Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 13, 2019

Michael Heinrich’s “Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society”, V. 1: a review

Filed under: Karl Marx biography — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm


The first installment of Michael Heinrich’s three-volume biography of Karl Marx titled “Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society” is now available from Monthly Review Press. In keeping with MR’s long-time tradition as a movement rather than an academic press, the cloth edition is $34.95 and the eBook is only $19.95. Given the renewed attention to Karl Marx since the financial crisis of 2008, it will help us understand how his life and thought evolved. Heinrich is a consummate scholar of Marxism, best known until now for his 2012 “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital”, also available from MR.

At 384 pages, Heinrich’s first volume is almost as long as Francis Wheen’s 1999 “Karl Marx: a Life” that won the prestigious Isaac Deutscher award that year. Out of curiosity, I read the first 59 pages of Wheen that covers approximately the same time frame as Heinrich’s, namely from Marx’s birth in 1818 to the completion of his Ph.D. dissertation in 1841.

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September 11, 2019

Chained for Life; Depraved

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Two films open this week that challenge the idea that “normalcy” has anything to do with virtue. “Chained for Live”, which opens at the IFC in NY today and at the Landmark in LA on Friday, is inspired by Todd Browning’s “Freaks” but without the carnival sideshow vibe that made the original such a cult hit. Directed by Aaron Schimberg, who was born with “a gaping hole” in his face that was surgically repaired, it confronts conventional expectations as he explains in the press notes:

When disfigured characters are seen at all in films (usually played by handsome actors with disfiguring latex), they are trotted out to play monsters or objects of pity, made into vessels for the symbolic expression of cruelty, sin, villainy and other ills. “Bitter defectives,” as a character in my film says. Even when they’re portrayed sympathetically, they function only to impart inspirational lessons to the able-bodied people who encounter them.

“Depraved”, which opens at the IFC on Friday, is based on the Frankenstein story but, like “Chained for Life”, leaves you with the feeling that it is normal people who must be feared. It is directed by Larry Fessenden, who is hands down the smartest and most socially aware director of horror movies today. Made in 2007, “The Last Winter” was about global warming. This film was way ahead of the curve given the occurrence of five category five hurricanes in the last 3 years as compared to the zero count between the time “The Last Winter” was made and 2016.

“Chained for Life” is a movie within a movie. It is set in a hospital that has been rented out for the filming of an art-house version of “Freaks”. They are put through the paces by a pretentious German director who struck me as either an intended or unintended send-up of Werner Herzog, who has made a number of films about abnormal people. One that certainly must have violated Schimberg’s sense of fair play was the 1970 “Even Dwarfs Must Start Small” that depicted a group of dwarfs in an institution on a remote island rebellimg against the guards and director (all dwarfs as well). Vincent Canby said, “Herzog is a highly skilled director, but his images, because of their essential meaninglessness, become their own reason for being, “indistinguishable from its Germanic, side-show spectacle, as if it were a movie that had been conceived by the same kind of perverse, uninvolved intelligence that had created the world of the film.”

The plot of the movie in the movie revolves around a doctor who is experimenting on dwarves, giants, conjoined twins, etc.–the same kinds of people who were featured in “Freaks”–in order to develop a procedure that will allow his blind sister to see again.

Among them is Rosenthal, who is the hero of the movie and a hero in real life as well. He is played by Adam Pearson, a British citizen who suffers from neurofibromatosis. This is an illness in which non-cancerous tumors grow in the nervous system. That would ordinarily be bad enough in itself but it has the added curse of disfiguring your face and skull. Pearson has been very active in speaking to young people against bullying.

What he has to put up with in the film is not bullying but patronizing insensitivity that is highlighted in a scene during a break when the actor playing the mad doctor says all sorts of stupid things in the course of taking a selfie with him. As Schimberg and Pearson certainly understand, actors and actresses are not the smartest people around. The film begins with a quote from Pauline Kael, the long-time critic of The New Yorker, a magazine that epitomized superficial notions of beauty both in its advertisements and its middle-class values:

Actors and actresses are usually more beautiful than ordinary people. And why not? Why should we be deprived of the pleasure of beauty? It is a supreme asset for actors and actresses to be beautiful; it gives them greater range and greater possibilities for expressiveness. The handsomer they are, the more roles they can play…Actors and actresses who are beautiful start with an enormous advantage. because we love to look at them.

Aaron Schimberg refutes this quote through the humanity of the people he has cast. This is a film that not only rejects Hollywood superficiality but is a joy to watch.

