Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 15, 2016

Who is Gareth Stedman Jones and why is he saying such stupid things about Marx?

Filed under: Academia,liberalism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Gareth Stedman Jones

Gareth Stedman Jones is a 73-year-old professor of history at the University of London who was educated at St. Paul’s and Oxford. This, plus a brief infatuation with Marxism in the 1960s, was just the ticket for landing a seat on the editorial board of New Left Review where many editors and contributors over the years share the same kind of background.

In a 2012 interview, Jones described his eventual breach with the far left, especially its Trotskyist component, as a result of being put off by the idea of a “revolutionary Europe”. Instead he realized that unlike his erstwhile comrades, he really was a “crypto-Fabian”.

For most people who have a youthful fling with radical politics, this is something easy enough to put behind them. I am acquainted, for example, with a man who was my YSA organizer in NY in 1968. He dropped out of the movement about 5 years later, moved out to California, and started a very profitable company that sold and installed industrial carpeting in office buildings. When I visited his ranch about 15 years ago, the last thing he was interested in was politics. He much preferred to drink cognac, smoke cigars and talk about the horses he was breeding.

In my view, that man does a lot less harm than Gareth Stedman Jones who has carved out a very successful career at elite British universities, including Cambridge, teaching young people all about working class history and what’s wrong with Marxism. On his webpage at the U. of London, he names his PhD students including one Kate Connelly, whose dissertation is on “Marx, Engels and the Urban Poor”. As is commonly understood, dissertation students make sure to hold views in sync with their adviser so we can assume that she will disorient her future students in the same way Jones disoriented her.

One of the most ironic contradictions of Marxism is that some of its most diehard critics speak in the name of Marxism. With the intellectual clout they might gain from serving on the NLR editorial board and having written a rafter of books with titles like “Outcast London”, a 1971 Verso book that was an exercise in E.P. Thompson “history from below”, people such as Gareth Stedman Jones can speak out of both sides of his mouth. He is for the working class in a charitable Dickensian fashion but against it becoming the ruling class.

In his latest exercise in undermining Marx while praising him, Jones just came out with a 768-page book titled “Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion” that has been reviewed in the Guardian and the Financial Times. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Bullough states that “Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them.”

In a nutshell, Jones argues that the 20th and 21st century Marxist understanding of socialism is influenced much more by Engels than Marx. Bullough explains: “Stedman Jones argues that much of what we now think of as Marxism – and, thus, much of what went on to inspire socialist and communist parties – was the creation of Engels, who codified Marx’s theories after his death, thus making them palatable for people unable or unwilling to wade through his dense texts.”

The idea that Engels was somehow to blame for the bastardization of Marxism and even partially responsible for the Stalinist travesties of “dialectical materialism” is part of the arsenal of people like Gareth Stedman Jones, even though there is little basis for this.

Mark Mazower, a Columbia University professor, wrote the FT review titled “The value of Karl Marx’s 19th century thinking in today’s world”. As I have noted in the past, the FT has published a number of articles, especially during the depth of the 2008 financial crisis, arguing for the relevance of Karl Marx even if his call for the abolition of capitalism was all wet.

Relying on Mazower’s reading of Jones, we are expected to believe that Marx neglected to deal with the problem of state power:

At the same time he continued his voluminous reading, in particular of Ludwig Feuerbach, a critic of Hegel and the thinker who did most to point Marx towards the idea of man as an alienated being who thrived best as part of a larger collective. It was this conception that allowed Marx to imagine the future as one great human society, and to relegate to an entirely unimportant position the state itself, which had been so potent in Hegel’s thought. One consequence of this downplaying of the state was that Marx developed his entire critique of capitalism with almost no reference to the role of the state: the upshot was that after 1917, when his Russian followers found themselves running the government of a very large country, they had a free hand to invent a role for the bureaucracy and ended up creating a polity in which the state played a greater role than ever before or since.

Speaking of neglect, it is obvious to me that Jones failed to take into account one of Karl Marx’s most important writings on the state—“The Civil War in France”—that was the basis for Lenin’s “State and Revolution”. I understand that Gareth Stedman Jones has more awards than Heineken beer but if he can’t make the connection between Marx and Lenin on the theory of the workers state, then he has no business teaching about Marx. But then again, the people who hired him for his various august positions saw this inability to make such a connection essential to training the future leaders of bourgeois society who might dismiss Marxism while wisely praising Marx as an important 19th century thinker.

In 2002 Penguin came out with a version of “The Communist Manifesto” with a 185-page introduction by Jones, three times the length of the Manifesto. Among the spurious points made in the introduction is that the manifesto and much of 19th century socialism was a quasi-religion. This, of course, is another key talking point against Marxism that I personally first heard in junior high school back in 1958 or so. It was “the god that failed”, a “secular religion” that replaced heaven with the communist ideal. This is a rather banal interpretation and exactly what you would expect from someone like Gareth Stedman Jones.

In a shrewd review of Jones’s packaging of The Communist Manifesto for the New Left Review, Jacob Stevens wrote:

Stedman Jones’s organizing thesis—that Marxism is another form of religion—is, of course, one of the oldest tropes of Cold War literature, predating even the equation of communism and fascism as two sides of the totalitarian coin. During the thirties, Waldemar Gurian and Eric Voegelin argued that Marxism and Nazism caricatured the fundamental patterns of religious belief, diagnosing the resulting immanentist heresies as by-products of secularization in a decadent world, fuelled by Enlightenment myths of social transformation. After World War Two, Jules Monnerot’s Sociology of Communism (1949) explained that Bolshevism was a ‘religious sect of world conquerors’ that should be viewed as a ‘twentieth-century Islam’. Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) offered a fully fleshed-out analogy with Christianity: the ‘sacred history which Marxism extracts from the penumbra of plain facts’ offers a messianic role for the Party.

For Jones the last important work of Marx was “The German Ideology”. Apparently everything went downhill afterwards. Perhaps Jones might have done less harm if he had simply focused on social history and not written counter-revolutionary drivel. This part of his legacy might have inspired another of his dissertation students to have chosen a topic like “Carnivals in Greater London, 1890-1914: Locality, Leisure and Voluntary Action on the Metropolitan Periphery”, one that thankfully will not carry his adviser’s ideological baggage.

Then again, that might be problematic given Jones’s attempt to purge class from the history of the Chartist movement. Once again doing his best to obfuscate revolutionary history, he claims that it was liberalism rather than socialism that fueled the growth of this movement. Crypto-Fabian indeed.

In 1983, Jones came out with a book titled “Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982” that included a chapter titled “Rethinking Chartism”. It turned language into a fulcrum of analysis rather than class dynamics. The speeches and articles of Chartist leaders that reflected a commitment to traditional values of bourgeois democracy were taken at face value by Jones whose words reflected the baleful influence of post-structuralism:

What both ‘experience’ and ‘consciousness’ conceal – at least as their usage has evolved among historians- is the problematic character of language itself. Both concepts imply that language is a simple medium through which ‘experience’ finds expression- a romantic conception of language in which what is at the beginning inner and particular struggles to outward expression and, having done so, finds itself recognized in the answering experience of others, and hence sees itself to be part of a shared experience. It is in some such way that ‘experience’ can be conceived cumulatively to result in class consciousness. What this approach cannot acknowledge is all the criticism which has been levelled at it since the broader significance of Saussure’s work was understood – the materiality of language itself, the impossibility of simply referring it back to some primal anterior reality, ‘social being’, the impossibility of abstracting experience from the language which structures its articulation. In areas other than history, such criticisms are by now well known and do not need elaboration. But historians – and social historians in particular – have either been unaware or, when aware, extremely resistant to the implications of this approach for their own practice, and this has been so most of all perhaps when it touches such a central topic as class.

