Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 1, 2017

George Soros and the Central European University

Filed under: Academia,Hungary — louisproyect @ 9:30 pm

On March 29th, the NY Times reported that the Central European University in Hungary will be shut down because of a new law passed by the ultraright government headed by Viktor Orban that requires CEU to operate a campus in the USA, something that is beyond its means according to the school’s president Michael Ignatieff. The CEU was founded in 1991 by financier George Soros who was born and raised in Hungary. He had a master plan to build up a network of schools globally that reflected his “Open Society” philosophy—a liberal anti-Communist worldview inspired by Karl Popper. Soros served as the chairman of the CEU board until 2007, when Bard College President Leon Botstein took his place. Bard College was part of Soros’s acquisitions. When the school was on the ropes financially in the late 70s, Botstein—who is a fundraiser par excellence—talked Soros into becoming a major funder and a partner in his own ambitions to make Bard the hub of a worldwide Open Society network.

You can get a feel for CEU’s orientation from the appointment of Michael Ignatieff to President in May, 2016. Ignatieff was one of the most prominent defenders of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq who recanted his support in 2007 that some found lacking in conviction. He remains one of the key backers of “humanitarian interventions” and issued a statement in 2013 supporting such a move in Syria. My own position is that the USA does not have the right to meddle in other country’s internal affairs as a matter of principle. In fact, by stationing the CIA on the borders of Syria to prevent MANPADs from reaching the rebels, it helped to keep Assad in power. If the USA had not intervened in such a criminal manner, the war would have probably ended in 2013.

Hungary is ruled by Viktor Orban of the Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) party that is first cousin to the Trump wing of the Republican Party, UKIP in England, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom and other anti-EU, nativist and Islamophobic outfits closely aligned to the Kremlin. Like Putin, Orban uses nationalistic rhetoric to bolster his case that NGO’s, universities and other institutions funded by the West are inimical to the “national interest”.

The irony is that Fidesz got started with Soros funding, just like the CEU. The story of Soros cultivating the support of Hungary’s elite, many of whom were in the Communist Party, is instructive. You can get an idea of how Soros viewed Hungary as his wholly owned subsidiary from a New Republic article written by Michael Lewis on January 10, 1994. Lewis is a well-known and highly respected financial reporter with little interest in exposing the super-rich. A Matt Taibbi he is not. That Soros comes across as such a scumbag should tell you how appalled Lewis was by his “masters of the universe” posture:

In 1984 Soros opened his first office, in Budapest, and began all manner of subversive activities for which he is temperamentally very well-equipped. “I started by trying to create small cracks in the monolithic structure which goes under the name of communism, in the belief that in a rigid structure even a small crack can have a devastating effect,” he wrote in Opening the Soviet System. “As the cracks grew so did my efforts until they came to take up most of my time and energy.” Says Liz Lorant, who worked with Soros from the start: “It was the excitement of what we got away with [that is irreplaceable]. We got away with murder. [For example] at that time Xerox machines were under lock and key. That was the way it was. In Romania you had to register a typewriter with the police. Well, we just flooded the whole damn country with Xerox machines so that the rules became meaningless.” In short, by the time the dust settled over the Berlin Wall—boom! bust!—Soros had accumulated a highly charged portfolio of gratitude. The Great White Gods of Eastern Europe—Havel, Michnik, Kis, Haraszti—were all in his debt. So were all sorts of lesser—known, highly motivated people wending their way to high political office.

The Hungarians probably had no idea what they were getting into when they gave Soros a spare set of keys. In 2010, Soros’s firm was fined $2.5 million for illegal trades in Hungary’s largest bank, the OTP. Through short sales, Soros made a fortune even if Hungarians got the shitty end of the stick. On April 2, 2009, the NY Times reported:

In a small walk-up apartment on the outskirts of Budapest, George Ivanyi, a founder of the Association of Bank Loan Victims, does his best to cope with an unceasing flow of Hungarians who have come to seek advice because they can no longer pay their mortgages after the forint’s collapse. Volunteer law students sip Red Bull while they counsel couples, and amid the buzz of activity a perpetually ringing phone goes unanswered.

“I feel the desperation of the people,” Mr. Ivanyi said. “The banks are responsible – but so is the government. They should not have approved these loans.”

One woman, he recounts, was so overwhelmed when the monthly mortgage bill on her Japanese yen-denominated loan from OTP suddenly soared 50 percent that she ingested a dose of rat poison and narrowly escaped death.

Soros is past master of demagogy. Like Donald Trump, he knows how to speak out of both sides of his mouth. He makes donations to environmental groups at the same time he invests in some of the filthiest extractive industries in the world. For example, the Guardian reported on August 19, 2015 that Soros is pumping money into coal companies such as Peabody and Arch Coal, which he bought at bargain basement prices. Maybe he knew something about Trump’s chances than other investors. He is also into fracking as the Huffington Post reported on November 3, 2014, making a huge bet on Argentina’s YPF SA, the state-owned oil company that has begun operations in the Neuquen basin, the second-largest shale gas deposit in Argentina and the fourth-largest in the world.