Returning from an evening of love-making with his girlfriend, Alex, a handsome, self-involved yuppie computer programmer, is knifed to death on a dark street in New York City. Some days later, he is resurrected (or more accurately, his brain is) in the body of a man who has been stitched together by Henry (David Call), a medic who had served in Iraq and who is suffering from PTSD. Tormented by his failure to save the lives of fellow soldiers in Iraq, he is determined to develop a procedure that combines medication and body parts to bring them back to life. There is no Igor in this film. The only people who know about this latter-day Frankenstein’s experiments is his girlfriend (Ana Kayne) and his old friend and business partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard) who is far more interested in making money than saving lives.

When the “monster” wakes up, Henry begins to orient him to his rebirth. He tells him that he is Adam, named obviously after the first man. Over the next few months, he begins to develop Adam’s skills, which involve doing simple jigsaw puzzles at first and then moving on to ping-pong.

Polidori, who is ethically and psychologically depraved, decides to take Adam for a night out on the town, which means going to dance clubs, doing coke and drinking. After seeing scantily clad women for the first time, Adam decides he needs a mate just as was the case in the 1935 classic “The Bride of Frankenstein”. As was the case in this film, “Depraved” ends up with a bloody confrontation between the “monster” and his creators.

In the press notes, Fessenden describes his goals in making such a film:

In most versions of the story, the doctor is repulsed by his creature and rejects the thing he brought into this world. Since I don’t deal as much with physical deformity in the portrayal of the monster, I focus on Henry’s ambivalence about his responsibilities after proving he is capable of creating life. It seems we rarely anticipate the repercussions of scientific advancements; we simply pursue them regardless of consequence. And our wars leave collateral damage in their wake: veterans with PTSD, societies ravaged, environments wasted.

Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” in 1818, the year of Karl Marx’s birth. The underlying theme of the novel is that challenging nature, like bring someone back to life through a collection of body parts revived by electricity, can lead to disasters. Is it any wonder that the title of the novel has been appropriated to describe GMO as Frankenfood, for example.

Rejecting these fears, the Marxist scientist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1924: “There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.” Perhaps so but under capitalism it is almost predictable that every scientific breakthrough, including nuclear energy most of all, will be a perversion.


September 8, 2019

What Bernie Sees in the New Deal? Not the same thing as Marxists–obviously

Filed under: Jacobin,New Deal — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

Micah Uetricht

Seth Ackerman

Jacobin’s Managing Editor Micah Uetricht did a podcast interview with Jacobin Executive Editor Seth Ackerman recently and now you can read the transcript on Jacobin titled “What Bernie Sees in the New Deal”. The net effect is Charlie Rose interviewing Bill Gates or Hillary Clinton, or maybe more accurately Charlie Rose interviewing Charlie Rose.

It seems that Ackerman was annoyed with liberal pundits like Chris Hayes who found the notion of the New Deal being socialist unconvincing. He added that Hayes reminded him of “the most ultra-left troll that you encounter on internet message boards” who say “that’s not ‘real socialism,’ man!” Ackerman does acknowledge that FDR, unlike Sanders, never called himself a socialist and that his administration did not socialize the means of production.

On the other hand, the New Deal was seen by socialists, and by enemies of socialism, as a form of “socialism in government” or “socialism in practice.” Clearly, the rightwing saw FDR as a socialist in the same way that the John Birch Society saw Eisenhower as a Communist but not all socialists saw him in the same way. For example, the Socialist Party ran Norman Thomas against FDR who it did see as a capitalist politician and nothing less. When a reporter asked Thomas how he felt about the New Deal carrying out his program, he replied that it was carried out but on a stretcher. Despite their deep ideological differences, Norman Thomas and Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon had the same take on Roosevelt.

Maybe these socialists didn’t matter much to Ackerman who he might have seen as the “ultra-left trolls” of the 1930s. But surely the Communist Party must have been those socialists who saw his administration as “socialism in government” or “socialism in practice.” Everybody knows that the CP was effectively the left wing of the Roosevelt administration in the same way that the Jacobin/DSA aspires to play the same role in the unlikely event of a Bernie Sanders administration.

In doing some research on Browder’s CP in the 1930s, it turns out that even if the party did support his candidacies, it was not above holding his feet to the fire as the NY Times article posted just beneath this one indicates. Speaking to those gathered at the 1936 CPUSA convention, Browder used the kind of words that “ultra-left trolls” use on Bernie Sanders. He said that the Democratic Party was “still a capitalist party, still dominated by big-business interests”.

Not only that, Browder was ready to join forces with Norman Thomas’s SP in a joint ticket of the left. On May 20, 1936, the NY Times published an article titled “Reds Ask to Share Socialist Ticket”. It reported that Thomas rejected the invitation but this did not deter the CP’s willingness to work with the Farmer-Labor Party, at least those members who supported FDR. Even if they agreed to work with the CP, that would not “mitigate their criticism of the President and his policies”.

