Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2017

Reflections on James O’Connor (1930-2017)

Filed under: Ecology,obituary — louisproyect @ 11:05 pm

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James O’Connor in 1978 (photo courtesy of the UC-Santa Cruz Digital Collections)

Yesterday I learned on Facebook that James O’Connor had died. Born in 1930, he was one of the towering figures of academic Marxism who made an indelible impact on Marxist theory in a number of spheres. His 1964 PhD dissertation titled “The Political Economy of Pre-Revolutionary Cuba” was expanded into the 1970 “The Origins of Socialism in Cuba” that is the most rigorous application of historical materialism to Cuban revolution I have ever read. In 1973, his “Fiscal Crisis of the State” was a major contribution to Marxist theory about the contradictory nature of the state, which has to maintain the appearance of being independent of the ruling class while serving its needs.

But his most important contribution was founding Capitalism, Nature and Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology (CNS) in 1988, a journal he edited until 2003. After 2003, he became much less of a presence in academic Marxism, a function of age and declining health.

I didn’t know O’Connor well enough to write an obituary but hope that someone much closer to him will supply one before long since he was such a commanding presence. Instead, I want to focus on my own connections to him both personally and as someone with a peripheral involvement in the debates that have raged in the field of ecosocialism in the past 20 years or so.

A few years before coming to work at Columbia University in 1991, I had attended a workshop at the Brecht Forum in New York led by Joel Kovel on ecology that struck me like a bolt of lightning, especially his comparison of capitalist growth to metastasizing tumors. So when I posted to Internet mailing lists, a medium that seems as dated nowadays as Nehru jackets, a lot of my messages had to do with ecology as well as my customary film reviews.

It turned out that O’Connor was subscribed to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk in 1998, as was I. He appreciated my messages on ecology as well as those touching on popular culture, especially when I referred to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard who was also one of his favorites. This led to a fairly regular exchange of emails with O’Connor who struck me as a decent, down-to-earth academic despite his prestige.

He was like a number of Marxist professors I became friendly with 20 years ago who were impressed with my ability to hold forth on a wide variety of topics but without the scholarly depth that they expected from their graduate students. When one of them invited me to submit an expanded version of something I had written for a mailing list, it could lead to misunderstandings. I simply did not have the patience or the motivation to go through a peer review process. Unlike my wife who is a tenure-track professor, there was no material incentive to jump through hoops in order to get an article published in a Taylor and Francis journal.

In 1998, I posted criticisms of David Harvey’s newly published “Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference” that O’Connor apparently appreciated since he followed up with an invitation to expand it into a full-length article for CNS. O’Connor was hostile to the basic thrust of Harvey’s book, as was I. Writing in the name of a class-based environmentalism that took aim—rightfully—at the middle-class inside-the-beltway orientation of groups like the Sierra Club, Harvey also came up with some questionable hypotheses. Worst of them was the idea that the Nazis were Green and that American Indians were no more ecological than the colonists who stole their land.

Spending far more time than I usually do on a blog post (back then, of course, blogging had not been invented), I explored the philosophical roots of Harvey’s ecological theories in the philosophy of Leibniz. Since I had spent 2 years studying philosophy at the New School and had read Leibniz, my intention was to remove the platform that Harvey’s book sat upon and bring it tumbling to earth. My attack on Harvey’s use of Leibniz was couched in a defense of materialism as I made abundantly clear in the opening paragraph of my submission:

David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference” surely has the distinction of being the only Marxist study of ecology to draw inspiration from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). While openly admitting that Leibniz is a “deeply conservative theoretician in political matters as well as a foundational figure in the rise of that German idealist tradition against which Marx rebelled,” Harvey assures us that Leibniz’s relational approach to time and space has powerful implications for ecology. This article explores the theoretical issues raised by Harvey’s appropriation of Leibnizian dialectics, while attempting to explain why Marx’s rebellion against this idealist tradition was a precondition for understanding the ecological crisis of today.

About a month later, O’Connor wrote a rejection letter telling me that the article would not be of interest to his journal’s readers.

That led me to blast him publicly and to promise myself that I would never submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal again. Ironically, there was only one such submission that defied my self-imposed embargo and that was also to CNS in 2013 on the political economy of Comanche violence. The editor Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro had promised me in advance that the article would be published and developed a fruitful working relationship with me in the three months it took me to finalize the article. I only wish that there were more people out there in academia like him, at least for some of the grad students and junior professors trying to get past the gates of the Kafkaesque castle of academic journals.

In nursing the wounds created by O’Connor’s rejection letter, I turned to John Bellamy Foster who I had gotten to know through my connections to Monthly Review and especially my online articles in praise of Foster’s ecosocialism. He explained to me that my hard-core materialism probably didn’t go over too well with CNS that was firmly in the Frankfurt School tradition. To a large degree, there was an implicit belief that Marx was a “productivist” who could be blamed in part for the disasters that befell the USSR, including Chernobyl.

Clearly, Foster was on to something because he was shocked to discover O’Connor publishing an entire issue devoted to bashing his “Marx’s Ecology” in 2001. Interestingly enough, the aforementioned Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro faults Foster on grounds that likely prejudiced O’Connor against my submission on David Harvey: “On a non-directional, non-linear evolutionary process of scientific practices he uncritically superimposes the inexorable advance of science, whose pinnacle is the achievement of dialectical materialism embodied in Marx. This approach to the history of science approximates all too painfully the conventional narratives featuring a line of great (white male) thinkers contributing to scientific progress.”

Of course, using the term “dialectical materialism” hardly does Foster justice since that is not in his vocabulary let alone his methodology and even prejudices the reader since it is so closely associated with Stalinism.