So interesting to see how Gareth Stedman Jones is inclined to draw upon intellectual traditions hostile to Marxism in an effort to simultaneously speak for the left while undermining it. If the essay on the Chartists was filled with intellectual hijinks like this, the next chapter “Why is the Labour Party Such a Mess?” was refreshingly straightforward even if the ideas were just as repugnant. It seems that the solution to the Labour Party’s problems in post-Thatcher England was to ditch the “homogeneous proletarian estate whose sectional political interest is encompassed by trade unions.”

In 2004, Jones wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian titled “Tony Blair needs a big idea. Adam Smith can provide it”. It is a totally ahistorical think piece that abstracts Adam Smith from his contemporary context and urges readers to appreciate that Smith’s “original reputation was that of a progressive whose work provided the foundation of the radical critique of aristocratic monopoly and of the bellicose state that protected it.” He adds, “But an accurate account of this period shows that the pursuit of equality can be conceived in terms quite other than those of socialism.”

What that has to do with the 21st century when capitalism had become so decadent that it was capable of fomenting two world wars is anybody’s guess. It seems that despite his formidable reputation as a historian, Jones’s grasp of history is rather weak. Adam Smith was an enemy of state monopolies like the East India Company. How would that exactly translate into Labour Party policy? In the late 18th century, Britain was on the verge of an industrial revolution that combined with its overseas empire could turn it into the wealthiest nation in the world. Adam Smith was the prophet of that trend. But in 2004 England was deep into deindustrialization that both Labour and Conservative politicians were either enthusiastic about or reconciled to. One supposes that Gareth Stedman Jones lacked the intellectual and political insights to grasp this.

I am sure that none of my readers would waste $35 on his worthless book but for those with a morbid curiosity I would urge you to read an interview with him that is a transcript of a 2005 PBS show called “Heaven On Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism” that was hosted by Ben Wattenberg, an obnoxious neoconservative. As should be obvious from the title of the program, Jones must have jumped at the opportunity to chat with Wattenberg since they agreed that socialism was a kind of religion.

It is a pile of shit from beginning to end but reached the deepest level of shittiness when Wattenberg posed the question: “Did the writings of Lenin change people’s ideas about Socialism?” Jones replies:

Well, it absolutely moves the center of gravity from the idea that socialism is something which is going to come through the development of capitalism at its highest point, something which all socialists have believed before 1914 to the idea that building socialism in the primitive country, ninety-percent of whose population were peasants and so on, the point from which he had to redefine socialism.

Lenin tries to do so by his famous arguments that capitalism is as strong as its weakest link, and pre-revolutionary Russia has presented it as being the weakest link. So really he cuts through this whole argument about whether there are enough workers as a proportion of the population to produce a viable socialist society. Clearly, there weren’t and the Soviets learned to their costs. I mean, the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. And of course it changed the image of socialism ever afterwards to that of being a very top-heavy, authoritarian, ruthless state machine, which was if anything, the opposite of what people would have thought socialism was meant to be in the mid-nineteenth century.

So the forces of real socialism were thin in the country and much, therefore, was done by brute force. Very interesting. Speaking of brute force, does Jones have any idea of what kind of brute force was deployed against Russia in 1918 when 21 invading armies sought to destroy the socialist experiment?

About 8 million people lost their lives during the Russian Civil War. Wikipedia also indicates the crushing of the industrial infrastructure:

Estimates say that the war cost the Soviet Russia around 50 billion rubles or $35,000,000,000.00 in today’s price. Production of industrial goods fell to very low level. For example, The Soviet Union was producing only 5 % of the cotton, and only 2 % of the iron ore, compared to the production of 1913. Generally, the production had fallen to 20% of the production of 1913.

The counter-revolutionary war had the intended effect even if “socialism” survived. The loss of Bolshevik cadre led to the rise of Stalinism, and after that the rise of fascism since the working class in Europe lacked the revolutionary leadership that could have blocked the victory of both Hitler and Franco.

As Perry Anderson pointed out in “Considerations on Western Marxism”, it was such terrible defeats that led to a retreat from revolutionary socialism among a class of intellectuals who, anticipating Gareth Stedman Jones, began to criticize Marxism from within the academy. The only thing that will reverse this trend is a new upsurge of the working class that will inevitably be produced by the irrationality of the capitalist system. Even though Gareth Stedman Jones disparages The Communist Manifesto, it is worth quoting on this point:

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

February 3, 2016

The specter that is haunting Vivek Chibber: combined and uneven development

Filed under: Academia,subaltern studies,transition debate — louisproyect @ 11:07 pm

Vivek Chibber

Leon Trotsky

It would appear that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development informs not only Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule” but four articles I recently read that are critical of Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”. This might lead one to believe that no matter how failed a project the Fourth International was, Trotsky’s ideas remain current especially for scholars grappling with the Eurocentrism of Political Marxism, a tendency that includes Vivek Chibber as one of its most truculent spokesmen.

Vivek Chibber stormed on the scene in 2013 with the publication of “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”. It created the same kind of stir as Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax in 1996 that was greeted ecstatically by virtually the entire left, including me. We saw him as our Marxist savior against postmodernist obfuscation. Not two years after the hoax, I discovered that Sokal had never read Richard Lewontin and writing partner Richard Levins, who were included in the very issue that Sokal sought to discredit.

It is entirely possible that the bloom has also begun to fade from the Chibber rose. For the Marxist wing of the postcolonial academic discipline, many see him as an interloper who did more damage than good. Indeed, the complaint heard from all four of his critics considered here is that he was not very knowledgeable about his subject. To start with, his polemic was directed against Subaltern Studies that he suggested was the dog wagging the tail of postcolonial theory when in fact postcolonialism appeared on the scene a full decade before Subaltern Studies and actually was responsible for it gaining any kind of traction. Furthermore, there was a reductionist element to his attack on Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and Dipesh Chakrabarty that despite slaking his polemical appetite gave short shrift to the complexity of their ideas.

Let me start with Tim Brennan’s article “Subaltern Stakes” that appeared in the September-October 2014 New Left Review. (It is a sign of the generally academic provenance of these debates that all of the articles under consideration here are behind a paywall.)

Brennan, who I rubbed shoulders with in the NY headquarters of the SWP when he was briefly a member of the Young Socialist Alliance in the mid-70s, is more generous to Chibber than any of the other authors but regards him as a kind of a bull in a china shop with respect to the highly allusive literary style of the authors he pillories:

So, to demolish the pretensions of the subalternists’ ‘infelicitous terminology’, in Chibber’s words, is at least in part to miss the point. He says he finds the formulations of Chatterjee and Chakrabarty elusive, vague, obscure, and difficult to understand. But this is a little like finding geometry abstract or obituaries brief. The manner is intrinsic to the project. The methods of this kind of cultural theory—and we can by now agree that Subaltern Studies falls within their orbit—are based not on historical accuracy, context or intention, but on the production of political outcomes by way of a textual occasion.

Since Brennan can be “elusive, vague, obscure and difficult” himself, I can understand why he would have a problem with Chibber’s Sokalesque premium on plain language. What interested me more was this:

Chibber mentions in passing Karl Kautsky, Leon Trotsky, and others who explored the dynamics of agrarian economy and uneven development, but the sense of this broader politico-cultural history is missing, and its vexing relationship to theory and method goes undiagnosed.