Browder was clever enough to make sure the Communists used slogans about the need to “Stop Landon” rather than “Elect FDR”. It was obvious that many rank-and-filers had grown tired of the New Deal’s empty promises. After all, the Great Depression dragged on into the early 40s when military Keynesianism finally broke the back of unemployment.

It was not just the rank-and-file that had its fill of FDR. On August 29, 1936, the Times reported on the resignation of the Daily Worker’s Managing Editor—the same post that comrade Uetricht holds at Jacobin. It seems that a top editor at the CP newspaper was an ultra-left troll, just like Norman Thomas:

A statement by James Casey, managing editor of The Daily Worker, resigning that post, resigning from the Communist party and denouncing the Presidential campaign tactics of the Communists as “hypocritical,” was delivered to newspaper offices last night.

Mr. Casey declared the Communist party political bureau had prepared a program “to swing the support of its membership and affiliated mass organizations to President Roosevelt.” He said that as an editor of The Daily Worker he was directed by party leaders to “be cautious of attacks on Roosevelt.” “He was to be chided gently,” said the statement, “as a blind to readers while all the fire was to be concentrated on Landon.”

Mr. Casey declined to run on the Communist ticket for Representative in the Bronx, a post for which he had been nominated, he said, over his own protests. He accused the Communist party of “downright deceit and unscrupulous political maneuvering.” “These leaders,” he said, “will call me a traitor and expel me after I have already resigned. This again is another old-line method. But I would rather be called a traitor to such men and suffer their slanders than be false to my principles and to the masses of the American people.”

So, that’s what the Managing Editor of the Daily Worker was capable of saying. Too bad that the Jacobin/DSA has such a groveling posture toward Bernie Sanders. At least, FDR might have had to put up with some people in his administration with some backbone. I imagine that if people like Ackerman and Uetricht wormed their way into jobs with a Bernie Sanders administration, they’d toady up to him just like Stephen Miller toadies up to Trump.

In acknowledging the failure of Bernie Sanders to name the system that was causing so much suffering and the need to abolish it—capitalism—Ackerman argues that “dirty breakers” like himself are carrying out the kind of agenda that Engels urged American socialists to carry out in the 1880s:

Politics changes over time and so do definitions of socialism. When we look at Bernie’s concept of socialism, we should remember that Marx and Engels always said it was more important to have a real movement of workers who understand their real interests than it is to have a perfect, doctrinally correct program. When Engels talked about American politics in the late nineteenth century, he said he much preferred the populistic Knights of Labor or “agrarian reformers” to the hyper-orthodox Marxists of the Socialist Labor Party, who sounded like Marxoid robots when they talked. He much preferred the messy, ideologically incoherent Knights of Labor because they actually represented a real movement of workers fighting for some kind of egalitarian vision in opposition to the established order.

Nobody would ever want to sound like “Marxoid robots”, I suppose, but if it was a choice between sounding like one and voting for a candidate of the oldest, still-functioning capitalist party in the world, I’d have to go “beep-beep, boop-boop” just like 3-CPO. Yet, I’d urge a word of caution about romanticizing the Knights of Labor. While it did attract a lot of militant workers, including Blacks, the leadership was just as lacking as that of the SLP.

Its leader Terrance V. Powderly would not allow Knights of Labor members to strike. Wikipedia states that “Powderly intervened in two labor actions: the first against the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1886 and the second against the Chicago Meatpackinghouse industry. 25,000 workers in the Union Stockyards struck for an 8-hour day in 1886 and to rescind a wage reduction. In both cases, Powderly ended strikes that historians believe that labor could have won.”

In an article on T.V. Powderly and the Knights of Labor, Eugene V. Debs had their number as opposed to Ackerman who holds it up as a model for today (to be sure, Engels only mentioned the Knights of Labor in passing in his letters.) Debs wrote: “What are his words? Stop striking, stop boycotting, stop doing the very things you have been doing, else the Order goes down ‘as surely as night follows day.’”

Showing that they know how to answer their critics with lethal arguments, they resort to this withering sarcastic exchange that left me feeling utterly vanquished:

Uetricht: I will only support Bernie Sanders’s campaign if he refers to the United States exclusively as the Great Satan. Nothing less than that will I accept!

Ackerman: Well, you’re a moderate. I insist on “AmeriKKKa,” and he has to pronounce each K.

What utter stupidity. If you combined the brains of these two hacks, it would still be incapable of analyzing American history dialectically, especially when it comes to socialists in the 1930s, the Knights of Labor, et al. That’s what happens when you belong to a clique like the Jacobin/DSA that is too cowardly to engage with a serious critique of their class-collaborationism. You get flabby and flat-footed.

The rest of the article continues in this vein, kowtowing to FDR and Bernie Sanders. They praise FDR for telling workers to join a union but not a word about the Little Steel Strike that led the New Deal pro-labor president to tell the bosses and the striking workers: “a plague on both your houses”. That’s the strike in which the Chicago cops opened fire on strikers and their families on Memorial Day, 1937, killing 10.

