Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 25, 2018

Robert Brenner, Vivek Chibber, and the “organization question”

Filed under: Academia,Political Marxism — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

Robert Brenner

Vivek Chibber

On Saturday, I received a communication that threw me for a loop:

Dear Friends,

Catalyst has stood out as a bright spot in a dark time for radical politics. I have served from the outset as co-editor of the journal along with Vivek Chibber. Nevertheless, Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, has seen fit to remove me from my position — without any warning, pretense of consultation, or plausible justification. A number of contributors to Catalyst are now stepping in to try to limit the damage that this coup will inflict. Their statement below represents the first step in the campaign.

Robert Brenner

https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/…/editorial-robert-brenner

Catalyst Contributors’ Protest Robert Brenner’s Dismissal from the Catalyst Co-editorship and Demand for his Reinstatement

We, the undersigned, are contributors to Catalyst, who have published or have been commissioned to publish articles in the journal. We are writing to protest the removal of Robert Brenner from his position as co-editor of the journal and to demand his reinstatement.

Co-editor Vivek Chibber, backed by publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, who is also publisher of Jacobin, made this move unilaterally, without warning, and without any pretense of consultation. Chibber has refused to discuss it with Brenner or to consider Brenner’s proposals for re-configuring Catalyst’s editorial procedures to meet Chibber’s concerns. Nor has Chibber been willing to talk with several of the signers of this statement who contacted him to work out a resolution.

Catalyst is produced by Jacobin, which has provided indispensable support for the journal across the board in terms of finance, production, design, and circulation, while granting its editors total autonomy in terms of its content, especially politics. Jacobin has established itself as one as of the left’s more important institutions. We want to make it abundantly clear that that this letter is in no way an attack on Jacobin and that we have no desire to harm it in any manner. Just the opposite.

So far, Catalyst has been a striking success. It has defined itself as a radical political journal devoted to further developing Marxist theory as an essential guide for political intervention. It has insisted that this development requires dialogue with non-Marxist radical traditions, as well as dissident strains of Marxism typically excluded from major socialist journals, and it has placed a high priority on seeing to it that they are represented in its pages.

Catalyst’s point of departure is that the fundamental goal of working class emancipation has not changed. But it recognizes that continuing transformations in capitalism, the working class, and society/culture have raised different problems than those posed in the last great period of mass mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s.

The journal has thus tried to nurture and publish new theoretical and empirical work to address these changes. Especially due to the globalized nature of the economy and its crisis, which has fueled austerity, neoliberalism, and a growing rightwing populism virtually everywhere, the working class and the left across the world now confront the same challenges simultaneously. Catalyst therefore sees building a coordinated, international political response as an immediate priority.

Catalyst has clearly struck a chord on the left, attracting a remarkable level of interest and rapid growth of subscriptions in a relatively short period of time. Robert Brenner, who co-edited the journal along with Vivek Chibber, was the journal’s founder and has been its central motivating force. Taking take nothing away from Chibber, who has made indispensable contributions in every respect. Brenner was uniquely responsible for enabling the journal to establish itself and flourish, contributing more than his share in every aspect of Catalyst’s work. Given the journal’s success, his dismissal from the position of co-editor makes no sense and is self-destructive for the journal. He must be reinstated.

Chibber, backed by Sunkara, has justified the change in editorship by claiming serious shortcomings in Brenner’s performance as co-editor. According to them, he did not shoulder his proper share of the editing, tended to be late with the editing he did do, and failed to find replacements when he failed to complete jobs on time, compelling Chibber to swoop in to save the day. The burden of Chibber’s case is that he essentially functioned as editor-in-chief, taking the main responsibility for the journal, and that Brenner assumed a lesser and subordinate role but refused to acknowledge it.

This claim has no validity. Quite the contrary. Brenner did a disproportionate share of the editing, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and did most of the substantial editing jobs, as can easily be demonstrated and directly documented. Many of us can personally attest to the high quality of Brenner’s editing, which resulted in making our articles significantly better.

Brenner forwarded to Sunkara and Chibber a systematic and comprehensive response, in which he refuted their arguments point by point, with accompanying evidence.(See Appendix on Distribution of Editing, with detailed documentation, in email accompanying this statement.) But they refused to reply, and, up to this point, have failed to counter any of his assertions. We can only conclude that their case against him was no more than window dressing to provide a cover for what they intended to do in any case.

Even if, for argument’s sake, Chibber had done much more work for the journal than Brenner, we would still have to condemn this takeover as unprincipled and unproductive. What the journal needs now to build most effectively on its success is to broaden its editorial capacity, not narrow it further. A larger editorial board reflecting a greater range of left political perspectives would surely enhance the journal.

