Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2021

The use and misuses of Ralph Miliband: a reply to Chris Maisano

Ralph Miliband

As a member of the Bread and Roses DSA caucus, which functions as an informal think-tank for Jacobin, Chris Maisano shares the heavy lifting of producing ideological justifications for work in the Democratic Party with fellow caucus member Eric Blanc. Both have elevated Karl Kautsky into a pantheon after the fashion of my generation worshipping at the altar of Trotsky, Mao, Castro or even Stalin. Lately it came to my attention that Kautsky’s star has fallen a bit in the Democratic Socialist firmament, to be replaced perhaps by Ralph Miliband, the editor of Socialist Register until his death in 1994.

Before delving into Maisano’s wrongheaded attempt to turn Miliband into a lodestar for the current epoch, it is worth saying a word or two about who Miliband was and what he stood for. Born in 1924, Miliband was a Marxist intellectual and a secular-minded Jew who fled Nazi persecution with his family. As refugees in England, the Milibands lived in a working-class neighborhood and barely scraped by. His introduction to radical politics was through Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth group. From there, he evolved into a Marxist academic after graduating from the London School of Economics. It is reasonable to state that Miliband was a forerunner to Leo Panitch, another Jewish Marxist academic who assumed the helm of Socialist Register after Miliband’s passing. Although many of SR’s articles become available online, it is primarily a paywalled academic journal just like New Left Review, with contributions by academic leftists writing for others in their professional orbit. I never had any idea that SR existed until getting on the Internet in 1991 at Columbia University.

Despite sharing Karl Kautsky’s rejection of socialist revolution except through parliamentary means, Miliband’s ideology reflected trends that became fashionable in the 1960s, especially state theory. Alongside Nicos Poulantzas, Miliband was preoccupied with the question of how capitalism could be superseded on a basis other than what Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, and Trotsky advocated. This is obviously the same concern that the Jacobin/DSA think-tank has given its rejection of what it regards as “insurrectionary” illusions.

In a famous debate between Poulantzas and Miliband, they offered clashing views on how a non-revolutionary strategy might work. For Miliband, the state functions to serve capitalist interests because of the class basis of the government and the personal ties and influence between members of the government and ruling-class elites. His perspective showed the influence of C. Wright Mills, who was a friend. As for Poulantzas, he offered an Althusserian analysis of the state, which prioritized “structure”. It didn’t matter which class occupied government posts. It was the capitalist system that dictated which class interests were upheld. I haven’t read much Poulantzas but his writings on fascism were persuasive, given their ability to explain how Hitler—despite his class origins—could create a system that satisfied German big business. Of course, their debate had very little impact outside of the academy.

Maisano first made the case for Miliband in a polemic against Philly Socialist’s Tim Horras in a 2019 article written for The Call, the Bread and Roses magazine. Titled “Which Way to Socialism?“, its subtitle warned against “insurrectionary strategies” as if Tim, a librarian by trade, was out drilling with an AR-15 on the weekends. Maisano cites NYU sociology professor Jeff Goodwin to make his case:

As Jeff Goodwin reminds us in his comprehensive study of twentieth century revolutions, “no popular revolutionary movement, it bears emphasizing, has ever overthrown a consolidated democratic regime”

And to drive the point home, he buttresses Goodwin with a blast from Miliband:

There has been no such ‘fit’ between revolutionary organisation and leadership and the structures and circumstances of advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy. Another way of saying this is that advanced capitalism and bourgeois democracy have produced a working class politics which has been non-insurrectionary and indeed anti-insurrectionary; and that this is the rock on which revolutionary organisation and politics have been broken.”

Is there a possibility that highly-placed academics who spend perhaps 8 hours lecturing per week and making over $140,000 per year might not be in the best position to hold forth on the working class being non-insurrectionary? In fact, it would probably be a good idea to retire the word insurrectionary since it is such a red herring when it comes to revolutionary strategy. Marx never wrote about insurrection, after all. That was more the bailiwick of Bakunin and the anarchists who never gave much thought about drawing workers into a mass movement.

More importantly, Maisano was citing a Miliband article written in 1978 and titled “Constitutionalism and Revolution: Notes on Eurocommunism” that hardly spoke to our contemporary situation. Miliband drew a picture of “Leninist” groups that people like Bhaskar Sunkara and Chris Maisano would guffaw at:

In a broader perspective, it is obvious that conditions in advanced capitalist countries would have to become enormously worse, in ways which it is at present difficult to envisage, for the necessary basis of mass support to be engendered which would significantly advance the prospects of a “vanguard party” bent on an ultimate seizure of power. Those groupings which see themselves as embryonic (or actual) “vanguard parties” do in fact work on catastrophist assumptions, and expect that economic collapse, the replacement of bourgeois democracy by some form of authoritarianism and fascism, and even war, will eventually bring about the necessary conditions of revolutionary success and make it possible to repeat the Bolshevik scenario of 1917.

By 1978, there were few on the far left who thought in such terms. After seeing the roadside detritus of the Maoist and Trotskyist groups, most Marxists had already begun to rethink the “democratic centralist” formulas that had led to sect-cult formations. This is not to speak of the political deep freeze that could hardly be ignored with Jimmy Carter in the White House and cocaine flooding the discotheques. In essence, Miliband was beating a corpse over the head.

Even if “vanguard” parties had bitten the dust, it would have been a mistake for Miliband to view 1978 as a permanent state. Between 1978 and 2021, a period of 43 years, catastrophist assumptions and economic collapse have become realities. Keep in mind that if the Communist Manifesto seemed out of whack with bourgeois normality in 1848 (except of course for those pesky struggles against feudal remains), 1889—41 years later—would have set the stage for the imperialist rivalries that would bring capitalism crashing to its knees in 1914.

This, of course, is the fatal flaw of Jacobin/DSA. It expects to see a renaissance of the Scandinavian welfare states when they are already being dismantled. Even with Joe Biden’s bailout and proposals for a massive infrastructure investment, we are facing a Sixth Extinction according to some of the world’s leading scientists. Does anybody expect that such catastrophic threats can be overcome by electing liberal Democrats, even if they like to call themselves socialists?