And all the while he is plundering Hungarian banks and despoiling Argentina’s waters, he uses every opportunity to sound like someone giving a plenary at the Left Forum in NY. In 2009, he writes an op-ed piece for the Financial Times titled “Capitalism Versus the Open Society”. He has the gumption to brag about one of his NGO’s getting “oil companies and mining companies to disclose the payments they make to various governments.” You can bet that Soros paid off somebody in Argentina to get first dibs on the Neuquen basin.

He writes:

Communism failed because of the agency problem. Karl Marx’s proposition—from everybody according to their ability and to everybody according to their needs—was a very attractive idea, but the communist rulers put their own interests ahead of the interests of the people.

The Open Society, which apparently operates on some ethereal plane above the marketplace, is under assault because the capitalist class has also put its own interests ahead of those of philosopher-kings like him. Of course, Soros cannot conceive of a solution that entails collective ownership of the means of production. That would rob citizens of their freedom to enjoy the bounties of their hard work and to pass them on to their children. In Soros’s case, that is his 30-year old son who is writing a dissertation on “Jewish Dionysus: Heine, Nietzsche and the Politics of Literature” at Berkeley. With such a heavy workload, no wonder he needs to unwind at the 20,000-square foot Water Mill estate that he bought with the 24 billion dollars fortune he has inherited from dad. Page Six, the NY Post gossip column, filled in its readers on all the fun they were missing:

It’s an August weekend at “Camp Soros,” a $72 million Water Mill estate, and the rosé is flowing. Models, NBA players and club kids kick it by a pool overflowing with rubber duckie floats. There’s a personal chef presiding over lobster bakes and a 20,000-square-foot mansion for games of drunken hide-and-seek (a favorite of fashion designer and sometime guest Timo Weiland).

The host with the most? Billionaire heir Alex Soros.

Alex Soros with supermodel date

Sometimes when I walk around NY’s Upper East Side and see the townhouses a few blocks from my apartment building that go for $10 million and up, I am reminded of class differences in the USA. No matter how liberal the people who live in them, the notion that their privileges would have to be surrendered for the good of society would strike them as a fate worse than death. And among them, those who are fervent Trump voters would likely be the first to blow up the world rather than live for one day under genuine socialism.

The irony is that despite his wretched Open Society pretensions, Soros did some good in founding the Central European University. One of its students is a Roma FB friend named Dan Cirjan who had this to say:

So my university, CEU, is in danger of closing its doors …

As a distant outcome of the US elections, the Hungarian government finally had the courage to do its job as an dubious authoritarian post-neoliberal concoction: there’s a law proposal which would render CEU’s activity illegal.

Now, tbh, there are a lot of things about CEU which I don’t like. And yet, amongst the few university environments I’ve been through, I never felt so much at home as in Budapest. This is the place where I first had some inklings of political consciousness and social understanding, something much more than distant liberal empathy; where I really felt bad that I hadn’t learned any non-Western language; where I read Rosa Luxemburg but also Albert Hirschman, A. Chandler. This is the place where I actually had the feeling of intellectual comradeship, as tough and demanding as it was kind; the place where I found out about the Polish socialist traditions, about radical feminism, about the Finnish Reds, about the Bulgarian Agrarian Revolution, about the Kiev Arsenal, about Attila József, Auktyon; the place where I found out that the intellectual world is not confined to London, Paris, NY, as in a strange academic replica of the fashion circuit, but it includes Belgrade, Istanbul, Algiers, Kharkiv …

Is it possible to oppose what George Soros stands for and simultaneously defend CEU’s right to exist in an increasingly repressive and barbaric Hungary? I would hope so. My advice is to go to the CEU support page and show your solidarity: https://www.ceu.edu/istandwithCEU/support-statements

 

February 7, 2017

Vanity of the bonfires

Filed under: Academia,anarchism,black bloc idiots — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Encounters with David Graeber, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Shon Meckfessel on social media reminded me that the black bloc does have its fans in the academy. As might be expected, the three professors are anarchists. Over the past five years I have developed a deep respect for anarchism’s refusal to line up with the “anti-imperialist” pro-Assad mindset of so many Marxists and especially for the late Omar Aziz, who Leila al-Shami, the co-author of “Burning Country”, commemorated on Tahrir-ICN:

Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus. The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring.

Al-Shami followed these words that ones that relate more directly to the problems I have with the infantile ultraleftism that has cropped up since January 20th and expressed particularly by the viral Youtube clip of Richard Spencer getting punched and the misadventure in front of the Berkeley Student Union.

In her tribute to Omar Aziz, Budour Hassan says, he “did not wear a Vendetta mask, nor did he form black blocs. He was not obsessed with giving interviews to the press …[Yet] at a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the “hijacking” of a revolution they never supported in the first place, Aziz and his comrades were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony.”

In a 2002 NLR article, Graeber made the case for what he called “The New Anarchists”:

The effort to destroy existing paradigms is usually quite self-conscious. Where once it seemed that the only alternatives to marching along with signs were either Gandhian non-violent civil disobedience or outright insurrection, groups like the Direct Action Network, Reclaim the Streets, Black Blocs or Tute Bianche have all, in their own ways, been trying to map out a completely new territory in between.

