Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 11, 2020

Separated at birth

Filed under: separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

Medusa, one of the three monstrous Gorgons, generally described as winged human females with living venomous snakes in place of hair.

Steven Pinker, Harvard professor with venomous ideas about pre-capitalist society.

 

July 10, 2020

Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic

Filed under: Counterpunch,cruise missile left,repression — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 10, 2020

Cary Nelson, who signed Harper’s letter against cancel culture, also canceled Steven Salaita

You can imagine my chagrin when I discovered that Harper’s, a magazine that I have subscribed to since the early 80s, provided a platform for “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The open letter was a denunciation of “cancel culture” in the name of liberal values as if angry Tweets by mostly powerless young people had anything to do with state-sponsored censorship. Although I will say more about how and why this letter materialized, it is worth pointing out that one of its signatories is Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, the board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

Continue reading

July 6, 2020

Walter Benn Michaels: the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism

Filed under: affirmative action,class-reductionism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

Walter Benn Michaels

After posting a critique of Adolph Reed Jr.’s class-reductionism, the aggrieved professor emeritus who has written for Harpers, the Atlantic, the Nation, the NY Times, the Washington Post, and countless other peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed magazines over the years felt the need to chew me out on my insignificant, little blog. His invective-filled comment charged me with racism. On top of that, just two days ago, I made the mistake of posting a link on Facebook to an article I wrote in 2016 critiquing Reed for endorsing Hillary Clinton in the DP primary. And for that transgression, Todd Cronan, one of his sycophants, repeated the charge, “Your fixation suggests you might be a racist.” Fixation? I’ve only roasted Max Blumenthal 10 times more often.

Cronan is the editor of nonsite.org (don’t ask me what that means), a peer-reviewed journal out of Emory University, where Cronan is a tenured art historian. So, what prompted someone regarded as one of America’s leading African-American Marxists, and a professor at a prestigious university regarded as the Harvard of the south, to resort to such a crude and demagogic attack? The answer is simple. Neither is prepared to defend an indefensible idea, namely that BLM is anti-leftist.

While Reed and Cedric Johnson have been critiqued on this blog over the past month or so for their class-reductionism, they are not nearly so bad as Walter Benn Michaels, a literature professor at University of Illinois at Chicago. (Michaels is white so if he bothers to respond to this article, I trust that he won’t accuse me of anti-Semitism since we are both Jews. I happen to like Jews. I just don’t have much use for self-important academics.)

Lately, Michaels has entered the fray over BLM just like Reed and Johnson before him. Like Reed, Michaels got a softball interview on a Jacobin podcast conducted by Jennifer Pan. Pan writes for Jacobin but you’d have to read her article on New Republic on “Why Diversity Training Isn’t Enough” to understand why she’d refuse to ask Michaels tough questions. In her article, she takes up “whiteness” studies and particularly a book by Robin DiAngelo titled “White Fragility”. It was already a NY Times best-seller but it went totally viral after the George Floyd protests because it charged white Americans with benefiting from structural racism, a not very controversial analysis in my view. However, when she decided to make an amalgam between DiAngelo, Ted Allen and David Roediger, that seemed kind of nutty. How can you link a pop sociologist with these two Marxists? Pan refers to Cedric Johnson’s dismissal of their work:

From a practical point of view, the political scientist Cedric Johnson has recently argued that whiteness studies promote a fatalistic view of white workers as too hopelessly committed to their racial identity to be won over to a multiracial left coalition. Such a perspective, he writes, inevitably prioritizes reeducating such workers over attempting to organize them.

I guess comrades Johnson and Pan have no idea that Ted Allen worked as a coal miner in West Virginia as a member of the United Mine Workers, serving as an organizer and president of one Local and later a member of another. He also co-developed a trade union organizing program for the Marion County, West Virginia Industrial Union Council, CIO. (From a useful article in Wiki.)

Listening to the 109-minute schmooze-fest between Pan and Michaels was almost as agonizing as listening to Bhaskar Sunkara interviewing Adolph Reed Jr. on another Jacobin podcast. If you need any evidence that Jacobin is deep into class-reductionism, just listen to these podcasts which are as devoid of critical questions as a Charlie Rose interview with Bill Gates.

In preparing a response to Michaels based on this podcast, I found a 2011 interview Sunkara did with Michaels that really needs some commentary. I missed it at the time since I was preoccupied with the Arab Spring but reading it now makes me wonder if Sunkara is even more politically degraded than I ever suspected. He let Michaels off the hook on some really rancid remarks.