I summed up the feud between O’Connor and Foster in an article that took the attack to all the contributors to the symposium on “Marx’s Ecology”, especially Joel Kovel whose emphasis on the need for a “spiritual” approach betrayed his Frankfurt School sympathies. From my article:

The final article in the symposium is by Joel Kovel and is titled “A Materialism Worthy of Nature.” Basically it is a defense of spirituality in the following vein:

“Foster’s errors are grounded in a misconception about the meaning of ‘spirit.’ We can infer (because, as with the Greens, there is no actual critique of the spiritual) that for him, to be ‘spiritual’ is synonymous with what is anti-scientific, irrational and superstitious, and is merely a kind of rough congener for the pole of ‘idealism’ in the classic materialism-idealism debate. He fails here to comprehend the distinction between spirit and religion, that spirit is an elementary property of being human, and that religions are the binding of spirit for the purposes of social cohesion. Therefore he also fails to appreciate that there is much more to spirituality than its religious elaboration, and much more to religions than their spiritual impulse.”

To the contrary, Foster’s book is not an attack on spirituality but on developing an analysis of the ecological crisis on other than a scientific and materialist basis. This is in keeping with the record of Marx and Engels, who both paid close attention to scientific matters throughout their life. While the rigorous attempt to develop a dialectics of nature based on the latest scientific findings was identified most often with Engels, Marx supported and consulted on each of these initiatives. Marx considered the soil chemist Van Leibeg to be more important to understanding European society than a dozen economists–in his own words. Marx’s Scientific Notebooks have been published recently and lend support to the notion that Marx was a consummate believer in rigorous scientific methods, both in understanding the natural and social world.

As it happens, I broke all ties to Foster in 2006 or so after he hired Yoshie Furuhashi to run MRZine. I was not the only one, of course, Editorial board member Barbara Epstein, who was at U. Cal, Santa Cruz at the same time as O’Connor, quit the board because of Furuhashi’s pro-Ahmadinejad’s propaganda. Notwithstanding my disgust with Foster’s obvious Assadist sympathies, I have never found fault with the analysis found in “Marx’s Ecology”. Since Furuhashi has gone, the new MR website is far less associated with the “axis of resistance” politics of the left even though it obviously considers the Syrian revolt to be a Western conspiracy. Maybe in another 5 years or so, the comrades will have figured out that Assad was about as “anti-imperialist” as General al-Sisi.

For that matter, long after James O’Connor faded from the scene, his analysis of the environmental crisis has a remarkable staying power. CNS might have been overly influenced by the Frankfurt School with its submerged Heideggerian motifs, but O’Connor’s methodology was as true to the Marxist method as Foster’s. It is probably beyond the capability of any single Marxist thinker today to have the final say on ecosocialism since the scope of the project is not just global but galactic.

However, given the increasing devastation wrought by climate change, O’Connor’s basic approach is perhaps more timely than ever as I see in my references to his “second contradiction” of capitalism theory over the years. O’Connor defined the “second contradiction” as follows:

Examples of capitalist accumulation impairing or destroying capital’s own conditions, hence threatening its own profits and capacity to produce and accumulate more capital, are many and varied. The warming of the atmosphere will inevitably destroy people, places, and profits, not to speak of other species life. Acid rain destroys forests and lakes and buildings and profits alike. Salinization of water tables, toxic wastes, and soil erosion impair nature and profitability. The pesticide treadmill destroys profits as well as nature. Urban capital running on an ((urban renewal treadmill” impairs its own conditions, hence profits, for example, in the form of congestion costs and high rents.’ The decrepit state of the physical infrastructure in the United States may also be mentioned in this connection.

The theory has become ever more relevant as the capitalist mode of production in its mad rush for profits undermines the environmental basis for its long-term sustainability. Houston is a prime example of the second contradition with its real estate developments destroying the prairies that might have prevented the city from being swamped by Hurricane Harvey. Here are two other examples of the “second contradiction” at work:

https://louisproyect.org/2012/10/31/hurricane-sandy-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/16/flint-michigan-and-the-second-contradiction-of-capitalism/

James O’Connor, ¡Presente!

 

2 Comments »

  1. Very Interesting, Lou. I recall your reaction to O’Connor’s rejection of your submission and this constitutes a very generous testimony. The issue is of course so munch bigger than the personal, but as always the mocro-level does have an impact.

    Comment by Gary MacLennan — November 15, 2017 @ 1:10 am

  2. My friendship with Jim O’Conner goes back 60 years to our grad school days at Columbia. We encouraged and supported each other through dissertations, publications, and teaching posts as well as our marriages and childrearing experiences. Louis Proyect has covered Jim’s professional accomplishments admirably; and I would like to add a personal perspective.

    Jim and I met during the heart of the McCarthy era, when overt Marxists were few and far between. In our academic world of economics, Keynes was king. Jim and I organized a small clandestine group of Marxists grad students. We were actively seeking an alternative to bourgeois economic thinking. Many pints of beer were consumed as we tried to develop a critical analysis of the capitalist economy without falling into the trap of embracing Stalinist economics.

    Although our teaching responsibilities kept us on opposite coasts ( Jim at Santa Cruz and I at SUNY Binghamton), we kept in close contact regarding both our work and our families. I will always admire the ways in which Jim kept the flame of Socialism alive and, with the help of his close companion Barbara , passed that torch on to many others.

    I will miss you, Jim. You did not go gently into the night……..

    Your friend and comrade, Mel Leiman

    Comment by Melvin Leiman — November 18, 2017 @ 8:48 pm


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