Odd that within Graeber’s definition of the arsenal of tactics that can be used against the state, mass action of the sort that was mobilized to end the war in Vietnam gets reduced to “marching along with signs”. Menu alternatives are limited to three choices: civil disobedience, outright insurrection or anarchist affinity groups. It is the third that Graeber opts for, a “completely new territory” that is actually not very  new since it became pretty old when I was an activist in the late 60s.

David Graeber

On his death at the age of 90 in early January, John Berger’s 1968 article “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations” was circulated by Marxists. Written during the period when millions were “marching along with signs” everywhere against the war, Berger made some essential points about their value:

A mass demonstration distinguishes itself from other mass crowds because it congregates in public to create its function, instead of forming in response to one: in this, it differs from any assembly of workers within their place of work – even when strike action is involved – or from any crowd of spectators. It is an assembly which challenges what is given by the mere fact of its coming together.

In 1968, SDS leaders grew frustrated by the seeming inability of mass actions to end the war in Vietnam so they chose another course of action, one in which the protests were much smaller but far more violent. This culminated in the infamous “Days of Rage” in October 1969 that an anarchist author connects directly to the black bloc tactic:

The Black Bloc can trace its historical roots all the way back to when- and wherever people comprising an oppressed class or group militantly rose up against their oppressors. Elements of the particular tactics of the Bloc were previously utilized by the Weather faction of Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS) in North America during the “Days of Rage” in 1969.

For Graeber, groups like the black bloc (yes, I know, it is only supposed to be a tactic but it is a loosely organized group that carries it out on a consistent basis) are a form of horizontalist direct democracy that are based on consensus rather than majority vote. Yeah, who needs a cumbersome and verticalist procedure such as voting that would only get in the way of a determined horizontalist bunch of people wearing bandannas over their faces intent on raising cain. If a black bloc spokesperson with a bullhorn had asked the 1500 or so Berkeley students in front of the Student Union protesting Milo Yiannopoulos to raise their hands if they favored busting windows and shooting skyrockets into the lobby of the building, they might have had the gumption to reject such tactics. We can’t abide such laggards getting in the way of bold actions, can we?

Essentially, the black bloc is as elitist and verticalist in its own way as the self-declared vanguard groups of the Leninist left that aspire to control mass organizations. Groups like the American SWP that I belonged to for 11 years used to caucus before a meeting to make sure that the membership followed a predetermined line before a critical vote even if in the course of discussion they decided that the SWP was wrong. Meanwhile, the black bloc does not bother with votes at all. This is a Hobson’s Choice, if there ever was one.

I had never paid much attention to George Ciccariello-Maher prior to his being the target of the alt-right over his “White genocide” tweet. All I knew about him was that he wrote about Venezuela and was something of an ultraleft based on his social media posts that were rather intellectually vacuous and often fixated on violent confrontations of one sort or another. Since academics tend to use social media as a form of “slumming”, I never paid much attention to them.

But after he began posting about the Berkeley adventure in a way that suggested his approval of the black bloc, I concluded that these were his politics. After unfriending him (and a bunch of other pro-black bloc types) with a post alluding to his support for the hijacking of the Berkeley protest, he lashed back at me as I expected. If anything, Ciccariello-Maher is nearly as hotheaded as me. What I didn’t get was his claim that it was only his FB friends that supported the black bloc and that my problem was with them.

That does not square with the arguments he made in 2011 against Chris Hedges, who had blasted the black bloc’s role in the Occupy movement and likened it to a cancerous tumor. Joining with Graeber, who had debated Hedges in an article titled “The Violent Peace-Police”, George wrote his own article making essentially the same arguments. Titled “Counterinsurgency and the Occupy Movement”, it goes the extra mile against Hedges:

Many, notably anarchist theorist David Graeber, have rightly attacked not only the misrepresentations in Hedges’ argument, but crucially its implications: by singling out and denouncing a sector of the movement, by dividing ‘good’ protesters from ‘bad,’ this purportedly nonviolent writer was in fact encouraging police violence himself (after all, surgical removal of a tumor is nothing if not violent). Less noted, however, is the degree to which Hedges’ discourse literally does the work of the police by contributing to actual policing strategies as they have developed in recent decades. By grasping the development of these strategies, we will be in a better position to avoid the pitfalls of the hysterical liberalism espoused by Hedges and others, and by understanding our enemies, we will be better prepared to confront them.

Unlike Graeber, Ciccariello-Maher is less concerned about whether black bloc tactics work or not. The brunt of his article is designed to conflate peaceful protesters and the black-clad vanguard. If you denounce them as a cancer, you are siding with the cops: “Much has been said about the violence-versus-nonviolence debate within and prior to Occupy, and it is true that we need to defend the violent as well as the nonviolent and accept not only a diversity of tactics but also a diversity of strategies for building the new world.” This diversity of tactics argument of course is associated with the NGO’s that tolerated the black bloc at each and every protest against the WTO. Like Graeber and Ciccariello-Maher, their emphasis was less on building a mass working-class based movement and more on making a “statement”.