It gives us no pleasure to write this letter, but we feel we have no choice. The left, yet again, is digging its own grave, undermining its own achievements. No sooner did Catalyst establish itself as a useful institution, than it was dismantled from within via a Chibber-initiated coup. Given that the expulsion is so plainly self-destructive, it is actually quite difficult to figure out what really motivated it. A single individual’s grab for power and recognition? An unstated political agenda?

Whatever was behind it, the move must be reversed. We therefore call on Sunkara, who as publisher has final authority, and Chibber to re-instate Brenner. We ourselves hereby announce that we will not contribute to Catalyst unless and until Brenner is brought back as co-editor. We call on all others to similarly refuse to cooperate with the journal, as authors or in other capacities, until Chibber and Sunkara make that happen. We encourage those who support this effort to let Chibber and Sunkara know your opinion by emailing them directly.

Signers:

Mike Davis
Aijaz Ahmad
Sam Ashman
Sam Farber
Mike Goldfield
Costas Lapavitsas
CK Lee
Zach Levenson
Isidro Lopez
Kim Moody
Trevor Ngwane
Mike Parker
Charlie Post
Suzi Weissman
Pedro Paulo Zahluth Bastos

The link above directed one to Brenner’s page at Catalyst, where the above statement appeared. You can still get to the page but the statement is gone. All you get is a blank page. Nice.

Mike Davis minced no words:

The Millennial generation’s enthusiasm for ‘socialism,’ however vaguely defined, is truly the horizon of hope in this otherwise darkening age. But, frankly speaking, Marxists have done a poor job of arming radical passions with deep analyses of the world crisis, its class actors, and emergent social movements. Catalyst – published by Jacobin and co-edited by Bob Brenner and Vivek Chibber- was launched last year precisely to provide a quality forum for such debates and explorations. It has surpassed all expectations in attracting exciting articles from a rapidly-growing and diverse community of contributors.

So why kill this vital force in its crib? For reasons which he disdains to explain to contributors and readers, Chibber has ‘fired’ Brenner with the complicity of Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara, who controls the means of production. Rumor from the New York side insinuates that Brenner failed to fulfill his share of editorial work, but as the erstwhile ‘associate editor’ I can assure you that this is completely untrue. If anything, Brenner assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for editing articles, commissioning pieces and giving direction to the journal. He also lent it an intellectual prestige and political seriousness which I very much doubt Chibber, even with Sunkara’s support, can sustain.

Brenner has made desperate and sincere efforts to save the collaboration but they have been dismissed with a wave of Sunkara’s hand. Should the rest of us, who so enthusiastically rallied to Catalyst, simply acquiesce and eat cake? Certainly not – the project – the collective property of the contributors, must go on. Please stay tuned.

Today, Sunkara defended himself and Chibber on FB, likely pissing off even more those who wrote the statement:

There has not been a “coup” of any kind at Catalyst. We did not kick Robert Brenner off the journal. Rather, we asked him to move to being “Founding and Associate Editor,” which would still give him substantial influence in the journal’s direction, but would enable us to overcome the problems we were facing owing to his difficulties in meeting deadlines and carrying through on his commitments.

From the very inception of the journal it had led to serious problems with production. We did, in fact, try different solutions to make it work and had extensive conversations with Bob and others about this. But by late 2017 it reached a breaking point, when the journal was delayed for two consecutive issues – the second one being two months. And at the end of it, the material he had committed to acquiring and editing was not delivered at all, or was of a quality unsuitable for publication. Problems like this were now not only paralyzing Catalyst but also started to bleed over into the production of other projects. No quarterly journal can survive delays of this length and this frequency.

This is why we decided to suggest a change in responsibilities. It would be highly irrational for us to have taken this step if Brenner had indeed been shouldering most of the responsibility, as he claims. Why would I agree to “fire” him if this was the case? We have a long history with Brenner and respect him greatly. But not everyone can do everything, and shouldering the day-to-day responsibilities of a journal turned out not to be one of his strengths. We hoped that as Founding & Associate Editor he would still be able to lend his considerable talents to the project, without being a bottleneck in its production. We regret that we had to take this step, but there seemed little choice.

The campaign he is waging is self-indulgent and destructive. He cannot force himself onto a journal, if the people there feel that they can’t rely on him. Obviously, it’s unfortunate, but the old arrangement just wasn’t working.

On the bright side, we’ve managed to finalize three issues over the last six months that are of really great quality and Catalyst is still growing at the rate of around 75-100 subscribers a week.