The two “dirty breakers” do admit that the New Deal did not confront racism but at least it was ready to take on the economic issues that affected Black Americans: “Then, when Roosevelt came in, his mandate was not to do anything in particular in respect to racial equality, but to address the economic emergency — a situation that affected blacks more than anybody else, actually. The unemployment rate was 25–30 percent, and among blacks it was probably twice that.”

What they don’t seem to understand is that most Blacks were sharecroppers rather than factory workers so their plight was not relieved by New Deal programs. This, of course, begs the question of how it was that WWII reduced unemployment, not the WPA and similar programs.

One of his key programs hurt Black sharecroppers preponderantly, according to the Atlanta Black Star:

The Agricultural Adjustment Administration reduced agricultural production by paying farmers subsidies not to plant on part of their land and to kill off excess livestock, which in turn reduced crop surplus and effectively raised the value of crops. But since 40 percent of all Black workers made their living as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, the (AAA) acreage reduction hit Blacks hard, according to Digital History. White landlords could make more money by leaving land untilled than by putting land back into production. As a result, the AAA’s policies forced more than 100,000 Blacks off the land in 1933 and 1934. The act initially required landowners to pay the tenant farmers and sharecroppers on their land a portion of the money, but after Southern Democrats in Congress complained, the secretary of agriculture surrendered and reinterpreted the act to no longer send checks to sharecroppers directly.

I think the problem with the Jacobin/DSA is they have blinders on, just like a team of horses. They are shielded from the real record of the New Deal that most of us who lived through the sixties and seventies absorbed from reading radical historians like Howard Zinn. Let me conclude with what he wrote about the New Deal in “People’s History of the United States”: “When the New Deal was over, capitalism remained intact. The rich still controlled the nation’s wealth, as well as its laws, courts, police, newspapers, churches, colleges. Enough help had been given to enough people to make Roosevelt a hero to millions, but the same system that had brought depression and crisis—the system of waste, of inequality, of concern for profit over human need—remained.”


How the Communists viewed FDR

Filed under: CPUSA,New Deal — louisproyect @ 2:10 pm

September 7, 2019

The Unrepentant Marxist’s years at Bard College

Filed under: bard college,Kevin Coogan — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

This is from the unpublished comic book I did with Harvey Pekar intended for a “Bard in the 60s and 70s” Facebook group I belong to. It is being posted according to Fair Use laws that permit brief excerpts of copyright material to be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.

September 6, 2019

Crimes of the Criminal Justice System

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,crime,Film,prison — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm


Your first reaction to the concurrence of three online films about the racist abuses of the American criminal justice system might be to attribute this to pure happenstance. However, given the objective reality of the increasing legal, moral and political rot of the police, the courts and the prison system, it was inevitable that filmmakers of conscience would feel impelled to respond to the crisis. In other words, we should not speak of happenstance but ineluctability.

Made for Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a docudrama about the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teens who spent up to twelve years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Running on HBO, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is a documentary about a Jamaican soccer coach accused of the murder of the 12-year old son of his ex-girlfriend in Potsdam, New York. Like the cops in DuVernay’s film, their investigation is filled with irregularities intended to help convict a Black man. Finally, there is “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime, another documentary, this time about a successful rapper from Philadelphia who is hounded by an African-American female judge determined to keep him on probation for the rest of his life for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 19-years old. Like the Central Park Five, his main crime in the eyes of the cops was being Black. As is so often the case with such victims, having Black cops, judges or prison guards does not make much difference to people of color being cast down into the system of hell they maintain.

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September 4, 2019

Answering some questions about Robert Brenner

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

Robert Brenner

Recently a dissertation student in Brazil asked me I’d be willing to answer some questions he had about Robert Brenner. I replied that I would be happy to but would like to do so on my blog since others might be interested in my replies.

So here goes:

1) Could you delineate a little biographical trajectory of Brenner, i.e., his main influences from the 1st and 2nd Internationals, his contemporary intellectual influences, allies and “groups”, his opponents and political participation, including in newspapers and journals in general?

I am not sure about the First and Second Internationals but I have heard experts on him claim that his main theoretical influence is Analytical Marxism. It is worth pointing out that Brenner contributed an article to the 1986 collection titled “Analytical Marxism” edited by John Roemer, a key AM’er. Brenner’s article is titled “The Social Basis of Economic Development” that can be downloaded from https://www.scribd.com/document/359014165/Robert-Brenner-The-Social-Basis-of-Economic-Development. (Be careful of scribd. They ask you to take out a free trial subscription but unless you forget to cancel it, the monthly charges can mount up as I once learned.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my friend Henry Heller’s book on the Brenner thesis but a review of it in Against the Current is worth quoting:

As Heller argues, analytic philosophy was a “politically disengaged professional discipline preoccupied with constituting a formal model of knowledge. Born in the midst of the waning of Marxism in the 1980s, Analytical Marxism purported to salvage whatever could be saved by applying the same techniques of formal logic to Marxism. Committed to positivist logic, this approach rejected a dialectical sense of totality, movement and contradiction to its own cost. Brenner’s view of the transition is fundamentally weakened by this constraining methodology.”