Maybe Brennan and to some extent the other three critics I will be turning to in this article should have been a bit more skeptical about Chibber’s understanding of Trotsky:

Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development was an explicit rejection of the argument that later developers would simply replicate the developmental path of the early ones. For Trotsky, the fact of their later insertion into the capitalist vortex meant that such societies would be able to import the most recent innovations in certain spheres, while preserving a whole gamut of older social relations in others. There is no implication of homogeneous time, no historicism, no “stageism”—indeed, the theory is immune to virtually every accusation that Subalternist theorists make against the Marxian tradition. (p. 292 of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital)

It strikes me that Chibber might have confused Trotsky’s theory with the letters Karl Marx wrote to Vera Zasulich warning against a Plekhanov type “stagism” that necessitated a capitalist development prior to struggle for socialism in Russia. Trotsky’s theory was much more about understanding the co-existence of apparently opposed socio-economic institutions in Czarist Russia as he put it in chapter one of “History of the Russian Revolution”:

Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning. The fact that Germany and the United States have now economically outstripped England was made possible by the very backwardness of their capitalist development.

In other words, combined and uneven development applies to both the transition from feudalism to capitalism as well as the transition from capitalism to socialism. The existence of slavery, a “backward” institution in the USA, was essential to the creation of its textile industry. In Germany, the Junkers were the shock troops of a bourgeois revolution that preserved feudal relations in the countryside. And if serfdom had been abolished in Russia in 1861, the peasants in 1917 were hardly profit-seeking yeomen of the kind found in 18th century England. Trotsky wrote:

The law of combined development of backward countries – in the sense of a peculiar mixture of backward elements with the most modern factors – here rises before us in its most finished form, and offers a key to the fundamental riddle of the Russian revolution. If the agrarian problem, as a heritage from the barbarism of the old Russian history, had been solved by the bourgeoisie, if it could have been solved by them, the Russian proletariat could not possibly have come to power in 1917 [emphasis added].

Julian Murphet as well as the other two authors I will now consider are not familiar to me. He teaches cultural studies in Australia, a discipline that presumably gives him the background to evaluate Chibber. In September 2013, he wrote “No Alternative: On Vivek Chibber,” for the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, a journal one supposes that Chibber would regard as enemy territory. Speaking probably for those who identify with such a journal, Murphet described the impact of Chibber’s book as entering “this fractured terrain with all the diplomacy of a stinging backhand across the face.” Well, that’s probably the way that Verso intended it.

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Like Tim Brennan, Murphet finds Chibber’s approach to Subaltern Studies woefully reductionist:

[I]t could be argued that Chibber’s book is one long, distemperate construction of an imago of Subaltern Studies that flattens it into a caricature, a negative imprint of what this work is offering us. Deaf as Chibber is to what theory and the dialectic have to offer social cognition, those elements of postcolonial theory are either dismissed as so much irrationalism and obfuscation, or simply not registered—a result that renders the opponent as one-dimensional as the Weberian analytic Marxism championed by Chibber. As many readers will be aware, that is to strip the work of Charkabarthy, Chatterjee, and others of precisely their dialectical spark and agility; and so to misread their analyses.

In contrast to a “Weberian analytic Marxism”, Murphet advocates the Marxism of Leon Trotsky:

Consider one of the most important Marxist concepts to have emerged après Marx: the notion of “uneven and combined development” as this was first sketched by Trotsky and filled in by later theorists such as Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, and Perry Anderson. It is a concept only in fetal state on the pages of Capital, but under this subsequent nurturing, seems best qualified to account for much of what Chibber’s book wants to reprimand the subalternists for ignoring: the economic pressures put on nation states by a world market in which each is inserted differently; the frequent maintenance of distinct, precapitalist modes of production within and alongside advanced industrial production; the distinction between real and formal subsumption within the capitalist economy; and the readiness of capital to accept differential wage rates in different geographical locations. And yet this concept, so useful to the kind of critique Chibber seems to want to make, is only mentioned once, five pages from the end of the book, and gestured at in passing on page 245. The reason is surely that, for all that the concept illuminates precisely the terrain covered in this book, it does not do so in a compatible way. When Bloch writes about various temporalities beating in the heart of the present, or Jameson about the social and cultural dissonances that arise from uneven development, what is most evident is that there is no way of representing this imbrication of modes of production effectively without employing a dialectical style. Only a dialectical presentation can capture the acute existential and epistemological torsion at stake in the palimpsest-like social formation of capitalist India or communist Russia—and a dialectical style is what Chibber’s method is dedicated to invalidating. Sociological and analytic Marxism of this sort is incompatible with the giddy transformations of an idea as it passes back and forth between the specific conjuncture and the universal frame; between the local situation and the global trend; between the particular product and the universal equivalent; between the superstructural detail and the economic ground. Where the style of an Adorno or a Jameson is tailored to these vertiginous shifts up and down the scale of social reality, Chibber’s is myopically trained on the “clear and distinct” idea itself; a Cartesian prejudice of the Enlightenment that sees all deviation from rational method as inherently reactionary.

Moving from Australia to Norway, we encounter Alf Gunvald Nilsen who tends to be as generous with Chibber as Tim Brennan. He teaches at the University of Bergen where he lists his pursuits on his web page.

  • Social movements in the global South
  • The political economy of capitalism
  • Critical development research
  • Marxist theory
  • Postcolonial theory
  • all with special reference to India and Asia.

Writing an article titled “Passages from Marxism to Postcolonialism: a comment on Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” for the December 2015 issue of Critical Sociology, Gunvald, like Brennan, agrees with the basic thrust of Chibber’s critique:

Whereas my point of departure is that of agreement with Chibber’s basic claims, the ensuing discussion also carries the imprint of a view that I share with many others – namely, that there is more mileage in postcolonialism than what Chibber allows for, and that consequently, Marxist inquiries in the field of historical sociology are likely to gain from a willingness to reflect on the foundational theoretical assumptions that guide the study of capitalist development in light of some of the critical insights that postcolonialism has yielded.

While Gunvald sympathizes with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists’ tendency to essentialize the East and West, he also faults him for universalizing the capitalist mode of production in a manner that flattens the difference between the two regions:

As much as Chibber is correct in arguing that Marxists have devoted much time and energy ‘to understand the peculiar effects of capitalist development in the non-West’, these interrogations have often proceeded from a vantage point in which capitalism is posited as a mode of production that emerges in and emanates from. Moreover, within Marxist historical sociology, there is also a tendency to conceive of colonialism as something that is ‘consequent to capitalism’ rather than ‘constitutive of it’. Ultimately, these historiographical parameters are Eurocentric in the sense that they result in ‘the eradication of the role and effect of the non-West in engendering both conjunctural and epochal transformations, some of which are essentially constitutive of the emergence of the modern capitalist economy and the international state-system’.

As an antidote to this kind of Eurocentrism, Gunvald recommends the theory of combined and uneven development as mediated by Jairus Banaji and Justin Rosenberg. I am well aware of Banaji’s work but much less familiar with Rosenberg who I do remember being cited favorably in the Anievas and Nisancioglu book. Gunwald convinces me that more attention should be paid to Rosenberg:

One of the most significant resources for the construction of a relational ontology for the study of the historical development of capitalism is arguably to be found in Justin Rosenberg’s reconstruction of Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development. This reconstruction starts from the claim that there is no sociological definition of the international due to the fact that the classical social theorists failed to systematically incorporate ‘inter-societal coexistence and interaction into their theoretical conception of social causality’. Working towards such a definition in turn entails that we have to abandon ‘at the deepest theoretical level any notion of the constitution of society as analytically prior to its interaction with other societies’.