Whatever Miliband’s flaws, respects have to be paid for his insistence on the need for socialism. Just like Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin’s Socialist Project, Ralph Miliband created the Socialist Society in 1981 in collaboration with Raymond Williams to help launch a socialist party that could challenge both Labour and the Conservatives. The Socialist Society involved New Left Review leaders like Tariq Ali and worked closely with the British Trotskyists of the Ernest Mandel-led Fourth International. Like Peter Camejo’s efforts to develop a non-sectarian left in the USA, it was a product of its time. Unfortunately, the Socialist Project and before it The Socialist Society lacked the foot-soldiers of a mass movement to turn this dream into a reality. You can see the harbingers of such a mass movement in BLM that most leftists identify with, even if Jacobin/DSA continues to provide a platform for Adolph Reed Jr.’s academic sect that warns about BLM being a tool of the corporate elite rather than the most important Black struggle organization since the 1960s.

Turning now to Maisano’s latest on Ralph Miliband, an article written for the DSA magazine titled “A Left That Matters” (a briefer version appears in Jacobin), it restates the Jacobin/DSA think-tank’s by-now calcified support for the Democratic Party:

I was more sympathetic to arguments against tactical use of the Democratic line before the catalytic effects of the Sanders campaigns became fully clear. But the political developments of the last few years have effectively settled the Democratic Party question, at least for now. Whether we like it or not, working-class organizers will continue to use major party primaries so long as they exist and bear fruit. Though the Democratic Party establishment proved to be cohesive enough on a national level to defeat Sanders’ 2020 primary campaign, traditional party organizations at the state and local levels are, to a significant extent, moribund and hollowed out. In many cases they cannot effectively defend themselves and their incumbents, and can’t depose insurgents after they win office through election on the Democratic Party ballot line.

After this bedraggled post-Michael Harrington argument is put forward, Maisano summons up the ghost of Ralph Miliband to give it the stamp of authority. Once again, we hear about the sectarian left as if it were 1971 or so: “The political currents which flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy.” For Christ’s sake, who is this directed at? Like a creature from outer space, particularly the green Jell-O like monster in “The Blob”, the DSA has already absorbed the ISO and is about gobble up Socialist Alternative for dessert.

Maisano would have us read Ralph Miliband’s 1976 article titled “Moving On” just to make sure that we have learned our lesson properly:

The political currents which flow from the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions are exhausted. They cannot break out of their debilitating marginality because their strategic orientation is fundamentally incompatible with the political and social conditions of advanced, welfare-state capitalism and bourgeois democracy. In the U.S. context, they are further constrained by an aversion to electoral action as well as a dogmatic sectarianism regarding the Democratic Party.

If you take the trouble to read Miliband’s article, you’ll see that much of it is directed against the Labour Party. Indeed, most of his career, as I pointed out earlier, was devoted to creating a non-sectarian socialist party that would finally leave the dead-end of Fabian Socialism behind. Just substitute the words “Democratic Party” for “Labour Party” and you’ll understand why poor Ralph Miliband would be spinning in his grave if he was aware of the words Chris Maisano put in his mouth, so much so that a transformer attached to his big toe could probably serve Phoenix, Arizona’s electrical needs for six months at least. This is not to speak of the fact that Labour broke with the Liberal Party in England, their equivalent of the Democratic Party. Oh, did I mention that Eric Blanc advocates staying with the Democrats for as long as possible based on the “success” of Labour only breaking with the Liberals after far too many years of tail-ending a capitalist party?

Inevitably, one must start with the Labour Party. There cannot now be many socialists in the Labour Party (and even fewer outside) who believe that most of its leaders are concerned with the task of effecting the ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families’ of which the Labour Manifesto spoke in 1974. But there are many socialists in the Labour Party who do believe very firmly that they can eventually and by dint of great pressure compel their leaders to adopt left-wing policies and even to translate these policies into practice; or alternatively that they can bring to the leadership of the Labour Party men and women who will want to adopt and put into practice such policies.

There is no point in rehearsing here arguments which have been endlessly canvassed as to whether this is a realistic prospect or not. That controversy has gone on for three quarters of a century, that is ever since the Labour Party came into existence; and insofar as it cannot be conclusively proved that the Labour Party will not in any serious sense be turned in socialist directions, the chances are that the controversy will go on for a long time to come, without leading anywhere. My own view, often reiterated, is that the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone. But this is not what I propose to argue yet again here. It will be more useful to take up some of the more important considerations which are commonly advanced by socialists for working in the Labour Party, whatever the odds, and for not looking farther afield.

March 22, 2021

A Short History of the Syrian Conflict

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 22, 2021

When the Arab Spring came to the Middle East ten years ago, most on the left welcomed the protests, except in Libya and Syria largely out of geopolitical concerns. If the world was made up of opposing camps, you had to support Washington’s enemies even if their secret police were torturers and their governments little more than family dynasties. Libya was far more up-front about being the wholly-owned property of the Gaddafi clan but didn’t Syria have elections? Most notably, you can find references to Bashar al-Assad being re-elected to President in 2014 with close to 90 percent of the vote, a seeming anomaly given the depth of the civil war.

It turns out that he did even better in 2007, when he got 97.29 of the vote, a total redolent of Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman’s studies of demonstration elections. But you had to avoid making such a charge since you didn’t want Assad to be mistaken with José Napoleón Duarte’s victory in El Salvador in 1984. He got 54 percent of the vote but—who knows—maybe Assad deserved such overwhelming support. Yes, it’s true that it wasn’t exactly an election but a referendum on whether he should take over for his father after Hafez’s death that year. With word of posters being plastered on Damascus’s walls and songs blaring from cars and loudspeakers “We love you”, who could deny his popularity? Of course, anybody caught writing graffiti on the walls denouncing such a rigged election might end up hanging upside down in a police station and beaten for hours. That would the norm in 2011, when Syrians lost their fear.

Between 2007 and 2011, not much attention was paid to Syria. For many, the charms of the country were irresistible. Visits to Damascus and Aleppo were a perfect alternative to the usual resort spots. What could be more fun than strolling through the bazaars in search of cheap rugs? Even after the country had been torn apart by civil war, you could always count on Vanessa Beeley and Max Blumenthal to report back on the glories of the nightlife and their favorite hotels.

Continue reading

March 18, 2021

Whither DSA/Jacobin?

Filed under: DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

A word of explanation about the title of this article. It is shorthand for Jacobin and the Bread and Roses Caucus in DSA, overlapping entities as Doug Henwood pointed out in a New Republic article:

There are six votes from the Bread and Roses caucus on DSA’s national political committee (NPC), effectively its board of directors, not quite a third of the total of 19, giving the caucus a serious, if not dominant, presence. Two of them are on the Jacobin masthead (Chris Maisano and Ella Mahony), and another prominent Bread and Roses member, Micah Uetricht, is the magazine’s managing editor. The strong presence on the NPC and the affiliation with Jacobin, the most influential publication on the American socialist left these days, gets people to talking about a sect with its own propaganda arm plotting to control the organization.