The Political Marxist tradition argues that feudalism did not develop the forces of production, but instead was characterized by stagnation. They therefore reject the idea that development created the possibility for rising yeoman farmers, urban craftsmen, and new merchants to establish new capitalist relations of production.

Instead, they argue that capitalism developed as the unintended consequence of the class struggle between feudal lords and peasants only in England. Peasant resistance forced the end of serfdom, but the lords still retained control of the land. In this exceptional situation, the lords transformed themselves into capitalists who rented their land out to richer peasants who in turn hired poorer peasants as new wage laborers.

I have written a series of articles about the AM school that no longer has the following it had 20 years ago when I wrote about it. I did not cover Brenner in the series but would say that one of the key “contributions” of AM is its rejection of Marxist dialectics and  consequently a strong commitment to the kind of “stagism” that was endemic to the Second International. I have written in the past that Brenner’s chief influence on his own stagism comes from the British Marxist Historians School that was made up of CP members like Eric Hobsbawm but in writing this, it seems entirely possible that Brenner got more from the AM school than from them. In a nutshell, the CPers and the AM school are averse to the insights Trotsky provided in the theory of combined and uneven development. My article on AM’er Gerald Cohen might give you some idea of how this overlaps with Brenner’s theory that posts capitalism as a system that is absolutely distinct from feudalism and that began in England in the 14th century:

In the twentieth century, a “stagist” conception of Marxism drawn from the same sources that so enchant G. A. Cohen became the common wisdom of the 2nd and 3rd International. Trotsky’s conception of Permanent Revolution was a departure from this and is influenced not only by the political ideas but even the language of Marx and Engels in this particular article. Cohen’s desire to return Marxism to some sort of “orthodoxy” is a misbegotten project. It is based first of all on a misunderstanding of Marx’s ideas on history and, worse, it is tied to a particularly odd, if not outright bugged-out, notion of what it means to be a socialist revolutionary.

As to Brenner’s affiliations, he has a group of academics strongly committed to his theories. The most prominent of them have been Charles Post, Vivek Chibber, Mike Zmolek, and the late Ellen Meiksins Wood. Brenner, who is now a professor emeritus, no longer writes articles defending his ideas. Post and Chibber, who at one time were like tag team partners defending Political Marxism, had a falling out over Chibber’s embrace of neo-Kautskyism. This was around the same time Chibber removed Brenner from the editorial position he held at Catalyst magazine, which led to a bitter fight. So, as you can gather, PM does not lend itself to fraternal theoretical bonding. They make Trotskyists look like unity-mongers by comparison.

2) What do you think is the extent of Perry Anderson’s influence over Brenner’s formation?

None really. In fact, Anderson wrote a widely quoted take-down of Brenner’s “Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653” in the London Review of Books. The book itself is not really about the core Brennerite idea of capitalism beginning in the British countryside but Anderson pokes holes in it, nonetheless. The review is behind a paywall but if you’d like a copy drop me a line. Here’s the relevant passage:

One side of Brenner’s polemic was aimed at neo-Malthusian orthodoxies, stressing the primacy of demography in Early Modern economic history, the other at neo-Smithian accounts that gave priority to cities and commerce – unwisely adopted, in Brenner’s view, by too many Marxists. He went on to draw the conclusion that the idea of a ‘bourgeois revolution’, lodged in the Marxist tradition, was misplaced: no bourgeoisie was needed to overthrow a feudal aristocracy, since the latter had changed itself and got to capitalism first anyway. The break with feudalism came not from any accumulation in trade or assault on absolute monarchy, but through an agrarian catharsis. Beside the self-conversion of the English landlords, every other strand in the emergence of capitalism was marginal.

For all the power of this case, there were always difficulties with its overall context. The idea of capitalism in one country, taken literally, is only a bit more plausible than that of socialism. For Marx the different moments of the modern biography of capital were distributed in a cumulative sequence, from the Italian cities to the towns of Flanders and Holland, to the empires of Portugal or Spain and the ports of France, before being ‘systematically combined in England at the end of the 17th century’. Historically, it makes better sense to view the emergence of capitalism as a value-added process gaining in complexity as it moved along a chain of inter-related sites. In this story, the role of cities was always central. English landowners could never have started their conversion to commercial agriculture without the market for wool in Flemish towns – just as Dutch farming was by Stuart times in advance of English, not least because it was conjoined to a richer urban society. Yet, even if the ‘bourgeois’ contribution to the economic genesis of capitalism is conceded, this does not mean that a political ‘revolution’ was necessary to smooth its path. That would have been one possible reading of Brenner’s case, with its emphasis on the immanent dynamism of competitive production for the market. Where does his new work leave the issue?