Finally, we turn to Neil Lazarus, an English literature professor and self-described postcolonialism specialist at the University of Warwick, who is the most hostile to Chibber but never threatened to beat him up as far as I know. His article “Vivek Chibber and the spectre of postcolonial theory” appears in the Jan.-Mar. 2016 “Race and Class”. Unlike all the other authors considered above, Lazarus enjoys hitting below the belt—turning Chibber into a comical figure:

I’m not opposed to the genre of the long rant as such. Some long rants are very much worth reading: Marx and Engels’s The Holy Family, for instance – a text bearing the rather wicked subtitle, Critique of Critical Criticism – is almost as long as Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. But Vivek Chibber is no Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels. He reminds me, instead, of the protagonist of the ideal-type of the literary genre of the novel, as famously analysed by Lucien Goldmann in Toward a Sociology of the Novel: a hero, torn from community, who goes in search of authentic values in a degraded world. Dogged, unafraid and unamused – our solitary hero ventures forth in his modern epic onto the blasted heath of postcolonialism with an avenger’s zeal, to fight the good fight against Subaltern Studies all by himself, but on behalf of all of us.

I rather like that sort of writing. I only wish that more academics could master it. Perhaps Lazarus’s classes include close readings of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, who despite their ideological differences were very good at mockery.

One can understand Lazarus’s antagonism toward Chibber. For his entire academic career, Lazarus has stood up for a class analysis in a field that is dominated by postmodernists. He openly admits to being resentful about being taken for granted by Chibber who slights him and a number of others like him who have labored in the trenches for a Marxist analysis for the past three decades at least. Of course, given Chibber’s legendary arrogance, that might have been expected.

While generously giving Chibber credit for taking up the cause of Marxism in the academy, Lazarus like all the other critics above returns once again to the theory of combined and uneven development as a tool perfectly suited to explaining the differences between India and Britain that Chibber tends to push to the side in his pursuit of “universalist” themes consistent with the Enlightenment. Lazarus writes:

Marx’s identification of unevenness then received notable amplification in Trotsky’s writings of the 1930s, in which he formulated his theory of ‘uneven and combined development’, by way of analysing the effects of the imposition of capitalism on cultures and societies hitherto un- or only sectorally capitalised. In these contexts – properly understood as imperialist – Trotsky observed, the imposed capitalist forces of production and class relations tended not to supplant but to be conjoined forcibly with pre-existing forces and relations. The outcome, he wrote, was a contradictory ‘amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms’ – an urban proletariat working in technologically advanced industries existing side by side with a rural population engaged in subsistence farming; industrial plants built alongside ‘villages of wood and straw’, and peasants ‘thrown into the factory cauldron snatched directly from the plow’.

Lazarus is somewhat puzzled by Chibber’s Eurocentric tendencies in light of the credit to Trotsky on page 292 of his book cited above. After reproducing it, Lazarus scratches his head over how Chibber can “make no use of the theory of uneven and combined development in the main body of his study” despite the nod to the theory. This, to Lazarus, is “a failure that simply baffles understanding.”

I sent him a note yesterday explaining the discrepancy:

Hi, Neil

Really enjoyed your article that Alex Anievas alerted me to, especially on the Combined and Uneven Development angle. You probably know that Anievas and Nisancioglu base their critique of the Brenner thesis on Trotsky’s theory.

I come at this as a former member of the American SWP where I learned about the theory in classes with people like George Novack rather than in academia so when I first encountered the Brenner thesis in the mid-90s when Jim Blaut subbed to a listserv I moderated, my reaction was that Brenner was a kind of new-fangled “stagist”. The idea that capitalism sprang up in the mid 1500s like Athena being born from Zeus’s forehead struck me as rather undialectical.

I suspect that people in the PM camp, no matter how much Trotsky they have read, tend to see things through Brenner’s stagist perspective. You are absolutely right that Trotsky’s writings (or Marx’s 18th Brumaire for that matter) are key to understanding the co-existence and mutual reinforcement of apparently opposed social forces and that this methodology would be of great benefit to those investigating postcolonial studies, I simply think that Chibber was paying lip-service to Trotsky in those quotes you included in your article.

 

 

 

October 9, 2015

Uncivil Rites

Filed under: Academia,Counterpunch,Palestine — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita

As such my attention has been riveted on the trials and tribulations of Steven Salaita who was unfortunate enough to be the victim of a combined assault by the Israel lobby and a university officialdom that was determined to make him pay for telling the truth, no matter how bitter that truth. Since I am very close to some tenure-track professors, I have a better handle than most on what it means to be robbed of a tenured position. Getting tenure nowadays is almost like winning the American Idol contest, so the very idea of being denied a position and thrown to the wolves (no offense meant to a member of the animal kingdom far more noble than the University of Illinois mucketymucks) struck me as a wantonly destructive act—all the more so since it was defended in Pecksniffian terms by the likes of Cary Nelson.

read full article

October 6, 2015

Steven Salaita: why I was fired

Filed under: Academia,Palestine,repression,zionism — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

(Just got a copy of his book from Haymarket. This is an excerpt.)

THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
Why I Was Fired
By Steven Salaita OCTOBER 05, 2015

In August 2014, I was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The firing made me a free-speech darling — or the world’s most violent person since Stalin, depending on your perspective. It also sparked a debate about academic freedom, faculty governance, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the role of social media in university life. That debate rages with no resolution in sight.

The story of my notoriety begins on July 21, 2014, when The Daily Caller ran an article about me titled “University of Illinois Professor Blames Jews for anti-Semitism.” With the brio and wisdom for which right-wing websites are known, the piece begins, “The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has continued its bizarre quest to employ as many disgusting scumbags as possible by acquiring the services of Steven Salaita, a leading light in the movement among similarly obscure academics to boycott Israel.”

The article, and subsequent coverage, focused on several tweets I wrote in the summer of 2014. One tweet read: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” In another, I wrote, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”

It has since become popular to call me uncivil. Or intemperate. Or inappropriate. Or angry. Or aggressive. It’s unseemly to describe myself, but because “unseemly” is an improvement over what many people now call me — why not? I am a devoted husband and a loving father. I never talk out of turn. I deliberate for long periods before making significant decisions. As is normal for somebody born and raised in Southern Appalachia, I call everybody “sir” or “ma’am.” I do not raise my voice at people. I am deeply shy and chronically deferential. That is to say, I am civil to a fault.

This exegesis on my disposition probably seems unnecessary, but it’s important to distinguish between somebody’s persona and his personhood, though in most cases one informs the other. This is the extent of my feelings on the matter: It is precisely because I am a loving person that I so adamantly deplore Israel’s behavior.

My tweets might appear uncivil, but such a judgment can’t be made in an ideological or rhetorical vacuum. Insofar as “civil” is profoundly racialized and has a long history of demanding conformity, I frequently choose incivility as a form of communication. This choice is both moral and rhetorical.