Probably most DSA’ers don’t have a clue about this ideological bloc and are content to carry out worthy struggles in the hundreds of chapters around the country but it is worrisome that people with so much power over Jacobin, the de facto official journal of the DSA, can set the tone for the organization.

Lately, several articles came to my attention that reflect a deepening rightward dynamic in DSA that this bloc might push at the same time there is a rise in the class struggle in the USA. It is as if they believed it was still 1964, Johnson was in the White House, and Bayard Rustin had the Democratic Party’s fawning attention. This social democratic wet-dream is the sort of thing you’d expect to see in Dissent, not a magazine that is named after French revolutionaries who waged a bloody class struggle against feudal institutions.

Behind a paywall in the latest Jacobin, there’s an article by Dustin Guastella titled “Everyone Hates the Democrats” that reduces the party’s woes to focusing on the affluent, progressive-minded suburbs rather than the white, blue-collar bastions that exist mostly in Guastella’s imagination as if steel and auto defined the American economy rather than Amazon. I use the word white even though it is implicit throughout the article.

Basically, there’s not much difference between his recommendations and what Columbia professor Mark Lilla wrote in “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.” It is also what Thomas Frank argued in “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” These frequent guests on cable talk shows warn the Democratic Party that unless it dumps “identity politics” and prioritizes white working-class interests (white is implied, not stated for obvious reasons), the Republicans will continue to win elections.

This nostalgia for the Great Society when white workers were attached to the Democratic Party as if they rooting for the home team lasted long after the objective conditions had ceased to exist as a result of runaway shops, NAFTA, and all the other neoliberal policies both Democrats and Republicans had supported.

You can get a good idea of how attached Jacobin/DSA is to this notion of the good old days of DP and white working-class comity from a recent article commemorating John Sweeney, the former head of the AFL-CIO who hoped to reignite the Great Society. Titled “John Sweeney: The Man Who Wanted to Be a ‘Big Labor’ Leader” and written by John Yeselson, it rapturously described “The Fight for America’s Future: A Teach-in with the Labor Movement,” held at Columbia University in October 1996 as an event that was to mark the reunification of leftist intellectuals and academics with much of organized labor, “a coalition that had foundered during the sclerosis of the ’50s.” A real Jacobin/DSA wet dream.

You might remember that 1996 was the same year that a movement to build a Labor Party was launched in the USA by progressive trade union leaders. Like Sweeney’s teach-in, it led nowhere. You are not going to see a revitalized labor movement until you see people at the bottom being moved into action by insufferable conditions. On February 18th, the NY Times Sunday magazine described just such a possibility in an article titled “Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening” that drew an analogy between the 1930s and today:

Throughout history, and especially during the Great Depression, company towns also became central hubs for labor movements. In 1936, General Motors, with its main plants in Flint, Mich., was the biggest automaker and the most profitable company in America. It had 262,000 employees at 57 plants across North America. In his book, “There Is Power in a Union,” Philip Dray writes that Flint “had long been a company town — its workers, elected officials and even its daily press loyal to the town’s majority employer.” The General Motors president at the time “may not have fully grasped the extent to which the individuals who manned the assembly lines in the big auto plants had grown frustrated by the increasing levels of automation and the speedups that disregarded their needs as human beings.”

On Dec. 30, 1936, workers at two G.M. Fisher Body plants in Flint “simply stopped working” during a peak busy season, according to Dray. This strike “would be the first large-scale use of the sit-down, a tactic to which automobile assembly lines were especially vulnerable because manufacturing in the auto industry was based on the continuous flow of production.”

Like the Depression-era strikes in those G.M. plants, today’s labor movement has been fueled by a national crisis. Reese, of U.C. Riverside, led a team of students in interviewing 47 former and current Amazon employees throughout the Inland Empire about living and working conditions. When the pandemic began, Reese noticed labor activity spike in ways that mirrored historical patterns. Even when unemployment was at a high during the Great Depression, people were still organizing, “despite the risks of getting fired and replaced.”

Turning now to Guastella’s article, you get the obligatory swipe at the “woke” activists who regularly get spanked by Tucker Carlson and Matt Taibbi. They “embrace…niche cultural attitudes found only in highly educated urban districts and among Twitter users — 80 percent of whom are affluent millennials.” Despite his aversion to their pretensions, he admits that they make up the activist core that goes out to ring doorbells for democratic socialists. Yet at what terrible costs:

Winning the loyalty of the majority of working people in this country will require breaking out of the existing liberal fortresses and appealing to workers across our massive continental democracy. But pairing a popular economic program with alienating rhetoric, chic activist demands, and identity-based group appeals only weakens the possibility of doing so.

Later on, he spells out his orientation versus that of the woke, suburban, quiche-eating, white-wine drinking viewers of MSNBC:

According to a report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, Democratic-leaning working-class voters ranked their top five issues as follows: health care, social security, Medicare, the economy, and jobs. But liberal professionals listed theirs as: environment, climate change, health care, education, and racial equality.

Get it? Racial equality is backed by liberal professionals but not Democratic-leaning working-class voters. What’s missing from this word association game? The word “white” before Democratic-leaning. I mean, really, why would any self-respecting white worker who voted for Trump now vote for a Democrat who made a stink about racial equality with all those buildings being burned during the George Floyd protests?

You can understand where Guastella is coming from. Last year he wrote an article that attempted to clarify the question of whether cops are racists. Written naturally for Adolph Reed Jr’s Nonsite, it takes aim at “woke” demands such as defunding the police that alienate construction workers and those working in aerospace, etc. For a thorough dismantling of this article, I recommend Peter Ikeler’s reply to Guastella in Spectre titled “To End Police Violence, End Racial Capitalism”. He exposes the faulty data used by Guastella and ends his article with this pithy observation: “Guastella is clear where he falls on these questions. The DSA and the wider left should make it equally clear where such anti-activist sentiments and class reductionism belong: in a goddamn trash can.”