3) Brenner focuses his historical materialist approach around the idea that the primary factor behind the consolidation of a mode of production results from the importance of the relations of production, in detriment of the forces of production. Do you see his choice as a direct effort to eradicate the Soviet Stalinist version of the HM approach, mainly that exposed in “on dialectical materialism and historical materialism”? Or do you believe his main “target” is another one?

As I said before, my initial take on the Brenner thesis was that it derived from the British CP’s Historical Materialism School. Keep in mind that many scholars see it as round two of the Maurice Dobb/Paul Sweezy debate of the 1950s. While Sweezy came out of the CP himself, his approach to the origins of capitalism debate came from a “world systems” framework that would eventually be the hallmark of MR writers such as the recently deceased Immanuel Wallerstein. Dobb, like Brenner, saw the origins primarily as based in the British countryside but did allow colonialism and slavery to be part of the process.

With respect to the affinity that Brenner had with the CP historians, you can read what I wrote here for a fuller explanation.

4) Do you see any trace of an Althusserian influence on Brenner’s division of the two kinds of historical materialisms, between the young Marx’s one and old Marx’s one (as in Brenner’s Marx’s first model of the transition to capitalism [1985])?

I am not up to speed on Althusser’s distinction between the two kinds of historical materialism so I will take a pass on this.

5) Do you think Brenner’s work on transition and, more recently, on the world capitalist crisis, can be seen as one that promotes “methodological nationalism”, since his definition of a mode of production as a result of social-property relations is always referenced at the national level, matching his notion of (national) development patterns?

Quite honestly, I did not see much of a connection between the two Brenner theses, both of which appeared in the NLR. The first one was the 1977 article attacking the Monthly Review authors as “neo-Smithian”. The other was the 1998 special issue devoted entirely to his article “The Economics of Global Turbulence”. This is the only thing I have ever written about Brenner’s views on capitalist crisis in the current epoch. I am not sure how much it relates to his 1998 article but you might find it useful.

6) Do you think Brenner’s focus on the unparalleled promotion of economic development by the capitalist mode of production, and his recent critique of the supply side economics in his recent works, can be seen as a sign that Brenner is closer to Keynesianism or developmentalism than to Marxism in his analysis of the capitalist mode of production (despite the thesis on the decline of the profit rate)?

I haven’t been keeping track of those articles but I don’t find anything particularly revolutionary about Brenner’s most recent reflections on the capitalist political crisis. In 2004, Brenner called for a vote for John Kerry in clear defiance of Marxist principles on class independence. Here’s the final paragraph of the article  he co-wrote with Joel Jordan:

The bottom line is this: It is understandable that many leftists are revolted by the thought of calling for a vote for the Democrats.  But we appeal to them also to consider the anguish that the tens of millions of people around the world who have taken up the struggle against U.S. imperialism over the past four years will feel should Bush win again…and the fury if Nader once more enables it to happen.

7) Brenner talks little about revolution or socialism in his most famous works. What do you think is Brenner’s conception about the process of revolution in a capitalist society and what would a socialist mode of production “look like” to him? Do you think the focus on national social-property relations and national patterns of development are compatible with something other thank the strategy of taking state power and promoting change from top to bottom?

As might be obvious from what I wrote just above, Brenner, who is only a couple of years older than me, lost his revolutionary zeal many years ago. I suspect that this has a lot to do with being based in the academy. Keep in mind that Perry Anderson, who taught at UCLA alongside him, wrote a deeply pessimistic article in NLR in 2000 titled “Renewals” that stated:

For the Left, the lesson of the past century is one taught by Marx. Its first task is to attend to the actual development of capitalism as a complex machinery of production and profit, in constant motion. Robert Brenner’s ‘Economics of Global Turbulence’, taking up an issue of NLR, sets the appropriate example.footnote6 No collective agency able    to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon. We are in a time, as genetic engineering looms, when the only revolutionary force at present capable of disturbing its equilibrium appears to be scientific progress itself—the forces of production, so unpopular with Marxists convinced of the primacy of relations of production when a socialist movement was still alive. But if the human energies for a change of system are ever released again, it will be from within the metabolism of capital itself. We cannot turn away from it. Only in the evolution of this order could lie the secrets of another one.

8) Brenner has been accused of developing a Eurocentric approach to history. What do you think of this charge?