Titled “Let Them Eat Diversity”, it gives Michaels a platform to denounce anti-racism as a capitalist plot to exploit immigrant labor at the expense of our good citizens. At the higher tier, it enabled Asians to get positions as doctors and lawyers in the USA. At the lower tier, it enabled Mexicans to fill dirty, low-paying jobs of the sort that has made them victims in the pandemic. In order to get red-blooded Americans to tolerate those flooding into the country, either legally or illegally, it was necessary to promote anti-racism so that Chinese, Indians, or Mexicans wouldn’t be victimized. Human Resource departments were analogous to Pinkerton guards defending scabs.

The agents of this anti-racism plot are HR officers that have seminars on diversity so as to make white people more open to the invasion of our homeland by those bent on stealing our jobs.

You might ask yourself at this point if I am misrepresenting Walter Benn Michaels. Let him speak for himself. Sunkara does offer a featherweight challenge to his narrative about identity politics trumping good old fashioned, virile class politics. Could HR departments really be nipping class-based movements in the bud? This is where Michaels jumps the shark. It seems he sees “neoliberalism” everywhere. In the HR departments. In the radical movement. Nobody seems to be ready to fight it except guess who… The Tea Party. He tells Sunkara:

The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible.  They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is. Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.

Next, Sunkara delicately asks how he felt about The Nation’s Richard Kim referring to his opposition to affirmative action as “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment…masquerading as class-consciousness.” To which, Michaels replies, “Are you kidding me, I’ve been called a racist for twenty years.” Maybe so, but at least he can be consoled by the support of Bhaskar Sunkara and Jennifer Pan.

Probably because he has been writing books about topics like “The Beauty of a Social Problem” and writing articles like the kind submitted to the yearly Modern Language Association conferences ever since he became a don in 1974, Michaels sees everything through the prism of the academy. He is so worked up about diversity and affirmative action being a tool for the upward mobility of petty-bourgeois elements, rather than one for the hairy-chested, lunchbox-toting proletariat, that he misses how such programs got started.

The basic flaw in Michaels’s thesis is that he fails to distinguish between the gains made by some Blacks and women who have broken into the corporate board rooms and the fate of the overwhelming majority. This can only result from a cherry-picking of the data, all designed to make it appear that they have never had it so good. In other words, he is repeating ruling class propaganda. One would understand why the Elvis superstar of class-reductionism would be get so riled up about the selection of a Black CEO or cabinet member. His fiery attacks on privileged blacks like Barack Obama must make him feel like Lenin taking apart Kautsky. Too bad that he didn’t pay attention to what is happening at the grass roots level.

For example, minority admissions to law schools, a traditional portal into the upper middle class, had been dropping around the time Sunkara sat down with Michaels. A study published by the Columbia University Law School, a place that can certainly be described as “elitist”, painted a discouraging picture:

Web Site Shows Drop in Minority Enrollment at US Law Schools

December 28, 2007 (NEW YORK) – A new Web site created by Columbia Law School documents a disturbing drop in enrollment by African-American and Mexican-American students in America’s law schools. Even though African-American and Mexican-American students have applied to law schools in relatively constant numbers over the past 15 years, their representation in law schools has fallen.

Even more worrisome is the fact that during the same period, African-American and Mexican-American applicants are doing better than ever on leading indicators used by law schools to determine admissibility – undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. In addition, the size of law school classes and the total number of law schools have increased – making room for nearly 4,000 more students.

More to the point, affirmative action had little to do with the academy or becoming a Goldman-Sachs partner when it was first conceived. It was a legal tool made necessary by the racism that had infected the United Steelworkers Union, one of the flagship CIO unions that the Sandernista left and its class-reductionist contingents look back at as if it was the Garden of Eden.

NAACP leader Herbert Hill cited an open letter written by a Black member of the union to I.W. Abel, the USW president at the union’s 1968 convention:

The time has come for black workers to speak and act for ourselves. We make no apologies for the fact that we as black workers and loyal trade unionists now act on our own behalf. Furthermore we are fully prepared to do so…Blacks were in the forefront during the formation of this union 25 years ago. Through the acceptance of crumbs down through the years instead of our just desserts, we now find ourselves hindmost…

Problems were deepest in the south where Blacks were confined to menial positions in steel mills. White workers got used to viewing them as inferior. When you enforce racial equality on the job, attitudes tend to change in accordance with the reality that Blacks are just as good as whites at a job, even better.