The practical policy recommendations that come out of Guastella’s article are that workers should run for office in the Democratic Party. He names Mark Pocan, a longtime member of the painters’ union, and Donald Norcross, the House’s only electrician, who have recently announced a new labor caucus in Congress that could inspire other workers to run. Like the “squad”, such representatives are never going to become dominant in a capitalist party that learned 100 years ago at least how to co-opt the left. It’s really a shame that James Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi have a stronger grasp of the class differences that will keep such workers impotent than someone writing for Jacobin.

Most importantly, how is Jacobin/DSA supposed to relate to the most important labor struggle since the Flint sit-down strike when one of its leading spokesman ties racial equality to woke suburbanites? Anybody who has been following this mainly black-led organizing drive at Amazon realizes that it is joined at the hip to long-standing struggles in the South for racial equality.

An PBS article titled “Black Lives Matter backs Amazon union push in Alabama” fills in the details:

Organizers trying to form the first union at an Amazon warehouse are getting support from another big name: Black Lives Matter.

The group plans to hold an event Saturday near the warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, making it the latest high-profile supporter of the union push, which is the biggest in Amazon’s nearly 30-year history.

Most of the workers in the warehouse are Black, according to union organizers, and the backing from Black Lives Matter could help further legitimize the cause. Besides higher pay, organizers are also asking for more break time and for Amazon to treat workers with respect.

“Black workers have historically been the backbone of this country, its institutions, and innovations,” said Patrisse Cullors, the executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, in a statement. “Therefore, it is fully within our rights and dignity that we be treated and compensated fairly. Just as we have the right to live, we also have the right to work.”

In the same issue of Jacobin, you can find an article by Chris Maisano, who is on DSA’s national political committee (NPC) that Doug Henwood described as effectively its board of directors. Titled “A Left that Matters”, it is a de facto editorial introduction to the issue.

After reaffirming the wisdom of backing candidates of the Democratic Party, Maisano brings up the question of revolution in the USA. Given the pandemic and a continuing economic crisis, one might think that this highly placed democratic socialist apparatchik might be giving it some new consideration. But no, instead it is a return to what apparently works, building the leftwing of the Democratic Party:

Even if we witness state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, an eventuality many base builders take as given, it’s likely they won’t be able to take advantage of the situation because their strategy will keep them too small and isolated beforehand. Why should the desperate masses turn to organizations they’ve never heard of for salvation?

The failure of revolutionary socialism to grow even in the midst of major capitalist crises underscores its lapse into futility. But just because “Marxist reformism” is the only road available to us doesn’t mean it won’t be filled with potholes, switchbacks, and other drivers trying to run us off a cliff.

What a statement! If there is state breakdown or systemic collapse in the coming years, don’t count on small groups involved with base-building to play a role because they will be to small and isolated beforehand. So we can’t count on them to lead a revolution.

What about the DSA, which will likely have 200,000 members by then and continue to be lionized in the NY Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, The Nation, Field and Stream, and Motor Trend? Sorry, they’ll be too busy ringing doorbells for Democrats, not lending their massive numbers and influence to build a revolutionary movement.

Finally, saving best for last, we come to Eric Blanc, the éminence grise of the DSA and neo-Kautskyite par excellence. In a Jacobin article not behind a paywall, he advises that “The Birth of the Labour Party Has Many Lessons for Socialists Today”. In it, he reminds us that the Conservative and Liberal Parties in England amounted to a two-party system similar to our Republican and Democratic Parties until the trade unions and socialists were able to carry out a “dirty break” and form the Labour Party.

Like the DSA, the British radicals who believed in class independence patiently bored away in the innards of the Liberal Party until they had reached a critical mass capable of forming the party that would fight for socialism, even if according to Fabian Society nostrums. These radicals were referred to as lib-labs.

Our counterparts back then considered lib-lab politics as an exercise in futility. Blanc writes:

Some leftist critics lambasted Liberal-Labour MPs for their ties to a capitalist party, arguing that their moniker itself was a contradiction, “as if a man could be a sober drunkard.” While it’s true that their identification with a business-led party muddied their political independence, such condemnations of the Lib-Labs were short-sighted.

Have patience, Blanc advises:

Whatever their limitations, Liberal-Labour representatives did constitute a distinct working-class current in national political life and, as such, a step forward in the process of class formation. Flash forward to today and you can see a similar process unfolding with democratic socialists recently elected to local, statewide, and national office on the Democratic Party ballot line. Like in the UK, a consistent growth in the US left’s electoral power over the coming years will necessarily put us on a collision course with the tens-of-thousands of Democratic politicians and operatives whose careers and prestige depend on preserving the status quo.

Missing entirely from this utterly self-serving flim-flam is any engagement with the question of whether a “dirty break” resulted in anything except a dirty Labour Party. The Labour Party that emerged out of the bowels of the Liberal Party was led by people who make Joe Biden look like Che Guevara.

More than any other party at the time, it was the poster child for reformism. Indeed, the Fabian Society that gave its name to Fabianism, the doctrine of reformism par excellence, was one of the major architects of Labour Party ideology.

Labour essentially was a kind of hybrid political formation like one of those half-man/half-animals from Greek mythology. It was midwifed by Liberal Party figures who superimposed their Christian/free market dogma on a nascent socialist formation that, unlike other Social Democratic parties, especially Kautsky’s, had little engagement with Marxism. Frustrated with the Liberal Party’s concessions to the Tories in Parliament, the Fabians and the Independent Labour Party founded the Labour Party in 1900, with its main purpose to put pressure on the Liberal Party from the left. In a way, the strategy was similar to the DSA’s hope of serving as the Tea Party of the left, even though they have never articulated this as such, to my knowledge.

Instead of being led by a fire-breathing radical like Eugene V. Debs, the Labour Party was in the hands of Ramsey MacDonald who promised that when it became a minority government in 1923 with backing from the Liberals it would “not be influenced…by any other consideration other than the national well-being.” His colonial minister, a former railway union leader named J.H. Thomas, promised that there would be “no mucking about with the British Empire”.

In 1926, the Tories were in power again and facing a general strike led by coal miners. Despite Labour’s institutional ties to Labour and MacDonald’s vow to back them in their struggle, he wilted under pressure and told Parliament that “with the discussion of general strikes and Bolshevism and all that kind of thing, I have nothing to do at all.”

Is this what the Jacobin/DSA is aspiring to? Comrade Blanc sounds more like Irving Howe in his seventies than the perpetually cap-wearing young socialist image he carefully cultivates. I just don’t get it. I became a socialist in 1967 and remain committed to the same principles I had 53 years ago, even if I have dropped the “Leninism”.

