do when the matter at hand requires a sober class analysis rather than the sort of prose that Alan Sokal parodied. I hadn’t noticed the article when it first showed up but thought it was worth some commentary since Seymour has become one of antifa’s PR men.

These are the opening paragraphs:

It was the Martinican poet and anticolonial fighter, Aime Cesaire, who tried to point out to Europeans that what they called Nazism, they had been practicing with a free conscience in the colonial world for decades. And that this relationship was not incidental.

In fact, the conscience of the European was never free. Octave Mannoni, the French psychoanalyst who famously psychoanalysed the colonial situation, once suggested that there was a surprising pervasiveness of the colonised, in the dreams of Europeans who had never left the continent and never seen such a person. Today, one wonders if provincial, sedentary English men and women dream of the Muslim.

Okay, spend a minute studying these paragraphs and try to figure out what is wrong.

Is the minute up? I hope that you would have noticed that the word “Europeans” is not rooted in a class analysis. Which class was practicing something like Nazism on the colonized peoples? When your unit of analysis is the nation or the continent, that goes out the window. It was the capitalist class, not the French workers, who were oppressing and exploiting Algerians.

“Today, one wonders if provincial, sedentary English men and women dream of the Muslim.” What sort of nonsense is this? Who could he possibly be writing about? Colonel Blimp? This is a reductionist attempt to characterize an entire people, something that would never appear in a serious Marxist analysis. It evokes an op-ed piece in the NY Times, where someone like Thomas Friedman would pontificate on the “Europeans” versus the “Asians”. What a sad decline from the sharp analysis he used to deploy.

After a couple more paragraphs of this kind of gaseous air-borne prose, Seymour finally lands on the ground:

There is a traditional schema according to which economic crisis equals polarisation equals extremism. Things are more complicated. There’s a particular sequence which we should pay attention to.

Yes, they are more complicated but it was economic crisis, after all, that precipitated the rise of fascism historically. Furthermore, Golden Dawn is the only powerful fascist movement in Europe that has the same kind of social weight as the 1920s version. How can you not connect that to economic crisis? Impossible. Furthermore, even with the deep crisis in Greece, there is no section of the bourgeoisie that has aligned itself with Golden Dawn, unlike Germany where the Thyssens were funding Hitler early on.

Explaining how conditions today can produce a new Adolph Hitler, Seymour is not exactly lucid. He writes:

Yes, economic crisis is important, but it has to be metabolised by the state somehow. A crisis of capitalism, has to be a crisis of its political institutions and of its ideological claims. That crisis must manifest itself in a deadlock of political leadership of the ruling class. If, typically, one of its sectors leads (say, the City of London) and imposes its imperatives as being for the good of all, that leadership will come into question.

Does anybody understand what it means for an economic crisis to be metabolized by the state? I don’t have a clue. To metabolize means to convert food into energy in a living organism. I gave up trying to understand what this might have to do with the Trump White House except maybe that his addiction to red meat and Coca-Cola might be producing baleful psychological effects that will condemn us all to concentration camps.

But is Seymour right that the fascism of today won’t look anything like the Nazis?

But the fascism of the future doesn’t have to be traditional. Nor does it have to respect the sequences observed in the interwar years, or reanimate old cultures. It could even adopt a patina of edgy cool, as with the alt-right: we should never underestimate the erotic glamour of fascism and its appeal to the death-drive.

The erotic glamour of fascism? The appeal to the death-drive? Lacan is now in the driver’s seat, not Marx. Not being versed in Freudian psychoanalysis, I have no idea what this means. I guess I am a Marxist moldy fig. I believe that people join fascist movements because they support a total war on the left and the creation of an absolutist state that will govern in their interests, at least based on the demagogy of the fascist leader. And primarily this meant solving the economic crisis. To the middle-class, Hitler promised eliminating the Jews who were ruining it. To the workers, it was job security and social benefits. To the bourgeoisie, it was a promise to put an end to working-class power.

While Seymour’s article barely mentions the USA, it does join with the leftist consensus in early 2017 that Trump was capable of imposing a fascist dictatorship: “The attempt by Bannon and Miller to force a rupture in the American state was premature and voluntaristic. A more competent germinal fascism would take its time, patiently exploiting the fascist potential within the liberal state, to incubate and nurture the fascist monster of the future.”

I generally bristle at the word “rupture” since it smacks so much of the academic leftist prose that refuses to use a simple Anglo-Saxon word like “break” or “split”. What kind of split was Bannon trying to force? You’d think that Seymour regarded him as a latter-day Kurt von Schleicher who was a close adviser to Paul von Hindenberg. In 1930 he helped to topple the Social Democratic government, the first step in a series that would lead to Hitler becoming the German Chancellor. It was Schleicher who whispered in von Hindenberg’s ear about the need to make Hitler Der Fuhrer.