Tired of being relegated to second-class citizenship in steel mills as janitors and other menial positions, Blacks supported affirmative action that would afford them preferential treatment to make up for discrimination endured in the past. About the Sparrows Point plant of Bethlehem Steel (one of the Little Steel companies and long shut down), Herbert Hill wrote:

[I]n steel manufacturing, in the building trades, on the railroads, and in virtually every other industry, a clear distinction exists between desirable jobs and those that are not. An extensive body of law based on many court cases supports this. Federal courts have analyzed in great detail and described in various industries the jobs that have higher pay, that involve less dangerous and cleaner work, and that provide opportunity for advancement, comparing them with jobs that are more dangerous, that provide lower pay, and little or no opportunity for advancement. In the racialized steel industry labor force there was no ambiguity between “white men’s jobs” and “nigger jobs.” In his opinion in the Bethlehem Lackawanna case, a federal Judge made a clear distinction between desirable and not desirable jobs. This was how affirmative action became the law of the land, not by co-opting black college graduates into Wall Street jobs but by allowing blacks to have access to well-paying and desirable jobs in factories.

In 1979 Brian Weber, a white worker employed by Kaiser aluminum, sued the USW for violating his civil rights. It seems that the union had complied with an affirmative action program that allowed Blacks and whites into a training program on a one-to-one basis even though there were far more white employees (as you might expect in Louisiana).

From that point on, affirmative action has been a lot like abortion rights. Republicans push to get rid of it and Democrats put up a feeble defense. With Jacobin authors trash-talking about diversity and affirmative action, they hardly act in the interests of black working people.

A socialist movement that disavows particular Black demands and those of other sectors of the population acting on their own interests on the basis of gender, sexual preference, etc. will inevitably lack the universality it needs to triumph over a unified capitalist class. To state it in dialectical terms, denying the existence of contradictions and a refusing to resolve them will only lead to deeper contradictions.

July 3, 2020

Following the money is not a useful guide for understanding mass movements

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 3, 2020

Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

Continue reading

July 2, 2020

The World Socialist Web Site and the toppled Washington and Jefferson statues

Filed under: indigenous,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

There was a time when I kept closer track of the World Socialist Web Site, when Syria and Ukraine were on the front burner politically. As apologists for Assad and Putin’s genocidal-like war in Syria, their talking points filtered out into the “anti-imperialist” left.

As for Ukraine, I got into a series of exchanges with their cult leader Joseph North back in 2015 when WSWS began running hysterical articles about nuclear war about to break out over Ukraine. I had written an article titled “Is the U.S. contemplating a nuclear attack on Russia?” that questioned their reliability as journalists and, more importantly, their grasp of geopolitics. Like many who make a hodge-podge of conspiracy-mongering and Marxism, they always see world events in apocalyptic terms, mostly as a way of generating website traffic.

According to Alexa, wsws.org is rated 13,097 in global internet engagement, which is extraordinarily high. For comparison’s sake CounterPunch is rated 47,413. The interesting thing is the Socialist Equality Party’s inability to turn those page reads into raising its profile on the left. Because of its cultish demeanor and its chicken-little hysterics, there’s little chance that a 21-year old young radical is going to join.

It’s only gain lately has been to line up a group of septuagenarian history professors in their crusade against Project 1619 that began as a special issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It included an article by chief editor Nikole Hannah-Jones that charged Lincoln with viewing free black people as a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. This got under the skin of both WSWS and the historians who saw the USA as a model of revolutionary democracy, unlike, for example, Gerald Horne who argued that 1776 was an attempt to preserve slavery.

I weighed in on the Project 1619 debates in February but had little to say until now. Only recently has WSWS shown up on my radar screen when someone on the Facebook Leftist Trainspotters group posted a link to an article that was positively livid over the threats to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Grant monuments arising during the George Floyd protests. I would have advised young activists to leave Lincoln and Grant alone (not that they would pay me much attention) but I’d be happy to take a sledge hammer to Washington and Jefferson myself.

The article’s treatment of Washington sounds like something that would have shown up in my social studies textbook in 1959:

George Washington was the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolution (1775-1783), in which the 13 colonies asserted their independence from their British colonial masters. Washington, in a decision that electrified the world, left behind his military post and returned to private life, helping to institute in practice the separation of the civilian from military power in the republic.

Are these people for real? George Washington owned more than 100 slaves and signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which authorized the capture of runaways in free states and criminalized coming to their aid. When one of his slaves, a woman named Ona Maria Judge, escaped, he made every effort to re-enslave her, even if he had to break the law.