He, on the other hand, started off as a member of an obscure Trotskyist sect maybe a decade ago that his father led and then joined the ISO. His politics at the time are reflected in the video above. After a brief time in the ISO, he migrates to the DSA where he dispenses with their class-based opposition to the Democratic Party and becomes an advocate of the “dirty break”, trying to adapt Karl Kautsky’s Marxism to the USA. Eventually, the neo-Kautskyism goes by the wayside and he now identifies with the men who founded the Labour Party. My head is spinning at these ideological mutations. How deep were convictions picked up and cast aside like fast fashion from Zara? I guess given the cap that must be cemented to his head by Gorilla Glue, the politics are easier to pick up and then discard.

March 16, 2021

Genocide and Survival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

I moderated this panel discussion this afternoon. I think it went very well.

March 14, 2021

A Simple Explanation of Black Holes

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:04 pm

Louis N. Proyect:

I was trying to follow a one-hour lecture on Black Holes [podcast] but gave up after fifteen minutes and switched to Jay Leno’s garage to hear what he had to say about the 1955 Packard Caribbean.

Manuel García, Jr.:

Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” is a pretty good book about it, for the general public.

Theoretically, Black Holes are a consequence of Einstein’s General Relativity (the effect of gravity on space-time): with enough concentrated mass, and insufficient thermal-nuclear energy generation (a star uses up its “fuel”) to keep that mass puffed out, its mutual gravity draws it into a spherical center, and since mass-gravity “curves” space-time (an effect that diminishes with radial distance from the center) and since space-time curvature is expressed/observed as the bending of light rays; at a particular radial distance (the Schwarzschild Radius) light rays are curved completely by 360 degrees – into circles.

March 12, 2021

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2021

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 12, 2021

Starting next Monday and ending on Sunday March 21st, the Socially Relevant Film Festival will present dozens of films through a virtual theater. Like last year, the pandemic has had an impact not only on this festival but all theaters in New York that cater to leading edge independent work. The big commercial theaters like AMC have opened under conditions of social distancing but the best leading-edge houses like Film Forum are streaming only. On the plus side, people everywhere will be able to see SR Festival films for $7 each, with a festival ticket available for $75. If you need any motivation to see one or all the films and have also found yourself appreciating films I recommended on CounterPunch, let me repeat my testimonial to the SR Film Festival in 2015. I would only add the words “unending economic crisis and pandemic”:

I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.

The four documentaries s under review below constitute just a tiny minority of the festival offerings. As is universally the case, I found all of them compelling. Except for the last, they deal with issues close to my heart and I suspect that they will be close to yours as well.

The Boys Who Said NO! (Monday, March 15, 4:00 PM)

Directed by Judith Ehrlich, who made the superlative “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” in 2009, the film is a history of the anti-draft movement that began in 1964 and lasted until 1972. While focused on the civil disobedience wing of the antiwar movement, it also serves as a terrific overview of the war and a reminder of why people my age were willing to go to prison for up to five years for burning a draft card or joining a “subversive” organization and risk careers because of a COINTELPRO. Hoover’s FBI provocations even caught me in its web.

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March 10, 2021

A Short History of Uighur Resistance

Filed under: China,colonialism,Counterpunch,Uyghur — louisproyect @ 6:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 9, 2021

Abdulla Rozibaqiev, a Uighur Bolshevik

In a by now familiar pattern, Grayzone has taken up the cause of a powerful and oppressive state against a weaker enemy using a geopolitical litmus test. Since the USA has invaded and occupied dozens of Third World countries for over two hundred years, there’s no point in taking the side of any oppressed nationality or ethnic group since willy-nilly they are acting on behalf of Wall Street, the CIA, NATO, George Soros, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Why bother looking at the deeper historical roots of a conflict when all you need to do is dredge up some evidence that the State Department has paid off some dissidents. Long before Max Blumenthal and his cohorts launched Grayzone, Michel Chossudovsky had perfected this methodology at Global Research. When young people filled Tahrir Square in Cairo to demand the overthrow of Mubarak, Tony Cartalucci took Mubarak’s side in a Global Research article because the National Endowment for Democracy had funneled some cash to his opponents. I am surprised that Chossudovsky did not sue Grayzone for the theft of intellectual property.

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March 9, 2021

The People vs Agent Orange

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Vietnam,war — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Just by coincidence, the documentary “The People Vs. Agent Orange” that opened on March 6th in virtual theaters could have easily been released to coincide with International Women’s Day that is celebrated on March 8th. The film is a profile of two women who have dedicated their lives to terminating the use of a deadly chemical herbicide that cost the lives of both Americans and Vietnamese. You might rightly assume that the Americans were GI’s serving in Vietnam like Leo Cawley, an economist who hosted “Fearful Symmetry” on WBAI-FM in the late 80s—the best program on a network that has lost its way. Leo died of complications from a bone-marrow transplant, the after-effects of being exposed to Agent Orange when he was a marine in Vietnam.

But you didn’t have to be in Vietnam to get sick or die from Agent Orange. Unbelievably, after its use was banned in 1971, it eventually was sprayed by the millions of gallons in Western Oregon upon the soil that once held millions of trees. After they were cut down, Agent Orange was used to kill the weeds left behind as an aid to reforestation.

Around that time, a woman named Carol Van Strum moved close to the forest with her four young children in a kind of “back to nature” retreat so common in the 60s and 70s as people my age sought a healthy and more spiritual life. Not long after building a house and a barn for the animals she was raising, the children began to complain about various illnesses that remained a mystery. It was only after driving her car closer to the clear cut forest that she noticed a sickly odor. Suspecting the worst, she took samples from the soil and water, sent it off to a lab, and finally learned that entire area was drenched with Agent Orange, whose main toxin is called dioxin. The EPA, which tends to give back-handed support to corporations like Dow Chemical that manufacture it, categorizes it as a carcinogen. As soon as she discovered the source of her children’s ailments, as well as others living near the forest, she went on a crusade against the corporations and the “experts” who sanctioned the poisonous herbicide.

One of these experts was Mike Newton, a Professor of Forest Ecology at Oregon State University College in Corvallis, OR, who labeled Dioxin as harmless in an article titled “I’ve Had More Exposure To Agent Orange Than Anyone: Here’s What I Know” that can be read on the American Council on Science and Health website. There you will find other pearls of wisdom such as “Prominent Anti-GMO Activist Changed His Mind After Learning The Science” and “(Nuclear) power to the people!”.