George Ciccariello-Maher

That being said, the professor does appear to have a fetish for violence. In a Salon article titled “Riots Work”, he is ready to condemn mass protests against racial oppression that do not produce results according to some timetable. Like the Weathermen judging the antiwar movement as a milquetoast affair, Ciccariello-Maher seeks something much more dramatic:

Some insist that riots only provide a ready-made image to the media that emphasizes the “negative” over the “positive” (meaning the “violent” over the “peaceful”). But this view has little to say about whether so-called “peaceful” protests are effective in bringing attention to police murder, offering instead a moral imperative: the media should cover peaceful marches, the system should respond. But they don’t, and it doesn’t, and if so-called peaceful tactics don’t bring change, then they lose their status as a “positive” alternative, and even become complicit in continued systemic violence.

Well, I don’t know. It was peaceful protests, those people “marching along with signs”, in New York that were largely responsible for the stop and frisk laws being abolished. I was at one of them in 2012, the Silent March that was among the most impressive I have seen in the past decade.

Would a riot have ended the stop and frisk laws? I tend to doubt it, even if that risks being seen as pro-police in Ciccariello-Maher’s eyes. For him, there’s not much difference between a riot and the national liberation movement in Algeria that involved millions in a protracted war against the French imperialist army:

Frantz Fanon insisted that to break the smooth surface of white supremacy requires something more than peaceful protest. It requires the explosive self-assertion of the oppressed, through which the oppressed themselves can come to understand their own power.

If we were only so fortunate to see the Black liberation struggle in the USA beginning to take on the dimensions of the FLN. There was one attempt made by Malcolm X to build such a movement and he was killed for his efforts. For what it is worth, Malcolm tried to build a powerful organization instead of preaching about the need for disorganized riots.

Ciccariello-Maher has a new book out titled “Decolonizing Dialectics” that is based on the ideas of Fanon, a Latin American philosopher named Enrique Dussel, and Georges Sorel. I know Dussel only by name but wonder if he has overdosed on Georges Sorel. In an article titled “To Lose Oneself in the Absolute: Revolutionary Subjectivity in Sorel and Fanon” that likely formed the basis for the new book, he sees Sorel’s fetishization of violence in pretty much the same way as he sees Fanon—as a kind of mixture of existential revolt evoking Camus and his own peculiar interpretation of Marxism:

When united with proletarian violence, on the other hand, the myth becomes essentially a mechanism for the consolidation of revolutionary identity. In Sorel’s context, this takes the form of a working-class separatism embodied in and established through the proletarian general strike—the unity of liberatory violence with the absolutism of mythical identity—in which a strike against the bosses is transformed into a “Napoleonic” battle and “the practice of strikes engenders the notion of a catastrophic revolution”.

Sorel is problematic to say the least. After becoming dissatisfied with the CGT, France’s major trade union, in the same way that the Weathermen became impatient with peaceful protests, Sorel hooked up with an outfit called Action Française that was led by Charles Maurras. During WWII, AF supported the Vichy government and Maurras spent seven years in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis.

After he became a partisan of the Bolshevik revolution, the Italian fascist movement still revered Sorel no matter his heterodox Marxism. It seems that the feelings were mutual. In a 1921 letter to Benedetto Croce, an admirer of Mussolini who would eventually break with Il Duce, Sorel wrote: “The adventures of fascism are, perhaps, at present, the most original social phenomenon in Italy; they seem to me to surpass by far the combinations of the politicians.” In a letter to Jean Variot, a close ally of Sorel, he wrote:

It is possible, it is even probable that Benito Mussolini has read me. But, attention! Mussolini is a man no less extraordinary than Lenin. He, too, is a political genius, of a greater reach than all the statesmen of the day, with the only exception of Lenin. . .. He is not a Socialist a la sauce bourgeoise; he has never believed in parliamentary socialism; he has an amazing insight into the nature of the Italian masses, and he has invented something not to be found in my books: the union of the national and the social-something I have studied  without ever developing the idea.

Well, that’s for damned sure. Mussolini never did believe in parliamentary socialism.

While I have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through Ciccariello-Maher’s new book, something tells me that his distinctly odd infatuation with Georges Sorel is consistent with his immature posting of violent confrontations on social media. It is rather sad to see a tenured professor acting so foolishly.

Shon Meckfessel

Let me conclude with a look at Shon Meckfessel’s new book titled “Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be” that is based on his doctoral dissertation and that reminds me a bit of Regis Debray’s “Revolution in the Revolution”. Where Debray fetishized rural guerrilla warfare, Meckfessel fetishizes the black bloc. At least Debray can be forgiven for basing his book on a success—the Cuban revolution. Meckfessel inexplicably elevates a movement that has achieved nothing except getting its adventures written up in the bourgeois press.

Although it is highly possible that there are some discrepancies between the new book and dissertation, I am taking the chance that they are relatively small and will refer to the dissertation in the following remarks.

Since chapter three is titled “The Eloquence of Targeted Property Destruction in the Occupy Movement” and chapter four is titled “The Eloquence of Police Clashes in the Occupy Movement”, there is little doubt that what you will be getting is a sophisticated defense of the indefensible.