Does anybody in their right mind think that this was what Bannon was about? To whisper in Trump’s ear about the need to arrest the leaders of the Democratic Party and to pare down the Republican Party to the narrow base that continues to back Trump? What then? Arrest the editors of the NY Times, Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN and put them in prison where they would be tortured or killed? What about the universities? Round up George Ciccariello-Maher, Jodi Dean and even Paul Krugman? That is what fascism would look like, after all.

None of that was on the agenda. Instead, Bannon and Miller only hoped to use the power of the executive, their legislative majority and rightwing judicial figures to ram through a program that was the same old shit that the Republican Party has been pushing for 25 years. It is the Koch Brothers, Sean Hannity, et al. Just because Trump has cozied up with crypto-fascists like Alex Jones, there is no reason to cry wolf. As someone who lived through the Reagan years and read about the meetings that his top officials were having with Lyndon LaRouche’s cult members, I tend to be a bit more cautious about the F word. The US ruling class prefers to rule though bourgeois democracy and there is little need to take the kind of drastic action that Nazism represents.

It should be understood that Salvage Magazine that includes Richard Seymour on the editorial board views Donald Trump as a fascist. In an editorial titled “Lèse-Evilism: On the US Election Season”, they obviously demonstrated a poor grasp of American presidential politics:

If Trumpism is not fascist, it is clearly not not-fascist in the same way that mainstream Republicanism is not-fascist. Given its insurgent nativism, its overt racism and performative misogyny, its spectacular glorification of violence, including racist violence – as when Trump described as ‘very passionate’ a Boston supporter who severely beat a Hispanic man with an iron bar – its refusal to condemn overt white supremacist support, its sadistic and resentful authoritarianism, its populist denunciations of ‘big finance’ and ‘the system’, its willingness to suspend constitutional-legal norms in the interests of resolving a supposed emergency, and given our hard- and painfully-won perspective that things, particularly in these bad times, can get worse, Salvage is not complacent about the trajectory of this movement.

By these standards, we would have been facing a fascist threat under Reagan. In 1980, Ronald Reagan gave a speech openly endorsing “state’s rights” at the Neshoba County Fair. The fair was held in Philadelphia, Mississippi where 3 civil rights activists were murdered by the KKK in 1964. He broke the airline controllers’ strike. He used illegal methods to support the Nicaraguan contras in collaboration with fascist groups like the World Anti-Communist League. Was any of this an indication that a “rupture” was pending? No, it was a reflection that a right-wing Republican was in power, not that much different from others that had preceded him. Fascism was not required to make life hell for workers and Black people. The American government has been doing that for the past 200 years.

Finally, I would refer you to an article by Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs, a magazine that has been doing yeoman work rebutting the supporters of antifa like Richard Seymour. In a piece titled “Response to Critique On Free Speech and Violence”, Robinson replies to Seymour’s FB critique of his views on antifa. Seymour, who is referred to as Psmith throughout, wrote a boiler-plate defense of the antifa adventurists:

But Robinson ends by worrying that readers, who might be thinking of punching Nazis, would be “giving up” their principled commitment to “free speech” and “nonviolence” and should think twice before doing this. This is strange: personally, I do not have any commitment to a principle of free speech that says blocking talks is “intrinsically” or “in principle” wrong. Free speech is always provisional and contingent. If you use your speech to incite against migrant or trans students, as Yiannopoulos did, I have no obligation to defend your freedom to do that.

That is par for the course.

Robinson replied:

I might add here that those who endorse a highly contingent view of free speech rarely engage with the most important questions surrounding it. They don’t even seem to understand the reasons why people support robust open forums. It’s not because we believe that Nazis who “incite” hate are a legitimate part of the dialogue, it’s because we believe that once you start determining who can speak based on a “legitimacy/illegitimacy” framework, you are beginning to impose restrictions that will ultimately hurt everybody. Yes, everything is technically “contingent.” But the more we embrace that contingency, instead of seeing it as a very narrow and reluctant set of exceptions, the less free people generally will become. That’s because words like “contingent” and even “incite” end up being squishy and slippery, and we lose the kind of clear limiting principles that will help us maintain as open of a forum as we can. This is true whether we’re speaking of private or public action. In terms of the First Amendment, the more you empower courts to make exceptions for “hate speech” or “fascist speech,” the more you have built in a dangerous exception to your own civil liberties that now depends on you convincing a judge that you aren’t hateful. “Incitement,” without a clear and limited definition of what it does and doesn’t mean, is worryingly broad. (Yes, the Supreme Court adopts an “incitement” standard, but it’s “incitement to imminent lawless action,” with the imminence question being crucial, which is why mere advocacy of lawless action is permitted, and the qualification is crucial for safeguarding the right.) People like Psmith never seem to want to tell us how the limits of what constitutes an “incitement to hate” will be determined.