The film’s other fearless heroine is Tran To Nga, who is a septuagenarian like Van Strum. She comes from a family that opposed both the French and American colonizers, first as leaders in the Viet Minh and then with the NLF. Nga was in the Vietnamese forests when American planes were showering them with Agent Orange. As a result, her first-born child died in infancy. Her health has been affected as well. Long after the war ended, her body contains traces of Dioxin that some scientists view as much of a threat to human health for generations as plutonium.

She is now suing the American chemical industry for poisoning her in Vietnam – a lawsuit she filed in 2014 against the corporations that produced and sold the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange. The suit includes U.S. multinational companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, now owned by the German conglomerate Bayer.

The film was co-directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna. In the press notes, the directors state:

Documents are a leitmotif.  Storms, rain and flowing surface water are a recurring visual theme that evokes the lethal dioxin run-off and dioxin contamination.   Similar images tie together the contamination of Vietnam and America’s Pacific Northwest as helicopters spray the ancient mangrove forests of Vietnam and Oregon’s majestic conifers. The scenes of the deformed and handicapped Vietnamese child victims, difficult as they are to watch and as sensitively as we try to present them, are a stark testimony to the film’s core message. We chose not to shy away from images the world might rather not see. They are indelible evidence of corporate greed and man’s inhumanity to man.

I doubt I will see a documentary this year that is more powerful and more urgent than this one.

March 5, 2021

1942: Unknown Battle

Filed under: Film,ussr,WWII — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

Recently a list of the 10 top Russian war movies cropped up on Facebook, most of which I hadn’t seen. If I were putting together my own list right now, I’d put the newly released “1942: Unknown Battle” at the top of the list. It is based on the battles that took place in Rzhev between January 1942 and March 1943 that turned the tide against the Nazi invaders. Because of the disproportionate losses suffered by the Soviet Army, the campaign became known as the “Rzhev Meat Grinder”.

The film recreates the fighting that took place in and around the tiny farming village of Ovsyannikovo that encapsulated the desperate attempt by an understaffed, underequipped and undertrained Soviet company equipped only with small arms against a Nazi battalion with tanks and heavy artillery and many more men.

The opening scene of this powerful film depicts the Reds driving a smaller detachment of Nazis out of Ovsyannikovo in the most gruesomely graphic fashion of any war film I’ve ever seen outside of Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Unlike Spielberg’s “greatest generation” film that ended with America triumphant, “1942: Unknown Battle” concludes with an exhausted and lightly armed marching toward certain disaster. The contrast between the triumphalist tone of American WWII movies and this Russian film could not be more glaring. The American victory led to the USA becoming the world’s hegemon and ultimately accomplishing what Hitler could not: the ascendance of capitalism in the USSR.

Unlike the war movies made during the USSR, “1942: Unknown Battle” dramatizes the conflict between the average soldier motivated to defend the motherland and the counterintelligence officers imposing repressive Stalinist regulations that threaten to weaken the resolve of those willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation. After a Nazi plane floods the village with leaflets promising safe passage for any Red soldier that defects, the counterintelligence officer threatens the men with a court-martial if a leaflet is found in their pockets. When a grizzled old fighter confesses that he does have a leaflet but only for use as rolling paper for his cigarettes, he is taken into custody and marched across no-man’s land between the two opposing armies. When the counterintelligence officer is wounded by Nazi gunfire, the old fighter drags him into a foxhole, which leads to an extended dialogue about their clashing values. As much as I valued the action scenes throughout the film, it was this scene that will stick with me.

“1942: Unknown Battle” can be rented now from the usual VOD sites listed at Kino, the film’s distributor, for a mere $3.99. For those of us who understand that it was the USSR that was mainly responsible for the destruction of the Third Reich, this film is a must.

The Wikipedia entry for Battles of Rzhev will give you a sense of its troubled legacy. As much as humanity can thank the USSR for the sacrifices the country made, historians have demanded that a full recounting of the toll it took be made.

In 2009, a television movie was aired in Russia entitled Rzhev: Marshal Zhukov’s Unknown Battle, which made no attempt to cover up the huge losses suffered by Soviet forces. As a consequence, there were public calls in Russia for the arrest of some of those involved in its production. In the movie, the casualties of Soviet forces are given as 433,000 KIA. The journalist Alina Makeyeva, in an article of Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper which was published on 19 February 2009, wrote: “The number presented by the historian is too low. There must be more than one million Soviet soldiers and officers killed! Rzhev and its neighboring towns were completely destroyed.”; however, Alina could not present any proof. Journalist in her article which was published in the newspaper The Violin (Russia) on 26 February 2009 also claimed that more than 1,000,000 Soviet soldiers were killed at Rzhev. The number of casualties again was raised with the claim of journalist Igor Elkov in his articled published in the Russian Weekly on 26 February 2009. Igor said: “The accurate number of casualties of both sides is still dubious. Recently, there are some opinions about from 1.3 to 1.5 million Soviet soldiers was killed. It may reach the number of 2 million”.

In my view, the film reflects the thinking of people like Alina Makeyeva, Elena Tokaryeva and Igor Elkov.

March 1, 2021

The New History of Capitalism, its detractors, and the American Indian

Filed under: indigenous,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 10:57 pm
Is this our destiny?

For most people, Project 1619 is controversial because Nikole Hannah-Jones dissed Abe Lincoln, having the temerity to write that Lincoln regarded free black people as a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.

None of the other articles raised Sean Wilentz’s dander as much as this but there was another controversy that probably passed beneath the radar of the average NY Times reader, namely the project’s support for the New History of Capitalism (NHC) spearheaded by Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson. One of articles assembled under the Project, written by Matthew Desmond, was titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation”. It cited Sven Beckert and fellow NHC’er Seth Rockman: “American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism” and defended the proposition that slavery was essential to the birth of American capitalism. Clearly, this argument was not one that traditional historians, even those on the left, would accept.

John Oakes, who co-signed the letter with Sean Wilentz demanding that the Times “correct” Project 1619, weighed in on NHC in an interview with the sect-cult WSWS.org newspaper:

Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.

This is what they call a straw man, isn’t it?