There’s not much to distinguish Shon from Ciccariello-Maher as this passage from chapter three would indicate.  Although some might think that plagiarism was afoot, I think that both of the professors are simply reflecting the zeitgeist of the widespread ultraleft milieu that would naturally lead them to admire Fanon and Sorel uncritically:

If targeted property destruction works to assert comparisons within and across categories of violence in the hopes of destabilizing ideological chains of equivalence and triggering a revaluation, its affective reconfigurations in the discursive field of subjectivity are equally eloquent in its rhetorical strategy. In his classic “Reflections on Violence,” Georges Sorel put forward his notion of the General Strike as a myth which condensed all of the desired political values of proletarian struggle; violence, in his formation, “is assigned the important function of ‘constituting’ an actor.” (Seferiades & Johnston 6). Similarly, Fanon put forth the celebrated formulation in The Wretched of the Earth (1968) that decolonization requires a violence to be done to the colonizer’s body in order to disarticulate its sacred inviolability, and thus constitute the post-colonial subject through the act of violation. Contemporary practices of public noninjurious violence, such as targeted property destruction, can be seen to enact analogous discursive actions of subjectification while avoiding the dehumanizing effects of bodily harm, as can be heard in the words of Cindy, one observer of the Seattle May Day 2012 riots:

I think that property destruction has a good effect on those who carry it out… I think most people need to unlearn submission and show themselves that they have the 165 capacity to act for their own liberation. I think that when people burn cop cars, break bank windows, or blockade a road (thwarting the transfer of goods and or law enforcement) they are also demonstrating to themselves some of the magnitude of their ability to resist. (Cindy interview)

In the next chapter, Shon refers to the “eloquence” of fighting the cops with a reference to Judith Butler:

As with the uneasy boundary between the materiality and discursivity of bodies examined in Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter (1993), the materiality of individuals enacting oppressive behavior is not simple to divorce from the discursivity of their role.

I can’t exactly say that I understand this jargon but I do know this. Butler found nothing “eloquent” about the Berkeley Student Union misadventure. In an email cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education, she stated: “I deplore the violent tactics of yesterday and so do the overwhelming majority of students and faculty at UC Berkeley.”

I find something vaguely dispiriting about college professors in their 40s and 50s being drawn to such juvenile antics. In a strange way, they remind me of the neglected minor masterpiece “Little Children” that starred Patrick Wilson as a law student who is not sure that he is cut out for the profession. In what might be called a case of “arrested development”, he spends hours on end watching teens skateboarding at a nearby rink. They remind him of the youth he once enjoyed doing the same sort of thing. At the end of the film, they talk him into having a try on one of their skateboards that results in a nasty spill and a hospital stay. Let’s hope that the three professors’ infatuation with the “eloquence” of fighting the cops is only of a Walter Mitty sort. Cops are capable of extremely brutal behavior and the three professors all have good jobs and families and/or students who rely on them. My only other recommendation is that they read Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” that is a much better guide to revolutionary change than Georges Sorel.

February 4, 2017

Fordham SDS

Filed under: Academia,antiwar — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

In 1983 I saw the documentary “Seeing Red” that mixed interviews of former members of the Communist Party talking about their experiences with exciting film footage and photographs of the class battles they took part in. Among the highlights was Bill Bailey reminiscing about the day in 1935 when he tore the Nazi flag off the Bremen, a luxury liner docked in New York.

Bill was 25 when he carried out this protest and 72 when he was interviewed for “Seeing Red”. Over the past few years, I have toyed with the idea of making a film like “Seeing Red” but based on the experiences of veterans of the Socialist Workers Party, many of whom are about the same age today as Bill Bailey was in 1983—including me.

For us, there was nothing quite like the experience of fighting in the Spanish Civil War as Bill Bailey did, or being part of militant trade union struggles like Dorothy Healy, but we were part of the most important radicalization in American history following the 1930s. And like the CP’ers, we had come to learn that the party could betray our best hopes. In their case, it was allowing themselves to be manipulated by Joseph Stalin—in our case being manipulated by a cult leader whose actions have reduced the party by 90 percent since I left in 1978.

While SDS never aspired to be a vanguard party, except toward its tumultuous final days when it was being torn apart by Maoist factions, it was arguably to the 1960s what the CPUSA was to the 1930s, the most authoritative voice of young rebels, especially those on campus.

With that in mind, I can recommend Bert Schultz’s “Fordham SDS” as coming close to the insights and the sheer pleasure of being a radical that were revealed in “Seeing Red”. Bert was a student at Fordham in the 1960s when an SDS chapter was formed and that soon aligned with the Worker Student Alliance faction of SDS. His interviewees are former members, some of whom became members of the Progressive Labor Party, the Maoist group that led the Worker Student Alliance. At least one of them sounds like she could still be a member, or at least a strong sympathizer.

The film, which lasts 37 minutes, is crowned by footage of a sit-in to protest the war in Vietnam that Bert took with a 16mm camera. Like the far better known Columbia occupation that took place a year earlier and that inspired the Fordham struggle, this was the strategy adopted by SDS nationally and arguably had as much of an impact on weakening the war drive as the mass demonstrations my party focused on.