This is the last thing we’ll have to say on this matter – though if you have any questions you can contact Vivek or myself personally.

The controversy has generated comments from NYU professors where Chibber is based. Nikil Singh, who is a critic of the Brenner thesis—at least as applied to American slavery after the fashion of Charles Post, tweeted this:

It’s Ironic that Jacobin, which prides itself on being an engaged alternative to insular campus left politics has chosen as its in-house intellectual someone whose politics is defined by seminar room victories and the worst kinds of petty, internecine intra-academic warfare.

Not long after the tweet appeared, he deleted it. I suppose he didn’t want to antagonize Chibber or fellow Political Marxist don in the sociology department Jeff Goodwin, who defended him and Sunkara on FB:

This statement rings true to me. Vivek Chibber has been a leading proponent of the work of Robert Brenner, who was central to his very formation as a Marxist. Chibber recently worked hard to secure a teaching position for Brenner at NYU, an effort scuttled by people hostile to Marxism. I know Chibber extremely well — we have been colleagues for many years — and I have never heard him express the slightest ill will toward Brenner. Quite the contrary. The idea that Chibber would try to drive Brenner off the journal Catalyst, which the two of them co-founded, for some unspecified but nefarious purpose doesn’t make sense to me.

Of course, it was true that Chibber was a leading proponent of Brenner’s work, a disciple actually. He was also very tight with Charles Post, another Brennerite, who got on his wrong side after criticizing an idiotic article that Chibber wrote for Jacobin ruling out socialist revolution for the foreseeable future. For Chibber, the “strategic perspective has to downplay the centrality of a revolutionary rupture and navigate a more gradualist approach.” His article is standard issue social democratic reformism, hardly distinct from what you might read in Dissent magazine as I pointed out here: https://louisproyect.org/2018/02/26/vivek-chibbers-apolitical-marxism/

Many years ago, when I was being trained in the Trotskyist movement, James P. Cannon’s “Struggle for a Proletarian Party” was required reading. This was his account of the fight with Max Shachtman and James Burnham in 1939 over the class character of the USSR. The term “organization question” is referenced heavily throughout. For Cannon, this was the Achilles Heel of the “petty-bourgeois” opposition that harped on things like his top-heavy leadership (true, I’m sure) rather than the underlying theoretical questions. Cannon wrote:

What is the significance of the organisation question as such in a political party? Does it have an independent significance of its own on the same plane with political differences, or even standing above them? Very rarely. And then only transiently, for the political line breaks through and dominates the organisation question every time. This is one of the first ABC lessons of party politics, confirmed by all experience.

In his notorious document entitled “Science and Style”, Burnham writes: “The second central issue is the question of the regime in the Socialist Workers Party.” In reality the opposition tried from the beginning of the dispute to make the question of the “regime” the first issue; the basic cadres of the opposition were recruited precisely on this issue before the fundamental theoretical and political differences were fully revealed and developed.

This method of struggle is not new. The history of the revolutionary labour movement since the days of the First International is an uninterrupted chronicle of the attempts of petty-bourgeois groupings and tendencies of all kinds to recompense themselves for their theoretical and political weakness by furious attacks against the “organisational methods” of the Marxists. And under the heading of organisational methods, they included everything from the concept of revolutionary centralism up to routine matters of administration; and beyond that to the personal manners and methods of their principled opponents, which they invariably describe as “bad”, “harsh”, “tyrannical”, and—of course, of course, of course—“bureaucratic”. To this day any little group of anarchists will explain to you how the “authoritarian” Marx mistreated Bakunin.

As it happens, both Brenner and Chibber are susceptible to prioritizing the “organization question”. I say this because someone privy to the feud informed me:

As I understand it, Brenner gave a ten or so page critique of an article Chibber had for the magazine (Catalyst) the long and short of which was that Chibber’s piece was fatally flawed. All said in the best academese of course.

So political differences will likely be papered over in order turn this into a Human Resources grievance. Who really believes that Brenner and one of his best known and most obsequious disciples were butting heads over whether he was keeping up with his editorial duties?

I don’t.

My advice is to look for the next issue of the Catalyst to read Chibber’s article. You can only guess what Brenner thought of it but are not likely to see any critique since he is not really in the habit of duking it out publicly with the exception of his NLR article about the 1997 financial crisis. Of course, that was easier to take part in since it involved rather cut-and-dry questions of how to understand the declining rate of profit and other key indicators. Having it out with one of his erstwhile devotees is probably not something Brenner has a stomach for although the sharp-elbowed Chibber would probably like to bring it on.