Oakes also wrote a longer and more ostensibly scholarly attack on NHC for the Economic Historian blog that sought to discredit their work. Naturally, Oakes found himself on the same side as James Clegg and Charles Post who have also written attacks on the NHC:

Charles Post and John Clegg are both sociologists. Like myself, they are not economic historians. But although we arrive at different conclusions, we all start from Robert Brenner’s definition of capitalism as systemic market dependency. This definition is similar to the one that emerged separately some decades ago among historians who debated the transition to capitalism in the northern states in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Post is probably familiar to most of my readers since his articles have appeared frequently in Jacobin and other magazines of the Marxist left. Clegg is less well-known outside of the ranks of the professional historians and because of his preference for writing in JSTOR type journals. Both reject the idea that slavery was implanted in America’s DNA but disagree on whether slave plantations were capitalist. Post describes them as “pre-capitalist” while Clegg sees them as capitalist. It is hard to pin Post down on what “pre-capitalist” means since that would include 8th century Rome as well as the cotton plantation but let’s leave that aside for now. The important matter for both these muscular defenders of Marxist orthodoxy is that slavery was a fetter on the more authentic capitalism in the north that was ready to crush the south to make free wage labor inviolate. Without free wage labor, you can’t have Grade A capitalism, after all. That’s what Marx believed supposedly, even though on an off day he might mistakenly say something like “Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.”

Clegg wrote an article titled “Capitalism and Slavery” for the September 2015 Critical Historical Studies that is available online. His broadside against NHC had two main complaints. One was that it failed to provide a theoretical definition of the capitalist system. The other was that it overstated the roe of violence in expanding cotton production, the cornerstone of Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”. Clegg was more inclined to accept the findings of econometricians Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode’s October 2016 article “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that, like Oakes, was aimed at total annihilation of the NHC. They argue, “However, to agree that slavery was important and evil does not mean that it was economically essential for the Industrial Revolution, for American prosperity, or even for the production of cotton in the United States. The new literature makes spectacular but unsupported claims, relies on faulty reasoning, and introduces many factual inaccuracies.”

It is almost impossible to verify Olmstead and Rhode’s article since it relies on sources that are impossible to track down, even for people like me who have access to Columbia University’s online resources. For example, on page 18 they refer to a graph that lists American exports by value. Supposedly, cotton is unimportant:

Figure 2 graphs the values of cotton exports as a share the value of U.S. merchandise exports, and then both U.S. cotton and merchandise export values as shares of GDP.30 As the bottom line makes clear, cotton exports were a very small share of national product—less than 5 percent over much of the of the antebellum period (Engerman and Gallman 1983, p. 28).

Footnote 30 states, “The data are based on Series Ee571 (Value of Cotton Exports). Series Ee366 (Value of U.S. Merchandise Exports), Ca10 (Nominal GDP, as interpolated with Ca9 and Ca13 for 1821-29 and 1831-39) from Millennial Historical Statistics (Carter, et al. 2006).

The problem for me is that GDP was not collected in the 19th century so where do their numbers come from? In 1934, Simon Kuznets developed the modern concept of GDP to use in a report to Congress in 1934. I suppose I could have gotten my hands on Carter’s Millennial Historical Statistics but the Columbia Library was shut down during the pandemic. What about people without such access? How could they verify this claim about cotton’s lesser role? They wouldn’t know where to begin. As for the Engerman and Gallman article, it is not in JSTOR and hence unavailable—at least until the pandemic is over.

Some scholars almost consider it an exercise in futility trying to extract national income figures before Kuznets. Angus Maddison was considered one of the leading experts on measuring national income. In his authoritative “Development Centre Studies : The World Economy: Historical Statistics” he writes that between 1800 and the First World War, there was a proliferation of national income estimates, but little improvement in their quality or comparability. They provided little help for serious analysis of economic growth, and there were significant differences in their coverage and methodology.

It is also worth noting that sometimes a close reading of the Olmstead-Rhode article can turn up anomalies that undermine their thesis. For example, on page five they make the case that Sven Beckert exaggerated the importance of cotton being picked by slaves in the Louisiana Purchase, claiming that farming was mostly done by yeomen who raised cattle and grain. The footnote to support this argument cites Columbia University economist Stuart Bruchey’s “Cotton and the Growth of the American Economy, 1790-1860.” Surely, they should have known that Bruchey’s view on cotton production was much closer to the NHC’ers than theirs. He saw the concentration of southern resources on exports, particularly cotton, as a dominant growth factor in pre-Civil War America since it stimulated the development of northern manufacturing and western agriculture. Export earnings enabled the South to purchase the manufactured goods and commercial services of the North and the food supplies and livestock of the West.

As for Post, he is just as convinced as Clegg that Olmstead and Rhode have the final word:

Baptist takes as his point of departure the striking finding of Alan J. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, in their pathbreaking studies on biological innovation and productivity growth in the antebellum cotton South,11 that during the first sixty years of so of the nineteenth century “cotton picked per slave quadrupled, with picking efficiency increasing at 2.3 percent per annum, substantially faster than the advance of labor productivity in the overall economy.”

Whether either one has had the motivation to critically examine Olmstead and Rhode is open to question. As often happens in these debates, you pick a side and then cherry-pick your scholarly resources to beat the other side into a bloody pulp.

It should hardly come as a surprise that there is a racial divide on the question of slavery’s contribution to capitalism. Foundational African-American figures such as W.E.B. DuBois and Eric Williams make the case that it was substantial while those minimizing its role tend to be white. There is one exception to this divide, of course. Black professor emeritus Adolph Reed Jr. is adamantly opposed to the idea that slavery was a midwife to capitalism, telling the sectarians at WSWS.org, who have crusaded against Project 1619:

What are the stakes that people imagine to be bound up with demonstrating that capitalism in this country emerged from slavery and racism, which are treated as two different labels for the same pathology? Ultimately, it’s a race reductionist argument.

Like other controversies I’ve engaged with, numbers not only play a major role but can often be wildly discrepant according to the side you identify with. Just one example. For those who have an unaccountably nostalgic affection for Stalin’s USSR, the numbers of Ukrainians who died during the forced collectivization tend to be close to the floor while Ukrainian scholars, especially nationalists, place them close to the ceiling. Additionally, they have different interpretations of what the numbers mean. For the Stalinophiles, they absolve the bureaucracy from the charge of genocide, arguing that the deaths were caused by a famine or by the wealthy peasants acting self-destructively in the face of a necessary social transformation. For Ukrainians, the numbers reflect Stalin’s genocidal commitment to breaking the back of Ukrainian national aspirations.