The piety and sanctimony of my critics is most evident in their hand-wringing about my use of curse words. While I am proud to share something in common with Richard Pryor, J.D. Salinger, George Carlin, S.E. Hinton, Maya Angelou, Judy Blume, and countless others who have offended the priggish, I confess to being confused as to why obscenity is such an issue to those who supposedly devote their lives to analyzing the endless nuances of public expression. Academics are usually eager to contest censorship and deconstruct vague charges of vulgarity. When it comes to defending Israel, though, anything goes. If there’s no serious moral or political argument in response to criticism of Israel, then condemn the speaker for various failures of “tone” and “appropriateness.” Emphasis placed on the speaker and not on Israel. A word becomes more relevant than an array of war crimes.

Even by the tendentious standards of “civility,” my comments on Twitter (and elsewhere) are more defensible than the accusations used to defame me. The most deplorable acts of violence germinate in high society. Many genocides have been glorified (or planned) around dinner tables adorned with forks and knives made from actual silver, without a single inappropriate speech act having occurred.

Academics are usually eager to contest censorship. When it comes to defending Israel, though, anything goes.
In most conversations about my termination, Israel’s war crimes go unmentioned, yet it is impossible to understand my tweets without that necessary context. My strong language — and I should point out that much of my language is also gentle — arises in response to demonstrable acts of brutality that in a better world would raise widespread rancor. You tell me which is worse: cussing in condemnation of the murder of children or using impeccable manners to justify their murder. I no more want to be “respectable” according to the epistemologies of colonial wisdom than I want to kill innocent people with my own hands. Both are articulations of the same moral rot.

In 11 years as a faculty member, I have fielded exactly zero complaints about my pedagogy. Every peer evaluation of my instruction — the gold standard for judging teaching effectiveness — has been stellar. Student evaluations ranked higher than the mean every time I collected them. Yet people affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have impugned my ability to teach.

Students are capable of serious discussion, of formulating responses, of thinking through discomfort. They like my teaching because I refuse to infantilize them; I treat them as thinking adults. I have never disrespected a student. I have never told a student what to think. Nor have I ever shut down an opinion. I encourage students to argue with me. They take me up on the offer. I sometimes change my viewpoint as a result. My philosophy is simple: Teach them the modes and practices of critical thought and let them figure out things on their own.

The hand-wringing about students is pious, precious claptrap, a pretext to clean the stench from a rotten argument raised to validate an unjustifiable decision.

Troublesome assumptions underlie accusations about my fitness for the classroom. It is impossible to separate questions about my “civility” from broader narratives of inherent Arab violence. This sort of accusation has been used to discredit people of color (and other minorities) in academe for many decades. Administrators and the public monitor and scrutinize our actions in a manner to which our white colleagues are rarely subject. It is crucial to train us in the ways of civility lest our emotions dislodge the ethos our superiors hold so dear.

When it comes to opposing colonization, there is no need for dissimulation, which is the preferred vocabulary of the cocktail party and committee meeting. I could make a case that dissimulation is immoral. It is undoubtedly boring. When I say something, I have no desire to conceal meaning in oblique and wishy-washy diction. This is especially so when I respond to the various horrors of state violence and the depravity of those who justify it. On campus, such forthrightness is unconventional.

But no tenet of academic freedom considers failure to adhere to convention a fireable offense.

Professors are often punished for disrupting convention in informal ways, however. My case is interesting because administrators ignored the de facto standards that regulate our behavior and exercised their power directly. This should be worrisome to any scholar who isn’t a sycophant.

People with doctorates who make claims unsupported by evidence and who uncritically repeat terms like “incivility” as if it describes anything other than their own dull prejudice are the ones most unfit to teach college.

Being called an anti-Semite is deeply unpleasant. Those who make the accusation should be responsible for providing evidence, yet it is I who has been saddled with the impossible task of disproving a negative.

The rhetorical incoherence of my critics is evident in their ever-evolving justifications for my firing. First I was anti-Semitic. Then I was uncivil. Then I was a bad teacher. Then I was too charismatic. Then I was too angry. Then I was too profane. Then I was too radical. Then I was too unpatriotic. Then I wasn’t really hired. Then I was unqualified in the field of American Indian studies. Then I benefited from nepotism. Then I was a poor scholar. Then my colleagues were incompetent. Then my colleagues were deceitful. Then my colleagues were ignorant. Then the American Indian-studies program required special guidance. Then the decision to hire me was solely based on politics. Then indigenous studies was illegitimate. Then the entire damn field needed to be shut down.

Part of our charge as educators is to encourage students to find the language that will help them translate instinct into concrete knowledge. It’s the kind of preparation we all need to survive the capitalist marketplace. While antiauthoritarianism may start as an attitude, it has infinite capacity to develop into an ethic.

Distrusting the motivation of institutions and their managers often means demotion or recrimination. But there is reason to distrust authority on campus. Universities are lucrative spaces; nothing is lucrative without also being corrupt.

As Thomas Frank put it in an essay in The Baffler:

The coming of “academic capitalism” has been anticipated and praised for years; today it is here. Colleges and universities clamor greedily these days for pharmaceutical patents and ownership chunks of high-tech startups; they boast of being “entrepreneurial”; they have rationalized and outsourced countless aspects of their operations in the search for cash; they fight their workers nearly as ferociously as a 19th-century railroad baron; and the richest among them have turned their endowments into in-house hedge funds.

Frank later pinpoints the reason for campus authoritarianism:

Above all, what the masters of academia spend the loot on is themselves. In saying this, I am not referring merely to the increasing number of university presidents who take home annual “compensation” north of a million dollars. That is a waste, of course, an outrageous bit of money-burning borrowed from Wall Street in an age when we ought to be doing the opposite of borrowing from Wall Street. But what has really fueled the student’s ever-growing indebtedness, as anyone with a connection to academia can tell you, is the insane proliferation of university administrators.

Universities are lucrative spaces; nothing is lucrative without also being corrupt.
The numbers validate Frank’s observation. Benjamin Ginsberg points out that in the past 30 years, the administrator-to-student ratio has increased while the instructor-to-student ratio has stagnated. The rise of untenured, or non-tenure-track, faculty exacerbates the problem; a significant demographic in academe lacks job security or the working conditions that allow them to maximize their pedagogical talent. Over a recent 10-year period, spending on administration outpaced spending on instruction. At American universities, there are now more administrators and their staffers than full-time faculty. In the past 10 years, administrative salaries have steadily risen while custodians and groundskeepers suffer the inevitable budget cuts — as do the students whose tuition and fees supplement this largess.

When so much money is at stake, those who raid the budget have a deep interest in maintaining the reputation of the institution. Their privilege and the condition of the brand are causally related. The brand thus predominates. Its predominance often arrives at the expense of student well-being.

Take the matter of sexual assault. Reporting rates have recently risen, but all versions of sexual assault remain woefully underreported. There are numerous reasons why a victim chooses to keep silent. One reason is that she may expect a wholly inadequate, or even hostile, response from her own university. In 2014, Columbia University fielded 28 federal complaints claiming the university had inadequately investigated reports of sexual assault. Florida State University, with the help of the Tallahassee Police Department, orchestrated a clumsy cover-up of a rape allegation to protect the star quarterback Jameis Winston. A different category of sexual assault infamously occurred at Pennsylvania State University, where the onetime defensive coordinator of the football team, Jerry Sandusky, was found to have molested various children, some of them on campus. The university’s complicity is but an extreme instance of a common phenomenon.

In this era of neoliberal graft, universities barely pretend to care about the ideals upon which higher education was founded. Sure, administrators and PR flacks still prattle about dialogue and self-improvement and the life of the mind, but not even impressionable 18-year-olds believe that claptrap. They know just as well as their superiors that college is really about acquiring the mythical-but-measurable status conferred to them by a crisp sheet of cotton-bond paper.