Yes, it is accurate. How does someone spend his entire academic career on the left without ever writing a single article about developments in Latin America or Africa? For that matter, neither do any of his acolytes. Just below is a part of a critique of Brenner that was written by my dear friend and comrade Jim Blaut. Reading it led me to write all the others that are collected here.

Jim Blaut, “Robert Brenner in the Tunnel of Time”:

Robert Brenner is a Marxist, a follower of one tradition in Marxism that is as diffusionist, as Eurocentric, as most conservative positions. I cannot here offer an explanation for this curious phenomenon: a tradition within one of the most egalitarian of all socio-political doctrines yet a tradition which, nonetheless, believes in the historical superiority (or priority) of one community of humans, Europeans, over another, non-Europeans. Eurocentric Marxists are not racist, nor even prejudiced, although most of them believe that Europeans have always been the leaders in the forward march of history; that Europe is the fountainhead of civilization, the main source of innovative social change. For these scholars, the origins of capitalism are European. Capitalism’s further development consisted of an internally generated process of improvement within its classic homeland, the European world. The impact of capitalism on the rest of the world has been, on balance, progressive. Colonialism and (today) neocolonialism are not significant for capitalism, are rather a marginal process, a temporary aberration or diversion or side-show, not a vital need of the system as a whole, which evolves in response to internal laws of motion.

This point of view is basic diffusionism: autonomous development at the center, diffusion of development to the periphery. It is also tunnel history: a form of tunnel-vision which tries to explain the rise of capitalism, and the rise of Europe, by looking only at prior European facts, looking, as it were, down the European tunnel of time, ignoring the history of the world outside of Europe both as cause of change within Europe and as the site of historically efficacious change in its own right (Blaut, 1989). The Euro-Marxists — as I will call the socialists of this tradition — accept this view, and so they are diffusionists. To this extent, they agree with their mainstream colleagues about the rise of Europe, of capitalism, of modernization, of industrialization, of democracy: basically all of it is European.

Euro-Marxism went into eclipse during the period when liberation movements were decolonizing most of the world. In this period, the idea that the colonial or Third World has been, and is, unimportant in social development was not popular among Marxists. After the end of the Vietnam War, however, this point of view became again popular, and indeed became the Marxism most widely professed in European and American universities. Today we witness the curious phenomenon that Euro-Marxists are quoted with approval by anti-Marxist scholars, who can use them to show that “real” Marxist scholarship supports some of the same doctrines, theoretical and practical, that conservatives do.

Robert Brenner is one of the most widely known of Euro-Marxist historians. His influence stems from the fact that he supplied a crucial piece of doctrine at a crucial time. Just after the end of the Vietnam War, radical thought was strongly oriented toward the Third World and its struggles, strongly influenced by Third-World theorists like Cabral, Fanon, Guevara, James, Mao, and Nkrumah, and thus very much attracted to theories of social development which tend to displace Europe from its pivotal position as the center of social causation and social progress, past and present. Euro-Marxism of course disputed this, and Euro-Marxists, while strong in their support of present-day liberation struggles, nonetheless insisted as they always had done that the struggles and changes taking place in the center of the system, the European world, are the true determinants of world historical changes; socialism will rise in the heartlands of advanced European capitalism, or perhaps everywhere all at once; but socialism will certainly not arrive first in the backward, laggard, late-maturing Third World.1

9) Do you think Brenner’s work is part of what is criticized in Kurz’s collapse of modernity thesis? What is your view about this debate?

Sorry, haven’t followed that at all.

September 2, 2019

Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019): an appreciation

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Twenty-five years ago, the Marxist left discussed and debated their ideas on an antiquated Internet medium called listserv’s, which are automated mailing lists. About 10 years later the same people began to defend their ideas on blogs, a new technology, with the drawback that they tended to be unidirectional. Those making comments were subordinate to the blogger who had the right to block someone or even block comments altogether. The pendulum swung the other direction when social media kicked in. First there was Facebook that began in 2004 and then Twitter which began two years later. I generally try to avoid debates on social media since it lacks the elementary tool that listservs or blogs provide, namely a search mechanism. Trying to find someone’s comments in a thread from a month or two ago is an exercise in futility.

One of the listserv’s I subscribed to in the mid-90s was called the World Systems Network (WSN). Like PEN-L, another listserv I joined even earlier and that is now pretty much moribund, it was based at the University of Colorado. WSN lasted from 1995 to 2004, the year that Facebook was born. A coincidence? You can read the archives here.

I subscribed to WSN because it was a place for discussion of the origins of capitalism, a topic I had become deeply interested in after getting to know Jim Blaut who had shown up on the Marxism listserv that preceded Marxmail. Jim was on WSN as was Andre Gunder Frank. Neither was shy about making their views known. Neither was I, even though I wasn’t in their league.