I urge you to read the entire article and to look for any others written by Robinson on the antifa question. I also recommend Carl Boggs’s article in today’s CounterPunch that is superlative. Here is an excerpt:

Antifa screams about racism and fascism on the right, which of course exists, while ignoring those same tendencies – not to mention warmongering – among liberal Democrats.  The group seems blind to far more consequential fascist interests at work within the power structure itself.  Despite a well-cultivated radical image, Antifa rarely focuses on the growing ultra-nationalism, militarism, and imperialism that lies at the very core of American politics – tendencies in fact more dangerous than the rhetoric of Yiannopoulos, Coulter, and Shapiro.  Beneath its ultra-leftism is a modus operandi riddled with the worst of identity politics.  And since its violent tactics are not aligned with any popular movement, its opposition to fascism (such as it is) turns hollow, empty.




  1. Richard Seymour and Louis Proyect have been next to each other on my linklist for a decade and I have usually checked you both on the same day. I read an article about Franz von Neumann on Fascism and by another Adolph Reed on identitarianism today. I read both Cedric Robinson and Fredric Jameson. If you think the massed billions of unionized industrial workers are going to hit the streets at any moment, well good luck to you. I think the Frankfurt School and the French Regulation School and postmodernists and the Italian autonomists recognized that material conditions have changed such that the old Marxist categories and rhetoric and strategies needed to be re-examined and adjusted, while retained intact for an alternative perspective, to discover new forms of resistance and organization, if mass organization is any longer possible. I don’t think it is..

    66 years old myself, I cannot begin to say how much I admire you and your biography but I will continue to also read Seymour. Reading and writing is all I do these days, and never any kind of activist, so feel free to ignore or castigate me. But we aren’t living in the GM 1937 strike world anymore, and I want to understand the new one..

    Comment by bob mcmanus — September 4, 2017 @ 10:19 pm

  2. I share the same impatience occasionally, not least because mixtures of cultural studies with Lacanianism, with varying doses, are already well represented on campuses while actual marxism devoted to political and economic analysis could do with more troops, but I still read some of his stuff with great pleasure. I’d be curious to read your thoughts (or other people’s) about his Corbyn book.

    Comment by Nathan — September 5, 2017 @ 7:03 am

  3. I’ll try again, without speaking for Seymour and knowing mostly only what I read on the internet, and without understanding Marxism/Maoism or cultural studies, or much history (I need to study the French popular front.)

    1) Seymour in these pieces seems to me to be doing book reviews or readings from a kind of deep immersion, a provisional position very sympathetic and not “critical” to the authors. I approve although I do wish he would expand his reading list, but I trust he knows what he is doing

    2) After looking at the last few years, Syriza, Brexit/Corbyn, Podemos, Sanders vs Clinton, and Macron (we will see about Germany quite soon, bu I have checked out the class composition of German Greens.) for examples is that the working class is too split to get a majority, with a large proportion of workers and petty bourgeois at best proto-fascist. In these cases a kinda of popular front is necessary and the only remotely available allies are probably in the cosmopolitan identitarian immaterial/intellectual labour “left,” the Laurie Pennys and Neera Tandens and Te-Nehisi Coates. Tsipras in part couldn’t go full Grexit because a large part of his constituency wanted to keep their smartphones and Amazon connections. Also, for an example, Scottish nationalism. Students. These groups (which include educated immigrants) to a large degree feel themselves in direct and conscious opposition to the Marxian Left…but I think we need them. I feel our current position is similar to say the twenties and thirties, when (Lenin after Zimmerwald)Trotsky and Stalin had to find a way to deal with nationalist movements. As I remember, it was all much of a failure then that led to we know what and what cost.

    3) Seymour has a history of both trying to form alliances and opposition to the identity left, with repeated frustrations. I don’t know what Seymour is currently doing besides writing his occasional reviews. I do know he is in contact with students.

    4) Yeah, great that UK McDonalds is striking. Will it scale? I don’t think it can.

    5) As an American, looks like Kamala Harris or Gillibrand will be the next candidate. It’s not about them to me, but about their constituencies, and somehow forming a bridge between say coastal Ivy League feminists and Midwest white working class women, and pushing both to an active economic leftism, or Afro-pessimists.BLM. Identity politics, bad or not, is what we got. We are having a terrible time organizing precarious workers and immigrants, let alone generating a revolutionary force. How many people have college degrees compared to the 1920s. Newspapers have failed. Facebook, twitter, blogs are wildly fractionated.

    6) I recommend MacKenzie Wark’s new book, General Intellects, and his introduction,, which is again, book reviews from the publications a couple dozen academic leftists.Sure, maybe useless intellectuals, but Gramsci rotted in prison

    7) Useless intellectuals? We don’t have time to dismiss them. We need, for instance, a majority for Corbyn.