As universities more and more resemble corporations in their governance, language, and outlook, students have become acutely brand conscious. Guardianship of the brand thus predominates and overwhelms the primacy of thought and analysis to which the academy is nominally committed. Students no longer enter into places of learning. They pay exorbitant prices to gain access to the socioeconomic capital of affiliation with the most recognizable avatars, adorned magisterially with armor and pastoral creatures and Latin phrases.

Take that most sacred element of pedagogy, critical thinking. Many faculty don’t know how to do it, never mind imparting instruction in the practice to those trying to learn it. (My conception of “critical thinking” includes acting in some way on the knowledge it produces, if only in the formulation of a dynamic ethical worldview.) One of the greatest skills critical thinking provides is the ability to recognize and undermine bunk. In short, if critical thinking is to be useful, it must endow a reflexive desire to identify and understand the disguises of power.

This sort of focus is low on the list of what universities want from students, just as critical thinking is a terribly undesirable quality in the corporate world, much more damning than selfishness or sycophancy. Let us then be honest about critical thinking: On the tongues of cunning bureaucrats, it is little more than an additive to brand equity, the vainglorious pomp of smug, uptight automatons who like to use buzzwords in their PowerPoint presentations.

Critical thinking by faculty is even more undesirable. In research institutions, we are paid to generate prestige and to amass grant money; in teaching-centered colleges, we enjoy excess enrollments according to fine-tuned equations that maximize the student-teacher ratio. (In elite liberal-arts colleges, we pamper the kids with simulations of parental affection.) Critical thinking is especially harmful to adjuncts, reliant as they are for income on the munificence of well-paid bosses who cultivate a distended assemblage of expendable employees.

Nowhere in our employment contracts does it say, “Challenge the unarticulated aspirations of the institution, especially when it acts as a conduit and expression of state violence; and please try your best to support justice for those on and off campus who are impoverished by neoliberalism.” If we practice critical thinking, though, it is difficult to avoid these obligations.

Because of their high-minded rhetoric, it is tempting to believe that university managers care about ethics or maybe even about justice, but most managers care about neither. The exceptions, of course, deserve our praise — just don’t poke around the highly ranked schools if you want to find them. The key to a successful managerial career isn’t striving to be a good person, but developing enough instinct to cheat and charm at opportune moments.

Whatever independence can be acquired in academe requires a fundamental distrust of authority, be it abstract or explicit. There never have been pure epochs of uncorrupted democracy, but increasing corporate control disturbs greater sectors of American life, particularly on campus. There has to be a better way to conduct the practices of education.

What to do about injustice? I hear this question a lot since I was fired. I have no solid answer. My instinct, which I fully understand isn’t actually instinctive, is simply to tell people to do what they feel comfortable doing. I’m not big on demands or injunctions. Yet I recognize that as somebody who now exists in a public position I am summoned to analyze a set of dynamics in which I and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are embroiled. These dynamics are especially important to folks in academe who wish to pursue material commitments alongside theoretical and philosophical questions.

Graduate students and prospective graduate students are especially anxious these days. They are right to be. Decent humanities jobs are in decline. Grad-school slots have become more competitive. Any advantage is a great asset. Being deemed a troublemaker or a radical is no advantage.

Making trouble is precisely the function of the intellectual, though. And being radical is a solid antidote to boring work.

There’s always been repression and recrimination in academe. Anybody with an eye toward a career as a scholar has to internalize this reality. Aspiring and established scholars should not abdicate intellectual commitments in order to please the comfortable. This would be careerism, not inquiry.

And that’s the point. If we don’t examine relationships of power and highlight the disjunctions of inequality, then we’re not doing our jobs. (We will be according to the preferences of the managerial class, but pleasing its functionaries isn’t generally the mark of an interesting thinker.) Upsetting arbiters of so-called common sense is an immanent feature of useful scholarship.

“What can/should we do?” is not a universal question. Consider that the labor of minority scholars is already politicized. We have to publish more. It’s risky to be introverted because so many white colleagues cannot tolerate a minority who doesn’t pretend to like them. We have to act as diversity representative on all sorts of committees. We cannot be mediocre because our tenure and upward mobility rely on senior colleagues who reward only their own mediocrity. It’s hazardous for us to show emotion because we’re aware of the possibility of confirming to others our innate unreason. Adding “activist leader” to this list of tasks is a heavy undertaking. In many ways, simply deciding not to appease power is an active form of advocacy. It is the activism of survival.

Getting fired doesn’t make me an expert on anything. I’m doing my best to make sure something productive comes of it, though. My having a job changes nothing if the system that orchestrated my ouster remains intact. I am merely a symbol of the stark imperatives of the wealthy and well connected. We all are, really. Unless the system changes at a basic level, everybody is merely buying shares in a corporation with the power to dissolve our interests the moment we become an inconvenience.

Steven Salaita holds the Edward W. Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. This essay is adapted from his new book, Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, just out from Haymarket Books.

June 19, 2015

Professors as contingent labor: a Left Forum 2015 workshop

Filed under: Academia,workers — louisproyect @ 12:37 am

This is the fifth and final video I recorded at the Left Forum over the weekend of May 29 to 31. Titled “Organizing Grad Student, Contingent, and Tenure-Track Faculty: A Fight Against Corporatization for the Soul of Higher Education”, it touched on matters close to my heart as a 21 year employee of Columbia University, someone very concerned about the corporatization of Bard College and the New School where I studied in the early to mid-sixties, and very close to someone who is both an adjunct and a tenure-track professor. For my earlier thoughts on what’s going on in academia, I’d refer you to my review of Frank Donoghue’s “The Last Professors” written in 2008. (https://louisproyect.org/2008/06/19/the-last-professors/)

Kathryn Eskew, who is a tenured professor at Hilbert College in upstate NY, chaired the meeting and spoke about her administration’s efforts to cut tenured faculty.

Ruth Wangerin is a long-time adjunct at the College of Staten Island, which is part of the CUNY system. She described a two-tiered labor system in her school and the rest of CUNY that undermines solidarity just as it does in the auto industry and other one-time strongholds of the AFL-CIO.

Joe Richard, who is a member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, gave an inspiring talk about how the faculty and blue-collar staff joined forces to take on an administration bent on undermining wages and working conditions.

Natasha Raheja is with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at NYU, a group that has had relative success in resisting an administration that practically defines corporatization.

November 13, 2014

Roland Boer: plagiarist

Filed under: Academia — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

From Roland Boer’s “The ‘Failure’ Of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative”:

Already in the late 1950s, real wages increased by 75 per cent, returning people to pre-war levels, while collective farm workers were the beneficiaries of the first agricultural welfare and pension scheme in Europe. By the 1960s, agricultural incomes rose by 6.7 per cent per year and industrial incomes rose by 4.9 per cent annually. Consumption of healthy foods – fruit, vegetables and even meats – increased significantly, while doctors and medical facilities became commonly available. As a result, fewer children died and people lived longer. While 138.9 in 1,000 children under the age of one died in 1939, by 1990 it was 14 in 1000. And those who survived could expect to live longer: life expectancy rose to over 68 years for men and over 74 years for women. Indeed, a reasonable number could expect to make a century: in the late 1980s, 52 people were found over one hundred years of age per one million.

And where did these numbers come from?