Some other things make the film particularly interesting. Unlike Columbia, Fordham was a Catholic school with rigid social norms. Wearing a turtle-neck shirt was frowned on since it smacked of rebelliousness. Fordham was also a largely blue-collar commuter school that reflected the deepening proletarian orientation of the antiwar movement. When I was up in Boston in 1970, I saw the same dynamic at work when students at U. Mass Boston became activists. Many of them were like my girlfriend at the time, the daughter of an Irish Catholic trolley car engineer, who had attended a community college to become trained as a nurse.

Our hopes, as it was of the Progressive Labor Party and the Worker Student Alliance, was that the 1960s radicalization would penetrate the heart of the working class and that we would have a revolution in the USA, by 1985 at least. Little did Bert or I anticipate that by 2017 things would have come to what they are today.

Like Bert, I have high hopes for the future since Donald Trump is putting more people into motion than any leftist leaflet could have possibly done. Watching his documentary will give a good idea of how the left functioned nearly a half-century ago, warts and all. You are left with the feeling that SDS could have done things better just as I would have done if I made a film about the SWP. In any case, I strongly urge you to watch his film for $1.49 that would be a bargain at ten times the price, especially if you are in your twenties and about to become involved in what I anticipate to be major class battles that will be third act of resistance to American capitalism.

 

February 3, 2017

How Columbia students protested Nazis on campus in 1936

Filed under: Academia,Fascism — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume LX, Number 9, 6 October 1936

250 Students Parade In Torchlight March To Reinstate Burke
Teachers Union Passes Resolution Backing Campus Fight
Wechsler, Will Speak
Demonstrators Walk With Red Flares

Two hundred and fifty paraders demonstrated on the Columbia Campus last night in an attempt to reinstate Robert Burke, ousted Junior Class President. The demonstrators, who marched by the light of 300 Roman torches, paraded about the Campus, held three orderly mass meetings and finally broke up after more than two hours of shouting their feelings in the Burke case. The first mass meeting, which started at 7:45, was addressed by James A. Wechsler, editor of the Student Advocate and former editor of The Spectator, Albert Witt, member of the Student Council at the Heights center of New York University, and Burke. In a resolution made public last night, the Columbia Chapter of the Teachers Union condemned the action of Dean Herbert E. Hawkes in expelling Burke from Columbia College. Declaring that Dean Hawkes’ action was “clearly a violation of the right of students to assemble and to express their convictions on matters of social significance” the Teachers Union urged that the administration reinstate Burke.

Union Urges Burke Return

The resolution passed by the union follows in part: “Whereas, the objectives of the students’ demonstration were in accord with a resolution previously passed by the Columbia Chapter of the Teachers Union, in which the Union declared opposition to Columbia’s participation in the Heidelberg ceremonies because of the ruthless suppression of academic freedom in Heidelberg University and throughout Germany; “Therefore, we, the Columbia Chapter of the Teachers Union urge that the administration immediately reinstate Mr. Burke as a student of Columbia College and by such action affirm the right of student and faculty to free expression of opinion and recognize in practice the right of academic freedom which has long been a tradition on our Campus.” Burke, in appealing for a unified action stated: “The time has come to speak up, The Administration is clamping down! Either the student body will get together and fight as an integrated whole or we will be whipped.” Wechsler Asks Support Calling upon the assembled paraders to conduct an orderly meeting, Wechsler declared that “any disorders come from Dean Hawkes’ pets who get their line from his ‘ office.” Wechsler, scoring the whispering campaign now current on the Campus, urged the “hundreds who are not prepared to quit or run out or accept the flimsy apologetic excuses of the administration” to lend the full strength of their support to Burke.

After Witt spoke, the paraders marched through the Van Am Quadrangle, past South Hall and Furnald and out into Broadway. Shouting invitations to Barnard dormitory residents to join them, the demonstrators marched up Broadway to 120 th Street where they turned east and continued to Morningside Drive. Here the group, preceded by three of the twenty policemen who were on hand to ensure an orderly demonstration, turned South and marched toward the home of Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler. Ceasing their shouts at 117 th Street the paraders filed past the President’s home in absolute silence, raising their hand in imitation of the Nazi salute as they passed the entrance. At 116 th Street, the demonstration returned to the Campus. Entering- upon the Van Quad again, the marchers, still shouting their demands to reinstate Burke and chanting that “Butler Wants Hitler But We Want Burke.” The group responded to the cry of “Water” from numerous dormitory windows with louder chants and demands. Leaving the Library steps, the marchers proceded to form a group at the Sun Dial. Here they were again addressed by Burke and Wechsler.

Wechsler again attacked the supporters of Burke who were afraid to come out in the open and lend him their aid. Burke thanked the crowd for its support and attacked Albert I. Edelman ‘3B Law, and Thomas Bandler ’37 who recently wrote letters to the editor of The Spectator condemning its action in supporting Burke and requesting that the entire incident be forgotten. In a resolution which was passed by the almost unanimous consent of the assembled crowd, Dean Hawkes and the administration were called upon to reinstate Burke. The full text of the resolution follows. “Resolved that this body believes the expulsion of Robert Burke to be a breach of academic freedom on the Columbia Campus.”