I would be loath to reduce the animosity Oakes, Post, Clegg, et al have toward the work of the NHC’ers (and implicitly, DuBois and those who follow in his footsteps) to racial insensitivity. However, it must be said that the political stakes over the relationship of slavery to the hegemonic growth of American capitalism are considerable. They relate to the question of whether reparations are in order. I wouldn’t read too much into both Post and Clegg having attacked the NHC’ers in Jacobin, a magazine whose publisher opposes reparations. However, I have seen the Black chairman of an African-American Studies department, who shall remain unnamed, use language against Jacobin on these matters that would make the face of a drunken sailor turn red.

In pouring through articles that touch upon the slavery and capitalism nexus, I took a look at James Parisot’s “The Two Hundred and Fifty Year Transition: How the American Empire Became Capitalist: How the American Empire Became Capitalist”. Parisot is also the author of “How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and The Conquest Of The West”, a book that shares the perspective of the NHC but is much more engaged with Marxist theory.

In 2019, Parisot gave a presentation on his book at a Historical Materialism conference in New York, with Post and Clegg as discussants. I came away with a very favorable impression of his approach and hope to find the time before long to read his book. In the meantime, I was anxious to read the article, which Parisot told me was a capsule version of the arguments in his book. Since the word “Empire” is in the article’s title, it made me sit up and take notice. Wasn’t it entirely possible that the axis of discussion had to be expanded to take into account the total ensemble of territorial grabs that made capitalism possible? When Thomas Jefferson spoke about an “Empire of Liberty,” he used the word Empire advisedly. It anticipated the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny and every other murderous scheme that would allow the USA to replace Britain as the world’s hegemonic power.

The abstract for Parisot’s article reads:

This paper aims to rethink United States history from the colonial era through the Civil War and Reconstruction by examining how capitalism and empire joined together as the logic of expansion increasingly became driven by the logic of capital over approximately two hundred and fifty years. Specifically, it argues that (what became) the United States originated as a ‘society with capitalism’ and became a ‘capitalist society’. This transition was a highly complex and uneven process as a variety of social forms developed and interacted, and in which there was not one road to capitalism, but a variety, depending on the historical circumstance.

In my view, there is an element of combined and uneven development that is hinted at in his formulation “This transition was a highly complex and uneven process as a variety of social forms developed and interacted, and in which there was not one road to capitalism.” Essentially, Parisot sees forced labor and “free labor” as existing on a continuum rather than as mutually exclusive. This formulation bears this out: “While Marx’s overall analysis of the capitalist mode of production centered on wage labor, his methodology permits an analysis of capital’s exploitation of a variety of labor forms into an analysis of capitalism’s systemic dynamics. In this way, for example, while not all slavery throughout world history was necessarily capitalist, plantation slavery was capitalist due to the structuration of the social relations of production and the ways in which surplus value was generated through forced labor.”

Working my way through his 30-page article, I came across a passage that finally resolved some misgivings I had about the slavery and capitalism connection, even though it was unintended by the author. In fact, it was my somewhat negative reaction to the passage that led to some insights about what has been missing from the debate.

On page 599 of Parisot’s article, he discusses Livingston Manor, a huge (250 square miles) feudal-like parcel of land the Crown had bestowed on Robert Livingston in the 18th century. Even though tenant farming prevailed, it was combined with capitalist profit-making. Parisot writes:

New York manors operating for profit by using tenant farmers blurs the categories between a non-capitalist and capitalist mode of production. Tenancy forced farmers to produce commodities to sell on markets to obtain some goods. Additionally, the results of their la- bor (for example, one tenth of their wheat in the case of the Livingston manor) went to the head of the manor, who then sold it for a profit. Overall, this seems to be a case of household production sub- ordinated to the law of value in a capitalistic way. It is something much more complex and closer to capitalism than ‘quasi’ feudalism.

While Lord Livingston’s manor was enormous, there was another entity called Livingston Manor that, despite the name, ended up as a tiny village in Sullivan County about 15 miles from where I grew up. Both the big Livingston Manor and the tiny one were tied to the same family. My high school used to play and beat their basketball team on a regular basis.

While I completely understand why Parisot would dwell on this example, it stirred up a different train of thought for me. As many of you know from my past posts, Sullivan County was home to the Munsee Indians for hundreds of years before the arrival of white men like Robert Livingston. A subgroup of the Lenape (also known as the Delaware) Indians lived along the Hudson River Valley that includes the foothills of the Catskills where I grew up. Like the Pumas that gave the mountains its name (Kaaterskill is Dutch for cat+river, with kill meaning the Hudson, not the claws of the Puma.) They were driven out of Sullivan County in the 1700s, just as Indians were ethnically cleansed throughout the state around the same time. As for the name of the county, that dubious distinction belongs to General Sullivan who conducted a genocidal war against the Iroquois tribes that backed the British against the colonists.

Without the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians in New York and Massachusetts, could capitalism have “taken off”? The problem with equating the origins of capitalism in the USA with either slavery (per the NHC’ers) or Post’s plucky yeoman farmers and manufacturers of the north who became Radical Republicans is that it effaces the native peoples who stood in the way of both cotton plantations and textile mills.

Primitive accumulation, the sine qua non for capitalism, begins with both slavery and removal of indigenous peoples. Trying to make slavery the starting point for the origins of capitalism is problematic. Don’t ever forget what Marx wrote in chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital, the aptly titled “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”:

The treatment of the aborigines was, naturally, most frightful in plantation-colonies destined for export trade only, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so called, the Christian character of primitive accumulation did not belie itself. Those sober virtuosi of Protestantism, the Puritans of New England, in 1703, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of £40 on every Indian scalp and every captured red-skin: in 1720 a premium of £100 on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts-Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices: for a male scalp of 12 years and upwards £100 (new currency), for a male prisoner £105, for women and children prisoners £50, for scalps of women and children £50. Some decades later, the colonial system took its revenge on the descendants of the pious pilgrim fathers, who had grown seditious in the meantime. At English instigation and for English pay they were tomahawked by red-skins. The British Parliament proclaimed bloodhounds and scalping as “means that God and Nature had given into its hand.”

Without this kind of “treatment”, New York, Massachusetts, and Mississippi never would have become the ideal seed bed for capitalism. Remember that scene at the end of Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist”, when the family’s travails come from having built (as well as sold) a house over an American Indian burial ground? While the descendants of those who drove them off their land (Robert Livingston was an ancestor of the Bush family) deserve punishment like in “Poltergeist”, we’d be much better off carrying out a socialist revolution that would put the ecological values of the Munsee and all the other indigenous peoples into practice once again.

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