    Comment by bob mcmanus — September 5, 2017 @ 9:41 am

  4. Seymour and Proyect are indeed “linked” and not just on Bob McManus’ reading list; but when it comes to endorsing formations like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the MAS in Bolivia, and…. soon, I’m sure just as soon as Louis can get around to it, Corbyn in the UK. Arguing about vocabulary, intellectual pretense, etc. is just so much “undercard” to the fundamental agreement on these popular fronts.

    Comment by Anti-Capital — September 5, 2017 @ 1:49 pm

  5. Comment number 4 comes from David Schanoes, who is best known as S.Artesian. He believes that posting comments such as these is the 2017 equivalent of Lenin’s polemics against the renegade Kautsky. Who knows? Maybe Lenin was also a sell-out in his eyes. In my view, ideas cannot be detached from action. As Marx said, the point is to change it. This is a man who has never done anything. He was in the management of Grand Central Station and passed through the 80s, 90s and 2000s without doing a stitch of political work. His idea of political work is to write comments such as these and to write cranky, long-winded articles about the abc’s of Marxism on two blogs that nobody reads: https://anticapital0.wordpress.com/ and http://thewolfatthedoor.blogspot.com/. I have no idea why he bothers. I guess he thinks that this has something to do with revolutionary politics. It has about as much value as the lead character’s fantasies in “Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment”.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 5, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

  6. We don’t know for certain that the world’s laboring masses won’t ever “hit the streets.” Now–quite recently really–everywhere in the world is industrialized–huge change. How can this not have revolutionary implications somewhere along the line?

    In the U.S., perhaps part of the problem is that workers in general may be all too focused on the precariousness of their situation–as conveyed for example by Mr. Trump & Co., posing insanely as the worker’s friends–and hence not have the confidence in their mass importance that they may once have had. Not seeing “guys like us” (des gars comme nous as a belligerent French worker once said to me years ago) at the center of capitalist production and seeing a robot in the cab of your semi ten years hence is pretty much of a damper on industrial action. Easier to blame the “ragheads” and the Mexicans and call for their extermination? (In case you think nobody does that, “nuke the ragheads” is in face a phrase one has heard in the workplace as long as no “ragheads” were listening.)

    The question then might be how or whether workers can begin to look with interest at a more Star Trek/Einstein idea of socialism precisely because modern capitalism clearly promises (threatens) to alter the nature of work so drastically, rather than because, so to speak, “Trenton makes; the world takes.” Doesn’t anyone “in the street” feel that ordinary people, not the Trumps and Carlos Slims of the world, are the real owners of our environmentally threatened wealth?

    Capital is global; workers are mostly stuck where they are–or forced to migrate at untold cost to themselves.

    Off the Seymour topic. Maybe he’s just taking refuge in postmodernism out of disappointment, as so many did in the seventies and eighties.

    “Our times” do certainly seem to manifest themselves in a “neurotic personality” [Horney]–look at Trump. Lacan just seems like a load of pompously improvised gibberish even so. People fall in love with sounding like that–academic peer pressure and ideas of hipness.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 6, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

  7. My guess is that Seymour is doing research for another book, and maybe reacting to the death of Mark Davies.

    Well, of course I don’t see the cultural turn as taking refuge but as an informed response to tactical and theoretical failures: 1968 in France, 70s in Italy, the collapse of Labour in Britain etc; as a recognition of changed material conditions; and even probably in itself a reflection/expression (?) of those changed material conditions. It may be true that we don’t have the equivalent of a Reuther/Lenin/CP these days because nobody in the 7 billion is trying hard enough but I’ll work as if that is not the case. I should re-read P Anderson (and Thompson) on Western Marxism annually just to check myself, but the argument is forty years old ( if not back to Frankfurt) now and almost over. That’s nobody’s fault.

    Probably guilty of one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins of Marxism above, and I limit myself in these parts because I indulge them all, including spontaneism and adventurism and my walking shelf of showoff books. Just a dilettante and tourist rendering Proyect speechless at my combination of ignorance and arrogance. Carry on as you were. Please.

    Comment by bob mcmanus — September 6, 2017 @ 4:07 pm

  8. Ugh Mark Fisher, not Davies. Vampire Castle. Memory is failing.

    Comment by bob mcmanus — September 6, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

  9. In response to Nathan I wrote this critical review of Seymour’s Corbyn book in July last year https://thoughtsofaleicestersocialist.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/the-corbyn-fightback-the-strange-rebirth-of-radical-politics/

    Comment by mbarker2012 — September 6, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

  10. [In response to Nathan I wrote this critical review of Seymour’s Corbyn book in July last year https://thoughtsofaleicestersocialist.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/the-corbyn-fightback-the-strange-rebirth-of-radical-politics/ ]

    Thanks for posting this. Very informative.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 7, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

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