© 2012 Spectator Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Powered by Veridian

December 27, 2016

Defend George Ciccariello-Maher

Filed under: Academia,repression,technology — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

George Ciccariello-Maher

Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher is under attack right now from the alt-right for Tweets supposedly targeting whites.

Although I hold Slate.com in pretty low regard, they have an article today that is quite useful for background:

George Ciccariello-Maher, an associate professor at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, provoked the wrath of the internet’s worst people on Christmas Eve when he tweeted, “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. In a follow-up tweet, he added, “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a very good thing indeed.” (The tweets are no longer available online, as Ciccariello-Maher has since made his Twitter account private.) In context, it seems clear that he was tweaking white supremacists for their repurposing of the term “white genocide,” which is disingenuously invoked nowadays to pretend that uncontroversial things like interracial dating are as threatening as the slaughter that took place in Haiti in 1804. But Ciccariello-Maher’s tweets were as good a reason for a witch hunt as any, and what better time to hunt witches than Christmas?

Breitbart, as usual, was the most openly racist about it; their writer Warner Todd Huston went out of his way to link Ciccariello-Maher to the largest university in Mexico, apparently as a disqualifying factor, and characterized his Twitter feed as “filled with hateful, obnoxious messages, anti-Americanism, slams of President Donald Trump, attacks on Jews, as well as pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-communist sloganeering.” The story quickly went as viral as dysentery, spattering its way all over the right-wing media—there are currently four separate stories about it on The Daily Caller alone—and the customary wave of obscenities, calls for Ciccariello-Maher’s firing, and death threats crashed into Drexel.

Read full article

There’s a petition defending George at Change.org that I have signed and I encourage all my readers to sign it as well. The fact that Breitbart.com is spearheading the McCarthyite attack on him should be reason enough to speak out. With Breitbart editor Steve Bannon serving as Donald Trump’s chief political adviser, there is little doubt that witch-hunts against the left are on the agenda.

While I am completely in solidarity with George, who is a Facebook friend, I do want to switch gears a bit here and say something about the problem with radicals using Twitter for political commentary.

As should be obvious from the Steven Salaita affair, tweets are made to order for rightwing attacks since they are easier to rip out of context than blog posts or any other medium that does not force you to express yourself in 140 characters. That Twitter is Donald Trump’s favorite way of reaching the public might give you pause. Just the other day Trump tweeted about nuclear weapons but in such a cryptic manner that 140,000 words have already been written to wring out their meaning.

Here’s the NY Times attempting to decipher Trump’s words: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

For them, they had one of three possibilities:

  • Modernize existing nuclear forces, in line with but upgrading President Obama’s plan
  • Expand qualitative nuclear capability by developing faster or more powerful delivery systems, like cruise missiles
  • Deploy existing weapons systems closer to adversaries, for example in Eastern Europe

Now it doesn’t matter much whether Trump is purposely sowing confusion to keep friends and enemies alike off-balance or simply too foggy-minded to express a clear opinion. After all, he is 70 and not much of a thinker even when he was 40 years younger. Plus, as the most powerful man in the world, he has liberties that most of us do not enjoy, especially a college professor who unlike most is not afraid to express himself in uncompromising terms.

There was another such college professor who was victimized for his tweets not so long ago. Steven Salaita was denied a job at the University of Illinois he had already been accepted for after the Israeli lobby singled some tweets out of context. For example, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” was simply a cry of anguish not an invitation to abduct anybody.

Others less known have also run into static as Inside Higher Education has reported. On November 21, there was an article about Rutgers University adjunct Kevin Allred, who had been placed on leave and barred from over this tweet: “Will the Second Amendment be as cool when I buy a gun and start shooting at random white people or no …?” Rutgers ratted Allred out to the New York City cops who forced him to be evaluated by psychologists and then released him. Twitter also ordered him to remove the tweet.

On May 14, 2015, there was another article about Saida Grundy, an incoming assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University. Socawledge.com, a Breitbart-like website, had collected some of her tweets in an effort to at least scandalize her and worse. Like the Drexel administration, Boston University allowed the ultraright to dictate the terms of the controversy with its spokesman Colin Riley telling Fox News that the university “does not condone racism or bigotry in any form and we are deeply saddened when anyone makes such offensive statements.” One of the offensive statements was “Why is white america so reluctant to identify white college males as a problem population?” With so many racist incidents taking place on college campuses around the country, this does not seem like an unreasonable question.

The problem with all of the tweets cited above is that they are utterly lacking in context. When George Ciccariello-Maher made a cogent defense of his Swiftian tweet, it should have convinced anybody outside of alt-right ranks that he was making a satirical commentary about the notion that white people are facing an existential threat such as the Jews faced under Hitler. But that was not exactly obvious from the tweet. Speaking for myself, a Marxist for the past 50 years or so, I had no idea that “white genocide” was a term peculiar to the alt-right so what would a Drexel administrator know?