This is not to speak of Washington’s genocidal assault on the Mohawks who had fought with the British in 1776, mostly because the colonists were aggressively seizing Indian land with Washington’s approval. Washington gave the marching orders to his underling General John Sullivan, who was in charge of Indian removal: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

Their encomium to Thomas Jefferson is even more bizarre:

Thomas Jefferson was the author of what is arguably the most famous revolutionary sentence in world history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That declaration has been inscribed on the banner of every fight for equality ever since 1776. When Jefferson formulated it, he was crystalizing a new way of thinking based on the principle of natural human equality. The rest of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence spells out in searing language the natural right of people to revolution.

This is a throwback to the turn the CP took under Earl Browder, who once said, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. Under his leadership, the party created the Jefferson School in New York to train cadres. One can understand why the muddleheaded Stalinists would take this approach but what does this have to do with a group that claims to have inherited the mantle of Leon Trotsky?

Compared to Jefferson, Washington was mere piker with his 100 slaves. Jefferson had six times as many on his Monticello plantation. One of them was Sally Hemings, a slave that bore six children to Jefferson. When he was a 44-year old widower, he began screwing her (maybe even raping) during his post as minister to France. She was 14 at the time. Nice.

Like Washington, Jefferson was just as vicious toward native peoples. As president, Jefferson believed that land in the west had to come under white ownership. In 1776, he was growing frustrated with the inability of the colonists to bring the Cherokees under control. He wrote, “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.”

As the newly formed United States began to expand westward, they ran into resistance from the Shawnee and other tribes in the Great Lakes region. He invited their leaders to Washington in 1809 and warned that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.” Showing the kind of racist arrogance that typifies treatment of native peoples, he added, “In time you will be as we are. You will become one people with us; your blood will mix with ours, and will spread with ours over this great land.” The blood was not mixed with the whites, however. It was scattered on the soil as the genocide began.

If war on the Indians marked the beginning of internal colonizing, it was manifest destiny that served as the foundation for the USA becoming one of the world’s greatest imperial powers. In a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson wrote about how this glorious new democratic republic could transform the entire western hemisphere, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” Yes, that southern continent. From the seizure of Texas and other Mexican land in 1845, US domination proceeded across the entire southern continent.

WSWS also credits Jefferson with inspiring the Haitian revolution, as if this was some kind of proof that he had no imperial designs on the southern continent. “The American Revolution delivered a powerful impulse in that direction that led to the French Revolution of 1789 and the greatest slave revolt in history, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, in which slaves liberated themselves and threw off French colonial domination.”

The facts on Haiti and Jefferson are not quite what you get from these great American patriots at WSWS. As president, Jefferson encouraged Haitian independence from France, but refused to recognize the new black republic and even embargoed trade with it. Jefferson’s attitude toward Haiti was a variation on Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik. If Haiti threw out the French, that was good for American interests as well as British. On the other hand, Haiti’s independence as an emancipated new society might pose a threat to southern slaveowners so you could not go overboard with that democracy stuff. In a meeting with the British, Jefferson thought it was a good idea to prevent the freed slaves from having “any Kind of Navigation whatsoever or to furnish them with any Species of Arms or Ammunition.”

The Haitian revolution scared the hell out of the plantation-owners. While Jefferson had given lip-service to abolitionism, he shared their worries about armed black people who might be able to topple slavery in other places like Brazil or Cuba. This was a real fear over an 19th century domino effect.

In Tim Matthewson’s article “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti” that appeared in the March 1996 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, he describes Jefferson’s realignment with the slavocracy:

During the debates over the Haitian trade, Jefferson acknowledged a significant shift in his attitude toward slavery. He abandoned optimism about emancipation. “I have long time given up the expectation of an early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us,” he wrote to William Burwell. Never abandoning the general goal of emancipation, his letter marked an increasingly pessimistic trend in his thoughts on slavery. In a man of such sanguine temperament, this shift suggested the transmutation of the post-Revolutionary South associated with the expansion of slavery and the southern reaction to the Dominguan revolution. Since the 1780s, he had publicly favored the exclusion of slavery from the West, but in 1804 he had expressed no objection to the extension of slavery into Louisiana and the southwest. His shift acknowledged that the die had been cast and the future had been sealed, perhaps for generations, and it also suggested that his commitment to emancipation had been reduced to a theoretical concern.

My only question is whether the geniuses at WSWS knew this and still decided to write a puff-piece about Jefferson or perhaps they were just ignorant. In either case, they don’t seem equipped to lead Americans to socialism or even lecture young activists about which statues they shouldn’t take down.

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.