From here, a Wikipedia article that Boer does not credit. Whoever wrote the Wiki entry did the right thing and footnoted Library of Congress papers. I wondered how this sky-pilot knows so much about Bulgarian economic performance. Now I know, he plagiarized Wikipedia like so many mediocre undergrads and high school students do.

In the mid-1950s, Soviet-style centralized planning produced economic indicators showing that Bulgarians were returning to their prewar lifestyle in some respects: real wages increased 75%, consumption of meat, fruit, and vegetables increased markedly, medical facilities and doctors became available to more of the population, and in 1957 collective farm workers benefited from the first agricultural pension and welfare system in Eastern Europe.[7]

Increases in real incomes in agriculture rose by 6.7 percent per year during the 1960s. During this same period, industrial wages increased by 4.9 percent annually.

n 1939 the mortality rate for children under one year had been 138.9 per 1,000; by 1986 it was 18.2 per 1,000, and in 1990 it was 14 per 1,000, the lowest rate in Eastern Europe.

Even before Zhivkov, Bulgaria made significant progress in increasing life expectancy and decreasing infant mortality rates. Consistent social policies led to an increase in life expectancy to 68.1 years for men and 74.4 years for women.

Roland Boer: having his cake and eating it too

Filed under: Academia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

My first reaction to Roland Boer getting the Isaac Deutscher Prize was one of shock, since Boer’s pro-Stalin blogging is antithetical to what Deutscher stood for, even if some Trotskyists—James P. Cannon in particular—viewed him as soft on Stalin.

In his comment on my last post, Boer stated that I am “missing even the slightest sense of humour.” I am not exactly sure what the joke is about but perhaps Boer’s blog is really a big put-on. He does say:

Do I want to rehabilitate Stalin, who was more ambiguous than the popular conception would have it? That is up to the reader to decide, although – in case the quirkiness of Australian humour is not obvious already – one should never take what is written here too seriously. Like Lenin’s jutting chin of history, I suspect that one of Stalin’s greatest achievements was that amazing moustache.

Well, it is up to the reader to decide and I decided long ago that Boer is a Stalinist. Probably the best evidence for that is that when comments appear under his posts cheering him on for defending Stalin, he has never once said anything like “Er, mate, I was only kidding.”

Plus, when Boer writes for other publications the smirk tends to disappear from his face and the Stalinism oozes forth unabashedly. For example, in an article titled “The ‘Failure’ Of Communism: A ‘Fall’ Narrative” for the Philosophers for Change website, he makes the case for Bulgarian Communism, advising his readers that the dictator Todor Zhivkov was a gentle and permissive leader who did wonders for his people. That is unless you were unfortunate enough to be a Turk. Wikipedia, which is generally deferential to Zhivkov, reports:

In December 1984, Todor Zhivkov began a campaign of forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, most notably forcing all Turks to take Bulgarian names. By 1989, resistance to this policy led to riots, which resulted in multiple deaths. In May 1989, Zhivkov suddenly granted permission of all Turks to leave the country, which led to over 300 thousand emigrating to Turkey within three months.

I imagine that this would not perturb an admirer of Stalin and/or his mustache; the tyrant was quite adept at ethnic cleansing and no friend of Muslims.

Getting back to the Deutscher prize, I can only surmise that the judges have no idea that “Stalin’s Moustache” exists. Like many academics, their emphasis is on print rather than the net. Plus, you’d have to assume that Boer’s books on Marxism and theology have zero to say about Stalin. From the little I have seen from Boer on that topic, mostly on MRZine, I found them unobjectionable but not particularly useful in terms of understanding religion from a historical materialist perspective. Boer is mostly interested in how early Christians were communist. But above all, Boer’s focus is on ideas.

Typical is “Religion and Political Thought: Introduction”, an article he wrote for “Political Theology Today”.

Over the last few years, we have been engaged in an Australian project called ‘Religion and Political Thought’ – itself part of an international project known as ‘Religion and Radicalism’. Funded by the Australian Research Council, it seeks to do nothing less than kick-start an Australian tradition of political philosophy in relation to religion and theology.

Boer has received five grants from the Australian Research Council, a branch of the Australian government that advises it “on emerging issues and strategic policy challenges.” Well, who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? Blogging on behalf of Joseph Stalin and getting handouts from a government think-tank. What a marvelous combination that certainly makes Max Horkheimer’s observation seem quaint by comparison: “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.”

 

Roland fucking Boer?

Filed under: Academia,religion — louisproyect @ 12:33 am

Roland Boer

The latest on the Stalin worshipper:

https://louisproyect.org/2014/11/13/roland-boer-having-his-cake-and-eating-it-too/

https://louisproyect.org/2014/11/13/roland-boer-plagiarist/

I discovered from a report on the HM conference in London that this asshole just received the 2014 Isaac Deutscher prize, the worst decision since it was given to Francis Wheen in 1999 for his Karl Marx bio. It was announced at a lecture by Panitch and Gindin:

The lecture started with the announcement of the winner of the 2014 Deutscher Prize, which was awarded to Roland Boer for his In the Veil of Tears: On Marxism and Theology, V, both in recognition of the book itself and of the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series of which it was the culmination. The other shortlisted works were Costas Lapavistas’ Profiting without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, Frederic Jameson’s The Antinomies of Realism, John Saul and Patrick Bond’s South Africa – The Present as History.

I’ll take Patrick any day of the week.

Boer is a clown. His “Stalin’s Mustache” blog is the sort of garbage that could be heard at the Stalin Society in London, even more embarrassing than the junk I used to hear from Maoists in the 60s and 70s. Here’s a sample:

Screen shot 2014-11-12 at 7.31.11 PM

 

Here’s the HM blurb on the book:

In the Vale of Tears brings to a culmination the project for a renewed and enlivened debate over the interaction between Marxism and religion. It does so by offering the author’s own response to that tradition. It simultaneously draws upon the rich insights of a significant number of Western Marxists and strikes out on its own. Thus, it argues for the crucial role of political myth on the Left; explores the political ambivalence at the heart of Christianity; challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution; is highly suspicious of the ideological and class alignments of ethics; offers a thorough reassessment of the role of festishism in the Marxist tradition; and broaches the question of death, unavoidable for any Marxist engagement with religion. While the book is the conclusion to the five-volume series, The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, it also stands alone as a distinct intervention in some burning issues of our time.

“challenges the bent among many on the Left to favour the unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”?

Where have I been? How did I miss this? I guess I was lost in the woods spending all my time on putting Lenin in context than in addressing the “unexpected rupture of kairós as a key to revolution”. I’ll pick up a hernia belt at CVS tomorrow. That should help.

November 9, 2014

Slavery, capitalism and economic growth: a response to Timothy Shenk

Filed under: Academia,economics,slavery — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 2.30.54 PM

Timothy Shenk

In the latest Nation Magazine there’s an article by Timothy Shenk titled “Apostles of Growth” that is a review of recent books making the case that slavery was integral to the rise of American capitalism, as well as a platform for some questionable theorizing about economic growth. Since the article is nearly 10,000 words long, one wonders how a mere dissertation student can exercise such clout. (Then again the editorial judgment of the magazine is suspect, demonstrated most recently by its urging a vote for Andrew Cuomo.)