It boils down to this. The left has to abandon Twitter as a form of political commentary. I use it but very sparingly, most of the time as an automatic feed for my blog posts. By and large, very few academics have either the time—or more importantly—the inclination to write political analysis unless it is directly related to their job. They might write an article every year or so for Historical Materialism, New Left Review, Science & Society or some more specialized JSTOR type journal but would never dream of pumping out 2000 words on “white genocide” in a blog. There’s no pay for that nor room for it on your CV. Except for Juan Cole, Michael Roberts and the left-liberals at Crooked Timber, I can’t think of any other academic radical off the top of my head who blogs on a regular basis.

On September 2nd, 2015, Times Higher Education, a trade journal having no connection to the newspaper of record, published an article titled “The weird and wonderful world of academic Twitter” that was impressed with how “Twitter … acts as a virtual water cooler, a place where academics go to build community, have some fun, and let off steam.’ Let off steam, indeed.

The article singles out the Twitter account “Shit Academics Say” as a representative of academic tweeting at its best. This is typical:

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-11-18-12-am

What a waste of 10 years getting a PhD.

October 23, 2016

Marx and the Russian Revolution

Filed under: Academia,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-3-10-15-pm

Dear Professor Peter E. Gordon,

3 years ago in a New Republic review of Jonathan Sperber’s bio of Karl Marx you wrote:

It is sobering to recall that throughout his life Marx looked upon Imperial Russia as the most reactionary state in all of Europe. The outbreak of Bolshevik revolution a little more than three decades after his death would have struck him as a startling violation of his own historical principle that bourgeois society and industrialization must reach their fullest expression before the proletariat gains the class-consciousness that it requires to seize political control.

Today you reviewed another Marx biography in the NY Times, this time by Gareth Stedman Jones, that has a different take on Marx and the Russian Revolution:

After 1870, however, Marx relaxed these strictures, in part because the failure of the Paris Commune left him dismayed at the prospects for a Communist revolution in the West. This change of perspective brought a new openness to the possibility of revolution in Russia and the non-European world. In 1881, Marx answered a query from Vera Zasulich, a Russian noblewoman and revolutionary living in exile in Geneva. Pressed to explain his views on the Russian village commune, Marx agonized over his response — his letter went through no fewer than four drafts. Though still insisting that the isolation of the village commune was a weakness, he granted that the historical inevitability he had once discerned in the process of industrialization was “expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe”.

Perhaps in the period between the two reviews you had a chance to read Teodor Shanin’s “Late Marx and the Russian Revolution”. If so, I commend you.

I suppose we long-time Marxists who have risked arrest and worse for our beliefs can be grateful that the review was not written by someone like Ronald Radosh, now that the book review section is no longer edited by neocon Sam Tanenhaus.

But I find it hard to believe that Stedman Jones has “written the definitive biography of Marx for our time.” You do allow that “Stedman Jones is not always sympathetic to his subject.” Well, that goes without saying. He is on record as stating that Marx’s last important work was the German Ideology, which strikes me as preposterous. You certainly wouldn’t agree with that, I hope.

It is also a bit difficult to figure out whether you are speaking for yourself or Stedman Jones when you write: “In his early writings and well through the 1860s, Marx propounded a theory of history that extolled the heroic achievements of the bourgeoisie as the collective agent of global change.”

Where did you get the idea that Marx thought the bourgeoisie was “heroic”? In fact, he got off that tack just two years after the Communist Manifesto was written, arguably the only work where the term “heroic bourgeoisie” might be applied even if inaccurately. Perhaps you had in mind what Marx wrote in the Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.” I suppose it is a bit easy to confuse the terms “heroic” and “revolutionary” but Marx was referring primarily to the overthrow of feudal social relations rather than, for example, French workers defending the Paris Commune.

Returning to the question of what Marx thought only two years after the Manifesto, I would refer you to the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. Although it was written in March 1850, it looks back at 1848 as a year of bourgeois vacillation if not open counter-revolution:

We told you already in 1848, brothers, that the German liberal bourgeoisie would soon come to power and would immediately turn its newly won power against the workers. You have seen how this forecast came true. It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favourable conditions for itself. (emphasis added)

Finally, returning to the Russian question, I am afraid your last paragraph lacks clarity:

Just a year before his death and gravely ill, Marx wrote with Engels a short preface to the Russian edition of the ‘Manifesto.’ It entertained the prospect that the common ownership system in the Russian village might serve as “the starting point for a communist development.” Three and a half decades later, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and by the late 1920s the government commenced its brutal collectivization of agriculture. Like all intellectual legacies, Marx’s work remains open to new interpretation. But it seems clear that the man himself would never have accepted the inhumanity undertaken in his name.

One cannot be sure whether you are drawing an equation between Marx’s hopes for the rural communes and Stalin’s forced collectivization. If so, you are entirely mistaken. Marx saw a peasant-led revolution as merely the first step in a European wide revolution that would have a more proletarian character in the industrialized West while Stalin collectivized agriculture as part of “socialism in one country”, a project 180 degrees opposed to what Marx discussed with Vera Zasulich.

I hope this helps.

Yours truly,

Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxism list

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.

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