What lessons can we draw from all this? Brenner became the high priest of Political Marxism forty-one years ago after attacking Paul Sweezy in the NLR as a neo-Smithian Marxist. Hinging on your agreement that capitalism originated in the British countryside because of historical contingencies that gave birth to tenant farming, you were qualified to become a Marxist mandarin. He concluded his lengthy article with this:

The necessary interdependence between the revolutionary movements at the ‘weakest link’ and in the metropolitan heartlands of capitalism was a central postulate in the strategic thinking of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution. With regard to this basic proposition, nothing has changed to this day.

Well, yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be lined up with the “leading revolutionaries in the last great period of international socialist revolution.” 1977. Those were the days. Within a couple of years, Jack Barnes would be speaking in the same terms about developing a flawless revolutionary movement except in his case it was abandoning Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rather than upholding arcane arguments about tenant farming.

Oddly enough as the left breaks with this kind of dogmatism that leads to needless splits, it is the cult of Political Marxism that is now embroiled in the same kind of feuds we used to see in the heyday of Trotskyism and Maoism. In our days, the prize was to become a Leninist vanguard. Today, it is being an editor of a quasi-academic journal like Catalyst.

Sigh.

UPDATE.

Statement by David McNally on FB:

On the Uproar about Catalyst

These are trying times for the emerging New Left. While the old is dying, to paraphrase Gramsci, the new cannot yet be born. Thus, alongside, intimations of hope and new waves of resistance, we encounter a proliferation of “morbid symptoms.” It is difficult not to worry that the uproar at Catalyst, the journal associated with Jacobin magazine, is another case in point.

The uproar seems to originate in efforts to demote or fire Bob Brenner from his position as co-editor of Catalyst, in which role he served with Vivek Chibber. I am not privy to the internal machinations involved in Brenner’s removal/demotion, but when Mike Davis (the journal’s associate editor) says the rationale used is “completely untrue” I am inclined to pay close attention. Even more significant is what this direction would seem to signal for the project of building a new radical left.

From the start, many of us recognized the need for a serious U.S.-based journal of rigorously socialist analysis that could speak to a new generation of leftward-moving radicals. At the same time, many of us also felt that the Catalyst project would need to be expanded and opened up—to activists and theorists leading struggles against racism and police violence, organizing for migrant justice, fighting for gender and LGBTQ liberation, doing grassroots organizing in union, campus, and environmental justice campaigns, and so on. Ultimately, a journal of a real socialist movement has to be rooted in and accountable to a network of thousands of contributors, subscribers, readers, and activists who identify with and support its political project. And it can only achieve this by demonstrating that, notwithstanding who owns it, in practice it is a collective project “owned” by the movement that sustains it.

After Catalyst was launched, I had the opportunity to raise these points with Bob Brenner, and found him to be highly supportive of this perspective. Instead, however, Catalyst is shrinking its editors (to one)—and losing, it would seem, its associate editor, Mike Davis—at the very time it should be moving in the opposite direction.

Nearly twenty years ago, Ellen Meiksins Wood was purged from her editorship at Monthly Review. Hundreds of us wrote to MR, imploring it to reverse this disastrous decision. We had been thrilled by the new voices and perspectives Ellen had brought to MR, and we asked the Board that owned the review to reinstate her as an editor. They refused. MR severely damaged its standing on the wider left, and has never again played the role that it did in the mid- to late-1990s when Ellen was on board. The decision to turn their backs on hundreds of us who contributed to and subscribed to its journal, and who were spokespersons for it within a broad left, irreparably damaged MR’s political project, while also associating it with purges and bureaucratic edicts.

One would like to think that those who own and control Catalyst have the capacity to step back, regroup, and rethink. When a large layer of a journal’s contributors denounces an organizational maneuver (as they have in the case of Brenner’s removal/demotion), the warning signs are blinking brightly. Catalyst may well continue in spite of such maneuvers, but it will be very difficult for it to fulfill its initial promise. One can only hope that morbid symptoms will not prevail. We have been down that road before, and it is not a good one.

8 Comments »

  1. It appears as though Sunkara’s efforts to secure a leading role for Catalyst as the theoretical journal of Democratic Socialism, has led him and Chibber to abandon the very principle of inclusiveness such an endeavor entails. I would tend to agree with McNally’s sentiments and hope that the furor contributes to a re-imagining of how a journal, especially an avowedly marxist journal, can be owned and produced.