Among the top-flight Marxist academics subbed to WSN was Immanuel Wallerstein who had the distinction of founding the World Systems methodology that the list was named after. Within a few months, Wallerstein sent me a note complimenting me for my posts there, which were part of an ongoing polemic against Robert Brenner who had wrote an attack on Paul Sweezy, Andre Gunder Frank and Wallerstein as “neo-Smithians” (that’s Adam, of course) in the 1977 New Left Review.

For Brenner, Wallerstein fails to make the Marxist grade because he has no way of explaining the emergence of “relative surplus value”, the term that Marx used to describe the replacement of human labor by machinery like in the industrial revolution. For Brenner and his acolytes, “absolute surplus value” does not constitute genuine capitalism because it relies on the extension of the work-day and political repression to produce surplus value.

In other words, it is the kind of class relation that existed in most of Latin American and Africa until the 20th century where plantations and mines owned by colonial powers relied on slavery, peonage and other “pre-capitalist” forms of exploitation. So, when, for example, King Leopold’s henchmen cut off the hands of men and women in the Belgian Congo who refused to tap rubber used to make automobile tires in Belgium, they were not really involved with capitalist production because they used a machete instead of a drill press. For me, all of this is capitalism. It is a world system, as Wallerstein maintained.

I am not exactly sure when the correspondence began but for about a year I exchanged emails with Immanuel Wallerstein who struck me as one the most generous, knowledgeable and down-to-earth people I had ever run into on the net with his kind of qualifications. Mostly, we discussed the Brenner thesis and why it irked the both of us, and Jim Blaut.

At one point, he invited me to write an analysis of the Brenner thesis for the journal he edited out of the U. of Binghamton. After turning it in, his assistant suggested some changes—something I decided was not worth my time and energy. It was only after my wife became a tenure-track professor and had to deal with multiple and exhausting changes to her articles that I understood how correct my decision was, especially with my hair-trigger temper.

For what it’s worth, here’s the article: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins/testing_the_brenner_thesis.htm

Unfortunately, my refusal to work on the article undermined the friendship with Wallerstein and we stopped communicating. Years later, I did drop him a line about something he had written from time to time but nothing that suggested that we reconnect.

With his passing, I decided to have a look at the Wikipedia entry for him to help me write this post. I now understand why he made such an impact on me. He was not the typical academic. He had much more in common with the rough-and-tumble Jim Blaut than I realized at the time

On his website, Wallerstein wrote about his role in the SDS-led strike of 1968, when he was a sociology professor there.

After seven days or so, the Columbia administration decided to call the police. [Dean] David Truman came to the meeting of the AHFG [Ad Hoc Faculty Group] to tell us that they were going to do that. He simply reported this; he didn’t discuss it. Various professors made different personal decisions. There were many who decided to surround the entrance to the occupied buildings. Most of them surrounded Fayerweather, the building occupied by the graduate students. A smaller group, of which I was one, decided to surround Hamilton Hall.

As for 1968 as a whole, I have written on this many times and have no space here to repeat the argument. In one sentence, what happened was the ending of the geocultural dominance of centrist liberalism and the reopening of a three-way ideological struggle between the Global Left and the Global Right with centrist liberalism struggling to maintain some support as a real alternative.

Does that term centrist liberalism ring a bell? It should given Joe Biden’s pathetic candidacy.

In the Wiki, we learn about Wallerstein’s political influences that, of course, starts with Karl Marx. I was struck by his inclusion of Frantz Fanon who he described as “the expression of the insistence by those disenfranchised by the modern world‑system that they have a voice, a vision, and a claim not merely to justice but to intellectual valuation.” Like fellow Columbia professor Edward Said, Wallerstein identified strongly with the people of the global South who hardly figure in Political Marxism’s ambit.

Let me conclude with a recommendation to visit Wallerstein’s website (https://www.iwallerstein.com/) that includes free access to a number of his scholarly articles. You will find a page titled “Intellectual Itinerary” that concludes with this statement, not that different from what Jim Blaut believed in himself.

I have argued that world‑systems analysis is not a theory but a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies. It is a call for intellectual change, indeed for “unthinking” the premises of nineteenth‑century social science, as I say in the title of one of my books. It is an intellectual task that is and has to be a political task as well, because – I insist – the search for the true and the search for the good is but a single quest. If we are to move forward to a world that is substantively rational, in Max Weber’s usage of this term, we cannot neglect either the intellectual or the political challenge. And we cannot segment them into two hermetically‑sealed containers. We can only struggle uneasily with pushing forward simultaneously to coming closer to each of them.


September 1, 2019

Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact 1939, and the Russian-German War 1941-1945

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:43 am

via Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact 1939, and the Russian-German War 1941-1945

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