This is not the first time that Shenk has used the magazine as a bully pulpit. Earlier this year our Ivy League prodigy had a 9,500-word article there titled “Thomas Piketty and Millennial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality” that was also notable for a hefty word count and its confusion over what Marx stood for. After it came out, I wrote:

Much more serious is our author’s contention that ”All…socialists needed to seal their victory was a revolution, which capitalism’s contradictions would deliver to them.” In reality, Marx and Engels thought that the tasks were far more challenging. In Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx writes: “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Doesn’t that sound like the conditions that have prevailed in every post-revolutionary society over the past 100 years or so? If Marx was referring to a heavily industrialized country like England, where he expected the revolution to occur, what could he possibly have thought about Cuba’s prospects? Shenk talks about capitalist contradictions delivering a revolution like Pizza Hut, when in fact it is after the triumph of the people that the hard work really begins. I say that as someone who was deeply involved with providing technical aid to Nicaragua in the late 80s.

You find the same misunderstanding of Marx in his latest article. He writes: “In Capital, Marx wanted to prove not just that capitalist practices were uglier than the soothing fables its theorists spun (though he made that point too), but that capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse.” Although Shenk is a dissertation student, he has apparently not learned the need for citation. Where would you find Marx saying anything like “capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse”? I doubt that you could find such sentiments in Capital. (I just checked on www.marxists.org. There aren’t any.)

In fact the idea that capitalism will collapse because of internal structural defects like the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is a crude reading best described as vulgar Marxism. Ernest Mandel, who was widely regarded as the foremost Marxist economist of his time, had a far more nuanced analysis in his 1990 “Karl Marx”:

Does Marx’s theory of crisis imply a theory of an inevitable final collapse of capitalism through purely economic mechanisms? A controversy has raged around this issue, called the `collapse’ or `breakdown’ controversy. Marx’s own remarks on the matter are supposed to be enigmatic. They are essentially contained in the famous chapter 32 of volume I of Capital entitled `The historical tendency of capitalist accumulation’, a section culminating in the battle cry: `The expropriators are expropriated’. But the relevant paragraphs of that chapter describe in a clearly non-enigmatic way, an interplay of `objective’ and `subjective’ transformations to bring about a downfall of capitalism, and not a purely economic process. They list among the causes of the overthrow of capitalism not only economic crisis and growing centralisation of capital, but also the growth of exploitation of the workers and their indignation and revolt in the face of that exploitation, as well as the growing level of skill, organisation and unity of the working class. Beyond these general remarks, Marx, however, does not go.

Turning to Shenk’s critique of the books under review, it is worth noting that although he rejects their premise, it is not from the “Political Marxism” perspective—one which describes the plantation system as “precapitalist”.

For Shenk, the new books, such as Edward E. Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”, are defined by their shared belief that capitalism can be defined as a system based on economic growth:

Viewed from this perspective, capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results—not by what it is, but by what it does. The variety of ways in which labor can be commodified, the diverse forms that capital can assume, the different institutions that structure relations of production and exchange—all of these are just means subordinated to the larger end of economic growth. A weak definition of capitalism that might seem banal when reduced to its simplest terms—“capitalism’s only constant is change”—supports a historical narrative of remarkable scope.

Although I have yet to read Baptist or the other books under review, it seems unlikely to me that they were attempting to theorize capitalism. These are historians much more interested in identifying the role that slavery played in capital accumulation in the 18th and 19th century. For example, there’s not a single entry for Marx in Baptist’s index and a cursory examination of the pages indexed under “capitalism” reveals nothing of theoretical consequence. I suspect that the real importance of works such as his and Walter Johnson’s is the empirical data that will help confirm Eric Williams’s original hypothesis that without slavery capitalism could have not taken off in Britain and the USA. These are works that rest on the minutiae of receipts and tax records, not theorizing. At a certain point, Shenk has to admit as such:

According to Johnson, tracing the path of a single bale of cotton reveals more about the antebellum economy’s workings than any number of theories targeting “the grand abstraction” of capitalism.

It is too bad that Shenk found matters of cotton less interesting than “grand abstractions” of the sort that mesmerize him. If he had given more time to the authors’ research than his own agenda, the review would have served some use.

Understanding that the books got short shrift, let’s turn to some of our dissertation student’s Grand Theorizing, which was really the main focus of the nearly 10,000-word article.

The real agenda of the article is to investigate the possibilities for “economic growth” in the 21st century. He writes:

But what if growth stalls? That question has increasingly occupied economists, many of whom are convinced that we have reached a new stage in growth’s history. Those parts of the world with the longest experiences of growth—Europe and the United States—face the prospect of a sustained decline in the metric that has come to define prosperity, and the planet as a whole confronts the even more daunting challenge of mitigating the environmental damage that has accompanied economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. The irony is conspicuous. Historians have begun in large numbers to rewrite modernity as the history of growth at precisely the moment when moderns might have to learn to do without their accustomed rates of economic expansion—one last swoop for the Owl of Minerva before climate change ravages its natural habitat.

In this section, he makes sure to misrepresent Marxists once again:

A future in which the small amount of economic growth that is eked out accumulates in the bank accounts of the rich and boils the planet bears little resemblance to the bright forecasts of perpetual prosperity conjured by optimists in the mid-twentieth century. This bleak vista has convinced some that capitalism has entered its final days: absent the possibility of unlimited growth, the system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions.

The system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions? Where in the world does he encounter such vulgar Marxist formulations? The New Left Review? Socialist Register? Unless he is reading material I am unfamiliar with, the only collapse noted by Marxists with a functioning brain is the one gripping the socialist left, a movement much more in a state of collapse than capitalism. After the financial crisis of 2007, there was suffering across the planet, especially in southern Europe. But who in their right mind would have argued that capitalism in Greece was about to collapse under its own weight?

Most people with a background in Marxist politics—unlike Shenk—understand the importance of the subjective factor. With a divided left in Greece, one in which the Communists stubbornly refuse to back Syriza and anarchists hurl Molotov cocktails as if flames can destroy commodity production, who thinks that the system will collapse? In 1914, the European bourgeoisie were ready to destroy billions of dollars in property and the lives of millions of working-class soldiers to protect their own narrow interests. If it had not been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the miserable war might have lasted for another decade. As Mao Zedong once said, “It is up to us to organize the people. As for the reactionaries in China, it is up to us to organize the people to overthrow them. Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.” (Probably the only useful thing he ever said.)

Despite the article’s focus on economic growth, there’s little indication of how Shenk thinks this is possible or even if it is worthwhile. Flirting with the “no growth” current of the environmental movement, he writes:

Prophets of an end to economic growth, or of its triumphant resurrection, beg to be made into fools by an unpredictable future. Indictments of contemporary policy, however, don’t hang on forecasts of what is to come. That fact was clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against climate change in September, and to anyone who felt a twinge of recognition after seeing the protesters in Zuccotti Park—or to the 58 percent of Americans who reported in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that protecting the environment should take precedence over economic growth.

Missing from this gargantuan article is any consideration of the real measure of an economic system. It is not simply a question of a rising GDP. Class society is marked by violence both explicit and implicit. In South Africa striking workers are gunned down. In the USA, striking workers might not get gunned down but their factory might disappear to another country if the boss so decides. In my view people are far less interested in growth than they are in security and the right to live in dignity. I suspect that the well-heeled, Democratic Party supporting owners of the Nation Magazine had everything to gain by giving such ample space to an “expert” on Karl Marx who had so little interest in such questions.

 

September 8, 2014

Separated at birth

Filed under: Academia,separated at birth? — louisproyect @ 2:13 pm

m-kennedyChris Kennedy, chairman of the board of trustees at U. of Illinois

ratsarticleLouisiana swamp rat

 

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