    Comment by tomw — June 26, 2018 @ 5:23 am

  2. It seems Chibber and Sunkara think they can jump onto the “leadership” position — in terms of literary output that can “lead” the growing sentiments in favor or socialist moves — so, they want to establish their positions.

    BUT … Journals don’t make movements! These guys are in a hurry to take leadership positions in an upside down way, in that they think they can actually lead. Their current petty squabbles, however, prove they’re just a bunch of opportunists.

    Comment by Reza — June 26, 2018 @ 8:26 pm

  3. I am always reminded of how my dear and late friend Jim Blaut, who David Harvey credits for recruiting him to Marxism, described as his “”his finest hour as a human being,”

    Chicago Tribune
    James M. Blaut, 73, Professor, Author, Fighter For Social Justice
    November 16, 2000|By Diana Strzalka, Tribune Staff Writer.

    His academic research sent him exploring the history and political geography of India, Thailand, Puerto Rico and other lands. And his passion for social justice steered him toward national independence movements, anti-war protests and rallies against discrimination.

    James M. Blaut, 73, a professor of geography and anthropology at the University of Illinois and the author of five books on world history, died of cancer Monday, Nov. 13, in Norwegian American Hospital in Chicago.

    He was driven by his social consciousness, said a long-time friend, Esther Nieves. He was a compassionate and humble man who devoted his life’s work to international issues, particularly the injustices in Third World countries. His geography theories focused on how land impacted the way people live and learn, she said.

    Mr. Blaut was born and raised in New York City and graduated from an alternative high school, the Little Red Schoolhouse, said his daughter, Gini Blaut-Sorrentini. He was only 16 when he was admitted to the University of Chicago. He then attended the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad and went on to earn his doctorate in anthropology and geography from Louisiana State University.

    His academic credentials earned him teaching jobs at Yale, Cornell University, the Caribbean Research Institute, the College of the Virgin Islands and the University of Chicago. He was teaching at the University of Puerto Rico when he met his wife, America Sorrentini-Blaut. Mr. Blaut pioneered the micro-geographic study of peasant farming and introduced systems analysis into human geography, said his daughter. His research also led to the development of the natural mapping theory. In 1997 he was named distinguished scholar of the year by the Association of American Geographers.

    In the late 1960s, he marched against the draft and the Vietnam War and was arrested–something he considered to be “his finest hour as a human being,” said his daughter.

    Mr. Blaut and his wife often participated in rallies in support of the Puerto Rican struggle for independence. And as a member of the faculty at the University of Illinois, he spoke out against discrimination against Hispanics, said his daughter.

    “He was always grounded in justice. Someone like him doesn’t come around too many times in life,” said Nieves.

    Dr. Blaut wrote five books on the historical and political geography of the Third World, including “The National Question” and his most recent book, “Eight Eurocentric Historians.”

    An avid birdwatcher, Mr. Blaut would often pack his binoculars on research trips to Thailand, India, Panama and other locales, said his daughter.

    Services have been held.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 26, 2018 @ 8:36 pm

  4. Was Brenner doing a lousy job as editor and holding up production? It isn’t impossible. The guy is 74 after all–some intellects are still sprightly at that age, and others are failing. I’ll be there soon enough if I live–there are many who would deny me credit for intellect in any form.

    Who knows–It all sounds very fishy.

    It surely is an indictment of the left in our times, though, if Catalyst and Jacobin with or without Brenner are our last, best hope. As a theorist, Brenner seems to be something of a professorial crank–is he (or was he) really a vital force for radicalism outside the crippling scope of his theories about the origins of capitalism?

    Even though Jacobin does occasionally publish something worth reading, I hate to think of young minds being shunted into political irrelevance through those gleaming portals.

    I don’t know Chibber, so ought to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he certainly comes across in these pages as the epitome of a conniving mediocrity–what happens when some disgusting rat of a graduate student becomes a professor and seizes control of the lab. (“Wine!” he squeaks. “Cheese!” he squeaks. “P—y!”)

    But I don’t know the man–mustn’t rush to judge.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 26, 2018 @ 9:34 pm

  5. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

    Comment by John Gamey — June 27, 2018 @ 8:37 pm

  6. Tough times for the ‘and your point is?’ left.

    Comment by John Gamey — June 28, 2018 @ 10:34 am

  7. The Jacobin is nothing more than a glossy Nation. It has some solid articles, but it is basically about making the Democrats more progressive. And it’s politics are getting worse over time, not better.

    Comment by Bill — July 1, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

  8. One can get a good idea of Jacobin’s politics by going their twitter page and see the 49 accounts they follow.

    Comment by Bill — July 1, 2018 @ 2:36 pm


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